Obituary: Alfred Roome
Friday 12 December 1997
Alfred Roome's career as a film editor spans virtually the whole history of mainstream British popular cinema: he began editing Aldwych farces, graduated to the classic Will Hay comedies and progressed - if that's the correct word - through Will Fyffe, Arthur Askey and Ronald Shiner vehicles to three "Doctor" films and no less than 14 Carry Ons.
His other work includes a major feature for Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes - surely the best of Hitch's British output?) plus editing for such major British directors as Anthony Asquith and Sir Carol Reed, while his working relationships with Launder and Gilliatt and Betty Box and Ralph Thomas embraced many of the best films of these distinguished British producer- director teams. Though everybody called him "Alfie", his screen credits began as A.W. Roome and ended as Alfred Roome.
Roome came from a Somerset family. His father was managing director of the Daily Mirror and family shares in the Mirror Group gave the youngster independent wealth. His father wanted young Alfie to follow him in the newspaper business, but Roome had been given a camera at an early age, and was smitten with the cinema. At school he began experimenting with projectors and lamps, and founded his school film society. Sent to finish his education in Paris, he made amateur movies featuring his cousins.
To deter his ambition to work in the film industry, his father offered him a world cruise, but Alfie refused, and secured a job as assistant in the property department at Elstree in 1927, at the age of 18. His real goal was the editing department, and the producer Herbert Wilcox gave him the opportunity the following year to work as a cutting-room assistant. However, when extra camera assistants were needed on Blackmail in 1929, Roome moved across to the studio floor, working for the first time with the young director Alfred Hitchcock. While on Blackmail Roome met and married Janice Adair, the leading lady of another British film concurrently shooting - Red Aces (1929), written and directed by the novelist Edgar Wallace - and they remained married until her death in 1996.
Roome went back into the cutting rooms, and fetched up as an assistant in 1933 at the Shepherd's Bush Lime Grove studios of Gaumont-British, where he achieved his cutting break, hired as editor on the film version of the famous Ben Travers Aldywch farce Thark (1933), starring Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn, directed by Walls and produced by Herbert Wilcox. This was followed by a sequence of six Tom Walls features which led to a reputation for comedy and a subsequent association with Will Hay, first editing Boys Will Be Boys (1935), then that memorable sequence of comedy classics featuring Hay and his associates "Old" Moore Marriott and the Fat Boy Graham Moffatt, most notably the timeless Oh, Mr Porter! (1939; recently rescreened to celebrate the Odeon Leicester Square's 60th birthday), Ask a Policeman (1938) and Where's That Fire (1939).
It became clear Roome had a natural aptitude for editing a specific style of British comedy. In 1938 he was hired for The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, establishing a relationship with the actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Roome also edited another key British film, the young Carol Reed's Bank Holiday (1938), which led to Reed's classics Kipps (1941) and The Young Mr Pitt (1942).
Interspersing these with a run of popular films featuring the music-hall stars Flanagan and Allen and radio's Arthur Askey, including Alf's Button Afloat (1937) and King Arthur was a Gentleman (1942) plus the film version of Askey's radio show Band Waggon (1939). A more distinguished feature was Dr Syn starring George Arliss (1937).
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Roome found himself editing propaganda shorts for the Ministry of Information, and thus became exempt from military service, his work being rightly deemed of national importance. Among the more significant shorts he edited were the seven-minute Mr Proudfoot Shows a Light (1941) starring the music hall's Sidney Howard, and the five-minute Rush Hour (1941) directed by Anthony Asquith, plus the unfairly neglected Dunkirk eight-minute short Channel Incident (1940) containing Peggy Ashcroft's finest screen moment, also directed by Asquith.
Roome also functioned as an Air Raid Warden, and continued to edit major features including the propagandist Launder and Gilliatt Millions Like Us (1943) and their immensely popular Waterloo Road (1944), in which the climactic punch-up was a triumph of film editing, convincing audiences world-wide that five-foot-nothing puny hero John Mills could beat up six- foot-plus muscular spiv Stewart Granger. His former assistant Frances Edge recalls that when an enemy bomb exploded shaking the Shepherd's Bush studios, Roome simply ignored it.
The Borstal saga Boys in Brown (1940) was the first Gainsborough film to be based at Pinewood; Montgomery Tully directed it but Roome was associate director. Roome also directed, in tandem with Roy Rich, a pair of Gainsborough features: the Jack Warner vehicle My Brother's Keeper and It's Not Cricket (both 1948), reuniting the duo of cricket lovers from The Lady Vanishes, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.
Although Roome did not direct again - "I had trouble dealing with actors" he said - his contribution to cinema was undoubtedly greater than that of the majority of the directors for whom he edited, and after a period as Associate Producer on such box-office disasters as Christopher Columbus and The Bad Lord Byron (both 1949), he returned to the cutting rooms, working almost solely for the unacknowledged dynastic royal family of Pinewood: at Gainsborough he worked for the studio head Sydney Box, brother of Betty E. Box. As producer, Box began a 20-year collaboration with the director Ralph Thomas, while her husband Peter Rogers began an equally fruitful partnership with Thomas's brother Gerald. Today, the admirable Betty Box/ Ralph Thomas pictures are unfairly neglected while the success of the Peter Rogers/Gerald Thomas "Carry On" series has passed into legend.
Alfred Roome's tenure at Pinewood embraced many of the best of the Betty Box/Ralph Thomas output (and the worst - three late "Doctor" comedies) including the painfully moving Conspiracy of Hearts (1960) and the courageous and politically outspoken No Love For Johnnie (1961), Roome's only feature in CinemaScope, plus any number of features invariably starring Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More or Michael Craig.
Ken Annakin was another director Roome regularly worked with, and Annakin's best films, the very funny Hotel Sahara (1951) and the Graham Greene adaptation Across the Bridge (1957) owe much to him.
Today as the craft of editing is eroded by electronic machines offering an infinite variety of edits, it is worth recalling Alfie Roome's classic method of working: he used to view all the material needed for a sequence before starting editing, including both selected and non- selected takes, and then edited the sequence as he saw fit. It seldom changed much.
His former assistant Don Sharpe remembers that for the last part of the portmanteau film Trio (1951), called "Sanatorium", Roome's cut stood as assembled. "It went from his cut to neg cut," says Sharpe, "with no changes." Roome used to file his own trims with enormous exactitude, taking pains to ensure they all hung correctly to exactly the same sprocket hole on the trim bin. It was said of Roome that he was so neat that his cutting room looked as if hardly any work had been done by the end of the day. Eventually he never worked overtime, nor had any need to, a far cry from his early days at Islington and Shepherd's Bush when he worked all hours, and was grateful for the emergence of the film unions that called a halt to such exploitation.
He made few close professional friends, preferring not to socialise but to return home at the end of his working day, and although he lived close to Pinewood, he never went home for lunch, preferring not to disrupt his routine. However, he did buy his house from Sir John Mills, and a frequent visitor to his huge estate in Fulmer was his long-time friend from the Gainsborough days Phyllis Calvert.
When in 1967 the Peter Rogers-produced "Carry On" series moved to Pinewood with the Foreign Legion romp Follow That Camel, Roome was the logical choice to edit it, a man well known for his flair with British comedy, a genuinely funny man himself, full of humorous anecdotes. It was followed by 13 successive Carry Ons including some of the best (Up the Khyber, 1968; Doctor, 1967; At Your Convenience 1971) and several of the worst (Girls, 1973; Dick, 1974; Behind, 1975). This run was broken only by the film version of the television series Bless This House, also starring Carry On's Sidney James, a far cry from the prestige Rank features of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
In 1972, while working on a Carry On, Roome bumped into Alfred Hitchcock, then engaged on Frenzy, in the corridors at Pinewood. Hitch greeted Alfie with one of his noted barbs of laconic sadism: "You're getting fatter, Roome," was all he said.
After Carry On Behind in 1975 Roome retired, feeling he was no longer well enough to do justice to film, and in 1988 recorded his reminiscences for the Bectu Oral History Project. A keen gardener, and avid amateur historian, his life was marred by tragedy when his son Christopher was killed in the appalling King's Cross station fire, almost 10 years to the day before Roome's own death.
A granddaughter, Olivia, continues the family tradition and works in the film industry.
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