Obituary: Bill Rowe
Tuesday 13 October 1992
THERE ARE some areas of the motion-picture industry that remain 'insider' secrets, no matter how glamorous the industry thinks it may be to reveal to the picture-going public 'How It's Done'. Movie 'buffs', cineastes, and would-be auteurs brag to each other about every little special effect, discuss script construction with the best, pretend to know all about camerawork and editing. But of the dubbing theatre, where movies are made, not where they're shot, little is known.
In England last week we lost one of the few giants of the dubbing desk. Bill Rowe's name was synonymous with Elstree Studios, and his work and reputation were acknowledged to be world-class. In the screen credits his name appeared, usually, as 're-recording mixer', or sometimes merely 'sound' or 'sound recordist', but the fact was that Rowe was one of this country's handful of dubbing mixers, and therefore one of the most requested mixers in the world: he was the first, and only, choice for Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, David Puttnam, Karol Reisz, Peter Yates, Tony Palmer, and many others.
Rowe had worked on over 50 features as assistant sound mixer, and over 200 as dubbing mixer in his own right, including such films as Batman, Barbra Streisand's Yentl, Fred Zinnemann's Julia, and Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron and his restored masterpiece Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
The dubbing mixer is the last bastion of taste before a movie reaches its audience. The sound has been recorded by a floor mixer, effects tracks and atmospheres together with new dialogue have been supplied by the dubbing editor, and the editor himself has delivered the music. The dubbing desk, under the supremacy of the dubbing mixers, awaits the director's choices.
Bill Rowe's first job after leaving Gunnersbury School was in a King's Cross office, working as a clerk, but during National Service he was posted to Germany, where he was involved with radar, and that led to a lifelong interest in sound. After demob, he worked at RCA and then the old Ealing Studios. He joined the then Associated British Picture Corporation Elstree studios as a sound-camera operator, and moved across to assist the senior mixer Len Shilton on the dubbing console.
It was a healthy time for the British film industry. Warner Bros had invested in ABPC, and major movies with major stars were being dubbed at Elstree, films like Moby Dick and Indiscreet. Films made at Elstree were profitable, too: a slew of Richard Todd films and three Cliff Richard musicals did very well for ABPC.
Rowe was assistant dubbing mixer on Billy Budd, Lolita (a first encounter with Stanley Kubrick), Term of Trial, French Dressing (another first, for Ken Russell), and on The Naked Prey and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, which brought Rowe into contact with international movie-makers; and a run of television series, including The Saint, The Baron and The Avengers. On a Roman Polanski film released in Britain as Dance of the Vampires Rowe first worked with the mixer Ray Merrin, on a three- man desk, with Rowe in the centre, flanked by Merrin and Shilton. It was to be the start of a great professional 'marriage' which was to end this year with Rowe's last feature, also for Polanski, Bitter Moon. 'Captain Rowe', Polanski called Bill in a tribute, and referred to Bill and Ray as his 'pilot' and 'co-pilot'.
Rowe became senior mixer at Elstree on television series including Department S and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and by the end of the 1960s, when ABPC found itself renamed Thorn-EMI, the first of many changes of name, he was mixing such fruits of the Bryan Forbes era as The Raging Moon, Dulcima, and Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World.
Rowe's reputation and popularity grew, and in 1972 he was made Chief Dubbing Mixer, and became the first person in the world to utilise the then brand-new Dolby noise reduction system in film dubbing, with Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, using Dolby on all pre-mixes and masters. So impressed was Kubrick with the result that he not only brought Rowe both Barry Lyndon and The Shining to mix, but also the French and Spanish versions of Paths of Glory, once those respective countries had released their long-time bans, and the newly-reissued reprint of Dr Strangelove.
Among others, Bill Rowe dubbed Aces High for Jack Gold, Murder on the Orient Express for Sidney Lumet, and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? for Philippe Mora, the editor of which was the young Jeremy Thomas, who told Rowe that he didn't think that he was 'cut out for this kind of work', and promised him that 'one day I'll bring you a film'. Rowe also mixed in this period Tony Palmer's monumental history of popular music for television, All You Need is Love.
In 1974 Rowe mixed Callan, the first film ever with a Dolby 'A' encoded optical track, and in July 1974 the first ever Dolby stereo optical recorder was commissioned by Elstree, and was demonstrated with Stardust.
In 1975 he dubbed Tommy for Ken Russell, a particularly complex sound movie, which was shown in its premiere run in the 'Quintophonic' sound system, with a surround track that could be encoded: effectively, the first feature in Dolby Stereo. In September 1975, Lisztomania was the first feature to premiere with a Dolby Stereo optical soundtrack: Rowe was making film sound history, and in 1979 he was made Head of Post-Production at Elstree Studios. A golden era in film sound had begun.
Jack Nicholson brought his Goin' South to Rowe, and George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Elton John all mixed their stereo movies at Elstree. Elstree itself became a haven for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and Rowe used the old mono desk for the superb 70mm stereo dub on Ridley Scott's Alien (dubbing editor: Jimmy Shields). There was a run of David Puttnam features: Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, and the 70mm epics The Mission and Memphis Belle. Rowe actually said, when first he heard Vangelis' music for Chariots, that he could 'feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up'.
In this tremendous period Rowe accrued seven British Film Academy nominations, and one memorable evening actually found himself in competition with himself. He won the Bafta award for best sound on three occasions: for Alien, The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Killing Fields.
In 1985, Bill Rowe was awarded the British Film Institute Award for a Career in the Industry, and there was, of course, only one honour that could top that, and in 1988 he won the Oscar, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award for Best Sound for Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, the producer of which was - Jeremy Thomas.
But the British film industry was becoming severely undernourished and a thoughtless government had imposed terms that made working in England unattractive to foreign film-makers. An unloved Elstree Studios passed rapidly through various owners to near-oblivion, and under Brent Walker the bulk of stages and the admin block were destroyed. So, too, was Rowe's beloved theatre, despite the recent installation and promotion of a new SSL 5000 series dubbing desk. Rowe remained loyal to his staff, ensuring that they were kept on salary while the future of Elstree lay in the balance, but there is little doubt that the blow to his pride and professionalism was severe. He mixed Meeting Venus and City of Joy at the De Lane Lea studios in London, and The Lover and Bitter Moon in Paris, but this peripatetic quality of life clearly did not suit him.
In the week of Rowe's death his last two soundtracks opened in London. Wherever films continue to be shown, whether on tape or celluloid, at the National Film Theatre or on television, Bill Rowe's legacy lives on.
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