Richard Best

Innovative film editor on 'The Dam Busters'

Friday 24 December 2004 01:00

One of the finest film editors in Britain, Richard Best cut such famous films as The Dam Busters and Look Back in Anger and such television series as The Avengers.

Richard Best, film editor: born Hull, Yorkshire 28 June 1916; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Ickenham, Middlesex 19 December 2004.

One of the finest film editors in Britain, Richard Best cut such famous films as The Dam Busters and Look Back in Anger and such television series as The Avengers.

It all started when his father brought home a toy 35mm projector. Enthralled by films, Best became an ardent cinemagoer. He attended a dame-school in Acton, west London, until he was 13. "Ten children were taught by one lady, dressed in bombazine from head to toe," he said. "She was very stern and you risked a ruler across the knuckles, but she taught us everything and she was so successful I got in to St Paul's."

He hated sport, and as an alternative the school took such boys on trips to factories etc. "On one occasion they took us to Lime Grove," he said, "and to my delight we watched the production of Car of Dreams with John Mills."

Best decided that film-making was the only job that interested him, but it was an industry that was very hard to break into. He tried for a solid year with no results. One day, he saw a small news item to the effect that J. Arthur Rank were moving from religious film-making into feature production. As a child, Best's mother had lived next door to Joseph Rank in Hull before the First World War, and she had played with the Rank children. "I persuaded her to write to J. Arthur on my behalf," Best said,

and the result was a friendly letter with an interview arranged at head office in Golden Square. As a result of a rather stern meeting I found myself, one grey November morning in 1935, learning how to join film on a foot-pedal Bell & Howell joiner for supervising editor Stephen Harrison. The editor was Carl Heck and the film Debt of Honor [1936], starring Leslie Banks, directed by Norman Walker.

I had been placed in a department of which I knew nothing - the Editing Department. Pictures in books by Pudovkin and others seemed to indicate that the director edited the film himself, with half of it draped round his neck. I soon learned that many directors never so much as came into the cutting room. But, even as an assistant, I found the work fascinating.

Best was fortunate to meet Merrill White, an American editor of great skill who had been brought over by Herbert Wilcox. One of his protégés was a young ex-newsreel editor, David Lean. Dick Best joined the editing team of David Lean on the Paul Czinner production As You Like It (1936), with Elizabeth Bergner and Laurence Olivier. "Even at that tender age, I realised I was in the presence of greatness," he said. "I wonder if David ever realised how much his staff on that picture worshipped at his Moviola!"

While Best was at British and Dominions, the studio burned down, and only the editing block survived. Pinewood was officially opened in September 1936, and Paramount Quota Films, on which Best was assistant to the editor Lister Laurence, were transferred there. These quota quickies, shot in two weeks, were edited and dubbed in another two weeks. They lasted 60 minutes and cost £6,000 each, but were of a high standard, Best remembered, "well scripted and well cast". The actors included Patrick Barr, Margaret Vyner, Greta Gynt, Wendy Hiller, Jimmy Hanley and Edward Rigby. They were produced by Anthony Havelock-Allan, who went on to produce Brief Encounter and Great Expectations for David Lean. "He was a man of great intelligence and taste and he didn't employ cheap writers," said Best:

He oversaw the scripts himself. He loved what he was doing. Havelock-Allan was a producer who generated happiness. When he was engaged to Valerie Hobson, I remember them holding hands as they came into the projection theatre, and dancing down the aisle to their seats. Those pre-war Pinewood days were wonderful. My favourite period.

Best graduated with Lister to more expensive productions, such as The Lambeth Walk (1940), starring Lupino Lane, directed by Albert de Courville and produced by Havelock-Allan. "On all these films, Lister gave me the chance to edit a few sequences, for which I am eternally grateful." Pinewood was closed in 1938 and production moved to Denham, where Best worked on two films directed by David Macdonald.

He was called up in 1940, and while serving in the Royal Berks Regiment he read a news item about the formation of the Army Film Unit by Major David Macdonald. He wrote for a post, was literally plucked out of an exercise, promoted to sergeant and in 1942 found himself back at Pinewood Studios - as a fully fledged editor. "The whole place had been camouflage-painted and looked dreadful," he said:

The nearest bomb to fall was a V2, which exploded half a mile away when I was carrying a pile of film cans and trying to open the door, but my nerve held and I bravely held on to the cans and opened the door! The general impression of these times at Pinewood is that only a few training films were made. I would like to explode this myth.

The truth is that some great film-making talents were working in these studios - the Boulting Brothers, Jack Lee, Pat Jackson and Humphrey Jennings - and they produced many classic documentaries reflecting wartime Britain. Many American servicemen came to Pinewood, too, to work on Tunisian Victory [1944] and The True Glory [1945]. Frank Capra spent some time there along with Garson Kanin, who made The True Glory with Carol Reed.

Dick Best edited Desert Victory, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1943 and for which he was awarded the British Empire Medal, as well as Burma Victory (1945), and Malta GC (1942) under the supervision of Roy Boulting. After being demobbed in 1945, he worked as Assembly Editor on Hungry Hill (1947), with Dennis Price and Margaret Lockwood.

He edited his first proper feature, Fame is the Spur (1947), with Michael Redgrave, Bernard Miles and Rosamund John, a thinly disguised biography of Ramsay MacDonald. After completing Mine Own Executioner (1947) for the director Anthony Kimmins, and working on pre-production for the ill-fated Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) - the film that nearly sank Alexander Korda - he moved to MGM at Boreham Wood and cut The Guinea Pig (1948) for the Boultings. "This was an excellent film, starring Richard Attenborough as a council schoolboy sent to a public school as an experiment," Best said. "Very few changes were made to my original cut."

He was not so fortunate on Britannia Mews (1948), starring Dana Andrews and Maureen O'Hara, directed by Jean Negulesco. Best discovered that a second print of the rushes was being sent to Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox in Hollywood, and another editor was cutting them - "not a boost to my morale". With shooting complete, Best was despatched to Fox with his cutting copy and was startled to find a completed version, much shorter than his, already approved by Zanuck. Best insisted that his credit be removed.

Back in England, he was recommended by John Boulting for a film at ABPC Studios at Elstree - The Dancing Years (1949), an Ivor Novello musical directed by Harold French. This led to more than 33 films and 18 years at the same studio - with no contract. He was never even told he was a permanent employee.

The Magic Box, about the film pioneer William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) was the film industry's contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The supporting cast was a Who's Who of the profession; Laurence Olivier played the policeman dragged in off the street by Friese-Greene to see his first experiment in moving pictures.

The Dam Busters (1954), starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, directed by Michael Anderson, was probably the most famous film to be produced at ABPC. "I had to ask the powers-that-be if I could edit this one when I heard rumours that they were thinking of hiring another editor," he said:

The first three months' shooting was spent entirely on a large model of the dams and surrounding country which occupied most of a huge stage. The film took a year from the start of shooting to the final print.

The Dam Busters was exceptionally well cut. Yet Best got little help from the director. "Michael Anderson was a lovely man, very good with actors, but not really a contributor at the editing stage," he said. "The final cut was virtually my first cut." Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is supposed to be the first film to use direct cuts between sequences, and to dispense with fades and dissolves, but The Dam Busters experimented with this a decade earlier. Best acknowledged that the script was so good it made the cutting simple, but the climax, a tremendous juggling job, was largely invented by him. Despite some unconvincing special effects, the bombing runs were impeccably timed and one still watches the sequence with astonishment.

Best felt privileged to edit six films directed by J. Lee Thompson, including Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1958), his favourite among all his films. "Lee was a most undervalued man," he said:

If you watched him at work you'd know there was something special about him. All his films were inspiring to work on as he had the gift of getting very good performances and he had a strong visual sense.

Dick Best had no time for the English New Wave. He edited Look Back in Anger for Tony Richardson in 1958, and "I hated it. I still hate it. I can't bear that left-wing philosophy. And I hated the fact that I had to do it." When the first cut was finished, Richardson handed the film over to another editor, Bert Bates, but left Best to deal with all the post-sync. He found himself having to direct Richard Burton, Mary Ure and Edith Evans.

Best was happier working on the Avengers television series with Diana Rigg and Patrick McNee - in 1965 he cut 13 one-hour episodes. The episodes were shot in two weeks - "it was very hard work - with long days and a six-day week". Despite the pressure, Best tackled sequences with imagination and elegance. One episode involved the bursting of a dam and Best fleshed the scenes out with footage from The Dam Busters.

When production at ABPC virtually stopped, in 1967, Best was made redundant. He cut Otley (1968) for Dick Clement at Shepperton. With EMI running the ABPC studio in the 1970s - "the worst period for the industry" - he returned to edit The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1972), and Take Me High (1973) with Cliff Richard. He also taught editing to overseas students, mainly from Africa. He worked at Pinewood on The Most Dangerous Man in the World (1969) with Gregory Peck, directed by J. Lee Thompson. He accompanied the film to Fox, once more, and this time it was Darryl Zanuck's son Richard who made major deletions, in the style of his father. After this, he joined British Transport Films, for five very enjoyable years. His last credit was Safe on the Line in 1983.

A passionate film enthusiast, he was a charming, humorous man. He and his wife Noreen Ackland, also a film editor, were frequent visitors to revivals at the National Film Theatre and the Live Cinema events at the Festival Hall. In 1989 he appeared in Chris Mohr's BBC documentary Elstree - the British Hollywood.

"Film editing is a most satisfying job and a unique experience," said Dick Best:

One handles the actual celluloid on which the film exists and which contains all the talent of everyone else involved. I can't get over it. The whole of my film life has been a miracle. I have hardly done anything to achieve what I have achieved.

Kevin Brownlow

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