My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Wednesday 22nd December 1999


Well, my name is Jack Cardiff. And I've been working in the cinema a long time. First of all, I worked as a kid actor. That's why it's so long. Because I was a kid of four when I started, in 1918. Then in 1928 I went behind the camera and worked on a couple of silent pictures. If I was asked; "Which do you think is the most important event of this century?" I would unhesitatingly say it was the advent of sound. America was ahead of us, because they made "The Jazz Singer" in 1927. Officially, that was the first movie made with a sound track. And that was something that was so important.

Actually before that, in 1924, I went to the Wembley Empire Exhibition, which was a very big affair. And there was a cinema show, which they advertised, with sound. People actually could be heard to talk. And I was fascinated. I went inside. And indeed you saw the screen, with actors acting. And you could hear them talking. What is was: there was a sort of gramophone thing on the right-hand side. And it was a bit out of sync. (ie synchronisation). But obviously everyone was loving it. And I had a terrific thrill. Because, although I was only eleven, it hit me. I thought: "This is it. This is a new dimension of the cinema". And it was.

I started behind the camera in 1928. And I worked on what was one of the last silent films made in this country: "The Informer." The Irish Troubles were going on then. And anyone who informed - they'd had it. And the story was about an informer who is obviously out (ie he's been found out) and he's going to be killed. And he has this love affair with Lee de Puti. And she tries to keep him away from trouble, but she can't. Well, I think the producer of "The Informer" - I forget his name - he knew that on the next stage Hitchcock was making "Blackmail": officially the first sound picture. So the producer said: "We've got to have a sound sequence in our picture, to keep up with everybody." So a sound scene was devised. And the principal actor was Johnny Butt. He was terrified when he was told that he actually had to remember his lines. Because, previous to this, in the silent pictures, you didn't have to know your lines. You could say anything - "Arsenal (the football team) won again" - or whatever you wanted to say. And you'd just put the credits on the screen.

So we started to work in the studio. And it had to be night, because the sound of the traffic in the daytime was noisy. The only trouble was we had noises of birds singing at night. So we had to fire a gun - with blanks - to quieten the birds for a few minutes. This might have put Johnny Butt off. Because he forgot his lines, take after take. We did about 18 takes. And after the first few takes, the director said: "Don't worry, Johnny, don't worry. Get him some whisky". And they sent for some whisky. And he had a few tots of whisky. And after another few takes, he still couldn't remember what his lines were. "Get him some more whisky." And finally he had had about ten glasses of whisky. And he collapsed in a dead drop on a table. And that was it. We abandoned the whole thing. We never used the sound take on that picture. So it was 100 per cent silent.

The fact was that, the first one or two pictures I worked on after that, the sound was an awesome thing. I mean, the sound man was like a kind of magician, who actually produced sound. There was this enormous microphone hanging in the middle. And, believe it or not, we were told that we had to hold our breath during the scene, in case they heard anyone breathing. And it was a magician kind of ritual that we had. So the advent of sound was a tremendous thing when it first came out. Very exciting.