Some Memories by Guy Coté’s ‘Apprenti sorcier’ at Oxford
During my first term at Oxford, having done my national service as an army education sergeant, I busily explored the whole gamut of clubs and societies whose guest speakers afforded a cheap way of seeing and hearing some of the great politicians, writers and thinkers of the time. I also discovered a greater opportunity to see good films than I’d ever known – and I learned that a certain Guy Coté, a French-Canadian, was secretary of the Oxford University Film Society (OUFS). I wrote him a cheeky letter laying out my experience of film society organization and programme planning and asked if I could be of help. I was invited to come round to his bedsit for a chat. When I got there I could hardly get into his room because it was festooned with strips of film hanging from a network of strings, but by careful ducking and diving it was just possible to reach a chair. Guy, it turned out, was not only the Film Society’s secretary but also the captain of the Oxford University ski team that he had led to inter-varsity ski championships in Sestrieres in the Italian Alps that year. Not only had he competed but had also helped with the shooting of an amateur film around the event.
We soon found common ground in the films we both liked. He was a passionate and mercurial figure and instantly co-opted me as assistant secretary of the OUFS. I was completely agreeable to be, in his words, ‘son apprenti sorcier.’ He was planning to be made President of the film society and was determined to make it the biggest film society in the country. As president he thought he would have greater influence on how its income was spent and was determined to allocate substantial funding to the Experimental Film Group (EFG) whose enthusiastic members dreamed of being seen as avant-garde filmmakers, thus opening doors for them into the film industry. Yes, I thought, that could suit me very well and I promised myself to make it happen. ‘There’s just one small thing,’ Guy said, ‘the ISIS weekly magazine needs volunteers to review the commercial films of the week.’ No pay but a free ticket on Mondays and the text delivered to the film editor on Tuesday morning without fail. Who was the film editor? I might have guessed -it was also Guy. ‘Do you want to join the team?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied without a backward thought.
For my remaining terms at Oxford, film filled all my spare time and more, and Guy was ever more demanding. When he became president of the OUFS, I became its secretary and took on most of the work, booking films, writing publicity for future programmes, hosting speakers from the film industry and organizing showings of winning amateur films and discussions with their makers that Guy would chair. We were very unimpressed by most of them and thought we could do better, but how and what? We invited prominent professional filmmakers to be our guests, gave them a good dinner and faced them with eager question and answer sessions. Basil Wright, Thorold Dickinson, Harry Watt, Hugh Massingham, John Halas and many others fell into our net. Unconsciously, we were putting together a network of contacts.
It was in the late spring of 1950 that a friend introduced us to Sam Kaner, a fascinating young American artist, whom she had met by chance on a boat on his way to Oxford. His arrival heralded an unforeseen change in my life and that of Guy’s too. Sam not only became a close friend but joined the EFG at a time when we were searching for a strong subject for a new film to be produced in the summer of 1951. One evening, he offered us a short script for a ballet film that we all thought quite extraordinary. It only required two dancers, easily constructed sets and highlighting a wealth of colour effects that could be conjured from the camera. It did not take us long to decide to try and raise the money, find dancers and organize the production.
The film would be entitled ‘Between Two Worlds’ and the keenest members of the EFG set out to make the project a reality and to shoot the film the following summer. It was decided that Guy Coté would direct, I would produce, and Sam would design the sets and say how they were to be shot. Good luck brought the then luscious Swedish actress Mai Zetterling to Oxford to show some of her films. I discovered that her husband, Tutte Lemkow, was a dancer and she thought he might be interested in taking part. He was, and so was his partner Sarah Luzita. Guy and I unleashed a storm of letters to all our contacts in the film society movement and the film industry soliciting gifts of cash and loans of equipment. I think this was the first time Guy had a serious connection with the National Film Board of Canada who had a large office in London and a friendly staff.
The response to our effortd was extraordinary. Film companies lent us cameras and lighting. Cheltenham College rented us a huge gymnasium as a studio for four weeks. We were joined by a team of volunteers, scene painters and set builders and Sam Kaner persuaded a number of professional artists to contribute, including a NY specialist of montage photography, Val Telberg, who conceived and directed the final black and white sequence. We were offered a large cottage near Cheltenham as a dormitory and it was there during the shooting that Guy and Sam held court, discussing the next day’s work long into the dark hours with all of us sitting around and noting practical steps to make the imaginary become real. We were joined by Nancy McCallum whom I had met during my army days when she was working at the British Council office in Guildford and had later come to work in Oxford where she joined our circle of film buffs. She offered to be our scribe and chronicler during the shoot of ‘Between Two Worlds,’ I am sure she did not expect to emerge from that adventure to become Mme Guy Coté!
The shooting of the film was completed in good time, but the editing caused delays and differences. Guy’s bedsit again became a jungle of dangling shots. The process, including complicated lab colour effects, took months instead of weeks. Both Guy and Sam used me as a punchbag to show how wrong the other was. Finally, the laboratory performed miracles, the composer, Christopher Shaw, created a score recorded for free by members of the Royal College of Music and at last ‘’Between Two Worlds’ had a star-studded première in Oxford, and a four-page colour feature in Picture Post.
In 1955, I met Guy and Nancy in Soho during the time Guy was attached to the NFB in London. He had started his collection of books on the cinema and dreamed of founding of a film archives in Canada. I also remember visiting his home on a stop-over in Montreal when shooting a film for Aer Lingus. It was already a sight to be seen. Not strips of film dangling from wires, but books and papers lining every wall and corner of their home. Guy was always going somewhere, not necessarily where you might guess. He might have become a distinguished professor of chemistry in a distinguished university, but it’s great that his ‘grande oeuvre’ of preserving invaluable books and periodicals about film saw the light, and is now housed at the Cinémathèque québécoise where it is freely available to all admirers of the history of film.
Derrick Knight a été producteur sur le film Between Two Worlds.