Esther Wilson – THE INFLUENCE OF GEORGE GROVES
In 2003 I attended a funeral. Later, back at the house, I got talking to a couple. The usual ‘What do you do?’ question arose, and it turned out that we were all writers. He was a journalist I’d heard of and read. He wasn’t familiar with my stuff but we got on quite well and spent the rest of our time together chatting about various things. We discovered that we were all going through a similar experience that we were finding difficult to deal with. We spent a couple of hours together, talking and listening and, in a small way, took some comfort from the exchange.
When they were leaving he whispered ‘To thank you for being kind to my wife, here’s a little gift for you…’ he told me the little heard story of a man who was born in St Helens and educated at Liverpool University. George R Groves, the film industry’s first Production Recordist and Music Mixer.
As I started to do a bit of research, I couldn’t understand why his achievements weren’t recognised and celebrated here. Not only was he instrumental in helping to change the face of cinematic history but he was also an Oscar winner. No wonder Al Jolson gave him the nickname ‘The Quiet Little Englishman’.
I quickly became engrossed in his story. Why wasn’t his name and achievements widely known? His sister, Hilda Barrow and her family had been campaigning to rectify that… in 1996 they managed to get the BFI to agree to recognise George’s talents and, at an emotional ceremony, a blue plaque was unveiled to mark the place of his birth.
I wanted to know more about his personal journey.
But if I wanted to make a dramatic story out of this ‘hidden’ story I needed to make artistic connections that not only interested me but also had a wider connection to the world today. I made a basic list.
George followed a girl, Olga, across the ocean to New York, on one of the first passenger ships from Liverpool. Good, there’s a love interest.
He worked for the Bell Corporation when radio was the exciting new medium, offering all sorts of future possibilities for a young man starting out.
He was interested in sound and, as a musician, had a fine ear.
He was seconded to Warner Bros to explore possibilities of synchronised sound on film.
It had been happening for quite a while as the big studios in the Hollywood film industry were vying for control of the market. George, along with another Englishman, Stanley Watkins, happened to make the connection. The ‘elements were in tune’ so to speak. It was a time of decadence in the film industry. Lots of scandals and a ‘star system’ in place.
As George worked on Don Juan, a film with synchronised sound-no actual words, Olga left him for an impresario. The film has the most kisses, still, in any film. Poor George had to listen to that over and over again. His heart must have been breaking. Terrible for him but…all that energy had to go somewhere!
The first spoken words he recorded on film ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet’ was by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
The last film he worked on was Woodstock, during the ‘Summer of Love’. What a great contrast to book-end a career…Al Jolson & Jimmy Hendrix!
He won Oscars for Sayonara and My Fair Lady, achieved remarkable advances with underfloor microphones for Busby Berkeley routines and even had a sound stage named after him. (See website for more details)
I felt his was a story worth telling precisely because few people had heard it.
I pitched it to the BBC as a radio play. A story about sound, on the radio, would work perfectly. The BBC disagreed.
I spoke to the director Paula Simms at Zho Visual Theatre. She was far more positive and could see the creative possibilities.
Zho were already working and developing an empty old cinema, The Park Palace on Mill Street in The Dingle, as a performance space.
It was interesting that once sound on disc in movies became a viable option, theatres that could house the size of the technology were sourced and utilized. The Park Palace was one such theatre.
As it was George’s job to scour the country looking at theatres, he would have walked around the beautiful Park Palace just as we were doing, as we discussed possibilities of finding the right way to tell the story.
We jumped in blind. Though we hadn’t nailed the actual drama…a glorious, old, fading palace of dreams, hidden behind a modern day crumbling façade, seemed the perfect venue to tell the story of George. We were very excited.
Zho got a brilliant artistic team together and we spent time developing ideas. It was clear that George’s story had wider resonances, artistically, philosophically, politically and economically. There were also, for us, lots of exciting connections between the creative heart and culture of Liverpool….with its river gateway to the world….and what George had helped to achieve with sound waves that travelled around the globe.
As Liverpool headed toward the Capital of Culture in 2008, we pitched The Quiet Little Englishman as a site specific, physical theatre piece.
It was a very fruitful, creative time. Working with actors, musicians, a choreographer and sound artists we used improvisational techniques to create a story rich in texture.
We were able to make connections to how we live, now, in this highly technical society that relies so heavily on the virtual world.
As with most ground breaking movements, cause and effect is both positive and negative. Skilled musicians lost their jobs, as orchestras were no longer needed. Great physical skills were curtailed when acting styles changed, to accommodate speaking close to huge microphones, hidden behind plant pots and curtains. ‘Unpalatable’ voices and strong regional accents were silenced in favour of more ‘acceptable’ ways of speaking. The propaganda opportunities in World War 11 influenced filmic styles.
Creating a collaborative piece with such a big group of very talented artists was an exciting, if exhausting, time.
It was a daunting task but our ambition was inspired by someone who was usually behind the scenes…so it seemed relevant that we should create a big, visual, loud, bold, beautiful, irreverent palate with which to pay homage to a man and his craft.
We wanted to play with the idea of sound and film so that we could bring the whole thing full circle. We played with synchronicity….live music, actors speaking in and out of sync, film and recorded sound. Though we didn’t want to tell an exact biography of George Groves, we wanted to show how one person’s passion, through their own creativity, can have a huge impact.
The development of the piece opened our eyes to the impact that cinema and those wonderful old buildings had on communities.
Zho had already been working closely with the community, to harness stories and experiences that had changed lives.
Lots of off-shoot projects were inspired by it. It was clear that the people in The Dingle had a great love for The Park Palace and how it had helped to enhance their lives. The audience who came to see The Quiet Little Englishman came early and left late. It was remarkable to see people reliving memories of stolen kisses and funny experiences.
If this resource had existed when we were researching The Quite Little Englishman it would have made our job much, much easier.
Projects like this matter. The theatres themselves pay homage not only to the stories once played out on the screen but also to the stories that hide in the walls, in-between the cracks in the walls. These buildings are precious. They’re our heritage. They hold stories that should never be lost or forgotten, no matter how the ‘powers that be’ see ‘regeneration’ because WE ARE THE STORY.
The show opened in September 2008, to critical acclaim.
A brilliant website dedicated to George will give you all the facts and figures. It’s a wonderful resource, lovingly created and compiled by friends of George’s family.
Esther Wilson – 2013