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Peter Handford - A Pioneer of Sound
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Peter Handford and Transacord: a short history

For many, Peter Handford’s name is synonymous with the series of superior railway recordings made available via Transacord. This being so, it may have come as a surprise to the average railway buff when obituaries for Peter Handford in the British press made, with one or two honourable exceptions, only cursory mention of Transacord. What many fans of the railway recordings may not have known was that Transacord was only one aspect of Peter Handford’s working life and that it co-existed for many years with his primary career as a film sound recordist. Indeed, it was on this latter aspect of Handford’s work that the majority of newspapers concentrated, focusing on the fact that he had worked on a succession of classic films and had won an Academy Award for Sound and a BAFTA for his soundtrack work on Out of Africa. However, Handford was no stranger to awards - in 1964, he had been awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque by the Académie Charles Cros after Trains in the Night, one of his earliest stereo LPs, had been released by the French Erato label. Surely this was worthy of a mention? Perhaps the great British Press thought that Handford’s obsession with recording steam locomotives was a bit of an aberration (albeit a commercially successful one) and worthy of only the most fleeting of mentions, but it is a shame that Transacord’s activities were generally glossed over in one or two lines.

To put Transacord’s development into context, it is necessary to look at Peter Handford’s career as a film sound recordist, albeit briefly. Those who want further information on this aspect of Handford’s life are directed to Sounds of Railways and Their Recording, which, despite the title, includes a great deal of detail about his career in the film industry. Although long out of print, this book can generally be found fairly cheaply on the Intemet.

Peter Handford, film sound recordist

Peter Handford was born into a vicarage family in Four Elms, Kent, on the 21st March 1919 and grew up, as did many boys, with a great interest in railways. Unusually, however, he also cultivated, to the point of obsession, an early wish to become a sound recordist in films. This obsession provoked Handford’s school to send him to a psychiatrist for treatment: during the early 1930s, the ‘talkies’ were a new phenomena in Britain and the job of a sound recordist would be an unknown quantity to a school more used to fostering careers in the professions, the Church, the Civil Service or the armed forces. However, his school’s intransigence merely helped to instil a single-mindedness that led to Handford becoming one of the most sought-after sound recordists in the British film industry.

To return to the beginning of Peter Handford’s career, it was during March 1936, shortly after his 17th birthday - and after much letter writing - that he was offered a job in the sound recording department of Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, based at Denham Film Studios. This job basically involved making the tea and leaming about sound recording by watching and assisting the technicians.

In September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Handford was called up for military service. Following a stint in France with the British Expeditionary Force, he volunteered for the newly-formed Army Film and Photographic Unit with whom, in June 1944, he returned to France as a cameraman on the D-Day landings. As the war progressed, he asked for recording equipment to be sent over so that he could record the sounds of war: much of the material that Peter Handford shot or recorded is now held in the Imperial War Museum’s archives. He was eventually demobilised in spring 1946, a year after hostilities had ceased, and the first thing he did on his return to the UK was to use his free rail warrant to experience several railway lines over which he had not travelled previously.

Handford began work with the Crown Film Unit as a sound recordist on documentaries, but soon moved to MGM at Borehamwood, where he gained experience in location recording on both British and American films, including location recording abroad. He made the best of every opportunity when on location to experience the local railways, including the recording of some of these railways for his personal enjoyment. It might be added that these recordings were made on company equipment!

In 1949 Handford worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and the director specifically hunted him out to work on Frenzy, when filming back in Britain in the early 1970s. In 1953 there was a general downtum in the British film industry and Handford became unemployed.

During this time he used his sound recording expertise to fonn Transacord. In the summer of 1954 the British film industry started to pick up and Handford was given the opportunity of work with British Lion Studios. However, he felt fettered by this contract and decided that what he really wanted to do was to record railways and to release these recordings on record. To this end, he decided to go freelance and from this point the recording and release of railway recordings was interspersed with periods of film work to refill the coffers when necessary - which usually seems to have been for the sole purpose of buying new equipment with which to record railways.

Many film directors considered Handford to be committing career suicide by going freelance just to record trains, but his reputation was already such that he was specifically sought out to work on films because of his known expertise, especially on location recordings. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s Handford was involved in what is now known as the ‘English New Wave’ of cinema, working with such directors as John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson and Jack Clayton on films including Room at the Top, The Entertainer, The Pumpkin Eater, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Sons and Lovers, Billy Liar (working on which he met his second wife, Helen Fraser), Tom Jones, and Oh! What a Lovely War. The level of work in the 1960s was only possible because Handford signed a deal with the Argo record label, which removed the manufacturing and distribution of records from his shoulders.

There was no let up of work during the 1970s and Handford worked on such internationally successful films as The Go-Between, Frenzy, Murder on the Orient Express, The Romantic Englishwoman and Julia. In I979 he wrote the autobiographical, Sounds of Railways and Their Recording, published in 1980, at which point, after working on Michael Cimino’s Heaven's Gate, Handford moved away from the film industry and instead worked freelance for Anglia Television, supplying them with location sound for news reports. This self-imposed isolation from the film industry came to an end when Sidney Pollack asked specially for Handford to work on Out of Africa. Handford was awarded the I985 Academy Award for Best Sound for Out of Africa and with this award under his belt he was very much able to pick and choose on which films to work. The last handful of films were all high~profile blockbusters, including Gorillas in the Mist, Dangerous Liaisons, White Hunter, Black Heart and Havana. After Havana, and following more than half a century of working on films, Handford decided to retire for good - from the film industry at any rate, Transacord was still very much a going concern.

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