Tilly Day, a 'continuity girl' in the era of silent films talks about her fascinating and often hilarious experiences of working on films from 1917 and through the 1920's.
Also a brief history of Walter West's Walthamstow Studio, where Tilly started working in the film business.




Tilly Day was born in 1903.  She started in the film business working at Walthamstow Studio, on silent films and was working through the industry change to 'talkies'.   Her last mentioned film on IMDb is in 1976.  She worked on about 57 films, doing continuity (Script Supervisor).  Pauline Harlow was one of her trainees. She died in 1994 aged 91.

Her cv includes some extraordinary sounding titles:  "The Burgomaster of Stilemonde", "Cardboard Cavalier", "The Rocking Horse Winner", "An Alligator Named Daisy", "Futtocks End", "Up Pompeii", "Kidnapped" and finally "Don't Just Lie There, Say Something".

David Lean is quoted as saying about her:  "Any time I'm on a picture and I know Tilly Day's on the continuity, I think, thank god for that, now I can cut it where I want to, not because I've got to cut it in a certain place".

Tilly said:  I always matched everything.   I had a photographic memory. Much better than my notes.   They would say to me, 'what was so-and-so doing at such a moment?', and I would shut my eyes and I would say, 'she was doing so-and-so and he was doing so-and-so'.  I could remember.

The following are extracts from her very long interview with Kevin Brownlow.

   Tilly Day, working on "The Pirates of Blood River" (1961).   Director John Gilling seated, facing. 

How did you get into the business itself?

I was in high school in Walthamstow and I hated it, I answered an advertisement in the paper 'wanted, young lady', that was me, 'well educated', that was me, 'expert shorthand typist', that was a lie.   I was so silly I didn't realise that if I got the job they would write to my home address, which they did.   It caused any amount of furore at home because of course they didn't know anything about me writing, but anyway my mother said 'you'd better let her go because you know what she's like, if she thinks she's made up her mind, she's made up her mind'.   So it came, I went to the studio and that's how it was and I got the job.

I was going to be, as far as I could make out, because I was a little confused, I was going to um, make the tea, run around generally, um look at the set, try and dust it, keep it tidy and generally make myself useful, which I did.
(Note:  She started the job in July 1917)

The studio had been a large house, in its own grounds, and they'd adapted it.   It had a glass roof.   Like a great big conservatory you know, green house, where you grew tomatoes or something.   I hadn't thought of that before.   That was how they lit the scenes.

So, tell us about Walter West (British film director - born 1885, died 1958, who owned various studios - see history of Walthamstow below).   What sort of person was he, and was this very well financed?

TD: Walter West was the usual type that was around in those days from the film business.   They were always on the edge of a precipice, they never knew where the next penny was coming from.   Whether they'd be able to finish a picture.  Whether you'd get paid or not... quite often you didn't.  

   Interior of the Broad West Film Company's studios at Wood Street, Walthamstow, between 1916 and 1921.

How did you go from being secretary to being continuity?   And did your salary change?

Oh well that was at Walthamstow, because the girl who was doing the continuity, she just didn't arrive one day, whether she was ill or what she was, I don't know.   It may have been that she wasn't paid... Anyway, Leslie Eveleigh (TD says he was a cameraman at that time, he was also a director of a short film "Lady Godiva" and partner with George J Banfield, in the production company British Filmcraft) said to me, 'you'll have to do it'.   I said, 'but I can't do it, I don't know what to do', so he said 'I'll tell you' and he just said 'its very easy you just pick it up'.   And so I became continuity.

I got five pounds a week when I was doing continuity and two pounds ten when I was upgraded to a sort of secretary, but you know the director thought I was so good he gave me the the two pounds ten and five pounds when I was continuity.   I was thrilled.   I went home and I said five pounds a week, we'd never heard of such a salary.   My father was quite convinced that I was on the wrong road and he actually came up to the studio to see these people, but he found it was quite alright.



Tell us about becoming a continuity girl and Leslie Eveleigh.

Oh yes, Leslie Eveleigh said he would teach me.   He told me that I must take down everything in shorthand that the people were doing, they moved their head to the right, they moved their head to the left.  They moved the left hand, they put a cigarette out with the right, and terrible things like that.

It was more difficult in silent days because you had no guide of voice, whereas in talkies you had the guide of the voice saying such and such and you could put ... he put his cigarette out on such and such a word ... whereas when you were on silents you never had a single hint of what was going on..



One of the big pictures that you worked on, tell us about "The Burgomaster of Stilemonde".

The director, George Banfield?   Well of course I learnt in after life, when I worked for real directors that he didn't know anything at all ... he just walked into this film business, as many of them had.

We had a dinner scene in it of ... um ... chicken and potatoes and things, and I had to cook the chicken in between doing the continuity ... I used to run down to see if the chicken was alright, turn it over, come back upstairs again, it was terrible but I certainly earnt my five pounds.

I used to play second lead, because they couldn't afford to get a second person as a rule and they'd say 'oh well Tilly'll do it, that's alright'.    And I'd say 'but what have I got to do', and they'd say 'well you just sit there and do what we tell you' and I used to do it and they used to say 'oh yes that's alright'.   So I used to get a pound.   I didn't mind, a pound was a lot in those days.


Now tell us about the Dick Turpins.

Yes, that was Kenneth McClaglan the youngest brother of all the McClaglans, I forget how many there were.   There was Victor McClaglan, Clifford McClaglan.  I worked with them all.  Clifford McClaglan (here she is corrected: Cyril).   Cyril McClaglan, Kenneth McClaglan - he was a very good looking boy and he looked very good in costume.    I was in that, yes I was in that, I had a small part.  They said 'we want the maid for so and so, go and stand on those stairs', so I went and stood on the stairs, in a costume of course, 'and lean over and look for somebody'.   I looked for somebody and that was my part and I got a pound for that, I thought it was pretty good.

We made them in Epping Forest .... I was terrified of horses and the horses used to pound around near me and my hair used to nearly turn grey.   We had people from the Russian circus and one day a man came and they said 'oh Tilly he's in the Russian circus really'.   He was a wonderful horseman, he couldn't speak a word of English and he used to do all sorts of tricks.   I know I was sitting one day and I wondered why they were all looking at me, and it gradually occurred to me that this horse had come nearer and nearer and eventually it bent its head over my shoulder and I froze with horror, and then this Russian man suddenly scooped me up in his arms and sat me on this horse and galloped off.   I really thought my last minute had come, but it wasn't it was alright it was his idea of fun.


Do you think the British were on a level with American silent pictures?

Oh yes, the British were on a level with the Americans, they were very good with silent films, but then they lost the battle because the Americans invented, they didn't invent, the British actually invented the sound, and they got everything going, but they had no money.   We'd just finished a war and it was terrible .....

Note:  Tilly begins to explain that Captain Banfield floated a company (which she called) British Audiocraft (actually British Filmcraft) when the change from silents to sound was taking place.   People bought shares in the company for £5 a share, and the company apparently made a lot of money, but Tilly believed that Banfield 'spent the lot on himself and British Filmcraft was finished' - she says 'oh it was dreadful - don't put that down if he's alive'.  

What happened to British Filmcraft and Captain Banfield?
Banfield said 'we're going to do a film called "Spangles".   It will be a circus picture'.   It was built on Hitchman's farm, because we were all country out there and it was built down the road from the studio ... there was a covered tent, there was a lion, a tiger ... I was considerably frightened of the lion.

Note: We hear no more about the demise of British Filmcraft.   Tilly drifts off the point ... remembering that an actress called Fern Andra was too old for the role in the film.   Tilly is prompted by KB to talk about Ivy Close, who she says was 'a very nice person and the mother of Ronald Neame'.   She talks about working for Edibell, the English film company of Edison Bell, based in Wardour Street - during the time when films were moving from silents to talkies.   Edibell 'went bust after a year'.   TD blames the Americans for this:  'they weren't generous a bit ... they held back ... and various men who were at the top of the business used to say 'its not right you know - we don't get the information we want'.
She mentions names of some of the people she worked with:  Ronald Coleman, Clive Brook, Manning Haynes, Fox Gartside, Walter West, Jimmy Wilson.




If you could paint a picture for us of what it was like on the set.   Did the director talk?
(Note: By which he means on the set of silent films.)

Oh yes, well they always had a piano player, that was where Eddie Dryhurst used to come in sometimes, and they would play various music.   I can remember very well Charmaine being played so many times, I can tell you, and then Diane, that was played.   And the actors to sort of emote, they always emoted better with music than without it so they had the piano and sometimes they had the cello.

The director always talked all the way through:  'Go to your right, go to your left' - it was mostly that.   'Go to your left, pick up so and so, put that down, go across there, pat the child, emote, you just lost the child, you just found him, emote'.   Emote used to come a lot into it.   I can remember at one time when somebody turned round and said 'shut up I'm listening to the music' - very irritable.

Walter West was much different to Captain Banfield.   He WAS a director.   I would watch him and I would emote myself, that's why they put me on for the second lead, he said 'she'll do', when I cried one time - it was "The Princes in the Tower" - and one little prince was dying, the jailor was going to beat him and Mary Clare, who was a very well known actress in those times, she said no no - I know I was very upset at that.

The actors never made up their lines, they always mouthed the lines that were written for them.  In a script you would have the title, then the title would come and then miles of action then there'd be dialogue.   And there was never any dialogue unless it said so and the actors and actresses never said any dialogue of their own, except if they sort of forgot to do something or other they'd say 'damn it' or something.

You never heard the actors or actresses speaking, other than mouthing the words that were in the script.


Could you tell us about "Power Over Men"?   There was a problem with the makeup?

Oh yes.   The girl went to make up Isobel Jeans, or at least the girl didn't arrive the next day - they always didn't arrive if they hadn't received their money.   So Isobel Jeans asked me to do it and I said 'well I don't know, I can't, I don't think I can do that'.   So she said 'you must try', so I got the powder puff and I dabbed it on her.   She didn't like that, she drew back and she said 'no no, that's not the way'.    So I said 'well I'm sorry but that's all I know'.   So she said 'oh well give it to me', so she took it and she did it herself.

The picture was running out of money as usual.   And the director, Captain Banfield, he was always spending the money himself on the quiet - up in town and all that sort of thing.   I mean there'd be enough money on the day that he left and when he came in the morning there wouldn't be any money at all.


How would you sum up the English silent film?   Did you have a favourite film?
Well, to me it was very fascinating, very interesting and it was a great craft to learn... I was always learning.   I thought it was a wonderful industry.

I just loved them all.   To me it was a great industry and it went on being a great industry right through to the time when I left, which was fifty years.   And every film that I was on was a new thing to me, you know, a new story and new people, new everything.   You never knew what was goint to happen in the old days, whether you were going to finish the film or not.   And you just went on and here I am.


Pauline Harlow training with Tilly Day on "Captain Clegg" - 1961.


      Tilly Day being presented by Tony Hinds with a bunch of flowers to celebrate her 300th film - whilst working on "Captain Clegg".

This interview reproduced here with the kind permission of Kevin Brownlow.
Photographs with kind permission from Hammer Films, Tomahawk Press, Wayne Kinsey & his book "Hammer Films, The Unsung Heroes" (ISBN 13: 978-0-9557670-2-9)

There are working photographs of Tilly Day in our Gallery.
Below you will find a brief history of Walthamstow Studio and Catford Studio, which include references to British Filmcraft and Walter West.

   Link to an interview with Tilly Day, carried out by BECTU in 1988 for the History Project:





This studio, at Wood Street, Walthamstow, Waltham Forest, was founded in 1914 by Cunard Films, who built a first floor glass studio over a workshop and laboratory.   According to the film journals of the time, the company made a number of 'refined' drama films starring Gladys Cooper and, popular actor of the day, Owen Nares, as well as short films, all of which were released during the early war years.   In 1916 Broadwest, which ranked alongside film companies of the day such as Hepworth, Barker and British & Colonial, bought the studio and its equipment.   Broadwest was already in the process of building up its own stock company with box office draws, Ivy Close, Violet Hopson and Gerald Ames and Walter West was also hired to produce a number of films.  By the end of the war in 1918, Broadwest was recognized as one of the UK's most important film makers, but nevertheless, along with a number of production companies, they ran into fanancial difficulties after the post-war boom.   Although they continued to make such films as Christie Johnstone, a Scottish Romance with Clive Brook, by 1921 Broadwest had gone into liquidation.   The studio was least out for some years to the makers of short films and in 1926 it was sold to British Filmcraft for this purpose.   In 1928, Sir John Martin-Harvey starred in "The Burgomaster Of Stilemonde", based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, but British Filmcraft was dissolved in 1920.

  In 1920, Walter West, who owned Walthamstow Studio, bought the Catford Studio in order to extend his production facilities.   An astute businessman, he had already established his own stock company with leading players of the day, Stewart Tome and Violet Hopson.   West also encouraged leading silent film comedian Walter Forde to make six two-reelers at his studio.   The small Catford Studio seems to have been used for the overlfow from West's more important Broadwest Studios at Walthamstow.   In 1921, after some financial upheavals, West and his financial partner, Broadbridge, agreed to part and the Catford Studio went into liquidation in the same year.
  The above histories obtained from the book BRITISH FILM STUDIOS, by Patricia Warren ISBN 0 7134 7559 5 and reproduced here with kind permission of the publishers B.T. Batsford Ltd.