Handford, Peter Thomas 1919 - 2007


Peter Thomas Handford was born on 21st March 1919. His father was (in his words) ‘a country parson’ with an enthusiasm for railways; Handford later claimed to have inherited his love of railways from his father. Handford was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, Surrey. He was an unusual pupil in that he had an early fascination with sounds and formed the desire to become a sound recordist in the film industry. In 1936, he joined Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions at Denham. At that time, there was no formal training for sound recordists and Handford had to learn by doing. He later opined that a sound recordist cannot be trained but must try things to see if they work. During this period, the films he worked on include A Yank at Oxford, On the Night of the Fire and The Thief of Baghdad.

Handford was called up in 1939 and initially sent to France. After the British defeat at Dunkirk, he was evacuated back to England. He volunteered for the Army Film and Photographic Unit where he was trained as a still- and movie-cameraman. He landed in Normandy on D-Day and was wounded a few days later. He served alongside the British army as it advanced through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and was in Germany when it surrendered. He was principally employed as a cameraman, but he also made recordings of sounds of battle using mobile equipment.

After the war, Handford returned to the film industry. He joined the Crown Film Unit making documentaries and subsequently was employed by MGM, before taking a job with the film producer Herbert Wilcox. He eventually became self-employed in 1954.

Handford is important for his pioneering work in on-location sound recording. He developed his techniques during the Fifties and Sixties working with David Lean (Summertime 1955), the Boulting Brothers (Private’s Progress 1956), Carol Reed (The Key 1958) and Jack Clayton (Room at the Top 1959) He is particularly associated with the New Wave in British cinema when directors like Tony Richardson (The Entertainer 1969; Tom Jones 1963), Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 1960), John Schlesinger (Billy Liar 1963) and Jack Clayton (The Pumpkin Eater 1964), made films with a gritty sense of realism. American directors also sought Handford’s services: Joseph Losey (The Go-Between 1970; The Romantic Englishwoman 1975; Steaming 1985), Sidney Lumet (Murder on the Orient Express 1974), Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa 1985; Havana 1990, Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist 1988) and Clint Eastwood (White Hunter Black Heart 1990). Handford worked with Alfred Hitchcock on two films: Under Capricorn in 1949, and in 1972, when Hitchcock asked for him specifically, Frenzy. Handford was also associated with some films he considered less than satisfactory: the re-make of The Lady Vanishes in 1979 and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate of 1980 Following this film Handford spent a period with Anglia Television in Norwich. He won an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa.

Handford was a life-long railway enthusiast, travelling extensively by rail and even finding railway sights amid the war in North West Europe. He started to record the sounds of the railway during slack times in his film career. He made the earliest recordings for his own benefit. He realised in the mid-fifties that the railways were changing rapidly and that the Modernisation Plan meant that steam locomotives would soon disappear. He conceived a plan to record steam locomotives at work while the opportunity existed. At about this time, he had formed a company, Transacord, to offer a commercial service transcribing sound recordings from tape to disc. Transacord became the vehicle for making his recordings of steam available to the public. He did not see this as a business activity, more an extension of his hobby. Transacord sold by mail order. In 1961 Transacord entered into an agreement with Argo, then part of the Decca Group, and subsequent recordings were sold under the Argo Transacord label. When Decca phased out Argo in 1980, Transacord recordings were sold under the ASV label.

Handford applied his skills as a location sound recordist to creating atmospheric recordings of the railway scene, building aural pictures of the lineside. First came the background sounds of the countryside, then sounds of the approaching train, then the noise of its passing followed by the return to the earlier tranquillity. He worked with the best recording technology available to him which became progressively lighter to carry, more compact and produced better quality recordings over the years. Like railway photographers, he had his share of the frustrations of recording the railway: unwanted background noises, weather and the wrong locomotive at the wrong time balked him on many occasions.

Peter Handford was married twice. He died on 6th November 2007 at his home in Suffolk. He is survived by his second wife, the actress Helen Fraser, and two daughters from his first marriage.