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By Archive Team on

Peter Handford: A pioneer of sound

The whole Archive team delves into the history of the sound recordist on the centenary of his birth.

Header image: Peter Handford on location recording. Photograph taken by John Aldred in late 1950s at Handford House and garden at Saunderton (Princes Risborough) for a magazine publisher (HAN/3/1)

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Peter Handford, a sound recordist who was particularly associated with British New Wave cinema. He worked with directors such as Tony Richardson on The Entertainer (1960) and Tom Jones (1963), and John Schlesinger on Billy Liar (1963). He received a BAFTA and an Academy Award for Best Sound for Out of Africa (1985) and, following this, he worked on more Hollywood productions, including Dangerous Liaisons and Gorillas in the Mist (1988).

His archive was bequeathed to the National Railway Museum in 2007. Comprising over 1400 sound items and 16 boxes of papers and photographic material, the archive has been fully catalogued and is searchable for the first time here.

Peter Handford pioneered and developed techniques to record sound on location. He started as a trainee in a London film studio in 1936, though the outbreak of the Second World War kept him away from the industry as he was called to join the war effort. He joined the Army Film and Photographic Unit as a cameraman and from his own initiative he also recorded the sounds of war. The sounds and images he recorded at this time are in the Imperial War Museum collection.

Lieutenant Peter Handford, a sound recordist with the Army Film Unit
Lieutenant Peter Handford, a sound recordist with the Army Film Unit, poses with his equipment after the end of hostilities in 1945, Imperial War Museum collection, © IWM (BU 8364)

From the time he entered the cinematographic industry, and until recently, most ‘‘exterior’’ recordings were mocked up in a studio. After his experience in the Army Film and Photographic Unit, he went back to working on films, building up experience in location recordings. By recording on location, taking his sound recording equipment outside and capturing real ambient sounds, Peter Handford made his name in the industry and was often sought-after by the directors. A notable example of his location recordings are the sound effects for Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), recorded on board a train in Turkey.

Recording sheet, sound effects Murder on the Orient Express
Recording sheet, sound effects Murder on the Orient Express, reel 5 (HAN/6/3/6/5). Image Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

In parallel to his film career, he was also a railway enthusiast, a love he claimed he inherited from his father.  He wrote in his autobiography, Sounds of Railways and their recordings “railways and steam engines fascinated me …and their sounds were always a major part of their attraction”.

Peter Handford
Peter Handford (photograph taken by Colin P. Walker) (HAN/3/1)

In the 1950s, whilst steam was coming to an end, he began recording the sound of locomotives at work using the same techniques that he used for films. He soon realised that what had started as a personal endeavour had commercial promise. He established Transacord, which later became Argo-Transacord, then ASV-Transacord. Since Peter Handford passed away in 2007, Transacord has digitised albums which can be purchased online.

Trains to Remember (DA/ZDA 48) published by Argo Transacord in 1966
Trains to Remember (DA/ZDA 48) published by Argo Transacord in 1966 (HAN/6/1/139) Courtesy of Transacord Ltd.

Listen to extract of side 2, track 3: ‘The Whitby Moors’ special train on the Scarborough–Whitby line on 6 March 1965, at Ravenscar. The train, organised by the Stephenson Locomotive Society and the Manchester Locomotive Society, was double headed by ‘K4’ class 2-6-0 No. 3442 The Great Marquess, restored to LNER condition by Lord Garnock, as pilot to ‘K1’ class 2-6-0 No. 62005

The raw material behind the commercial product is the result of many hours standing alongside railway lines, capturing the sounds not only of the trains themselves but also of the countryside, the birds and animals, the wind in the trees, the bustle of the stations, the passengers and railway workers. Often, his work led him to travel to filming locations, enabling him to record the sounds of railways abroad, widening the breadth of his collection.

Vapeur en France (SPA 499), published by Argo Transacord in 1977
Vapeur en France (SPA 499), published by Argo Transacord in 1977 (HAN/6/1/144) Courtesy of Transacord Ltd

Listen to extract of side 2, track 2 : Level crossing in the village of Bourguignons on a July afternoon in 1975, locomotive 140 C 38 approaches. (This engine was one of a group built in 1917 by the North British Locomotive Company for use in the First World War. In 1975 No. 140 C 38 was still at work on the CFTA lines from Châtillon s/Seine.)

The original recordings were made on professional reel-to-reel audio tape recorders using ¼ inch tape. The railway recordings were then edited, and records commercialised. The earliest were 78-rpm records, superseded by 33⅓-rpm LPs and EPs, audio cassettes and later CDs. Edited as well as unpublished railway recordings form the bulk of the collection.  In addition, there are sound effects recorded for films, Peter Handford’s personal sound recordings collection, as well as his personal and commercial papers.

The papers reveal both Handford’s early interest in cinema and his relationships with cinematic icons. A red scrapbook contains magazine cuttings of film stars of the 1930s. One of his first credited film experiences was on Alfred Hitchcock’s film Under Capricorn (1949), and he went on to work with Hitchcock a second time on Frenzy (1972). Included within Handford’s papers there is a short note from Alfred Hitchcock which references his interest in railways.

Note from Alfred Hitchcock addressed to “Puff Puff Handford"
Note from Alfred Hitchcock addressed to “Puff Puff Handford”, clearly a reference to his almost obsessive interest in railways (HAN/2/23)
Please email Search.Engine@railwaymuseum.org.uk if you can tell us what “22 33 666” is referring to on the Hitchcock note

His film career led him to work with well-known actors such as Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Friendly notes sent from Katharine Hepburn show how impressed she was with Peter Handford’s skill as a sound recordist and his re-assuring presence on set. “Dear Peter . . . You were an angel to take ‘our job.’  I feel total confidence with you about and in this case it made such a difference.  My love and many, many thanks as always, Kate”. (HAN/2/29). In an article about the making of the film The Corn is Green in 1978 (HAN/2/27), Hepburn says “Our sound situation was excellent.  Peter Handford, one of the best in the business”.

The Peter Handford Archive was catalogued by project archivist John Smales and is available via the archive catalogue. Material can be accessed via Search Engine. If you would like to purchase digital copies of Peter Handford railway recordings, visit  http://www.transacord.co.uk/

2 comments on “Peter Handford: A pioneer of sound

  1. Sound recording, a greatly underestimated part of the railway scene. We can be transported back so richly through Peter Hanford’s work and legacy. Sound is such an important element in the experience of a steam excursion passing, shunting in a yard, or even the atmosphere on a station platform. Along with such visual achievements of photographers such as Colin T Gifford, and artists such as Terence Cuneo and David Shepherd, we are lucky to have such a legacy.
    I also love some of his record covers using the work of George Heiron

  2. I was on Peter’s crew for a few films (including Murder on the Orient Express) and he was the sweetest, most knowledgeable and talented boss one could ever hope to work with.

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