Educated at Epsom College (in the days when they had air raid shelters under the college lawn to escape from the Battle of Britain), Harley Jr developed an interest in aeroplanes, made models, left school early, and at 16 began work in an aircraft factory. It didn’t last.
Before the end of 1941 Usill met film scriptwriter and director Ian (Dal) Dalrymple and was offered a job. Cambridge-educated, urbane and well-connected, Dalrymple would go on to play an important role in Usill’s early career and a very prominent part in the formative days of Argo.
At the time, Dalrymple was head of The Crown Film Unit, documentary production machine, morale-booster and propagandist-in-chief for the wartime British nation. Usill apparently had an eye on a job in the art department, but started work at the Unit’s film library at Pinewood Studios.
While he was there, the Unit’s documentary maker Humphrey Jennings produced some of the most memorable pictorial and sound images of the War – films like ‘London Can Take It’ (1940), ‘Listen To Britain’ (1942) and ‘Fires Were Started’ (1943).
You can see the whole of Listen to Britain on YouTube. It’s here.
Propaganda they may have been, but they were also poetry in motion. In 1954 Lindsay Anderson described Jennings as “the only real poet the British Cinema has yet produced”.
Usill will have watched and listened and, I reckon, been deeply impressed by the films’ lyrical portrait of Britain (unless it’s just a really strange coincidence that one of the label’s greatest achievements was its celebration in sound of things lyrical and British).
In 1943, at the age of 18, Usill joined up, first with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps at York, then serving in the grim and bloody post-war chaos in Palestine with the 2nd Batallion, the Lincolnshire Regiment (the 2nd Lincolns).
In the month that the Batallion’s newsletter reported the ‘revenge’ hanging of two British sergeants by the Irgun (July 1947), it also announced the departure for home of Capt HJ Usill on Class ‘A’ release.
Back in civvy street, Usill hooked up again with Dalrymple, who had moved on from the Crown Film Unit to set up Wessex Film Productions. He started out as a floor assistant, but got his first credits working as Third Unit assistant director on ‘Once a jolly swagman’ (1948), a spivs and speedway feature film (Go, Dirk, Go!) starring a young Dirk Bogarde and a cast that included Sid James, Thora Hird and Cyril Cusack.
Work on documentaries followed – Assistant Director on ‘The Dim Little Island’ (1948) and ‘Family Portrait’ (1950) – both directed by Humphrey Jennings. “Both films are unabashed pieces of propaganda: they are pep talks, designed to help cheer up a nation that seemed to be settling into a spiritual as well as an economic depression in the first years after victory”, says a reviewer on the British Film Institute’s website.
Elegy for British things
The Dim Little Island: “It is an oddly melancholic, tart little piece, which contradicts with its emotional tenor its own declarations of optimism. Jennings may not have set out to make an elegy for British things lately lost or about to be lost, but that is what resulted; and very fine it is, too.”
Family Portrait: “This supposedly anodyne work is shot through with profound and esoteric scholarship about science, industry, legal institutions, social history and poetry… though it makes a quiet end to a remarkable career (it was Jennings’ last film before his untimely death later that year), it is a distinguished one.”
In the meantime Usill’s father (Harley senior) had started his own publishing company, Naldrett Press. They specialised in sports books and were the official publishers to the MCC and the FA. Harley Jr., a fanatical Pompey supporter, left the film world and joined. He didn’t stay long.
Editing English Golf or The FA Book For Boys wasn’t for him. He had met Alex Herbage, an ambitious (and how!) 21-year-old ex-public schoolboy who was working as a salesman for the Decca Record Company. And Decca had just issued the first of those new-fangled vinyl long-playing records in the UK.
(‘Bloody Decca’, Usill would end up calling them, but not for a few years yet).
“Go to your dealer today – please – and ask to hear a Decca long playing record played on a Decca instrument,” a Decca advert in the Gramophone magazine entreated when the first LPs were launched in July 1950.
“Listen carefully – think what long playing will mean to you: The Emperor on one twelve-inch…Petrouscka on one twelve-inch…Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4 and 6 on one twelve-inch…”
Usill and Herbage were thinking what long playing would mean.
They decided to set up their own independent record company and call it Ambassador Records. But another Ambassador objected. “A new name was wanted,” runs an account of the birth of the label published in the Gramophone magazine in 1976. “It should be classical by association, it must be short, easily pronounced, and have the initial A — top of the list. So Argo was born…”
It was “one of those hobbies that took over”, Usill later recalled.
“I was working in my father’s publishing company and a friend of mine (Herbage) was working for Decca. We set up a company with just the two of us. I think I sold my car and he sold his motorbike. And this was 1951. Joint capital of about £500.”
“He joined the board of Argo, and carried the main financial burden until Argo became a Decca Division in 1957,” Usill wrote in the 70s, making a point of “setting the record straight” about the major role Dalrymple played.
“During those five years as an independent company, Ian Dalrymple supported, advised and encouraged us in our programme of English music and literature,” Usill said. “He has always been one of the most important influences, and I would be grateful if I could… express especial thanks to Ian for his generosity and continued belief in the company he did so much to create.”
Herbage and 26-year-old Usill were on their way and planning their first recordings. It wasn’t going to be an overnight success.
(Some stuff about Argo in the 50s coming up when I get round to it, or find out about it, rather)
Sources for this potted history include:
Argo’s Silver Jubilee, Gramophone Magazine, November 1976, Read it here.
Newsletters of the Lincolnshire Regiment, 1947. Read them here.
The Crown Film Unit, Dalrymple, Jennings and their films. British Film Institute web site. Read it all here.
Argo Records, BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour, broadcast 19th February 2005, written and presented by Alan Dein, and produced by Laurence Grissell. (It’s the only serious thing that’s ever been put together about the label. It’s brilliant, brings a tear to the eye, and, of course, it’s not available.)
Alec (aka Alex) Herbage – Very Conspicuous Consumption, a chapter in the book Minus Millionaires by Jeffrey Robinson (Unwin Hyman, London, 1987). A summary of Herbage’s journey from Argo to a Minnesota jail coming up in a later post.