Copy and paste: laying out Sight & Sound in the 1950s

In the days before digital, our ancestors were dab hands with scissors and glue.

David Robinson

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Penelope Houston and Peter John Dyer at work on the Autumn 1960 issue of Sight & Sound

This video of Penelope Houston laying out Sight and Sound with her deputy Peter John Dyer in 1960 might be puzzling to anyone not ancient enough to remember pre-digital publishing methods. Putting Sight and Sound together 60 years ago was very much a manual labour for the editors. Typescripts were corrected and edited – and there was no means of duplicating them except for the original carbon-paper copy made in the typewriter. They were then handed to the gentleman from the Kent Paper Company, who would call in at least once a day. Typeset in metal type, the galley proofs would be delivered in a couple of days. These – visible hanging on the wall in the pictures – were around two feet long and comprised the text of each article in a single continuous column. One copy had to be proof-read and returned for correction. At the same time the original stills were systematically marked up on the back to indicate selection and size; and in turn these would be made into metal printing blocks and proofed on random sheets.

When the proofs were in the real work began. They were carefully cut to size and shape and then gummed to dummy pages, using Gripfix, a wonderful thick adhesive, now forgotten, which had the texture of frozen lard, smelled of almonds and came in a specially fitted aluminium canister with a well for the spatula which was the only means of applying it. (In its final years, the canister was plastic.)

It is impossible now to imagine how we made it all fit, page by page, to arrive at the exact number at our disposal (it grew from 32 to 64, plus cover). There was a lot of re-editing, to shorten paragraphs by a line or two, or to avoid an orphan last line running over to the next column or page. The Kent Paper Company loyally turned the messy paste-ups into the finished magazine. Sight and Sound acquired an official designer, John Harmer, at the end of 1958, but the video shows that Penelope was still plying the Gripfix two years after this.

David Robinson was Editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin and Deputy to Penelope Houston at Sight and Sound from 1957 to 1958.

  • In memoriam Penelope Houston

    In memoriam Penelope Houston

    Tributes to, and reviews and reminiscences from, our late editor from 1956 to 1990, who passed away on 26 October 2015.

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