My history hero: Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980)

Photographer David Bailey explains why he admires a 20th-century filmmaker

British film director Alfred Hitchcock perched on either arm in a promotional still for his film, 'The Birds', c1963. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) was arguably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from the British Isles. Born in London, ‘Hitch’ made his name directing British films like The 39 Steps, pioneering many of the techniques used in modern movies. In 1939 he moved to Hollywood and made a string of acclaimed films including classics like Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho. He famously had cameos in most of his films.

When did you first hear about Alfred Hitchcock?

As a kid. He was one of the first famous people I knew about, because he too was from London’s East End, and I lived a few streets away from where he’d grown up, albeit 40 years before I was born. But it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I realised exactly why this very distinctive-looking bloke was so famous – namely, for being a great film director. A couple of years later, I saw my first Hitch film, The 39 Steps, which knocked me out.

What kind of person was he?

Judging by those two awful films made about him, not very nice! But I don’t think they did justice to the man. He was shaped in part by growing up in Leytonstone, and was obviously incredibly determined to make it in the film business at a time when it would have been a lot harder for someone with his kind of background. He also seems to have been very focused, deciding early on that his future lay in the movies, and let nothing stand in his way.

What made him a hero?

I love the way he could tell a story so quickly, as in Strangers on a Train or To Catch a Thief. He grabs your attention from the word go. He could also tell you more about a character in a moment – by catching an action of theirs – than many filmmakers can in twice the time. Part of the affinity that I feel for Hitch is that I can take a picture of someone and find something in them that other photographers might miss, in the same way that he could do with a film character. Another thing I admire is his persistence. Without persistence, you’re not going to make it, no matter how talented you are. I also rather like his cynical East End humour, which I always thought came out in his films.

What was Hitchcock’s finest hour?

That’s a tough question because he made so many outstanding films. But for me it would be his 1963 film, The Birds, because I’ve always been mad about Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the story on which it’s based. (For the same reason, I like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which was also based on one of her books.) The fact that he was able to make The Birds so scary without all the digital tricks they use today is a testament to his genius as a filmmaker. I watched it again recently and I think it looks better than ever!

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Well, he wasn’t portrayed very flatteringly in those two films I mentioned earlier. Artists like Caravaggio and Picasso also had their failings but that’s no reason not to admire them, is it? Yes, Hitch had a bit of a thing about blondes, but I’ve got a thing about brunettes. What’s wrong with that?

Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?

Well, we came from more or less the same background. And he didn’t much like the police, and neither do I.

If you could meet Hitchcock what would you ask him?

Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately because sometimes meeting someone you admire from afar can be a let-down – I never got to meet the great man. But if I had, I’d have asked him if I could take his picture. I’m sure we could have also had an interesting conversation on the relative merits of blondes and brunettes…

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David Bailey was talking to York Membery. David Bailey is one of Britain’s leading photographers. The exhibition Bailey’s Stardust is open now and runs until 1 June at the National Portrait Gallery. Visit npg.org.uk to find out more