Olive Besagni, Assistant Film Editor
This is Olive Besagni at eighty-five displaying a portrait of herself at nineteen. I think I can detect a hint of swagger in her eye, but let us grant Olive this indulgence because she has embraced existence with such exuberance and good humour over all these years that it is her right to a little chutzpah.
Olive is standing in her flat in Myddleton Sq in Finsbury where she has lived since 1956, just half a mile North of Clerkwenwell where her grandfather Giovanni Ferrari arrived from Borgotaro in 1880 to teach English to the Italian immigrants. Giovanni was a clever young man who loved to teach, and since most of the Italians needed to learn English if they were to advance, he became a very popular figure, known as Maestro Ferrari.
Giovanni’s eldest son Guiseppe (known as Joe) married Netta Oxley, an Englishwoman, and they moved to Gospel Oak where Olive was born in 1925. Then, when Olive was eleven they moved to Hampstead and at fourteen, upon the outbreak of war, she was evacuated to Rutland where she delighted to write sketches for performances in the village hall. Consequently, Olive grew up knowing little of the crowded Italian slum centred around Back Hill in Clerkenwell, that was the focus of the Italian community in London.
When I finished school, my parents wanted me to go to work in an office but I preferred to spend my time at Parliament Hill Lido and so I went for a few interviews that I messed up purposely. Finally, my father got a letter from a friend who ran a factory making religious statues, saying “Do either of your sons want a job?” It was in Great Sutton St in Clerkenwell and I went to work there, painting the lace and the gold lines onto the statues. Since I grew up in the suburbs, this was the first time I saw Italians in the raw but, once they discovered I was Maestro Ferrari’s granddaughter, they were very kind to me. And amongst the younger men was a sixteen year old boy called Bruno Besagni who worked as an artistic sprayer.
But I got bored with it there, and I found a job as a trainee negative cutter at a small documentary company in Dean St called Realist Films. They made mostly black and white films for medical students with close-ups of operations. I was only eighteen and there was a film of triplets being born, in colour, that I found especially traumatising, even more so than people having their legs removed. Yet I became an assistant film editor eventually, and from there I went to the best job I ever had – at Pathé Films in Wardour St.
I worked for Alexander Wilson Gardner making short pieces of film that could be inserted into news reports. We made a sequence about Christian Dior’s “New Look.” They had a model to wear the short hem and I had to appear as the legs of the woman in a long skirt. While I was there we discovered all these old reels, from the nineteen twenties and earlier, in the basement. We had to sort them out and I remember finding the film of Churchill dodging the bullets at the Battle of Sidney St. It was quite something, all these old cans of film, and it was exciting because it was all new to me.
I loved it, I absolutely loved it, but when I married Bruno Besagni and had two children, I was at home for five years as a housewife and mum. Then Alexander Milner Gardner rang me up and said “Do you want a job?” So I said, “I’ll ask my mum,” and she came and stayed with my children each day, and I went back to work. But very shortly, Alexander Milner Gardner died and my mother decided to go to America to see her other daughters, and I had to leave again. I pottered about doing freelance work. Commercials started then and I edited Butlins’ first adverts. But I resented leaving Pathé and I never became an editor because you had to do six years as an assistant editor before you could qualify.
I did all sorts of bits and pieces until I got a job in the Media Resources department at Kingsway College in Sans Walk, Clerkenwell. I had to work this horrible dirty old printing machine, and the boss didn’t like me because he thought I wasn’t young and he wanted a glamorous girl – but I didn’t mind because I have a sense of humour. I said, “I write plays, I can be a bit of a nuisance sometimes.” And he said, “Never mind, do it here!” So I wrote my plays there and they printed them for me and life was a ball.
I love razzmatazz and I used to write stuff for my friends, old time music hall etc, to entertain the old people at my church. Then one of the youngsters said, “Can’t we do a proper play?” So I said, “I can write something about the Second World War – if I don’t know anything about anything, I know about that.” I wrote a play, “Blitz & Peaces” with a cast of thirty and I produced, directed and acted in it. It was easy for me, and it was so successful, it was full every night. After that, I was offered the theatre at the St Luke’s Conference Centre in Central St. And I wrote and directed shows, one each year, for twenty years – I had this lovely theatre, some very talented actors and we played to two hundred people a night.
These plays, that Olive wrote and directed, dramatised aspects of the experiences of the Italian people in Clerkenwell and were in effect a collective history, performed by descendants of immigrants in front of an audience of their community. Yet in spite of the accomplishment and popular emotional import of these epic dramatic works that occupied Olive for twenty years, the culmination of her talents was yet to come.
This year Olive Besagni published A Better Life, a collection of oral histories telling the story of Italian families in Clerkenwell going back over generations into the nineteenth century. In this authoritative book, Olive tells the story of an entire society, allowing people to speak for themselves yet supplying pertinent historical material to give background to the testimonies. With her experience as an editor and her trained ear as a playwright, Olive was the ideal person to make a record of her people. The only shortcoming – if it may be called that – is that Olive modestly includes very little of her own story, which is why I have endeavoured to tell it here.
I met Olive at the Italian Parade in Clerkenwell on Sunday which she has attended every year since it recommenced in 1946, except for 1948 – because Olive got married to Bruno on the day before the parade that year and she was away on her honeymoon. As a consequence, Olive & Bruno’s wedding anniversary is always the day before the parade and this year they celebrated their sixty-third. “I can’t believe it,” she confessed in wonder, “So many good things have happened to me.”
Olive looking like a Hollywood movie star in the nineteen forties
Olive & Bruno
Wedding at St Peter’s, the Italian church, in Clerkenwell, July 1948.
Olive arrives at the church with her father Guiseppe Ferrari (known as Joe).
Olive & Bruno on their honeymoon, 1948.
Olive & Bruno with their children Anita & Tony at Brambles Chine on the Isle of Wight.
Olive & Bruno with their children, Anita, Tony & Nicolette.
On New Year’s Eve
Bruno and Olive celebrated their sixty-third wedding anniversary this week.
New portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien
Copies of A Better Life by Olive Besagni are available from the publisher Camden History Society
You might also like to take a look at the 126th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell