Mythological monsters kept 1960s cinema-goers on the edge of their seats. Roz Whistance meets Tony Dalton, who saved  from scrap the exquisite models of animator Ray Harryhausen, and created a priceless archive of special effects.

If a film were to be made about Tony Dalton it would be one of those feel good movies: boy smitten by the magic of cinema, irrepressible passion earns him a foothold in the film world, and he ends up a respected authority who, despite hobnobbing with the stars he once only knew on celluloid, never forgets his roots. Roll the credits.

“I was very lucky. I was at the right time in the right place. That’s been my life really,” says Tony.

Tony is a film historian and an authority, particularly on the fantasy movies of animator Ray Harryhausen. He has written several books on film makers and animation, and holds a remarkable archive of stills and portraits of movie stars with which he stages exhibitions all round the world.

He is also a mover and shaker in Freshwater and with his partner Tim Nicholson has just set up a film club, where the films will be introduced and finish with a question and answer session – Freshwater’s answer to the National Film Theatre.

Tony says film is in his blood. Any genre, any era. He just loves it. “With some people it’s butterflies, with me it’s film,” he shrugs. “I don’t know why.”

No-one else in his family was gripped with the passion that seized him when he went to see Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea with James Mason. (Years later, with the neatness of a film script, he gets to meet Mason and tells him how the film inspired him.) Brought up in Caterham, Surrey, Tony would go to the cinema with one Bill Nighy (Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean) – Bill’s parents were Tony’s godparents. But this is a blind alley in Tony’s story because for now that’s where the movie connections end: the boys regrettably lost touch as they grew up.

Tony’s parents said there was no money in film so steered him towards an infinitely practical career as an electrician. “I hated every second of my five year apprenticeship!” exclaims Tony. “I went to movies more often than I did to work or college!”

He did pass his City & Guilds, (“no-one was more surprised than me”), and that interlude over, he set about writing to everyone he could think of in the film industry. It was the late 1960s and the cinematic world was buzzing with the thrill of genres such as Hammer Horror. It was the British Film Institute (BFI) that offered Tony a job, and his enthusiasm for film got him the role of deputy librarian in their film department. “It was tremendous. Not only was I learning about film – how you treat it, how you edit it – but also I could take movies home to watch.”

He started helping out with the National Film Theatre, which was, and still is, part of the BFI, volunteering his services as an usher for the London Film Festival. “Free movies!” he grins. “We had all-night screenings, and it was a fantastic way for a young man to learn about movies of all eras.” Also in his spare time he went to Classic Cinemas, which showed old films, and so by dint of sheer enthusiasm became able, as he progressed through the BFI, to give lectures, and began to do interviews on stage with such illustrious names as Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Charlton Heston, Peter Cushing, the old silent comedian Harold Lloyd and the Hammer director Terence Fisher who became a good friend.

It was at a BFI lecture in 1969 that he first met Ray Harryhausen. “He showed a clip from a film he was just finishing called The Valley of Gwangi – about a dinosaur of course! We got on well.”

Tony went on to work at Granada TV, where he did programs with Ingrid Bergman, Vincent Price – and James Mason.

It was the 1970s and also, whilst at Granada, he worked on the children’s film-buff programme Clapperboard. For that programme he went to film Harryhausen making his last film, The Clash of the Titans. Recalling that now he looks rueful and says a re-make is being done at Pinewood at the moment. “Not sure I want to go and see it – though perhaps I shouldn’t be sniffy!”

Harryhausen was inspired by the 1933 film King Kong, and spent his life developing the “dimensional animation” or “stop motion” techniques using models which were moved, filmed, moved a fraction, filmed. Tony is not a fan of today’s answer, Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI), used in the recent re-make of King Kong. CGI somehow makes animation ‘too real,’ he says. “I loved stop motion before I met Ray. I was mesmerised when I saw the fight between the tyrannosaurus and the gorilla!”

Tony and Harryhausen stayed in touch, and when, after 15 years at Granada Tony was made redundant, he took up the invitation to look after his archive.

This was not a job for the faint hearted. “In 88 years, Ray has never thrown anything away! – not a thing! But thank God, because he now has the most complete collection of cinematic special effects and animation in the entire world – probably better than even Disney’s collection.”

But just when Tony thought everything was catalogued and accounted for, he was in for more surprises. “There was stuff in Ray’s garage in Los Angeles – but he told me it was all junk. We went out, and found fantastic things like his first models from 70 years ago!” Along with a triceratops, a brontosaurus and even a tyrannosaurus rex, they also found some miniatures including tentacles for the giant octopus and the submarine which were featured in the film It Came From Beneath the Sea. “What was junk to Ray is film history to the rest of us,” says a relieved Tony.

Film history is what makes Tony’s world go round now. He is the curator of over 20,000 items of the Harryhausen Collection, and arranges exhibitions all over the world, using the original models, such as the seven skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, or the Minaton from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, or the nightmarish Medusa from Clash of the Titans. He has written three stunningly illustrated books about film history, the latest, A Century of Model Animation starting from 1894 and finishing with Tim Burton’s features and Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit), today’s stalwart stop-motion producers. Tony’s first book An Animated Life about Ray’s life and work is due out in paperback this month.

He became involved with BAFTA some years ago and has worked on various projects including tributes to Oliver Stone, Lord Puttnam and Bryan Forbes. For some months now, he has been planning and producing a special event which is due to come to fruition some time next year – something very hush hush. But if the names with which he peppers our conversation are an indication – Dickie Attenborough, John Landis (director of An American Werewolf in London and The Blues Brothers) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy) – it’s going to be quite something.

Ray Harryhausen’s films have never lost their popularity, which grows as DVD makes them more accessible. If you Google his name you get over two million hits.“Whether you like fantasy or not, Ray’s work does have an extraordinary originality to it. Nobody was doing what he was doing, and nobody has done it since.”

As we finish our conversation, Christie’s, the auction house, phones. “They’re selling King Kong’s armature for $150,000,” he says. Welcome to the fantasy world of a man with movies running through his veins.

To join Freshwater Film Club: Discovering Film, email, or phone 01983 752956