7.12.1925 - 14.12.2022
Sydney Wylie Samuelson was born in Paddington, London on the 7th December 1925 to George Berthold Samuelson, a cinema pioneer of the silent film era who was the creator of both Worton Hall and Southhall studios in West London. Worton Hall, Isleworth housed one of the earliest film production companies in the UK. His wife and Sydney’s mother, Marjorie Emma Elizabeth Vint, acted in some of the silent pictures. She appeared in the 1925 film She under the name Majorie Lamont, produced by G. B. Samuelson, directed by Leander de Cordova and photographed by Sydney Blythe. Sydney was educated at the Irene Avenue Council School in Lancing, West Sussex.
He left school in December 1939, aged fourteen, and started out as a rewind boy at the newly-built Luxor cinema, Lancing, in West Sussex, which opened in January 1940.
After working in several cinemas in the Midlands as a relief operator for the ABC circuit, he got a job as a trainee film editor with Gaumont British, which was then at Lime Grove in London.
He served in the Royal Air Force 1943–1947, as a flight navigator, but also became involved in the camp cinema. He said: “The first thing I did when I was posted to a new RAF station was to find who was in charge of the camp cinema and ask if they needed an experienced projectionist.”
He was demobbed in 1947 and joined the Colonial Film Unit as a trainee camera assistant, which gave him the chance to travel to far-off lands. In 1948 he joined the UK film union, ACT, as trainee documentary camera assistant.
In 1953, he and his brother, David, were two of several film cameramen who photographed the Coronation of Elizabeth II for Movietone News. Samuelson said: “We were in the South transept. I think there were five cameras in two tiers and Technicolor took the best position. My brother shot in B&W for Movietone’s standard newsreel, and I was next to him shooting 35mm Gevaert colour.”
In 1954, he set up Samuelson Film Service, hiring out film equipment with his brothers David, Tony and Michael. His other brother, Tony, trained as a barrister and became financial and legal advisor to the Samuelson Group.
They ran a thriving enterprise that became known and respected worldwide. The business was originally run from his home in Finchley, then at a half shop in Hendon and eventually from their newly-built headquarters in Cricklewood, north London. They rented cameras, both 16mm and 35mm. They also supplied sound, grip, and later, lighting equipment. They specialised in Arriflex cameras and at one point had over a hundred complete outfits either out on rental or being serviced ready for production by their engineers.
The company had branches in Paris, Amsterdam and at Heathrow airport for airfreight. Further afield, it had branches in Australia, in Auckland and Wellington New Zealand, and in four states in the USA. Samuelson’s once owned the famous Hammer Studios at Bray.
“In 1965, I sort of knocked on the door of ‘Panavision’, Los Angeles because I noticed that more and more pictures came out that had been photographed in Panavision than pictures that were photographed in ‘Cinemascope’. The trouble was if a producer wanted to use Panavision everything had to be brought in from Los Angeles. I went over there and told them I thought they should have an agent in Europe because it is too difficult and too expensive to bring equipment in from Los Angeles and send it back after use. Only major features have a budget that allows them to do it. After my visit we subsequently became the exclusive representative of Panavision throughout Europe.”
Asked if he supplied 65mm equipment he replied, “We did supply 65mm productions. One of them was 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). We brought in equipment from Panavision in Los Angeles. We supplied it and sent it back afterwards. There wasn’t enough demand in the UK to have equipment of huge value sitting on the shelves waiting for the next 65mm job. The last 70mm film we supplied was Ryan’s Daughter (1970).”
From 1973-1976 he was the chairman of BAFTA. Amanda Berry chief executive of BAFTA says, “Sir Sydney is a man of great generosity of spirit. He gives his time, his wisdom and his experience with grace and kindness, and his unflagging commitment to BAFTA for over forty years is a testament to this. He was BAFTA’s first-ever chairman under our modern day name and he remains an invaluable part of the organisation.”
Sir Sydney has rubbed shoulders with many big and influential names, and was close friends with David Lean and Richard Attenborough. “David Lean – an excellent stills photographer himself – was very much into the technical side of each of his movies. He would call-in when his crew were testing equipment with us. Even when he wasn’t shooting a picture, he would come over for lunch, especially if I had a new piece of equipment to show him. We manufactured camera cases and, on one occasion, we produced a complex fitted case for his own extensive Hasselblad stills camera ...while he was having lunch!
“I first got to know Richard Attenborough when I was the second or third camera assistant on the feature The Baby and The Battleship (1956, d. Jay Lewis, ph. Harry Waxman BSC). Dickie, as he was called, wouldn’t pass anyone by, without saying, ‘Hello, how are you today?’ Years later I got to know him because I was elected to the council of BAFTA, and he was the current Chairman. We became good friends for life.”
In 1994 Samuelson was the subject of the ITV show ‘This is Your Life’, when Michael Aspel confronted him with the big red book. One of the people taking part was a surprise to him, the great cinematographer Freddie Young OBE BSC, who had been a very good friend for many years. Samuelson said, “I remember when the exciting American Moviola crab dolly came on the market, we purchased the first one available in the UK and demonstrated it immediately to Freddie at the tiny St John’s Wood Studios, where he was shooting tests for The Seventh Dawn (1964). The director, Lewis Gilbert, and the camera crew, including Freddie thought it was brilliant and hired it there and then for the picture.”
In 1985 he received the Michael Balcon Award and in 1993 a Fellowship of BAFTA, the Academy's highest honour. In 1995 he received a knighthood from Charles, Prince of Wales, awarded by Elizabeth II for services to the British Film Commission. Sydney’s sons, Peter and Marc also went into the movie business as producers. Marc is currently Chairman of the BAFTA Film Council.
Sir Sydney was accepted into the BSC in 1965.
1965 – Became a member of BAFTA and was appointed to Council in 1969. During the following years, served as a permanent Trustee (from 1970). Vice chairman of Council (1971-1973), Chairman of Council (1973-1976) and chairman of the Sir David Lean BAFTA Foundation (2004-07). Chairman, Board of Management (1976-2002). Chairman of the BAFTA Shell UK Venture Fund (1988-91).
1969 – Appointed to BSC Board of Governors
1970-2009 – Hon. Technical Advisor, Royal Naval Film Corporation
1969-1992 – Cinema & Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF), member of Council/Executive Committee. Became Trustee (1982-90) and then President (1983-86).
1976 – elected First Vice-President of the BSC
1980-81 – President of Cinema & Television Veterans. Member of President’s Council (2000-today)
1989 – Hon Member for Life of BECTU
1997 to today – Founding Trustee of Guild of British Camera Technicians (GBCT)
1997-2006 – Founding President of UK Jewish Film, and an Hon. Life Patron from 2006
1995 Member BKSTS – The Moving Image Society (now IMIS, The International Moving Image Society). Fellow (1970-today).
1987 – Freeman of The City of London
1996 – Became Doctor - Honoris Causa – of Sheffield Hallam University
2002 to today – President of The Projected Picture Trust (PPT)
Britannica Award for Television News Film: BBC Sportsview 1961
BSC Golden Camera Award for outstanding services to the UK film industry 1967
BATFA Sir Michael Balcon Award 1985
Fellow of BAFTA 1993
Fellow of The British Film Institute 1997
Awarded CBE Commander of the Order of the British Empire 1978
Guild of Film Production Executives – Award of Merit 1986
Knighthood for Services to the British Film Commission 1995
Association of Film Commissioners International – Howard Horton Memorial Award 1997
Birmingham Film & Television Festival Award 1997, recognising exceptional work in developing British Film and Television, and encouraging the media section in Birmingham
BKSTS Award of Merit 2003
The Friese - Greene Award for An Outstanding Career in Cinema & Television 2011
BKSTS Lifetime Achievement Award 2015