I was born in Islington, north London in 1945. Having passed the 11 Plus exam I went to Highbury Grammar School, Highbury, Islington. I didn’t enjoy my time there and much to the dismay of the headmaster I left in 1960 at the age 15 to start work. I had no idea what I wanted to do but fortunately at that time there was an abundance of job adverts in the London evening newspapers.
Within a few weeks I got a job as a post/messenger boy at Associated British Pathe, Film House, 142 Wardour St. London W.1. My job was to sort and to deliver the post to the various departments within the building for a weekly wage of £3.15 shillings. A.B. Pathe produced the weekly Pathe News, Pathe Pictorial and various documentaries. Also further down Wardour St. they had a film studio situated above Pathe Labs where they made tv commercials and the occasional music video.
A.B. Pathe had its own in house camera maintenance department run by Sid Randall and after a couple of years I became a trainee camera maintenance engineer. Sid’s first task for me was to refurbish a tall wooden tripod. The tripod had to be stripped down, all the metal parts cleaned and repainted. I wasn’t allowed to use sandpaper to rub down the wooden legs I had to break a glass bottle and use the sharp edges of the broken glass to scrape and remove the old varnish on the legs. As you can imagine my hands were cut to pieces using the broken glass. An initiation task apparently, that every new boy was given.
Pathe News used multiple cameras to cover the big events such as Winston Churchill’s funeral, The Grand National, The Derby, The FA Cup Final and Sid sent me out to assist the newsreel cameramen at these events. This I believe instilled in me the desire to become part of a camera crew.
In those days the union (A.C.T.T.) had very tight control over the industry. You couldn’t get a job unless you were in the union and you couldn’t get into the union unless you had a job. A sort of Catch 22. Eventually Sid Randall successfully applied on my behalf to get me union membership. My salary went up from £5 a week to the union minimum of £7 a week. About six months after I got into the union I left A.B. Pathe to become a freelance Clapper Loader, I was 19 years old.
I got my first job the following week, a 3 day commercial for an American toothpaste called Cue. At that time the tv commercial business was still in its early days and work was plentiful. The following year I was offered my first film a Hammer Horror movie at Bray Studios called The Devil’s Own starring Joan Fontaine. In fact it became three back to back Hammer films throughout that summer and autumn. With this start to my career I was easily able to switch between tv commercials and films for the next 50 years. Interestingly at that time camera crew who worked on feature films considered tv commercials inferior to movies and a large majority of them wouldn’t work on them.
For the next six years I was a clapper boy on several films and hundreds of commercials. Then I had a stroke of luck I met two of the most talented filmmakers who became my mentors for many years to come, Gerry Turpin (Director of Photography) and Ronnie Taylor (Camera Operator).
I met them on the film “Oh! What a Lovely War” in 1968 which I did some work on as a Clapper Loader. Still to this day I think this film is one of the very best crafted films ever made. Gerry and Ronnie went on to have a huge influence on my career. Working with them I learnt so much.
After seven years as a Clapper Loader I decided to become a Focus Puller. This decision had the inevitable period of unemployment because your usual contacts are reluctant to employ you. They preferred that you work elsewhere first to prove you can do your new job successfully. I think that each role on the camera crew requires different skills and every time I’ve moved up the ladder you have to re-establish yourself and prove your worth again.
Gerry Turpin offered me my first film as a Focus Puller. “I Want What I Want “shot in 1972. Gerry was a kind man with a great sense of humour. A gifted much underrated photographer. Gerry used an Eel Foot Candle meter on the set and he allowed me to take all his meter readings whilst he shouted out Spot or Flood from the camera to his gaffer to get the necessary amount of foot candles he wanted. I worked on seven films with Gerry, two as his Clapper Loader and five as his Focus Puller.
I then embarked on a long association with Ronnie Taylor first as his Focus Puller then as his Camera Operator. Ronnie was, in my opinion, one of the very best film makers that ever graced our profession. We had a working association that lasted over 25 years and a friendship that lasted almost 50 years until Ronnie sadly passed away in 2018. We worked together on over 20 films and hundreds of tv commercials. Ronnie was also kind enough to propose me for membership as an Associate of the BSC.
During the early nineties cameramen in the industry were being asked by producers to light and operate thereby dispensing with the role of the Camera Operator. This was slowly becoming a regular occurrence especially on tv commercials. So I decided to join them, I became a Director of Photography and I would also operate if required.
Also around that time I decided that I would for the rest of my career concentrate on tv commercials. I had a wife and two young sons and I didn’t want to spend three months away on location anymore.
I had always told my wife that the film industry retires you and I doubted whether I would still be working after I was 55 years old. Fortunately the phone didn’t stop ringing until I was 65. I had spent 50 years in the business, worked on over 50 films, thousands of tv commercials and travelled the world doing so. It was and still is an industry like no other. The people I’ve met the places I’ve seen. Extraordinary!
Focus Puller: Young Winston, Return of a Man Called Horse, Valentino, Zulu Dawn
Camera Operator: Cry Freedom, Tommy, Champions, High Road to China, Kafka, Scandal, The Scarlet Letter.
D.o.P. Braveheart (2nd Unit Photography) Tomorrow Never Dies (additional photography)