27.09.1915 - 5.5.2013
Though expected we were all very sad to hear of the death of BSC Associate Camera Operator David Harcourt. David was elected to the Society in 1976. See below a piece from Quentin Falk below followed by a personal tribute from his great friend Billy Williams OBE BSC.
..During his long and prolific career as a cameraman, David Harcourt, who has died aged 97, worked on many great British films including Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, A Night to Remember, Whistle Down the Wind, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Women in Love and The Day of the Jackal.
For more than 40 years, until he retired in 1980 aged 65, Harcourt was a camera operator, his eye glued to the viewfinder, the main conduit between the actors and the director on location and studio sets lit by the Director of Photography. Among the great DoPs for whom he operated were Jack Cox, Otto Heller, Christopher Challis. Geoffrey Unsworth and Billy Williams.
Born into show business – his father, James Harcourt, and mother, known professionally as Isadora Keith, were both busy actors – Harcourt Jr began in the industry soon after leaving school working in the camera department at Borehamwood’s BIP Studios, known as “The Porridge Factory” because of its Scots owner, John Maxwell.
“It was a wonderful atmosphere,” he once recalled,”all go, lots of noise and lights. But when I came home I told my father that all I seemed to do all day was make tea for the crew. ‘That’s all right, my boy’, he replied, ‘You make tea better than anybody else and you’ll get on fine.’”
The war proved to be Harcourt’s big “break”. In the Army Kinematograph Service (AKS), he operated on various instruction films and even did some lighting. So when he finally returned to civvie street he was able to resume his career higher up the traditional camera “ladder”.
His Coldest memory was on 1958’s A Night to Remember: “They’d built part of the port side of the Titanic 30-40 feet up out on the lot at Pinewood. It’s fairly high up there already and there always seemed to me to be an East wind whipping in. It was mostly night shooting and a lot of it was done from a crane even higher up. I was soon wearing a special padded suit with newspaper also wrapped round inside.”
The most Serendipitous? “There’s a scene in 1976’s The Voyage of the Damned [about a shipload of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany] where they show the passengers Invitation to the Waltz on which I’d worked at BIP as an assistant 40 years earlier.”
Harcourt’s most Confrontational moment was in Durango, New Mexico where he briefly took over as Director of Photography on the 1973 Western, Kid Blue, from Billy Williams who was suffering with a bad back.
They were shooting a table scene with about ten actors including the star Dennis Hopper and the noise level was deafening. Harcourt recalled: “I just lost my cool, and yelled, ‘Shut up, for Christ’s sake!’ Hopper then chipped in with, ‘There’s a double shadow across that face.’ I quickly replied with, ‘You do your job, and I’ll do mine’. It was a very tense moment. The next day was a night shoot and Hopper came up, hugged me and said, ‘I shouldn’t have done what I did’. That did him real credit.”
It was 30 years earlier, in 1942, that Harcourt got his one and, in the event only, chance to work with his father. Harcourt Sr was playing the local pieman to parliamentarians in The Young Mr Pitt, directed by Carol Reed, with his son behind the camera as focus puller under the supervision of DoP, Freddie Young. To add to the pressure, his daughter Jo was also working on the film as Continuity Girl (or Script Adviser, as it’s denoted today).
“Dad was extra nervous,” he recalled, “ because Jo and I were on the set, too. He wasn’t concentrating on the cue for the next line and I thought he might seize up altogether. His crucial line was ‘Pies are to Mr Pitt what frogs are to Monsieur Bonaparte’. But could he get it out? No. It just went on and on. Poor Jo had to leave the set and I only stayed because I had to, being on the camera crew. In fact, everyone was very sweet about it, especially Carol Reed.”
Harcourt leaves Margot, to whom he was married 67 years, and three children - daughter Michelle, and sons Christopher and Jamie, who followed his father into the film industry. His extended family includes many grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as a younger sister, Barbara.
Tribute by Billy Williams OBE BSC
In 1967 at Pinewood Studios, I was introduced to David Harcourt by Bert Easey; the best thing that could have happened to me. Billion Dollar Brain was my first major feature film. David with his vast experience as a Camera Operator provided the unselfish support I needed, allowing me to concentrate on lighting. He held my hand, guiding me through those early days, at the same time fulfilling the challenges set by Ken Russell directing his second feature film.
Finland, and the frozen Baltic Sea, with Michael Caine leaping from one ice flow to another – extremely dangerous. We returned to the comfort of Pinewood where Ken had David performing complex moves, hand held with the heavy 55mm macro anamorphic lens.
Michael asked us to photograph his next picture The Magus in sunny Majorca with Guy Green directing. He was my idol when I was a young documentary cameraman. What a lovely man he was.
David and I worked on 17 movies, mostly with Ted Deason as Focus; Danny Shelmerdine, Clapper Loader and George Cole as my Gaffer. We were held together by David’s generous and steady influences.
David’s operating technique was second to none. It was a joy to watch his skill in combining camera movement with that of the actors. Always close to the actors, whether it was Elizabeth Taylor or a small part player, each received the same respect and support.
The performance was what mattered and David had that empathy with whoever was in front of the lens.
His expressive operating was a major contribution to the shooting of Women In Love directed by Ken Russell. The wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed was shot hand held and the love scenes with Glenda Jackson benefitted from the same technique.
Anne and I became close friends with David and Margot. The wives enjoying foreign locations and many a laugh over the serious business of film making.
David retired in 1980 aged 65.
We kept in touch enjoying our whiskies, as we had on location, but always after 6 o’clock.
Billy Williams OBE BSC