5.9.1927 - 17.12.2010
DEREK BROWNE BSC
Derek did not have the easiest start in life. His mum died when he was eight and his father was killed in 1940 whilst serving in the merchant navy on the North Atlantic convoys. At the age of fourteen he and his three siblings and a stepmother were alone. The family at that time lived in the village of Harefield, which is situated quite close to Denham film Studios.
When he left school at 14 he got a job at Denham Studios as tea boy and making himself useful as a ‘gofor’, but all the time observing and learning from some of the old masters of movie making. Eventually he got his break and became a clapper boy and soon he was working on some of the major British films of the early forties. He then became an assistant to the camera operator and all was going well until his 18th birthday (VJ Day August 14, 1945) when he received his call up orders.
So for the next three years he served his country in the RAF photographic unit seeing active service in France and Palestine. He was demobbed in 1948 but found it difficult to get a job back in the film industry. This was also a time of austerity and the British Film industry was a victim of the lack of financial backing, so there was little work available. So Derek took advantage of the £10 ex-serviceman’s assisted Passage to Australia and New Zealand. He turned his hand to rabbit catching in Western Australia. He then worked in a department store in Sydney, and later joined his brothers in New Zealand and spent the next three years Sheep farming.
In 1952 he heard that the British film industry had picked up and returned to England and got a job as Arthur Ibbetson’s clapper boy on The Man Who Never Was. Over the next 50 years he worked on over 60 major films working with some of the most iconic British cameraman such as Ossie Morris, David Watkin, Freddie Francis, Gil Taylor, Gerry Turpin and Alan Hume ending his career in 1999 as a Director of Photography himself.
In 1955 he found time to get married and start a family. Alison was born in 1957 (he was away in Italy filming ‘A Farewell to Arms’ at the time and did not see her until she was six weeks old). Julie-Anne came a year later and he managed to be in the country this time but he was in Bradford filming ‘Room At The Top’.
Derek saw and experienced places that were very much off the beaten track. He lived in a tent in Alaska in winter for six months filming ‘Bear Island’ and contrastingly sweated it out with the British Army in the Libyan Desert. He was almost kidnapped in Columbia and he was shot at during a political coupe in Guatemala. On two occasions he went to Israel during a war and was in Berlin when the wall came down. He was also stranded in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis. He has filmed from helicopters and hung out of the bomb bay doors of a Lancaster bomber at almost zero height over the lake district whilst filming ‘The Dambusters’. He nearly died in Tobago when bitten on the foot by a venomous spider.
For all his adventures abroad Derek was always the family man and whenever possible his family joined him on some of the locations that were suitable. He was always very proud of his daughters and he made sure that both girls had the education that he did not have. They owe him that legacy as they have both achieved in their chosen careers, Alison in her nursing and academic achievements and Julie-Anne’s career in aviation. He adored all his Grandchildren and they have lovely memories of him from when they were little.
Derek was always a sociable man he loved parties and could entertain an audience with some of the most outrageous ‘shaggy-dog’ stories. I remember a dinner party where he left the hosts and guests aching with laughter when he described how he organised a fifty-seven-member crew plus all their luggage and equipment to get on and off the Tokyo Express, in the two-minute slot allowed before the doors closed. The only casualty was his Japanese style Wellington boots that to this day might be doing the return journey to Osaka and back.
He was also famous for his one-liners. Derek decided to be confirmed with the girls, and the vicar gave him a small New Testament to read. He was reading it one day on the set in between takes and somebody started to make fun of him. His retort was ‘this is a much better script than the one WE are working on.’ There was no reply to that.
One trick of his when bored on a long haul flight was when he would lean over the passenger sitting next to him and wave out of the window. It was amazing how many passengers would look over to see who was there. At 30,000 feet I do not know what they expected to see. Over the past two weeks I have heard many tributes to him from those he had worked with. He was well respected as an innovative technician. He was always willing to give help to junior members of the crew and many now say they owe him a great deal. He was a photographer of the old school and hated digitalisation. He most disliked it when the directors would look at the VDU unit instead of through the camera’s viewfinder. He decided to retire when a director, a 25 year old graduate straight out of the National Film School told him how he wanted a set lit. He quit there and then with the words ‘now I know the idiots have taken over the asylum.’
One comment about Derek that I have heard from so many was that he was a real gentleman. He always treated women with great respect. It did not matter if it was a difficult film star or the tea lady. This attitude whilst working in Hollywood rather mystified his American colleagues, who on the whole are not used to politeness or treating people with respect. A confused American technician asked his British assistant ‘what is it with this guy’, he was informed it was because Derek was actually a member of the British aristocracy - that he was a Lord, the Earl of Waxlow (this was our telephone exchange) but he was not to let on that he knew. Americans are terrible snobs when it comes to those with a title and they believed him. Derek was totally unaware of his promotion to the House of Lords, could not understand the sudden change of attitude and deference he received. The crew managed to keep this going for the duration of the shooting of the film.
Isobel Browne (Derek’s widow)