Preserving the magic of cinema since 1978

Articles from David A Ellis

David

I was interested in the cinema from an early age and would often go to our local cinema, now long gone. It was called the Grand but didn't quite live up to its name. I remember my first visit was to see the 1953 film The Conquering of Everest. I was one of a bunch of school kids from the infant school, which was next door. I think it was this visit that sowed the seed. the Grand, which I was fond of, closed in 1961 with Carry on Regardless.

My first cinema job was as an assistant projectionist at the Palace Warrington, another that didn't live up to its name. I was only allowed to rewind and operate the lighting. Twice a day I would go down and bring back a jug of tea. The only way to get to the projection area was from a door at the side of the building, which took you, after a long climb, to the gallery, as it had been an old theatre. In the small projection box there was a stove, where the chief, a Mr Joe Slevin, would warm his pies. Joe would also mend TVs in the box. The projectors were Fedi, the arcs Peerless and the sound RCA. Six months after my arrival it became a bingo club. The last film shown was The Camp on Blood Island.

Next, it was to the Classic, Chester, which was equipped with Simplex, RCA sound and Peerless arcs. I had then reached the dizzy heights of third projectionist. From there I went to my third and last cinema, the Mayfair, Aigburth Liverpool. I was there for four years, 1969 -1973. I was a second operator. There were only two of us. I would run the show when the chief was off and he when I was off. We only worked together twice a week. The cinema closed in 1973 with a film that fitted the occasion, The Last Picture Show. It became a Mecca bingo club and was demolished in 1984.

I went on to work for the BBC Film Department, which was based at Ealing Studios, London. I joined as a trainee, even though I had been a second. The money was more, even as a trainee. There was a year's training, going around the different areas. Unlike cinemas we didn't have to change lamps, clean lamp fittings, clean floors or do projector maintenance. All that was taken care of. All we did was show films. These consisted of previewing rushes, synch rushes, cutting copies, answer prints and transmission prints. We also projected in the dubbing theatres. We ran 16, 35 and occasionally 9.5mm.

I started writing around 1992 and first wrote pieces for newspapers. I went on to write for the CTA, Image Technology, Cinema Technology, The Veteran and the British Cinematographer magazine. I also went on to write two books for an American publisher, consisting of interviews with directors of photography and camera operators. Each book has over twenty interviews.

My first interview was with cinematographer Oswald Morris. I saw his name in a directory of members that was sent to me by Image Technology. I remembered the name from my many cinema visits, so having seen his name I was keen to talk to him. Apart from writing on film I wrote over one hundred theatre reviews/previews and interviewed over thirty celebrities, including Jim Bowen, Ken Dodd, Craig Douglas, and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Finally, I was on holiday in Brighton back in 1963 with my father and we would often go to the cinema. We saw The War Lover with Shirley Ann Field, a Hammer horror, directed by Freddie Francis, and Lawrence of Arabia, partly photographed by Nicolas Roeg. Who would have thought back then that many years later I would interview all three? I am still writing a lot and have been working on a book about the history of Chester's cinemas and theatres. This will be published by the CTA.

Images show the Palace Warrington, programme leaflets for the Classic Chester, three views of the projection room at the Mayfair, Aigburth Liverpool, and the cover of In Coversation with Cinematographers.

Palace Warrington

 

Pat Collins: a fair and caring showman

Pat Collins

Patrick Collins, known as Pat Collins, was regarded as the King of showmen, having run a successful fairground and cinema business. Collins was born in Chester on 12 May 1859 and attended St Werberg's RC school. Later, he presented the pulpit to the church and made many gifts there. He moved to the Midlands and became a Liberal councillor in 1918 and a Liberal MP for Walsall from 1922 to 1924. In 1920 he became president of the Showman's Guild until 1929. He was an alderman in 1930 and became mayor of Walsall in 1938. In 1939 he was made a Freeman of the borough of Walsall.

As a ten-year-old boy, Collins, who was one of five children, travelled the shows with his father John Collins, an agricultural labourer. At twenty-one he operated his first children's roundabout, which was hand operated. Collins, who had great affection for his hometown would visit Chester at least once during race week. He went on to run fairs all over the UK, including a seasonal one at Barry Island in South Wales. Pat Collins Ltd was formed in1899. Every year the Pat Collins fair puts in an appearance on the Roodee, during the May races. The fair, which is still known as Pat Collins' fair, is run by Anthony Harris. He took full control and sole ownership in 1983.

Collins married his first wife Flora Ross in 1880, when she was just 17. They had one son. Flora passed away in 1933 aged 69. She was the daughter of a watchmaker from Wrexham. Collins ran several cinemas, including five in Walsall, the Olympia Picture Palace Darlaston, the Grosvenor, Bloxwich, later taken over by Oscar Deutsch, under the title The Picture House (Bloxwich) Ltd and Pat Collins Cinema deluxe in Brook Street Chester from 1921 until 1926. It is said his involvement in the cinema business appears to be that of an investor and proprietor. He never got involved with the Cinema Veteran's Association.

In 1920 the staff of the Olympia had their annual Sunday trip out and though Collins couldn't attend he wrote out a cheque for a substantial amount towards it. He was generous in so many areas. His son Pat Collins junior was also involved in cinema and at one point ran the New Brighton Tivoli and Palace. Collins first presented moving images in 1899/1900 when he took over the Wall and Hammersley ghost show. Collins went on to present Wonderland 1 and 2, built by Orton and Spooners of Burton upon Trent. These ran until 1914.

Collins re-married in 1935 at the age of 75 to a Miss Clara Mullett, aged 54, who was his secretary. Collins died on the 9 December 1943.There were more than two hundred friends, who filled St Patrick's Catholic Church at Bloxwich. Six years before his death he was offered a knighthood but refused it. It was in recognition of his great benefaction to Birmingham and other hospitals. It was said by Walsall town council: "We have said goodbye to the man with the golden heart." They recorded their grateful appreciation of the unremitting services alderman Collins rendered the town in twenty-eight years of public life. At the time of his death the business was estimated to be worth £250,000. He left £72,419 in his will.

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The Roxy New York

Auditorium

 

Roxy pit

One of the most luxurious and appointed cinema houses of all time was the Roxy in New York, which opened its doors on 11 March 1927. Designed by Walter W Ahlschlager it was reputed to have cost the staggering sum of ten million dollars,an astronomical sum back in the 1920s.

It took eleven months to construct and had seating for six thousand two hundred people. In addition it had lobby space for four thousand more. The person who had the theatre constructed, Samuel L. Rothafel (Roxy), was regarded as the greatest showman at the time. The theatre was situated at 153 West 50th Street.

The orchestra pit was on an elevator so that 110 piece orchestra and three organs appeared and disappeared. Up in the operating box were three Simplex type A projectors on five point pedestals and were enamelled maroon with nickel plated fittings. The light source was provided by Hall and Connolly continuous feed high intensity lamps, which operated at 120 amps each and each lamp was controlled by a 200 ampere ironclad switch allowing the arc to be struck on low amperage.

Two projectors were fitted with Vitaphone equipment, which could be attached and unattached in a few minutes. The third projector was fitted with the Fox Movietone device, which was somewhat similar in operation to the Phonofilms equipment. Each machine was fitted with Powers speed indicator equipment and electrically operated cut-offs for the changeovers. There were large section pipes to conduct the heat and fumes from the high intensity lamphouses direct to a large duct running along the rear of the projection box, at one end of which a large fan was in operation to draw of the gases.

Unlike many projection areas the Roxy box wasn't hot and stuffy. The box and adjoining areas were kept cool and bearable by a system of fans and ventilation shafts. The spotlights in the box were 150 amp Brenkert and there were four of them. In addition there were two Brenkert special effects projectors and a double dissolving stereopticon. All the conduit was concealed and there were special fittings for projection room lighting.

The operating room floor was laid with substantial covering of rubber, somewhat similar to Terrazo. There were several other rooms used by the projection team, including a rheostat room, a rectifier room, rewind room and a room for the comfort of the operators, which included a shower. The screen was known as the Raven half tone screen, a product of the Raven Screen Corporation.

The projection throw was just over one hundred feet and the picture size just a few inches over twenty five feet by nineteen feet. The Roxy could easily cater for live stage presentations. On the stage was another projection room, which was situated at the apex and was a permanent fixture as part of the stage This small concrete box, known as a pill box, housed another Simplex machine with a powerlite reflector type projection lamp, which was used for rear projection of special animated settings and for novel effects, which only Roxy and his gang could devise, upon a trans Lux patent translucent screen.

The stage was also equipped with a great sounding board cyclorama, which was fifty feet in height and weighed almost four tons. The main switchboard was on the stage and controlled every circuit in the building with were over a thousand switches and was considered to be the largest switchboard in the world. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, cinema closed its doors on 29 March 1960 and was demolished the same year.

 

Organ

Above: Samuel L. Rothafel with the theatre's organ

Organists

Above: Samuel L Rothafel with his organists

Magazine

anniversary programme

Above: celebrating being open one year

neon

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Early cinema projection

In the silent days before 1910, the projectionist was in the auditorium with the patrons. The projector would be in the aisle and the operator would operate the projector by turning a handle. The film would usually fall into a basket. The film was nitrate base so could easily go up in flames. This happened on numerous occasions.

In 1910, it became law that projection equipment had to be housed in a separate area from the audience. Therefore, cinemas had to construct projection rooms containing fireproof shutters. In addition, there had to be a bucket of water, a bucket of sand and an asbestos blanket, as fire precautions. The projection room had to be separate from the rewind area. Only film to be put on the projectors was allowed in the projection box. This practice remained until the introduction of safety base in the fifties. Then it was allowed to rewind film in the projection box.

Another strict rule was no smoking, and signs would be placed in the projection and rewind rooms. Staff in a projection room in the early days would be three, four, or more people a shift. There would be one man turning the handle between sixteen and eighteen frames per second, another would be attending to the carbons, having to constantly feed them, as there was no automatic feed. Another would be taking care of rewinding. Two would be required for a changeover. One turning and one minding the carbons. In 1911, projectors became motorised, eliminating the need to hand crank, though it was still possible to hand crank if desired. Some distributors stated the speed which they wanted their film screened. Some projectors had frames per second meters on them such as the Kalee 11. In 1927 the first part talkie/silent film, The Jazz Singer, with sound on disc was shot at 24 frames per second (fps). 24 fps became the speed for sound films with optical sound tracks. Film ran through the projector at 18 inches per second, 90 feet per minute. Projection work could be a little on the unhealthy side due to carbon dust being inhaled when cleaning arcs, carbon fumes being breathed in before extraction was fitted, possible exposure to asbestos, which was used on cables connected to the equipment, and the dangers of some early machinery with a front flicker shutter that wasn't encased, and could do damage if contact was made. There were also cleaning fluids that were suspect where health was concerned and the dangers of rewinding poor prints that could make a nasty cut to your fingers.

In the nitrate days, films were shipped in 1000ft foot rolls giving eleven minutes running time. The projectionist, using film cement, would often join these into 2000ft rolls. Tape joiners were a long time away in the future. When safety base film came along in the 1950s films were sent in 2000ft rolls. Projection rooms varied in size, some having limited movement. In 1932, The Bioscope magazine reported on the opening of the Dominion Hounslow, stating that it has one of the largest projection rooms in London. It was equipped with Walturdaw and Western Electric sound.

There were several makes of projector including Kalee, Simplex, Kamm, John Bull, Empire and BTH, made in Rugby. Kershaws made Kalee machines in Leeds, and the International Projector Corporation made Simplex in New York. Exhibitors found themselves paying out huge sums to install sound. You could buy the disc and optical system or just the optical system. In 1929, a Cinephone disc and optical system cost between £1500 and £1950. Easy terms were usually on offer.

The cinema has come a long way from those early days. We have seen wide screens, 3D, 70mm, safety base film, polyester film stock, non-rewind systems (cake-stand) and towers, eliminating changeovers, magnetic sound tracks, Dolby Stereo, xenon lamps, Dolby Digital and now digital projection. Most cinemas have removed their 35mm equipment which has been mostly skipped. Fortunately the Projected Picture Trust has saved equipment and has examples of most machines at their headquarters in Halifax.

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Sounds dear: the cost of sound in 1930

By 1930 sound was making a big noise in the world of film and there were several manufacturers making equipment for the age of movie sound. This of course came at a heavy price, which no doubt left many independent exhibitors worrying about the cost, just like they did when CinemaScope with four tracks arrived and other cinematic advances, the latest being the high cost of digital.

A.W.H (British Photophone) appears to have been one of the cheapest units around, offering set A and set B equipment. Set A was designed for halls with a seating capacity of 1250 and would set the proprietor back £850, with the B unit, designed for bigger halls, costing another £50. The unit is described as having special moving coil loudspeakers, accumulator excited, and the amplifier and rectifier were in duplicate in case of failure. This equipment was chosen by the British Board of Film Censors.

British Acoustic sound was marketed at a higher price, coming in at £1150. A description stated that the amplifier and rectifier equipment was in duplicate and rectifying and power valves were placed away from the operating box. It was stated that the unit had several unique features, one of which was the use of a large aperture instead of a slit. This, it was stated can be adapted to all makes of projectors.

British Talking Pictures would set you back £1220 for disc and film, but in duplicate the bill would be £1545. It was reported in the Bioscope in February 1930, that the disc attachment consisted of substantial casting of aluminium with an extension, on which the arm for the pick-up was mounted. There wass a flexible shaft connection between the turntable and the projector. It was serviced free for one year.

British Thomson Houston offered sound on film and on disc for £1250 for halls up to 2000. Accumulators were avoided. Instead a BTH generator supplied the current for the loudspeaker fields. There was a 12-volt supply for the exciter lamps and an AC supply of around 750 volts. It was stated that amplification was not in duplicate but was run in parallel and that a break down did not mean the cessation of the show, but the volume was reduced by a half, which could be modified by the fader control, which had a substantial margin.

Another cheaper unit was Corophone. Their sound on disc and film systems were £675 for cinemas seating up to 1200 and £775 for larger ones. The reduction gear for the turntables ran in an oil bath with direct flexible drives to the projector. This is one where sound could be adjusted from the hall. The sound on film heads could be fitted to all projectors. The amplifier had three stages with twin output rated at 24 watts with an entirely separate set of valves in reserve for breakdown. The standard set-up included four loudspeakers with baffles and a monitor horn in the box.

Other units included Edibell, Filmophone, Butcher's Electrocord and Klangfilm. Klangfilm supplied five main types of equipment. A 7-watt system supplied the audio for small halls of around 400 seats, 10-watt units for 900 seats, 50 watts for 1200, 100 watts for a large hall of 1700 seats and 200 watts for seating over this. Prices back in 1930 ranged from£1400 to a staggering £3200 with a service charge of £2 10 shillings to £5 10 shillings weekly. This was another unit where sound could be controlled from the auditorium. Fortunately, the equipment could be bought on easy terms and in some cases, exhibitors only rented the equipment.

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Lost movies: silent and sound

Moving pictures have been around since 1896. Since then an amazing amount of footage has rolled through the cameras, producing some great movies, both silent and sound. Sadly, much of the footage has been destroyed in some way, or lost, possibly tucked away in someone's attic or shed. One of the main reasons why nearly eighty per cent of silent output is no more is because the film stock was nitrate and has disintegrated. Some films were badly stored in not ideal conditions. Some films were destroyed by the film companies to make space on the shelves for new ones. Their attitude was that the film has been out there and now has no more commercial value. This happened in the 1950s and '60s by TV companies. A tape would be wiped to make room for something else. Also, storage was another problem. There are several programmes where there were a great number of episodes but are now reduced to just one or two. Two examples include BBC shows Juke Box Jury and Six Five Special, where only a handful have survived.

Sometimes a sixteen-millimetre copy taken from video turns up. Examples are early pop shows, which were shot on video, now screened on sixteen millimetre, complete with scratches. In these cases, the original video has been destroyed. The surviving prints carried an optical soundtrack and were prints that were sent to overseas markets. In the feature film world, some stills and cast/crew lists survive, even if the film itself hasn't. Some films have been destroyed in studio fires. Universal had a fire back in 1924. Fox suffered one in 1937 and MGM had one in 1965. Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation claims that half of all the American movies made before 1950, and ninety percent before 1929 are gone forever. The Library of Congress state that seventy-five per cent of all silent films are now lost.

On the BFI’s most wanted list are the silent films A Study in Scarlet (1914), Hitchcock's The Mountain Eagle (1926) and The Last Post (1929). Sound films include Squadron Leader X (1943) Linda (1960), directed by Don Sharp. Other films on the missing list include Educated Evans starring Max Miller and Bless 'Em All with the late singer Max Bygraves. Some films are incomplete. Sometimes films are cut for various reasons, including censorship. The cut footage is usually kept but sometimes it goes missing. The Stanley Kramer film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was premiered at 192 minutes but cut to 162 for general release. In the '80s twenty minutes of the cut footage was found in a warehouse that was due for demolition. The remaining lost road show footage was found in 2013 as part of restoration. Most of the scenes were complete, the remainder were missing sound or visuals, as they were derived from the original road show prints. Apparently, the original elements disappeared a long time ago.

Scenes that were cut from The Good the Bad and the Ugly are now believed to be lost. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was shortened after its premier from two and a half hours to 119 minutes. In 1996 it was decided to restore it to its original length. Most of the cut scenes were found. However, most of the dialogue tracks for the scenes could not be recovered, so where possible, the scenes were dubbed by the original actors. Footage of the song A Step in the Right Direction hasn't been found. Some lost films and TV episodes have been found. Some TV material is saved because someone made a video recording of it.

The late Bob Monkhouse recorded a lot of material. Because of people like Bob, a lot of material has been saved, which would have been lost forever. There are several Dr Who episodes that have been saved from home recordings. The comedy Steptoe and Son is another example of home recording saving the day. There is still a lot of old material on nitrate stock, which needs transferring to safety stock. The trouble is by the time it is decided to transfer and archive it, the damage is done.

With digital technology, a lot of films can be restored to their original quality. A lot of Eastman colour prints and negatives have faded over the years, but the digital process can restore elements that have suffered the passing of time. A film doesn't have to be very old to need treatment. The film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had a full restoration job done on it. Let us hope many more films are preserved for generations to come.

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The popular Simplex projector

Simplex projector

The American Simplex projectors, made in New York by the International Projection company, were installed in a number of super cinemas including the Paramount and Roxy in New York. They were also distributed worldwide. The New York Paramount had three machines and Hall and Connolly continuous feed high intensity lamps. It was reported that beneath the pedestal of each projector was a recessed, coveted pocket and outlet box from which the asbestos covered lamp leads are led up through the centre of each pedestal to the switch box and lamp. The entire conduit being concealed gave the room an unusually neat and dignified appearance.
 In 1923, the machines were installed at the London Palladium. The Holborn Empire was also equipped with them. In 1930 at The Carlton in Essex Road London, they were installed with Peerless high intensity arcs and Thide electric changeovers. The Carlton also installed Brenograph effects projector.

 In 1928 at the Broadway Stratford, four Simplex machines were installed with Ashcraft high intensity arcs. At the Astoria old Kent Road, London there were, back in 1930, Western Electric sound and Hall and Connolly high intensity arcs which partnered the Simplex, installed by J Frank Brockliss.

 A report in the Bioscope magazine dated 11 December 1929 says: “Owing to the pressure of Continental orders, J Frank Brockliss Ltd, decided to enlarge their organisation in France. A completed stock of Simplex projectors, spare parts and similar projection equipment, such as the company handle in London, will be held in stock in Paris. In this manner, excellent service is assured to the many Continental users of Simplex projectors, over one hundred of which, have been installed during the past twelve months.”

 Another Bioscope report from 2 June 1921 says: ”In spite of depressing trade reports generally, the Imperial Film Company Ltd, state that Simplex projectors are selling briskly. Between May 15 and the end of the month, no less than nine machines were installed in London and the South alone; three at the Coronation Theatre Manor Park; two at the Prince's Pavilion, Walthamstow; two at the Rivoli Whitechapel and two at the Savoy Picture House Plymouth. Since the Imperial Film Company Ltd started distributing the Simplex projector in Great Britain, some eighteen months ago, they have sold several hundred machines.”

 In March 1931, the Select cinema Redditch installed new G Model RCA sound equipment with Simplex machines and little known Hahn Goertz carbon arcs.

The Simplex projectors, together with a wide range of other 35mm projectors, are featured in our Rewind complilation of 35mm projectors that PPT members can view in our Members' zone.

Pictures of Simplex projectors can be found in the PPT collection.

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Power to the people

Powers projector

One of the earliest projectors to serve the amusement needs of cinemagoers was the Power’s, which was introduced to the UK around 1909 by the Walturdaw Co Ltd which had premises in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Cardiff. In October 1911 466 projectors were sold by the company. This was the Cameragraph number six.
The company was American and run by Nicholas Power. A report in the Bioscope from 1919 says the size of the factory had been increased and had sold 1700 machines to overseas buyers alone. It stated that many British Cinemas had installed them.

In 1927 it was reported that the company had been evolving a new gate for the machine to counteract excessive heat on the gate through the increase in the use of high intensity and mirror arcs. The report went on to say that the new gate had been perfected and would be available to fit on existing machines, at least in America and, in due course, the UK. The new gate had several new features, which included air spaces between film pads and pad holders. There was an eye shield to protect the operator's eyes from the glare spot. Also, there were heat insulators ensuring fingers were not burnt. A protector was used for the lower loop under the gate.

It was a complete assembly composing of three separate plates. One was a heavy grid iron plate facing the light source. Another carried the gate latch, the upper film shield and idler roller and the steel plate which carried the tension shoes and springs. In between the plates were air spaces to allow cooling.

Bakelite was used to insulate the plates. The gate latch was also insulated in a similar way. This improvement meant that the hands of the operator were protected from hot metal. The eye shield was a square tube with the two sides filled with ruby glass, which was just hooked on to a rod immediately above the automatic fire shutter and could be instantly attached or removed. The fire shutter had also been re-designed so that it raised and lowered perfectly at all times from a rate of fifty film feet per minute upwards, and there was no danger of it becoming bound in the bearings.

One of their machines was called the Power's number six and like most manufacturers they claimed it would deliver the best projection. One advert stated: "Its tremendous throw gives it preference over any other projector on the market." Another ad stated: "A good production with a famous star, well-advertised, a comfortable house and efficient orchestra are worth nothing unless your projection is of the best. To obtain this, all you require is the Power's No 6 Projector." By 1928 Power's 6B projector installations included the Paramount in Paris and the Carlton theatre, London.

Power's projectors, together with a wide range of other 35mm projectors, are featured in our Rewind complilation of 35mm projectors that PPT members can view in our Members' zone

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PPT President Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE BSC Hon FBKS

An interview by David A Ellis

school photo

Sydney Wylie Samuelson was born on 7 December 1925, the son of film pioneer, producer and writer George Berthold Samuelson (1889-1947), who created Worton Hall and Southall Studios. Worton Hall in Isleworth housed one of the earliest film production companies in the UK.

Sydney left school aged fourteen in 1939 and went to work as rewind boy at the new Luxor cinema, Lancing in Sussex, which opened its doors in January 1940. The chief projectionist was a Mr Frank Chipperfield, who was a hard taskmaster. After working in various cinemas in the Midlands for ABC and a news theatre, he went to Gaumont British News, in the editing department. After serving in the RAF, training as a flight navigator, he went into documentaries in the camera department.

In 1953 he was one of several cameramen to photograph the crowning of the Queen in Westminster Abbey. A year later he set up Samuelson Film Service, first hiring out film equipment from a cupboard in his first home and then renting a half shop in Hendon. Later, his three brothers became involved, and in the 1960s premises were acquired in Cricklewood Broadway, London. They opened the Production Village in Cricklewood, which had its own pub called The Magic Hour. The company also had branches in Paris, Amsterdam and at Heathrow airport for airfreight handling. Further afield they were established in Australia and in four states in the USA. They went on to buy the famous Hammer Studios at Bray. Samuelson’s became a company that was known and respected worldwide. Sadly, David Samuelson passed away in October 2015. From 1973–1976 Sydney Samuelson was the chairman of BAFTA. He was awarded the CBE in 1978 and in 1985 received the Michael Balcon Award for outstanding service to the British Film Industry. In 1991 he became the first British Film Commissioner. A fellowship from BAFTA was given to him in 1993. He also received a fellowship from the British Film Institute and a knighthood from HM the Queen in 1995. Prince Charles tapped his shoulders with the sword. He was the subject of This is your Life. He ran the London Marathon in 1982 and was the first cameraman for the UK version of the Candid Camera series and shot the one about the car with no engine.

In 1954 you set up Samuelson’s – would you tell me about that.

The business first operated from a cupboard in my homes in Finchley and Hendon. Our next base was in 1959 in a half shop in Hendon. That was the first time we had an overhead and I took on a member of staff because my wife could no longer manage the invoices while bringing up our three children. From there we started to increase our stock of different kinds of cameras and lenses. Eventually we had sound recording equipment too, with Leavers Rich and Nagra machines. One of the differences I found interesting, when I first went to Hollywood to set up our representation of Panavision in Europe, was that the Americans didn’t rate the Nagra seriously and for some years after were still recording on 35mm magnetic. They were still using a three-ton truck just to carry the batteries. They were late in adopting the Nagra, which was a small and brilliant machine, recording on to quarter inch tape.

location filming

Above: location filming

I understand your brothers joined the company. How many were there and what did they do?

There were four of us; me, my older brother David and my two younger brothers Tony and Michael. Michael joined first as my number two, running the rental and administration sides. Next on the staff was my brother David, who was a busy and respected cameraman at British Movietone News. He joined us and became the head of our engineering department. My other brother Tony always organised the financial side. In 1966 we became a public company and moved to Cricklewood shortly after.

You were one of the cameramen in Westminster Abbey, covering the Coronation in 1953 – would you tell me a bit about that?

I was on the staff of Rayant Pictures at the time but went to help with the event. I was given time off for the rehearsal. My brother David shot in black and white for Movietone’s regular twice–weekly newsreel and I was positioned next to him shooting 35mm Gevacolor negative. I was using a Newman Sinclair clockwork camera and nearly missed the actual crowning because a spring broke at the crucial moment. I had never had a spring go in my filming life before. Fortunately, I had another camera body with me. I quickly took the camera off its mount and put the other body on. I also had to transfer the fully loaded (200ft) magazine and the lens. I just managed to capture the moment the crown was being placed on the Queen’s head.

When you were training in the RAF did you do any projection work between your other duties?

Yes, I did. The first thing I did when I was posted to a new RAF station was to find out who oversaw the camp cinema to see if they needed an experienced projectionist. I was usually offered a part time job and would show films for say three nights a week. I was paid three shillings (15p) a show.

When did you join the Colonial Film Unit?

That was in 1947. I could have gone back to Gaumont British News but I was told that, due to the return from the forces of more senior employees, there was only a vacancy in the archive library, which I didn’t want. I was on my way to have lunch with my brother, who worked at Movietone. Before I got there, I passed the offices of the governments Colonial Film Unit. I didn’t really know what they did, but I went in to see if I could get a job there in the camera department, if they had one. I was extremely lucky for two reasons. One was that the producer there was an eminent old gentleman called George Pearson, who had been quite famous in the silent film days. It turned out that he had directed films for my father. My father operated mainly in the silent days but later he also did some work in the ‘quota quickie’ period of the early 1930s. Pearson said: “I don’t think we have any vacancies but would you like to go and talk to Hal Morey, our chief cameraman?” He asked if I had any experience with cameras. I told him I had a little bit. He then asked me if I knew the Newman and Sinclair camera. I told him I did. He asked if I could load its magazines. I said I could. He said: “I am just going to lunch but when I come back show me what you can do”. The second piece of luck was that he was going to lunch at that moment. I went to see my brother at Movietone, three doors away and asked him if he would immediately show me how to load a Newman and Sinclair magazine, which he did. After lunch, I went back and performed what I had just learned from my brother and got a job as a trainee camera assistant. The company made instructional documentaries for local African audiences. They had units in various parts of the colonial world. I first worked in East Africa, which was pretty thrilling for a young chap, who had never been out of the UK.

Where did you go after the Colonial Film Unit?

In 1949 I took a job with the about to be formed Nigerian Film Unit, as a cameraman. This was a ten–month contract. I had recently married but I couldn’t take my wife as only a single passage was provided. She agreed to me going and off I went working as a cameraman in Nigeria. I also trained Nigerian film students. My wife and I thought we might save enough for a deposit to buy our first home.

Sir Sydney and Lady Doris

Above: Sir Sydney and Lady Doris

When did you become involved with Panavision?

I think it was 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.

The Panavision range was so much better than any other anamorphic lenses that you could rent. CinemaScope lenses were very big, and they weren’t very good optically, especially when shooting close-ups. If you were doing a head and shoulders of an actress no longer in the full flush of youth the results didn’t look particularly flattering. That was not the case when Panavision introduced their optics. You could rent just the lenses and fit them on to the UK based studio Mitchell cameras. Our key line of equipment was the Arriflex camera, which came from LA modified with everything you needed to shoot anamorphic. I visited the Mitchell camera company in Glendale, California and we subsequently bought our own Mitchell BNC with all its ancillaries. To us it cost an absolute fortune. We started to stock zoom lenses when they first came on the market and they became very much in demand, but you couldn’t use a zoom on a non-reflex camera such as the BNC Mitchell because you couldn’t view what you were getting while the lens was zooming. The first zoom lens we stocked was a 35:140 (4 to 1). We also stocked ultra-wide angle 14 and 18mm lenses as well as an 8mm fisheye, extreme wide angle.

Would you tell me a bit about cinematographer Freddie Young?

Freddie Young became a very good friend. He was one of the celebs who came on the television show ‘This is Your Life’, which I was featured on. When the excellent American Moviola crab dolly came on the market we purchased one and demonstrated it first to Freddie at St John’s Wood Studios, where he was shooting tests for The Seventh Dawn (1964). The director and the camera crew, including Freddie, thought it was brilliant. We had only just imported the dolly, but we immediately gained a ten-week rental as it was used on the whole film on location in Malaysia. We ended up servicing the entire picture, sub hiring a Mitchell BNC camera from a friendly cameraman owner by the name of Bunny Onions. That is how we reached into the feature business and decided to buy our own Mitchell BNC.
The first technical marvel for which he was responsible, and which held me in awe of his genius was as far back as 1938 on Sixty Glorious Years. One sequence was an early example of British Technicolor three-strip. There was a remarkable ballroom scene, which was achieved by means of an early matte shot. Young is the master in my book of cineastes, arguably and certainly in his era he was the best cameraman in the world.

You were a friend of the great director David Lean – what was he like?

David Lean was very much into the technical side of each of his movies. He would come to visit us when his crews were in, testing the gear. I got to know him very well. Even when he wasn’t shooting a picture I would regularly get a call and he would come for lunch. He would always ask what was new on the market – he liked to keep up with the latest technology. Years elapsed between pictures made by David Lean. I think between Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India nine years elapsed. David maintained that the New York critics gave him such a bad time about Ryan’s Daughter. The awful press devastated him. When the film opened the New York Press Association arranged a conference with David at the Algonquin hotel in Manhattan. The press people pulled him to pieces. He didn’t get over that easily, I can tell you. David was a keen still photographer himself and he would also shoot on 16mm. He liked to come and have lunch with me. He came in once with a brand new Hassleblad camera. Of course, we made fitted camera cases and while we were having lunch, my guys made fitted out cases to hold his camera, and all its lenses and filters. He was absolutely bowled over. That was one side of David. He was very much a technician, not just the director who completely relied on his cameraman. David was the editor on the film In Which we Serve (1942) but was asked by Noel Coward, who wrote, starred and directed, to help him direct because of David’s understanding of camera angles, timing and technical ability to line up shots. Later, he became part of a new production company called Cineguild, which also involved Coward.

You were a friend of Lord Richard Attenborough – how did you get to know him?

I first got to know him first when I was a camera assistant on the second or third unit of The Baby and the Battleship (1956). Even then Dickie wouldn’t pass anyone by, no matter how lowly their position might be, without saying: “Hello, how are you today”. I got a couple of days work on the unit at Wembley Studios. I was touched when the crew were assembling and Richard gave me the same recognition as the seniors, it was his lifetime courtesy.

Years later I got to know him because I was elected to the council of BAFTA and he was chairman. We then became very good friends. Sadly, Richard had a serious accident at his home, falling down the stairs and landing on his head. From then on, he was mostly unable to communicate. He could listen but couldn’t speak.

Did you stock any 65mm equipment?

We did supply Panavision 65mm productions. One of them was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968). We brought in the equipment from the States and returned it to Panavision afterwards. We didn’t keep equipment of such huge value on our shelves because regular demand for 65mm wasn’t there. The last production we supplied the large format for was Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

with awards

Above: Sir Sydney with awards

How did you get the position of being the government’s first British Film Commissioner?

There had been moves by the film industry to get government funding support for the idea of an organisation to promote the British film production sector. Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister at the time, was keen, and so the money was made available. I was about to retire from the chairmanship of the Samuelson group and the Department of Trade and Industry had been told to find somebody to set up what would be called the British Screen Commission. The minister for Trade and Industry was Lord Hesketh. He approached me and said: “I understand you are about to retire. You know your way around the British film production industry, and I notice that it’s your name that keeps coming up”. I considered that to be just about the greatest ego massage I had ever had. Originally, they wanted it to be called the British Screen Commission but I said: “That won’t do it. It must be the British Film Commission because everybody, especially in America, knows what a film commission is for. For us it is to support filmmakers and to attract filmmakers to any given place as long as it’s in the UK”. It became the British Film Commission and I remained in charge for six years, (1991–1997).

Lord Mountbatten, Sir Sydney and Princess Ann

Above: Lord Mountbatten, Sir Sydney and Princess Ann

When were you knighted?

The Queen was on tour in New Zealand, so Prince Charles did the honours in 1995. The citation read, ‘For services to the British Film Commission’. I was delighted that it was Prince Charles because we knew him a bit. He used to come to our little studio in Cricklewood when he was going to introduce some charity appeal film or whatever, and we would often shoot it for him. Also, when I was president of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund, he would often come with the Queen and his grandmother, the Queen Mother, to the Royal Film Performance. I would meet the royal party front of house when they arrived at the Odeon Leicester Square, then sit with them and talk to them throughout the evening. After I had been knighted Prince Charles invited my wife and I for lunch at St James’s Palace. I loved the fact that he told his equerry that he would like to sit next to Lady Samuelson at lunch. I was very pleased that he was the one that tapped my shoulders with his sword.

Sir Sydney with straw hat

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