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Lensing 20th-Century Britain: An Interview with Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE

SAMUELSON WITH NEWMAN SINCLAIR

By David A. Ellis.

Sydney Wylie Samuelson CBE was born on 7th December 1925 and is 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 re-wind boy at the new Luxor cinema, Lancing in Sussex, which opened its doors in January 1940. After working in various cinemas in the Midlands, 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 the Samuelson Film Service, first hiring out film equipment from his spare bedroom. Renting a half shop in Hendon followed this. Later, his three brothers became involved and in the 1960s premises were acquired in Cricklewood Broadway, London. Later 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.

From 1973-1976 Samuelson was the chairman of BAFTA. He was awarded the CBE in 1978 and in 1985 for outstanding service to the British Film Industry received the Michael Balcon Award. 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 H.M. The Queen in 1995. Prince Charles tapped his shoulders with the sword. He was the subject of This is Your Life (1969-2003), ran the London Marathon in 1982 and was the first cameraman for the UK version of the Candid Camera series (1960-76).

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

The business was 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.

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 departments. 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 was in charge of 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. When I was released from the RAF 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 government’s 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 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.

When did you get 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 the 35:140 (4 to 1). We also stocked ultra wide angle 14 and 18mm lenses as well as a 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.

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

SAMUELSON WITH SIR DAVID LEANDavid 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 on the council of BAFTA and he became 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 the demand for 65mm wasn’t there. The last production we supplied the large format for was Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

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’s got to be ‘The British Film Commission’ because everybody, especially in America, knows what a film commission is for. For us it is to support filmmakers 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.

When were you knighted?

The Queen was on tour in New Zealand so Prince Charles did the honours 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.

David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).

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