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Ken Russell Burned My Clapper: ‘Z Cars’ It Ain’t

I am employed at BBC Ealing Studios as a cameraman. Well, that’s what I thought until I met my FOM, film operations manager Fred, and I discovered I am just a “holiday relief” cameraman, grade C minus. A three-month temporary assistant…

Fred takes pity on me, and for my swan song he puts me on Ken Russell’s The Debussy Film. It’s to be shot by BBC staff cameraman Ken Westbury. I had worked with him before on the BBC television series Z Cars, shooting 16mm. We know each other and get on well.

Day One

The location is Beachy Head, near the seaside resort of Eastbourne. The call sheet says “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.” It is a long, difficult clamber over the rocks.

Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien à la Ken Russell

We have two ARRIFLEX 35 IIC 35mm cameras, tripods, batteries, a blimp, film magazines, boxes of film and lenses, including a heavy Angenieux 25-250 zoom. Slowed down by all the kit, we finally catch up with Russell, who has raced ahead with Oliver Reed and a bevy of tall blonde models who are practicing their archery skills.

Z Cars it ain’t,” says Westbury.

I set up a shot. Russell checks it and seems happy. Then, out of the blue, Westbury turns to me and says, “Would you like to operate?” I leap at the chance. “Yes, yes, please, thank you.”

Culture Shock

A few months ago I was making films for Australian station TCN9. I had a wind-up clockwork 16mm Bolex camera and a crew of none. Today I’m shooting 35mm film using cameras I have never used before. I have two film assistants and four grips to help—and there must be 50 or more models, actors and technicians here.

The Clapper Is Not for Burning

The last night at Eastbourne is a big candlelit procession with hundreds of extras. I do close-ups on a 75mm and switch to an 18mm wide angle. I am walking backwards at night over wobbly, broken rocks. Maybe this is why Westbury asked me to operate…

We get to a cove with a campfire. Our star, Oliver Reed, is there. His fire is dying.

“More wood, we need more wood!” shouts Russell. “Stefan, I want your clapper!”

“No, Ken. I need it.” “Rubbish, you can make films without a clapper. Give it to me!”

“Z Cars it ain’t,” says Westbury.

“I can’t! It’s not for burning!” He grabs my clapperboard and tosses it onto the fire.

Twelve Years Later

Russell has made Women in Love, The Devils, Mahler, Tommy and many more, while I have built sound and television studio Molinare in London. One Friday night, he arrives to be interviewed. I am waiting at our front door.

“Ken, I’m Stefan. Do you remember me? I was the cameraman on Debussy.”

“Of course. You’re the crazy Australian who threw his clapper into the fire.”

Russell Harty, the talk show host, appears. Ken disappears with him into the studio. Drat! I never had a chance to set the record straight.

“No, Ken, you’re wrong. YOU burned my clapper. You did it, not me!”