I’m working for ITN, the news station owned collectively by the UK commercial television stations. No, “working” is the wrong word. ITN is a union shop. No fault of mine, but I’m stuck in a dispute between the union and management. I’m not working.
After three months of doing nothing, my boss has a solution: he will try to get me a job at the BBC. “Phone me at 4:00 and I’ll give you the news.”
I just happen to be at the British Museum. It’s the summer of 1964, at 4 o’clock. Cell phones haven’t been invented yet. No worries, the museum has a pay phone. Just the one. Anxiously, I dial ITN. “John Cotter, please.”
“Good news, Stefan. The BBC has a vacancy. It’s not news but film productions. You start on Monday. Go to Ealing Studios and report to your FOM at the White Lodge.”
“Film operations manager. No need to come in here again—we’ll post you any back pay and holiday pay. Good luck, bye.” Click. So ends my so-called employment at ITN.
I’m at Ealing Studios, famous for its Ealing comedies like The Ladykillers (1955). The White Lodge front door is locked. I find a side entrance.
“Good morning. I’m new, a cameraman. I’m looking for my FOM.”
“Up the stairs, second desk on the right. His name is Fred.”
There he is: my FOM, Fred.
“You don’t know how lucky you are. See that pile of envelopes? They are all job applications. Hundreds of them—and we have just ten holiday relief vacancies. Well, nine, now that you’re here.”
“I’m a holiday relief cameraman?”
“You’re employed for three months just to cover the summer holiday period. Didn’t you know? Sorry, they should have told you. When our guys come back from holidays, we let people like you go. Sounds tough, but it will be a good experience. You can add BBC to your CV.”
I spend the day with Fred. The BBC canteen is nearby and huge. Fred introduces me to everyone: cameramen, editors, electricians. I really like Fred. I love the buzz.
Fred Likes Me, He Really Likes Me
“Here’s the deal, Stefan. I will move you around. You’ll work on documentaries, TV serials, and if anything sensationally good comes up, I’ll put you on it. That’s a promise.”
One day Fred calls me into his office: “You have a month to go on your contract. I’m putting on a 90-minute feature to be directed by Ken Russell. He’s shooting on 35mm. Big-name actors like Oliver Reed …”
Director Ken Russell, left of frame, in my nighttime Debussy shoot. Actor Vladek Sheybal on the right.
Oliver Reed I know, but I’ve never heard of Russell.
“You know, he directed Mahler. You must have seen it. I’ve paired you with Ken Westbury—he’s one of our best cameramen. Oh, you’ll need a BBC estate car. Here’s a pickup slip. Go to the BBC garage in Hammersmith and collect.”
We Need More Firewood—Burn the Clapper!
My dream come true. A few months ago I was in Australia shooting on a wind-up 16mm Bolex and now I’m shooting a feature in 35mm. And I have my own car.
Little did I know that Ken Russell would go on to make classic features: Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Devils.
And little did I know that one night, he would burn my clapper.
to be continued …