Thumb turned down as star guest

Filming History
July 5, 2002

In Britain between 1910 and 1979, newsreels were a part of national life, playing a major role in constructing and expressing experience and identity. This engagingly written book highlights the way in which they were made.

John Turner joined Gaumont-British News as an assistant cameraman in 1936 and took part in the filming of many events of the late 1930s, including the coronation of George VI, the launch of the Queen Elizabeth and Chamberlain's return from Munich. In the second world war, he served as a naval war correspondent, particularly with the Malta convoys, but also in the Sicily, D-Day and Walcheren attacks, before going to the Far East, where he filmed the Japanese surrender at Singapore. He subsequently played a busy role as a newsreel cameraman in the late 1940s, both in Britain and abroad, including covering the partition of India. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he was the royal rota cameraman, after which he became news editor at Pathe News , where he organised the filming of Churchill's funeral and the 1966 World Cup.

His memoirs are particularly useful as there have been few from the newsreel world. Their coverage of the war years is valuable for the presentation of the war effort, while the royal section will be of interest to those concerned with the changing image of monarchy. Many of the stories are vivid. Responding to the explosion of a V2 near Selfridge's, for example, Turner is offered, for a picture, a thumb a bystander has picked up. That was too much for him.

Turner captures the physical effort and technical skill involved, the need to respond to changing technologies in film and cameras, and the search for the image and product that will satisfy the audience. The impact of colour, the problems of filming sport and the difficulties of filming from the air are all ably covered. He describes how pre-war football crowds threw beer bottles at cameramen blocking their view, and discusses how the cost of film and the time it took to edit helped determine what was shot. For example, an entire football game should have required about 8,000ft, on the main camera alone, for possible use in the reel of 200ft. Instead, about 800ft were shot and the cameraman had to judge when the highlights were going to occur.

Turner is also striking on the ethos of the newsreel - the need to take the picture even if it was of death and failure. This was particularly true of his striking film of the torpedoing of the Barham , in which 869 lives were lost. The film was censored, although Turner argues that it still had value as it was used in the subsequent inquiry.

His memoirs provide an opportunity to draw attention to the first edition of the British Universities Film and Video Council's database of British cinema newsreels, which offers news coverage from 1910 to 1979. This is being made available for free access to UK academic users via the BUFVC website ( www.bufvc.ac.uk ).

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Filming History: The Memoirs of John Turner, Newsreel Cameraman

ISBN - 0 901299 72 3
Publisher - British Universities Film and Video Council
Price - £35.00
Pages - 256

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