Cameraman, founder of world leading Samuelson Group and pioneer in the British film and television industry
The life and career of Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE is a history of the British film industry in microcosm. At the centre ofthe industry for more than 50 years he was instrumental in making the UK a worldwide leader in film and televisionproduction, rivalling Hollywood.
Having left school at 14 to work as the “rewind boy” in a cinema projection booth, he was later a cinematographer andfounder of the Samuelson Group, which he built with his three brothers into the largest film equipment servicing companyin the world. He was appointed the Government’s first British Film Commissioner and served as leader of BAFTA andmany other industry organisations and charities.
In 1985, he received BAFTA’s Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Film, in 1993, a BAFTAFellowship for his contribution to the film and television industry, and in 1997 a British Film Institute Fellowship,amongst many other industry awards of merit. In 1978, Sir Sydney's work in film was acknowledged with a CBE,followed by a Knighthood in 1995.
But these honours will not be what he is remembered for by hundreds of people working in the industry who were giventheir start, mentored, inspired and encouraged by Sir Sydney. Despite business success, he remained firmly connected tohis humble roots, indeed he was often surprised by the recognition he received. His constant refrain was “How lucky canyou be”? At heart he was always a film technician and a proud lifelong member of BECTU, the technicians’ union. Heremained curious about the people he met to the very end, whether those he sat next to on the bus or a server in arestaurant. He regularly spotted outstanding individuals and then sought to elevate their careers. Once he built it, hebelieved the purpose of his prodigious network was to use it to help others who, like himself when he began, had little ornone of their own. All of this was accomplished with constant good humour and in the very close company of his large,loving family and many friends.
A quiet but determined man whose word was his bond in every facet of his life and career, Sir Sydney was renowned forhis professionalism, efficiency and flexibility. He would never turn down a request for involvement or help, indeed he wasdetermined to give more back to the industry than he ever took out. He gave his time to organisations including the BFI,the British Society of Cinematographers, the BKSTS (now IMIS), The Producers’ Association (PACT) and the Guild ofBritish Camera Technicians; and to charities including Medicinema, the Young Person’s Concert Foundation, theAssociation of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, UK Friends of Akim, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, First StarScholars UK and the Plaza Community Cinema in Crosby. He completed the London Marathon in 1982 to support theCinema and Television Benevolent Fund and Akim. Alongside his leadership roles he devised and hosted film quizzes formany of these causes.
Sydney came from a UK film industry family. His father, George 'Bertie' Samuelson was a pioneer producer of silentfilms, making more than 100 movies from 1910 onwards; his mother Marjorie (nee Vine) ran a drapers shop in Shoreham-on-Sea, Sussex. He was one of four brothers; David and Michael, who were distinguished cinematographers in their ownright and Tony, who was a lawyer. While Bertie had been an important producer in his heyday, he suffered badly from thevicissitudes of the film industry and in latter life could only find menial work and had long periods of unemployment.
Sydney entered the business in 1939 aged 14 in the projection box of the Luxor Cinema in Lancing, West Sussex, goingon to work as a relief operator in several cinemas in the Midlands for ABC cinemas. He then trained as a Film Editor withGaumont British Newsreel in London. In 1943, he signed up to be a flight navigator for the RAF, and when de-mobbed in1947 he joined the Film Unit of the British Colonial Office as a trainee cameraman.
He met his wife at a film club screening of Pride and Prejudice in 1946; the projector broke down and he fixed it on thespot, impressing Doris. They married three years later, and mere weeks after that he spent six months living in a tent inNigeria to photograph the disastrous colonial Groundnut Scheme. They were married for 72 years, until LadySamuelson’s death in April 2022.
Sydney worked on many shows for the BBC and the independent television companies and, as a part of a camera teamrecording the Coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953, he was responsible for the famous shot of The Queen beingcrowned, repairing the broken spring in his camera just in time.
In 1954 Sydney purchased a clockwork Newman Sinclair film camera, and thus began to explore the possibilities ofrenting out equipment to other professionals. Originally operated from their home, he and his wife Doris formedSamuelson Film Service, later joined by his brothers. “Sammies” as it became known, made available the highest qualityequipment with 24hr complete service across camera, lighting, grip, sound, crew and transportation. The availability ofthis facility enabled international films of any scale to shoot worldwide for the first time and galvanised the UKproduction industry. It allowed the fledgling ITV network to produce efficiently and supported the boom in commercialscreated by the advent of ITV.
The company established branches around the world, with offices in Australia, Holland, France, South Africa and theUnited States. The company established a prolific reputation, working on all of David Lean's films including DoctorZhivago, 13 James Bond movies, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (where he refused to pull the equipment when theproduction lost its financing), Richard Donner's Superman, Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons, Norman Jewison'sFiddler on the Roof, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Milos Forman's Amadeus amongst many other films.He was instrumental in making the Panavision Group a world leading technology company.
Sydney had a long history with BAFTA, an organisation he cared about deeply. He was a driving force in the Cinema andTelevision Veterans, expanding the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (now the Film and TV Charity) anddeveloping the annual Royal Film Performance. As Chairman, Vice-chair of Film and a founder Trustee for BAFTA hetook a fundraising leadership role establishing the Academy’s iconic (and recently refurbished) headquarters on London’sPiccadilly and the installation of the Princess Anne and Run Run Shaw auditoria in 1976. His efforts are credited withsaving BAFTA from financial ruin during the redevelopment. He produced the highly successful Filmharmonic concertsat the Royal Albert Hall raising funds for the CTBF.
Following Downing Street talks with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Lord Richard Attenborough, Sir Sydney wasappointed the first British Film Commissioner in 1991. In this new role Sir Sydney campaigned to promote the UK as theleading destination for international film production and as a provider of world-class crews and facilities.
Sir Sydney encouraged the Government to introduce a tax incentive for international productions that based themselvesout of the UK using UK crews, talent and production services, and the set-up of a network of film commissions across theUK. As a result of what was a long-term strategy to position the UK as the leading centre for international film productionoutside of Los Angeles,
established the foundation for the UK’s phenomenal film and high-end television production boom, now worth over £5.6billion a year.
At a special tribute to Sydney in 2011, the late Lord Richard Attenborough said of Sydney, “For me, you represent all thatis best about the wonderful industry to which we have both devoted our adult lives.”
Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE was born on 7 December 1925 and passed away from old age on 14 December 2022,surrounded by his loving family.
He is survived by his sons Peter, Jonathan and Marc and their families including eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Tributes from Branch Members
"Sydney, along with his brothers, did a huge amount starting in the 60’s to attract US film makers to the UK. As well asbringing Panavision cameras to Europe; they built cranes, tracking vehicles and all things Grip. Branch members may stillcome across equipment stamped with the SAMCINE logo which were made by the company."
- Adam Samuelson
"As many of you have heard another great Pioneer of the British Film Industry has left us. For a lot of Grips this is a name you have heard associated to the distant past, hopefully you had the pleasure of working with Adam Samuelson, who carries the family name and standards with the Louma Crane.
So as far as Grips are concerned Samuelson Film Services catered for the film industry, on our side they developed someof the early cranes; The Sam Master, The Sam Major, as well many other smaller cranes and other Grip Equipment. Some of you may have come across some legs or hi-hats with their logo on. The larger cranes I have mentioned had hydrauliclevelling rams, that were almost fifty years ago. How forward thinking was that?! Sydney was the driving force behind this development.
If you take a minute to think what an impact the Samuelson family had on developing the film industry and helping to grow it into what it is today, you would appreciate what a legacy Sydney leaves behind.
Back in the day as a young Grip at MGM, a lot of my peers went to work at Samies. Wally Wheatley, Pat Newman, Terry Kelly, Jack Scott, Freddy Fry, Don Budge, Tony Cridlin ( I think ), to name a few. Some of us worked on dailies when the Studio closed. Sydney found work for many Grips. So personally I am grateful to the likes of people like Sydney, who, with his brothers, started their business in a garden shed, and gave a helping hand to raise the profile of the Grips today, of which you are all beneficiaries.
Thank you Sydney. RIP"
- David Cadwallader