Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE FBKS

With great sadness we learned that Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE, passed away on 14 December 2022.

Sir Sydney served until reccently as the Patron of our Society.

Obituary &  Personal Tribute     Mark Trompeteler FBKS

Cinema enthusiasts and film industry professionals, at every level of the moving image and film industries, will have been very saddened to hear of Sir Sydney Samuelson’s death last week at the age of 97. His name was probably little or hardly known, if at all, by the cinema going public. However the directors, stars, film and media industry professionals, in the British film industry, and beyond, in the second half of the 20th century, all knew his name. The importance of the companies he and his brothers founded and grew, to become the largest film equipment hire group in the world was profound. As the head of The Samuelson Group, his pursuit of excellence in servicing the needs of a growing film and media industry, facilitating and supporting outstanding film productions, and developments, cannot be underestimated. He was also a champion of the support / “back room” / technical staff and crafts people of the industry. He contributed to growing technical and craft excellence with his contributions to industry bodies and professional associations. After his first visit to Hollywood in 1965 he and his company became the sole representative of Panavison in Europe. He was a cinematographer by experience and instinct. His companies and his work supported widescreen production, and outstanding 70mm film productions which were to become classics of cinema.

As is widely known his father was George Berthold Samuelson, a cinema pioneer of the silent film era. His father established some of the first film studios in Britain, and produced over one hundred silent films. The transfer of his father’s operation to the new sound era was ill fated and ended in financial failure. As a result Sydney’s early years were very far from being in affluent circumstances. He started his career in the film industry at the age of 14 as a rewind boy in the projection box of a local cinema. After service in the RAF, he became a trainee documentary camera assistant in the Colonial Film Unit, enabling him to travel and use film cameras in far away locations. In 1948 he joined the film technicians union ACT. After further experience as a newsreel cameraman, in 1954, he set up Samuelson Film Service, with his brothers David, Tony and Michael. Tony, who had trained as a barrister, became financial and legal advisor to the Samuelson Group. As mentioned previously The Samuelson Group grew to become the largest film equipment hire group in the world. At their headquarters in Cricklewood, North London, they rented cameras, both 16mm and 35mm,  grip and sound equipment, and later, lighting equipment. Pursuing a specialisation in Arriflex cameras they had over a hundred complete outfits either out on rental, being serviced or ready and available for production. The company had branches in Paris, Amsterdam, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and an air freight operation at London Heathrow. He joined BAFTA in 1965.

Major film directors became his clients, colleagues, and close friends. He supplied the 65mm equipment for “2001 A Space Odyssey” and “Ryan’s Daughter”. Other major productions he was involved with included “Superman”, “Ghandi”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “A Man For All Seasons” and 13 James Bond films. He mixed with and worked with key influential figures in the British and international film industries and was close friends with David Lean, Richard Attenborough, Freddie Young and other industry stalwarts. David Lean would sometimes pop in to have lunch at the Samuelson premises and look at the latest film making equipment they had available. He served as chairman of BAFTA from 1973 – 1976 and worked with Richard Attenborough to develop it into its modern form. He worked with BAFTA committees and developments for forty years. In 1987 he became a Freeman of The City of London. In 1991 he was appointed the first British Film Commissioner. His role was to promote the UK as a destination for international film and television productions. He encouraged the Government to introduce a tax incentive for international productions to come to the UK, to use UK studios and locations, using UK crews, talent and production services. His work in the role acted as a catalyst leading to positioning the UK as a major centre for international film production outside of Hollywood. Today this is worth something in the order of £5.6 billion a year.

In 1993 he was awarded a fellowship of BAFTA and in 1995 he received a knighthood for services to the British Film Commission. That same year he became a member of BKSTS (Now IMIS). Following an Honorary Doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University in 1996, in 1997, he retired, ……. allegedly.

As is generally acknowledged, Sir Sydney Samuelson never retired. In the 25 years of his “retirement” he worked tirelessly and supported many industry organisations and charities, often as a member, patron, trustee, or president.  Amongst these were:

BAFTA,  British Society of Cinematographers,  Cinema & Television Benevolent Fund,    Cinema & Television Veterans,   BECTU,    CTC,   UK Jewish Film,   Guild of British Camera Technicians (GBCT),    BKSTS – The Moving Image Society (now IMIS, The International Moving Image Society)   and   The Projected Picture Trust (PPT).

It was in my own semi-retirement that I had the pleasure of working as the BKSTS/IMIS Accreditation Co-ordinator for UK university film school courses, for some 12-13 years. It was through my involvement with BKSTS/IMIS and the accreditation of university film courses that I, like countless others, had the privilege of receiving Sir Sydney’s support encouragement, direct help, and at times his work alongside mine. At an early meeting with him I was in absolute awe of being able to meet him, let alone briefly work with him and get assistance from him. As many will know he was the most modest of men and said that he wasn’t anything special and had just been lucky and fortunate in his career and life. He said the average person in the street and everyday life had a habit of reminding you of your place in life, and that he was no different than anybody else. At this early first meeting he recounted to me the story featured in the very recent The Times newspaper obituary…….

“On the day he was appointed as Film Commissioner he stepped out of his Piccadilly office and saw a newspaper seller with a bill-board declaring “Britain Gets A Film Boss.” Samuelson walked over to him and asked “What’s all this about? – Britain Gets A Film Boss?” “Oh, it is just some bloke” the seller replied and opened the paper to show Samuelson the photo of the new commissioner. “Well, who is he then?” Samuelson asked mischievously. “I’ll have to read it guv ……. Sydney Samuelson, it says here. I’ve never heard of the bugger, Have you?”

Sir Sydney’s great generosity, wisdom, huge experience, modesty, grace, kindness, and commitment in his “retirement” to the charities and organisations with which he was associated was witnessed by so very many of us. At one point in my association with him, working on the accreditation of film school courses, I had occasion to discuss the criteria for a new prize for graduating film school students. He wanted this specific prize to have a set of strictly confidential criteria relating to its award. The prize was not to be given to the student who had consistently scored the highest grades or produced the consistently best set of work on the film course. Nor was it to be for the best graduation film, nor was it to be for the best cinematography or for the film that was voted as the best, or the most popular, by the audience. The prize was to be for the student who had travelled the furthest in having to overcome adversity, who had overcome difficult financial, personal, health or family circumstances to complete the course and their graduation film. Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE BSC made an immeasurable contribution to the media and film industries that will resonate for a very very long time.