Roger tells us about his working life as a cameraman, a career which took him all over the world, but much of which was based at Anglia Television in Norwich.
I was born in 1944 in a small mining town in Derbyshire about ten miles north of Derby. My grandfather had been down the mines and he was determined that my father would never go down the mine. My father never ever did go down the mine. I did once, but he didn’t.
He worked for the local Co-op and trained as a company secretary and then the war happened. He went into the RAF, caught rheumatic fever and was invalided out. He then worked for Rolls Royce producing Merlin engines for Lancaster bombers and things like that through the war. After the war he worked as a company secretary for a series of small companies before finally ending up as civil servant, ‘for the pension’ as he always said.
I went to primary and junior school in the town and then grammar school was about two miles away in Swanwick. I was there from ’55 to ’62, I went by bus but occasionally got a lift from my father as one of his jobs took him past the door. He was usually too late leaving for me to get a lift with him.
I studied, GCEs, O levels and A levels, some not particularly successfully, because I had sort of lost the incentive by then. It was very difficult in those days to do a mixture of science and art subjects, you had to take one course or the other. I had not a clue what I wanted to be: my parents wanted me to be a professional I think. I had been very keen on natural history and things so toyed round the idea of vet, medicine, various things, but I sort of lost my desire to do any academic work really.
After I left school, I tried to do my A levels again, and did slightly better at the second attempt and went off to London to train as an architect. I had always had this sort of diversity in my mind as to whether I liked that arts or science. I always liked art, I was always good at art, I could draw, I could do a bit of painting, bit of sculpture and things and had kept it going through into sixth form.
A friend of mine was at Northern Polytechnic in London and I was looking through a prospectus and saw this degree in architecture, thought it looked interesting, did a last minute application and was accepted. This revitalised my interest in art so I said to the local education authority that I wanted to do art and they said that I could come back to Derbyshire. I went to the art school in Derby and became interested in photography and film. I got myself a place at the London College of Printing which did a film and photographic course. But the education authority having got wise to me and my habits and decided that as they did a photography course in the county they weren’t going to pay the extra money for me to go to London and idle my time away there. So they said, ‘Well you know, well done for getting your place, but we ain’t going to pay for you to go’.
There were two colleges in Derbyshire, one in Derby, which had a very good reputation, and one in Chesterfield, me being bloody minded went to Chesterfield, they had a three year sort of film course. I very quickly realised that the man who was supposed to be in charge of the course didn’t really know very much so I segued into doing a straightforward stills photography qualification, which I did in two years out of three.
A summer job in London and serendipity
I went down to London as part of a summer job in a studio and decided that there wasn’t a lot of point going back to college if I could avoid it, because I seemed to know more about the theory of photography than most people who were doing the job [laughs]. It was a student placement, so I was basically observing really, a general dogsbody. I was working with different guys for about three weeks. As I was about to leave I asked the studio manager if there was any chance of a job as an assistant. By that time I was about 23 and I was basically too old as they were training up 16 year olds, but I asked them to let me know if they heard of anything. About three weeks after I got back to Derbyshire I had a phone call giving me the details of a guy looking for his first assistant, I gave him a call and started work seven days later as an assistant to the stills photographer.
I didn’t stay with him for very long, I moved on quickly, but we got on very well and he’s still a friend of mine.
In one of those serendipitous moments in my life – I was walking down St Martin’s Lane and saw this character coming towards me, we made eye contact and I thought that I recognised him. He said, ‘I know you, you were at Swanwick weren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was at Swanwick, yeah’. He’d left when he was about 15 or 16 as his father had moved to London and we’d parted ways. Anyway we met a few times and he asked me one day ‘What are you doing this weekend? I was new to town and you know what it’s like, Billy no mates, so I said, ‘Nothing really’ and he told me that he was doing a little shoot at CBS Records and would I like to give them a hand. He was going to the London Film School later in the year and his brother was a director of the small production company, based in St Martin’s Lane and he was doing a bit of relief work in the office.
It was a film that they used to do on a regular basis for CBS showing the management in funny situations, to show their sales representatives. I turned up, there was a pile of lights, a camera, a tripod, nobody really seemed to know what to do. So I ended up shooting, putting lights up, reading the light meter, some guy looked through the camera and by some miracle it all turned out.
Their stills guy left and I got a call from the director saying that they liked what I had done and did I want to go and work with them. And that’s how I got introduced into the film business.
At this time I was living all over the place, I started in digs in Muswell Hill, then God knows what happened, I ended up in a room in Crouch End, rooms in those days were not very nice [laughs].
The role of an assistant producer involves basically anything the producer asks you to do. It’s like a glorified runner/co-ordinator/organiser. The first job that I had for example was to sort out the film library, I had to go down to the library and open these cans and I’d never seen film other than on spools, of course professional film isn’t kept on spools. It’s kept in very tightly wound roll, just taped on and you have to pick it up carefully otherwise the middle drops out and you’ve got hundreds of feet of film running around the room. You’d try to thread it all backwards from the middle, but it’s never very successful I have to say.
In the team there were, let me think, three production, three directors/producers, myself, an admin guy, two secretaries and one other, slightly more of a dogsbody than me.
We also had a small projection theatre downstairs, with perhaps 15, 20 seats. All the people making commercial and documentaries wanted places to show them so there were loads of these in West End. They had full size 35 millimetre projectors, quite a small screen, curtains the whole thing, like a mini cinema. So for example if you had a 60 second commercial you could book the theatre for a quarter of an hour. The projector would thread up the film and depending on how quick they were you could probably show it five, six, seven or eight times. We were doing mostly test commercials and trials, five or six smaller agencies were all connected. The main agency was the London Press Exchange and during my time it became Leo Burnett.
Leaving, again, after not very long
I stayed there. Again not for very long and one of the main reasons was that the industry was very unionised. It was really difficult to get into a trade union, they were very tight about letting people in. It was one of those catch-22 situations – you couldn’t get a job if you didn’t have what they called a ticket and you couldn’t get a ticket unless you worked in the industry, so it was always quite difficult. There was this ruse – you could get a short term contract at the BBC, they had their own union called Bectu. The ACTT was the main film and television union and they were always trying to get into the BBC to try to get control. So, all of us young lads who wanted to get a ticket used to try to get these jobs at the BBC and then first thing you would do would be to go and see the union rep and get yourself into the ACTT and then you could go from there. So that’s one of the main reasons I left.
In those days the BBC had probably about 36 cameramen working on film, maybe more I can’t remember exactly. All their documentaries were shot on film, film technology was much lighter and more portable than electronic technology. The bits for light entertainment that were shot outside were cut into the end product. In those days it all had to be wired back to vans or the studio.
So, an outside broadcast for example, horse racing, you’d have these fixed camera points where the cameras are rigged, but inter-connected by cable and they‘d go back to a central scanner, where the wires come in and monitors are set up. You’d have a director sitting inside deciding which shots he wanted to use, either on air or to be edited later. They will all be recorded and edited but if it’s a live OB they’d be saying, ‘Camera one, camera two, camera four, camera five.
During my career I only very, very, very, very occasionally worked on live tv, it was a different skill. I was used to what Anglia television called ‘single camera units’ so as a cameraman you had the camera, you were basically the only person who saw what was happening. With live OB work you’re part of a team, you have a director co-ordinating what you’re doing. When you’re not shooting, you’re changing it and he’s asking you to find something else for them. You’d take your shot, he’d move onto another camera, you’ll be resetting something like that. So the idea of whizzing about and other people taking over from you, for a few seconds, it’s just a very different mindset.
Moving to Norfolk, Tales of the Unexpected
My first wife was fed up with me being away a lot, and she quite fancied living somewhere in the country. I went in to pay my union subs one day and saw that there was a job for an assistant up in Norwich, So I wrote off, came for an interview, got the job, turned up as simple as that. That was in 1979.
One of the programmes I worked on was Tales of the Unexpected, which was a half hour programme. I can’t remember how many I did, we were quite slow in those days, I think it was a two-week shoot for each one.
I was a focus puller. In the old days the cameras were so big and heavy that they were on what was called a geared head, the tripod had a head on top which supported the camera. It had two wheels, one went horizontally, and the other tipped vertically. The operator had a viewfinder on the side of the camera and he would follow the operation by twirling these wheels. That’s a skill in itself I can assure you.
So for various technical reasons which I won’t go into, it means that if someone gets close to the camera, the viewfinder on the side had to be angled, to make sure that the framing that the operator was seeing was similar to what the camera was seeing. If it was a long way away it would be more in parallel with the camera. So because the guy had his two hands twirling he couldn’t change the focus so if someone came from a distance to close up if you left the focus in one position or the other they would go soft. It would go out of focus.
So you had what they called a focus puller whose job is to know exactly how far that person is away from the camera and tweak the focus ring on the camera which simultaneously in the old days used to adjust the viewfinder, so that the operator’s view was in keeping with that the camera was seeing.
So the crew was a clapper loader who loaded the magazines and put the clapper board on, the focus puller, the operator with his hands glued to the camera, and the lighting cameraman who was responsible for the lighting.
As a team you got to know each other and got used to the way of things. The difference between working at a company like Anglia and being a freelancer is that most freelancers tend to get together with people they know and like. A company like Anglia employs so many people that you have so many crews, so obviously you make certain compromises along the way, you know, it’s not always a free choice.
When I joined Anglia we had two sizes of film crew. We had what was called a feature crew, which was what I joined. It consisted of a cameraman and an assistant, a sound man, an electrician, and a driver. We all drove around in a big old converted van. Then there was what they called the mini crew, a three man crew that went around in estate cars. There was an electrician with his own car, a cameraman and a then a soundman who drove in another estate car.
Officially the working day was 8.30am to 5.30pm, so we did a 37 hour week and I think that we had about four weeks holiday. We were very privileged in those days as we had the old ITN agreement, which mean that we had fixed hours so anything outside of those was overtime. So that was very good.
We were always going out on location, I mean virtually every day was on location. Our area extended to Bedford in the south, a lot of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire. When Anglia first started it went up as far as Hull. We had news offices in Hull, Kings Lynn, Cambridge, Luton and Norwich obviously.
The beauty of being on location was that we were outside and dependent on the weather. You had to work out in all weathers but we were very rarely rained off completely, we would always find a way of working.
Near misses and a stunt gone wrong
I have had one or two near misses. The first drama I ever worked on with the BBC was a thing called the Canterbury Tales. We spent a month shooting all these guys in period costume in various parts of Cambridge. We got to the end of this thing and it was the very last day of the shoot and it was, ‘Lovely working with you darling, see you on the next one’ and everyone was driving off, waving. I was about to do what we call ‘can up’ which is taking the film out of the magazine, put it in a metal can, seal it up and send to the laboratory for processing. For some reason, I will never understand why, I had this magazine on top of the changing bag, sitting open, waiting for me to put in the changing bag.
I walked up to it, undid the lid, lifted it up and said an obscenity and slammed it down. My heart dropped, anyway, I sealed it up and went to the lighting cameraman and said, ‘Look, I’ve just done something really stupid’ and told him what I’d done. He said, ’Ah it’s alright, we’ll blame the labs’, because the labs were always doing things like that. About a week later I was at the old Ealing studios, as that was where the BBC were based, and I was working through the lot. I see the two directors who’d been directing the thing walking towards me. One said, ‘Hi Rog, have you heard? We’ve been so lucky’. ‘What?’ I said, he said, ‘There’s mystery fogging, the whole of the BBC are getting this mystery edge fogging. We’ve been really lucky, we’ve only had one roll’.
It was true, we had to empty loads, and loads of these little tiny cans and take ten feet off the front, put it back in the can, seal it and then at the end of that roll we had to try not to run out of film on that roll. Then we had to put the last few feet of film into another roll, make a note of every magazine so that they could trace this edge fogging. But anyway our one roll was me as it happens [laughter].
So I got away with that one. But I was blown up on Tales of the Unexpected. It was a stunt of course, it’s always a stunt with these things and it happened on the Dereham bypass just before it had opened. A car had theoretically been chased and was about to burst through the specially weakened Armco on the side. The way they did the stunt was that inside the car, which was an automatic and which had been put into first gear. There was a system of levers and pulleys inside, one held the steering in a straight line, another was connected to the accelerator and the other was to the brake.
The idea was that you put your dummy in the car, started the engine and someone put a hand through into the car releasing the lever that took the pressure off the foot to give full acceleration. They spent a couple of hours in the morning setting this up and rehearsing before shooting after lunch.
We came back after lunch and I’m on top of the edge of the bank to get a shot of the car crashing through the barrier. There was another crew down the bottom to get a close up of it coming through and another crew buried in the side to get another angle. The stunt guy had said to us, ‘You’ll be alright, if anything goes wrong I’ll just tap you on the shoulder and pull you out of the way’. I thought about this and wasn’t too sure as if it was going to burst into flames and explode there could be debris. So I suggested that we get a bit of block board to put up by the camera just in case. But when I looked at it I realised that I couldn’t pan to it, so I had it below the camera.
We put the slate on and all of a sudden this car revs up, big revving of engines. I’m focused, framed on it, looking and watching it. All of a sudden it doesn’t shoot off, it slews towards me, a piece of wood shoots out from the back of the wheel and comes trucking along as if towards me. There are a whole load of people on the bank theoretically in a safe position spectating. The stunt guy decides that he doesn’t want it to run into them so he explodes it. This thing explodes within about probably ten feet of me, there’s this huge sheet of flame blowing towards me, engulfs me in flame and on the sound track you can hear a little sort of, ‘Aagh’ like Bluebottle in The Goons [laughs]. And then finally you heard the sound man saying, ‘I think Roger’s had it’ I mean fortunately I hadn’t. I’d come to work on a motorbike and was wearing a nylon motorbike jacket and it had melted all the collar of my coat. The front of the lens of the camera which had a filter on had been splattered in burning fuel. I got a slight burn to my bald spot and I was sent off to hospital where I was given two paracetamol and sent back [laughs]. Eventually we went back out with another car and did it again.
The other incident that was of some mild excitement in my life was doing a film on leadership. They decided to follow an RAF pilot and told me that they’d arranged for me to fly in a Harrier with this guy. We turn up, get kitted out and I just managed to fit into the wooden frame that you have to sit in making sure that your knees don’t go beyond a certain point. It was a training Harrier, pilot at the front, me at the back strapped in the ejector seat. Bearing in mind that nowadays the camera you see on telly now is quite small, quite light, these ones then were quite heavy metal aluminium things, with four hundred feet of film on the back and a big lens on the front. So I was sitting in the Harrier with all this kit on, slightly apprehensive about being nauseous, a little man watching me making sure that I took the pins out to arm the ejector seat. The pilot said, ‘If there’s any problem I’ll tell you to eject’.
Basically, on the ejector seat you have a big handle between your legs which for boys is quite a sensible place to put it really as it’s the first place they respond to when in danger. It was the most amazing experience, I’ve flown lots of times, you know helicopters, light airplanes, commercial flights. But this was like driving to work in a 2CV and swapping it for a Porsche. It didn’t do a vertical takeoff but it went up pretty smartly, and when they changed direction he just flicks and stops and then flicks the other way and stops and banks, and does this zzzzip zzzip zzzzip, you can imagine.
So we got into the air, flying along, I was seeing what I could see with the camera and after about ten, fifteen minutes there’s a bit of a bang and a smell of burning. He said, ‘Right, we’re going down’ and I said, ‘Oh, okay’ and we landed at the RAF training school at Cranwell near Newark. We finally got out and he said, ‘You were very calm’ I said, ‘Was I?’ ‘Well’ he said, ‘You do realise that you were about five seconds from ejecting don’t you?’ ‘No’, ‘Yeah, we had a bird strike, I had to do an emergency relight of the engine’ He then told me that he had done it lots of times in training but never before for real.
I was presented with a series of photographs taken from above by another Harrier as I’d obviously missed the whole thing. They had documentation in case something went wrong. Coincidentally a few years later I was at a wedding and met another pilot so relayed the tale. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘That was you was it?’ It had been published in all of their manuals, recording incidents that had happened.
America, Kuwait and filming war surgeons
I have sat and thought about it and I have worked out that I have been to at least forty countries. Anglia used to send a crew over to America every year to shoot link for Survival for the Americans. In this country Survival didn’t have a presenter it was all about the animals and their narrative. But in America they used to have John Forsyth to introduce them, in a way that Roald Dahl introduced Tales of the Unexpected. So we would go across to California and Arizona every year and shoot his introduction pieces. He wasn’t that well known to us Brits but he’d been very famous in America, everywhere he went in the States ladies would come out and ask for his autograph. I remember sitting in a car with him and he told me that his agent had just offered him a job in a series but that he didn’t know whether to take it or not. The next morning he told me that he had decided to do it – that series was Dynasty, which people of my age will remember.
Whilst working for Anglia I also did a thing on surgery. I was introduced to a surgeon, who has since become a friend, who worked for the International Red Cross in Geneva. He specialised in anti-personnel mine injuries and wanted to make a training manual for war surgeons. He asked me if I knew of anyone who would do this, there was a freelance guy but he didn’t want to do it because it meant being away for a month, he probably didn’t fancy the subject matter either. Any way I got chatting with the surgeon and he asked me if I would do it. As I was still working for Anglia he worked out a deal where I was subcontracted via Anglia, and because he was a local lad we did a documentary about him, sort of local connection interest.
So we went out to a hospital in Peshawar; it wasn’t a hospital as we know it, but it had an operating theatre, and people were coming down from Afghanistan, they had trodden on anti-personnel devices so they were coming back with quite substantial injuries, limbs missing.
It was daunting but you get used to it. With a camera, once you close one eye you’re involved in what’s in front of you through the viewfinder. It was interesting ‘cos it was the first job that I was really allowed to direct as well as shoot. There were only two of us who went out there, so I had to put up all the lights and do all sorts of things.
We edited everything back here and the editor couldn’t get used to it, he never really enjoyed it. He’d get used to one patient and then when we got to the next one his head would go down and gradually his eyes would creep up and he’d look at it. It was subtitled ‘haemoglobin or the return of the corpuscle’. Typical black humour!
I went to Kuwait a week before the first Iraq war started. The East Anglian Regiment were there so we did a documentary and I was filming a lot of the build-up for war. That was pretty amazing, I have to say.
Patience ‑ a trait of a cameraman
One of the traits of a cameraman is patience – or an infinite capacity for buggering about is how I describe it.
Filming is very time-consuming, it looks easy when it’s on the screen, but quite often it’s very fiddly. It depends on what you’re actually filming, I remember doing a documentary on Stonehenge. Whenever the shoot got difficult, the director would say ‘We’ll do that on the model’. Somebody had built a large three dimensional scale model of Stonehenge, we had a small studio with cranes, jibs tracking over these things. This was before drones, which you would use now as they’re so small. So we had tracks down the side, lights put up, things like that would take days and days and days, especially when so much had been deferred to ‘the model’.
Drones came in since I retired, they’re ubiquitous now, aren’t they. There’s hardly a programme that doesn’t go out with a drone operator. I was the sort of go to guy at Anglia for helicopter shoots for a few years. I’d sort of go and hang out of the side of the helicopter when people wanted aerial shots of something. Probably the best fun shoot I ever did with a helicopter was following The Mallard on the Classic run from York to I think Harrogate, somewhere like that. We had to fly up to York and shoot as it went along.
It turned out to be an all day job because it was foggy in Norwich we couldn’t leave Norwich for hours. The pilot then said that he was getting bored of waiting and said that we would just follow the power line, he said that he knew that the fog only extended for about 40 miles and that he wasn’t supposed to but we followed the power lines [laughter].
Retirement and the next generation
I’ve done some bits after retiring, my wife works with a production company so I’m sort of involved with them on a few projects. In some ways technology has moved on, it’s a lot lighter and a lot easier. But there’s a lot more pressure, time pressure, cost pressure.
What have I done in my retirement? Well I did a Fine Art degree at the Arts School, and an MA. I enjoyed it, but me being me, being a student is a bit like being a cameraman, ‘cos you bugger about a lot. You make a mess and you try things, it’s experimental and it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun. Except that when you’re an art student you have to be a bit more intense about it and find a justification for it.
I mean, in some ways we had it easy because of trade unionism. You know you couldn’t just say, ‘Oh I’m going to make a film‘ it had to be done, the right number of people on the crew, there was policing to a certain extent, people would check that you’d got a union card.
So for young people now if they’ve got an idea and can find someone to finance it anybody can join in. But of course there are loads and loads of universities and colleges all producing students, all of whom have a brilliant idea for a script, all of whom want to be a director, and they’re all out there competing. But again the market’s a lot bigger, you know. When I was young there was the BBC and ITV then Channel 4. Now there is Netflix, all this streaming the market is insatiable.
I was on holiday two, three years ago and there were people wandering around with a still camera on a little hand device doing all sorts of things. And you know they were just being tourists they were actually doing something, YouTube or something you know. I could have been an influencer [laughs].
I remember when I first started in the business all the old boys said, Oh we feel really sorry for you, we’ve had the best days out of this industry’. And I had a brilliant time and I look at the kids now shooting with their still cameras and I think,’ Why are they doing that?’ You see them all with their booms doing their sound, they’ve got their clipboards. And I think that it’ll be brilliant for them as well. You know it’ll be different, but it’ll be just as much fun.
Roger Bunting (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 4th June 2021.
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