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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


Sir Sydney Samuelson and Real Picture Quality
A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson. Recorded in London, Monday 17 October 2011 + 28 January 2012

The 70mm Newsletter
Interviewed by: Thomas Hauerslev. Transcribed for in70mm.com by Brian Guckian. Proofread by Sir Sydney Samuelson and Mark Lyndon for accuracy. Images by Thomas Hauerslev, unless otherwise notedDate: 26.08.2013

How Lucky can you be

TH: I think we should stop; now, when I usually do interviews like this, I ask the Interviewee to sort of think just quickly about what it’s like to talk about all these things after all these years – it usually makes a very good ending of things, when the Interviewee reflects on me coming from Denmark and talking to you, asking a few questions – and then you sort of put out all your experiences.

Sir Sydney: Well, first of all I’m lucky, because I keep reading about people who are asked if they would be interviewed, and who say, “No, I don’t do interviews”. I actually enjoy being interviewed, and I think it’s much because I love history, in general – and I love, even more than history in general, the history, the nostalgia of our industry. And being lucky enough to be part of our family, in this business for five generations – 1910 my Dad had his cinema – his little temporary cinema, in Southport, Lancashire, with his immigrant mother helping him.

I am lucky enough to be part of a large and close family, that kind of tradition. And I suppose, having experienced so many wonderful events, happenings, almost adventures, and having met so many people – good and not so good! – my watchwords are, “How lucky can you be”. And to find somebody interviewing me, from Denmark, who speaks perfect English – who knows more about Cinema and movies than I know (which is saying something, I suppose), even if that sounds a bit pretentious for me to be saying, but I know about the history of Cinema, because I’ve been in it for more than 70 years, and – I read a lot, and I’m interested in people – whatever the success I may have had in running a major worldwide business concern, I’ve just been the man in the top office, and I’ve been lucky enough in so many ways, including that I seem to have been able to pick out really good people to work with me.

So that’s my philosophy, and I’ve no complaints about what my life has brought me, none at all.

TH: Excellent – it’s been a privilege, I really enjoyed it –

Sir Sydney: I hope we’re going to meet many times again, and you’re going to come, you and your children and your wife – tell me your wife’s name?

TH: Charlotte – two “t”’s and an “e” – Charlotte.

Sir Sydney: Charlotte...my second–youngest grand–daughter, the one who’s 17 - that’s her there, when she was about 5, I think – she’s now 17, and she’s absolutely lovely. I so enjoy the sayings of my children and grand–children over the years – I haven’t got them all written down, but I do remember them from time to time. And I remembered one yesterday, that lovely little thing said when she was about eight, she came home from school, and said, “I wish to announce I am now vegetarian...except for sausages” [Laughter]. Which hasn’t got too much to do with film and television, not a bit!

TH: Well let me just finish by telling you two things, in relation to family and things, which I’ll just recall: I have two children, Maria and August, and I too have a piece of paper with two columns, one for each child, and all the funny things they say. And now they speak perfectly, so I don’t update it anymore – like you, I’ve done that. And, you also mentioned things that your father said to you – my father died ten years ago, when I was 40 – eight years ago. And we never really got along very well – and I didn’t really feel I was like him. So when he dies, you reflect on things: I did it in a way that I wrote down all the silly things I say – one–liners, two or three words, and realised that that was what I had from my father – beyond a lot of other things of course.

So when the Church ceremony was over we all went to a club where he came regularly – we invited all the friends. Of course it was sad, but I like to think that I changed it to a very cheery mood – because I used this A4 paper with all the things that he said, which I came to realise that I have sort of inherited this from my Dad. And people were laughing.

Sir Sydney: That’s marvellous. I really enjoy making people laugh. And at this Tribute Lunch, I decided I wasn’t going to bore everybody by making a formal speech. I played it by ear, I just had a card with what I call “bullet points” – just to remind me. And I always like to make it light–hearted, if I can. And here I was, in front of this wonderful audience, who had all paid money, if you please, to come have lunch in tribute to Sydney Samuelson. We had – I don’t know if you know of a personality called Stephen Fry – well he stood up to talk about me and why, in his opinion, all the 451 people were there, and he can be very funny. And I then had to respond.
Home: A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson
Cinema was always in my Family
Panavision, Bob Gottschalk and The Answering Machine
Stanley Kubrick, "Tom Jones" and one point
Dickie Dickenson, David Lean and British Quota Film
Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Takuo Miyagishima, Robert Gottschalk and a 20:1 Zoom
David Lean and The Friese-Greene Award
Thunderball, Zhivago, Techniscope, and Fogging a roll of film
Ken Annakin, "Grand Prix", James Bond, Helicopters

More in 70mm reading:

The Importance of Panavision
A Message from Freddie A. Young
Stanley Kubrick
Shooting "Lawrence of Arabia"
Memories of Ryan's Daughter
Joe Dunton
Ken Annakin
70mm in London 1958 - 2012
The editor Receives BKSTS award

Internet link:

George Berthold "Bertie" Samuelson (1889 - 1947) (PDF)
Samuelson Film Service (reunion)

The Argus
British Film Industry Salute

'Strictly Sydney'
Clapper Board Part 1
Clapper Board Part 2

St. Mary's 1963
And I hadn’t given it much thought, but I had my bullet points, and I finished on a little story, whereby I say, “In this crazy industry, that most of us sitting here have been involved in, for so many years, one of the best things about it all is that although you may have noticed that a lot of people in our business have egos – you notice that? Sometimes, you find someone with an ego? Only occasionally?” That got a laugh, because there are a lot of people who’ve got very big egos, in our industry. I said, “Well, the good thing is, our industry has a wonderful habit of making those egos crash to the ground!” And I said, “I think I’ve got as much of an ego as anybody I know – but thank goodness for you all, there have been plenty of people, who if they thought I’ve got too big for my boots – ” – do you know that expression? – “ – they do something about curbing my ego”.

“And I’ll tell you two examples, and then we should all go home, or go back to our jobs – ” - as I said that, I thought in my mind, “By the way, who has been looking after the whole of the British film and television industry while we’re all in here, having lunch?” That got a laugh. And then I said, “Now, back to the ego-crashers”. I said, “When I was first made the British Film Commissioner, I was amazed; I came out of BAFTA, and on the other side of Piccadilly there was a man selling The Evening Standard. And he has a poster below his pile of newspapers, and it looks like it’s been done in longhand – it’s actually done at the newspaper distribution office, and everybody gets the same poster –

TH: Oh that’s the photo you have – I saw that –

Sir Sydney: Yes, that’s another one – it’s the same thing though – “Britain Gets a Film Boss” – that was the headline. And then I saw – when I’d just been appointed – this poster, in front of this newspaper seller in Piccadilly, right opposite BAFTA – “Britain Gets a Film Boss”. I sort of knew it was probably reporting that the government – the Thatcher government – had appointed, for the first time, a British Film Commissioner. So I walked over there, and getting money out of my pocket, I said to the chap, wearing his cloth cap, who I bought papers from for years – I said, “Hello”. He said, “Hello, guv’nor”. I said, “What’s all this about? – ‘Britain Gets a Film Boss’”? He said, “Oh, it’s just some bloke”. I said, “Oh, I see”. I said, “I hope it’s on the front page”. He said, “Nah” (Cockney slang for “Certainly NOT”) – “I’ll show it to you”. And he opens the newspaper, and on page 3 is the same headline – “Britain Gets a Film Boss”, and the picture. The article was about half a page – and there was the picture: a head and shoulders of me. And then he said, “Here he is, guv’nor, look”. And I said, “Well who is he then?” And he said, “Well, I’ll have to read it, won’t I...‘Sydney...Samuelson’ – that’s what it says”. And he looked me in the eye, and said, “I’ve never heard of the bugger, have you?”

TH: And you knew the man from years and years of buying newspapers!

Sir Sydney: Yes! [Laughter] So that got a laugh...and then, my favourite story is when again, when I knew I was going to get a Knighthood, you get told six weeks before. And you’re told before because they want to know that it would meet with your own approval – because some people say, “I don’t want a bloody Knighthood”, or, “I don’t want anybody to decorate me”, or, “I don’t agree with the – ” – it’s called the Honours System. So they want to know that an intended recipient is not going to kick up a fuss – they’d rather not award an honour, than have the chap or woman refuse it, for whatever personal reason they may have.

So you get a nice printed white card, with a gold edge round it, and it says, “Her Majesty the Queen has in mind to Award you the Honour of Knighthood. But before doing so, She would like to ensure that this would meet with your approval” – words like that – they’re maybe not the exact words. Now, that was the first I knew that it was going to happen. And then you’re asked not to discuss it – and that is six weeks before the actual Investiture – sorry, six weeks before the announcement is printed – it happens twice a year, and it’s printed in the Saturday edition of what they call “the quality papers” – like The Times, Telegraph and so on – I don’t think it gets in the tabloid newspapers – and it happens on the Queen’s Birthday celebration, which is in the middle of the year, and then it happens again at the New Year. So it’s called either the Birthday Honours or the New Year Honours.

So I decided that on the Friday night before the press announcement was due, for the 11 people with me at the Commission – I was going to tell them what would be in the paper the following day, because not everybody reads them, as there are several hundreds of names, for all sorts of Honours, different grades and so on. They always print the Knighthoods first, and in full – there’s usually, I would say, ten to fifteen Knighthoods, each time. And so everybody looks to see who’s going to be “Sir”, or “Dame”. I knew that some would read it. And I kind of didn’t like the idea of these really good young people who worked with me not knowing a thing about it until they read it in the paper. So I decided I’d tell them, but not until the evening before it would be in the paper.

Sir Sydney Samuelson and Thomas, January 2012

And I decided, in my pompous manner, exactly what I was going to say. First I went into our office manager – 45-, 50-year-old hard-working woman – and there she was, in her little office, poring over some poor devil’s petty cash expenses list that he’s hoping our office manager will approve, and pay him the cash. For a taxi ride, or whatever it was, and so on. She didn’t even look up, and I said, “Lisa, I’ve got something I want to tell you – ” With that, she almost leapt out of her chair and yelled, “Oh my God, what is it?” I suppose she thought I was going to fire her that Friday night. I said, “It’s nothing awful! It’s just something I wanted you to know”. She said, “Well what is it then? It must be awful”. I said, “Why are you so negative, Lisa – why do you say ‘It must be awful’?” And she said, “Well, for one thing, you’ve closed the door behind you. You never close the door when you come into my office”. So I said, “Well, it’s just that I wanted to tell you – ” – and the words I’d worked out were, “This is the last day, probably, that you’ll call me ‘Mister’”. To which she said, without missing a beat – “Oh, having a sex–change are we?” [Laughter]

But you’re right – if you can make people see the funny side of things, and even a funeral – my brother Tony, who was the eccentric out of the four brothers – brilliant guy, qualified as a barrister aged 19 – he was absolutely hilarious. He died about two years ago, now – and he had left strict instructions about the style of his funeral. First of all, there was to be a jazz band, and sure enough, there were four marvellous jazzers playing away when we went into the chapel (it was a cremation). He had specified, if they wished to, who should speak, and I suppose there were six of us – all said some words, very short, as we knew there would be half a dozen people speaking. And in each case, we talked about something funny that had happened between Tony and ourselves. And people still say to me, “I’ll never forget Tony’s funeral”, because it was such a fun occasion.

The other thing was, he said, “I don’t want to come in a Rolls-Royce hearse; I want to come in a truck”. And so his three sons found a pick-up truck, and painted it beautifully. And that’s how his coffin arrived. Nobody in black coats bringing the coffin in – he wanted his sons and their friends to be the ones. And so it was the most un-serious funeral I’ve ever been to; and everybody loved it. And actually, when you think of it Tom, it doesn’t make any difference to the person concerned, does it?

Come on, you’d better go home!
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