My family spent a few days on the north Norfolk coast recently. One day we went to nearby Burnham Market for lunch. The little town is a bit like Islington on Sea in terms of the shops and visitors. Turns out that every Monday during the summer they have an open air auction on the green. As I wandered around the second hand bikes and lawn mowers, and boxes of bric a brac being eyed up by a throng of car boot sellers, I came across a couple of old canvas director’s chairs folded and leaning unloved against a tree in the shade. Opening up the least worm eaten and rickety, I saw the following legend carefully hand written in fading letters:
Douglas Slocombe, Lighting Cameraman.
As a cinematography nerd in my teens, I knew exactly who he was, and assumed others would as well. I was excited.
Douglas Slocombe was one of the great British film makers, not a director but a cameraman associated with a long list of award winning movies, from the Ealing comedies of the fifties, through classics like The Great Gatsby, The Italian Job, The Servant and The Music Lovers, through to the Indiana Jones movies. He won multiple BAFTA’s and other British and American cinematography awards, and was thrice nominated for an Academy Award. The son of a journalist, he had originally planned to be a news photographer and ended up a film maker for The Ministry of Information, making wartime documentaries. His work on British and American movies over four decades marked him out as one of the greats of cinema. He died in February earlier this year, aged 103.
Anyone like me who grew up marvelling at the visual imagery of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Ken Russell, and wanting to be a visual story teller themselves, knew Slocombe’s name. I assumed some of the well heeled Burnham Market holiday folks on the green would too and prepared for a bidding war with some holidaying humanities professor.
In the end barely anyone (“who the blazes was he?” remarked one auction regular) gave the chair or it’s fading writing a second glance and I got it uncontested for a fiver. It sits in my study amongst shelves of books on cinema, art and photography.
In the days of Hollywood remakes of film classics, franchise movie series, Instagram and Vine, it would be sad to forget a British pioneer of cinematic art.