Sir Sydney Samuelson

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Interview Date(s): 
13 Jun 2017
7 Jul 2017
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Interview notes
Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE, has been interviewed on three separate occasions for The British Entertainment History Project.
First Interview (on Audio)  No: 42. Covered his family, his early days in the film and television industries and the creation with his brothers of the Samuelson Group of Companies.
Second Interview (on Camera) No: 706. Covered how he became Britain's first British Film Commissioner.
Third Interview (on Camera) No: 706 (continued) Covered his role as British Film Commissioner, a remarkable and frank assessment of his six years in the job, including the role of government and of the British film and television industries at the time, the difficulties included  during his six years as Commissioner having to deal with nine different government 'Films Ministers', but there was also success. Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan'is one example among many others, chiefly from the US.

Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE (1925 to 2022)

The First British Film Commissioner (1991 to 1996)

By Derek Threadgall  (A Personal View)

I first met Sydney in the 1970s when I was sent to interview him for a film magazine. My first impression of him was apprehension. How was I going to interview this titan of the British film industry, but Sydney soon put me at ease. From that moment, a relationship was formed which remained until his death on December 14th 2022 when aged 97.

 He was always at the end of a telephone should I need advice or help.  On one occasion, he said to me, ’You really should see my brother David who has something you will find interesting. Tell him I sent you’. David Samuelson (1924 to 2015) ,was a little perplexed when I turned up to meet him in his flat, until I mentioned that Sydney had sent me, and that David had something to show me. The ‘something’ was the camera lens that was used to shoot ‘The Robe’ (1953), the first distributed Cinemascope film from 20th Century Fox.

Sydney became Britain’s first Film Commissioner. His appointment came about after a meeting with Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in 10, Downing Street where film makers including Richard Attenborough and David Putnam had persuaded the Prime Minister to create a new body to support British Film and to encourage overseas studios, directors and producers to use British locations and talent. The result was the British Film Commission (Now part of the Film Council). As a producer and head of the world’s largest  film equipment  hire company, Sydney was the  industry insider proposed to head the Commission. It wasn’t long before Sydney was ready to promote the Commission to the British film industry at large. It was a tricky baptism of fire. I could see on individual’s expressions that they were sceptical , although  Sydney produced an excellent analysis of how the Commission was going to work. His work with the Commission could be frustrating as he had to work with nine government ‘films ministers’, each of whom stayed as a ‘films minister’ only for a  few months.

There also is an excellent obituary for Sydney in The Times, Saturday, December 17th 2022.   

A major development created by Sydney was a Check Book guide to film production in the UK, a guide to the British Film Commission and the UK Commission Network.

Demobbed from the RAF in 1947, Sydney joined the Colonial Film Unit and was posted to East Africa. By 1953, he was back in Britain and from a position in Westminster Abbey’s south transept he filmed  Elizabeth 11’s Coronation in colour for Movietone News. Unfortunately, a spring broke in his clockwork camera as he was preparing to film the crown being placed on Elizabeth’s head. Fortunately, he had another camera body with him, so he quickly took the camera off it’s mount, put the other body on, transferred the magazine and the lens and just managed to capture the moment the crown was  being placed on the Queen’s head.

In 2020, Sydney woite a Foreword to my book ‘Shepperton Studios – A Personal View’, quoting Sydney’s opening Foreword comments.‘When the privilege of being asked to write the introduction to Derek Threadgall’s new book about our extraordinary industry, I was naturally delighted. Shepperton Studios has such a legendary status as far as world film making is concerned, so I soon began shaking up my memories of actually working at the place, albeit just off and on, but spanning many years – seventy eight of them, in fact. True, I was very junior when I was first there, just a humble 17 year old trainee borrowed  from the London headquarters of the Gaumont British newsreel. The reason I found myself working in a proper feature film studio (then sometimes excitingly  known as ‘Sound City’), was only to do with labouring.  It was nothing more interesting than humping a large quantity of rusty, fire hazardous cans of 35mm film from greater London to a safer place out in the country. It happens that the studio itself was located just up the road from the Vickers -Armstrong Spitfire assembly factory. ’

Sydney Wylie Samuelson was born in Paddington, London in 1925 the second of four sons to George  ‘Bertie’ Samuelson, a pioneering British film director and Marjorie (nee Vint) who appeared in a number of her husband’s 1920’s silent movies under the name Marjorie Slater. Sydney’s grand parents had arrived in Britain as refugees from the pogroms in eastern Europe and throughout his life, he was proud of his Jewish heritage.

Despite operating at the cutting edge of film technology, friends noted with amusement that he tended to be challenged by the lowest-of equipment tech pieces so that, for example, opening a bottle of tomato ketchup invariably involved covering the table and himself. Many of the leading directors who hired equipment from him, became friends, including,  Stanley KubrIck who used Samuelson’s kit to make ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and David Lean who hired Samuelson’s cameras to make ‘Dr Zhivago’ and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.

Sadly, Sydney’s wife of 73 years, Lady Doris (nee Magen), died 19th April 2022. Sydney is survived by their sons, Peter, Marc and Jonathan two of whom became film producers.