“Pinching pictures”: Alf Tunwell and the art of the newsreel

Fifty-five years ago Ralph Bond, documentary filmmaker and Vice-President of the ACTT film and television union, sat down in the union’s offices in Soho Square to interview Alf (“A.A.”) Tunwell, doyen of Britain’s cinema newsreel camera operators. The audio interview is now part of the History Project collection, has recently been digitised and uploaded, and is a sheer delight.


It clips along efficiently, runs for less than an hour, and had obviously been meticulously prepped by Ralph Bond. He gently guides Alf through his career, and prompts him to share his favourite anecdotes. And as a result we get a fascinating insight into the lost world of the cinema newsreel, focussing mainly on the period from the 1920s to the 1940s.


But because the interview itself was conducted in 1963, and we are listening to it over half a century later, we get a second layer of historical reflection. In the 1960s, newsreel films were still part of the staple cinema diet, alongside advertisements, trailers for upcoming pictures, the B-movie, and the main feature. So Ralph and Alf look forward from their 1963 vantage-point to speculate on the future prospects of the cinema newsreel, while we look back from 2018 knowing that it finally faded away in the 1970s.


Alf’s career started before the First World War as an office boy with the Warwick Trading Company, founded by ‘actuality’ film pioneer Charles Urban. From there he moved to Barker Motion Photography (early owners of the site which would later become Ealing Studios) and G.B. Samuelson’s operation at Worton Hall in Isleworth (the Samuelson dynasty is still very much with us). By this time he had moved on from office duties to technical work, initially in the dark-room as a developer, then as a camera hand-cranker, and finally as an operator.


Alf stayed with Samuelson through the ‘20s, but in 1929 he joined British Movietone News which was setting up the country’s first sound newsreel. His stories about the rivalries between the newsreel companies – Gaumont, Movietone, Paramount, Pathé, Universal - are a treat. For instance: at each big sporting event such as a Grand National or FA Cup Final, only one company would have a license giving them official access. Crews working for the other companies would therefore try to “pinch pictures” as best they could, through bribery or deviousness or both. And the license-holder, naturally, would try to stop them. As Alf tells it, it was all good clean fun and everybody met in the pub afterwards for a drink and a laugh. But to find out what exactly he got up to in his efforts to “pinch pictures” on behalf of Movietone, log into the interview and listen to the man himself.


During the Second World War Alf helped the Canadian Army to set up its own film unit, training over 200 soldiers in the use of lightweight cameras. Later in the 1940s he worked with MGM, and his final long-term job was as Head of the Camera Department with the UK end of the US newsreel company Hearst Metrotone News. By the time he sat down with Ralph Bond in 1963, he was a grand old man of the cinema newsreel having seen it develop from its silent origins, through the advent of sound, and of colour, and so on to its final eclipse by television.


You’ll find the interview at https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/alf-tunwell .