Fred Gamage

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
5 Jul 2000
18 Oct 2000
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

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Born 1916 in Camberwell, S.E.London.

His father had died and his mother had to arrange for him to be cared for by someone who lived at Forest Hill. He went to elementary school at Peckham and from there to secondary school. He had to leave at 15 in order to help his mother financially because she worked very hard and needed the  money with which to bring him up this hard start in life left him feeling rather bitter about social justice and he, not unnaturally, developed left wing tendencies which remained with him throughout his career.

She wanted him to become a ‘City Gent’, working in the City, and that's just what he did become for a short period. He worked as an office messenger for a catering firm, quickly lost interest, and was out of a job. The year was 1931. After several uninteresting jobs, he happened to read a newspaper ad whilst travelling on top of a bus.

The ad[vert] was for a young lad required to work as an assistant for a film company in Oxford Street. He applied and was taken on by the Empire Marketing Board where he first met John Grierson and many of the great and famous in the British documentary film movement. The year was 1932, about the time of his sixteenth birthday.

The organisation was managed by New Era Films who were responsible for the accountancy and salaries etc.

His job was to run messages, take rushes to the Labs for processing and deliver and collect films from the library which kept him continually on the move. Another of his jobs was to look after the Newman Sinclair camera and act as a projectionist at the Oxford Street premises. He talks about some of the early documentaries which impressed him, particularly SONG of CEYLON. He remembers viewing much of John Taylor's work. [BEHP Interview No 34] He often carried out general duties in the cutting room and was appalled to see Basil Wright smoking whilst handling nitrate stock and accidentally dropping a lighted cigarette end into the film bin! Projection room equipment included Kalee 7, and later, Kalee 8 machines with low-intensity, hand-fed carbon arcs and a BTH sound system.

He remembers meeting my father, [the recordist and summariser] David Robson Sen., who was in charge of technical facilities, and who was also known as 'Doc Robson', for reasons we debated. Fred remembers one particular incident when he went to the IEE [Institute of Electrical Engineers] headquarters on the Embankment with my father to give a screening of Arthur Elton's AERO ENGINE. Apparently, the film broke above the take-up spool and they were soon knee-deep in nitrate stock! Fred was impressed with the calm manner in which 'Doc Robson' located the end and fed it back onto the take-up spool without stopping the show. (This operation was standard practice, and all projectionists learn these skills at an early stage in their career. Ed.)

As a projectionist, Fred talks about Grierson 's dictatorial manner when, on one occasion, he was asked to run negative stock.

Fred refused to do so in case the neg was scratched on the projector, and nearly lost his job over it! He goes on to explain the difficulties in performing single-handed changeovers.

Whilst working with Marian Grierson {Interview No 104] on one occasion, she asked him to take the Newman Sinclair and to 'go out and shoot something - see what you can do'. He decided to go to Horse Guards Parade, manhandling the cumbersome equipment on, and off, a London bus. He asked someone what was going on and was informed that the Duke of York was coming along. So, he set up the camera and was lucky enough to shoot the Duke and Duchess as they passed him in an open carriage.

He tried a pan for the first time as they performed the Royal wave to him - there was no one else present except for a few Guardsmen and policemen!

Fred talks about early membership of ACT during his GPO Film Unit days. Max Anderson and Ralph Bond's names are mentioned. Grierson was approached.

He recalls working with Marian Grierson on several documentaries such as BESIDE THE SEASIDE and FOR ALL ETERNITY.

His next appointment was at the GPO Film Unit, having been taken on by Cavalcanti to work in the Stills Department. His return to the GPO Film Unit, however, was coloured by the fact that Cavalcanti did not have the authority to engage him, but in the event, he was allowed to stay.


When the Unit moved from Soho to Blackheath, Fred was engaged in animation work, (rostrum camera) filming Cravings a few frames at a time. Whilst this work was in progress, the studio was being lagged for sound.


Continues with rostrum camera work. After that he was lent out by the GPO in 1938 to work as a member of a camera team for the Royal Navy Film Unit to make a film called OUR ISLAND NATION. He was on a frigate during a rough passage in the Bay of Biscay, and just wanted to die. He recalls his experiences at sea, and ashore, including a night in gaol at Malta as a result of a drunken spree with the boys!

When he returned to the GPO Film Unit at Blackheath, Humphrey Jennings was making films there, and he talks at great length about the man and the way he achieved his camera set-ups. He mentions his agility - like a mountain goat - and his apparent inability to communicate.

Fred's first experience as a featured cameraman was with Pat Jackson [Interview No 185], filming the floods at Horsey Mere, Norfolk. He also remembers working with Pat Jackson, this time as a lighting cameraman on CABLE SHIP. Then came the war and the curious transition period when the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit.

He was sent to Clevedon to photograph a story for the GPO about the village post office with Ralph Elton, staying at the family seat, Clevedon Hall, and recalls the many instances of what he calls Victorian snobbery. It was quite an experience and very uncomfortable for him. Fred remembers doing some work on SQUADRON 992 in 1940. COASTAL COMMAND was another picture at this time. He went to Iceland to film the arrival of the American Air

Force. He compares the extravagant wearing apparel of the American servicemen compared to our own men in battledress. When the Unit returned to Hendon they had to account to Customs for all their acquisitions in Iceland, which included cigarettes, nylon stockings, and material for making suits etc, all of which was in short supply in wartime Britain.


Continues with Customs. After a detailed search, the Customs man discovered all the contraband despite attempts to cover it up.                                              However Fred was allowed to keep the nylons after he explained that they were intended as a present for his future wife.

Unfortunately, the exposed stock was nearly all destroyed due to a bath failure at Denham Labs.

John Taylor and his achievements including the hand development of rushes for MAN of ARAN is discussed.

Fred talks about his work with Jennings on DIARY FOR TIMOTHY and how he learnt a great deal about composition. DEFEATED PEOPLE, shot in Germany, is also mentioned.

The improvement in black and white film stock in relation to speed is discussed. He was on an armed escort trawler with Ralph Elton at some point during the war obtaining material for another film, when they were strafed by a German aircraft at night. But it was too dark to expose any material because of the lack of fast film. There is also an interesting account of incidents aboard the trawler involving Fred.

More on Jennings and the way he objected to anyone moving the camera after it had been locked off for a set-up. He continues on the subject of DEFEATED PEOPLE, when in battledress and badged as a War Correspondent he absorbed the atmosphere just after hostilities had ceased, and describes details of the filming in various cities.

Fred talks about his work on BROAD FOURTEEN, made before the Normandy invasion. The Unit was based at Weymouth and the subject was MTB's.[Motor Torpedo Boats] Details of the shoot, the many interesting characters involved with the production and some of the amusing incidents and practical jokes that ensued, are well documented.


Continues with BROAD FOURTEEN and the practica1 jokes. DAYBREAK IN UDI was the next film, photographed in Africa by Fred. There were problems with lighting and the Unit suffered raids by robbers. Some of the tropical vegetation scenes were re-shot on location in England.

The picture received an Oscar for the best short film of 1949.

Mention is made of FAMILY AFFAIR, shot at a children 's home in Hampshire, also OUT OF TRUE, shot in a mental home.

After he joined The Producers Guild he worked on a number of short films and was a member of the pool of cameramen. He mentions medical films depicting the surgical details of operations and found it an interesting experience.

He joined Aims of Industry in the mid-fifties as a cameraman/director where he made an industrial film about the roads of Britain.


Continues with Aims of Industry - the set-up. He made several films for them: he was his own boss, could engage his own editor, writer, commentator and sound recording crew as required.

Someone in the organisation discovered that he had leanings towards the left, politically, although this did not affect his standing with the Group. Forever, the PR man, Don Hunt, who gave him the job, and who was above Fred, was going to be fired for some reason, and it was suggested that Fred should take the job.

Out of sheer loyalty to the man, Fred decided to leave as well, thus turning down a great opportunity with a rewarding salary.

Mention is now made of the Coal Board Film Unit in which Fred was offered a job. He photographed some MINING REVIEWS, but was doubtful at first, about going underground. Eventually, however, he came to admire the camaraderie of the miners and was invited to visit their homes.

He talks about the problems and frustrations of shooting underground with the Newman Sinclair which tended to jam. The high precision movement was particularly prone to problems with some Kodak stock due to inaccuracies in the perforating. He goes on to explain how the Newman Sinclair worked, and how the camera had to be reloaded in the field after a jam. Changing bags were known as 'mum's knickers'! After a shoot, he refers to the pleasure of taking a shower in the open plan ablutions.

An amusing story is told about a female member of the film crew and how her presence moderated the language. Elaborate plans were made as to how her privacy could be protected if she chose to relieve herself. In the event, she didn’t. In this context, it was normal practice for men to simply unzip, wherever they happened to be, and address the coalface.

There is a discussion on how the major industries were systematically destroyed by government under the influence of capitalism.


His job with the Coal Board was his last before retirement at 65. There followed a discussion about various personalities who had worked for the Coal Board.

The high spots of his career he suggests, were being employed by Crown, the Coal Board, and working with Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt.

INSTRUMENTS of the ORCHESTRA was photographed by Fred at Pinewood and he talks about the problems. It was his most important lighting job for Crown.

A general discussion about Humphrey continues.


More about Humphrey [Jennings] and some of the legendary anecdotes about him.

[END OF FIRST INTERVIEW.] Notes from the second interview will be found a little lower down the page, as Side Seven. [DS]

C0MMENT[by Dave Robson]: What can one say about a man who gave up a promising career with a rewarding salary, who stood by his principles and did the right thing for the man who gave him his job? They just don't make 'em like that anymore. (Ed)

FRED GAMAGE was interviewed by JOHN LEGARD.

DAVID MATHER ROBSON recorded it and wrote this Summary.

I make the usual disclaimer about the correct spelling of some names which may need to be verified. For the BECTD History Project.


A Summary of the [second] FRED GAMAGE Interview (Revisited) File 478.


Fred talks about the last days of Crown: If one includes his GPO Film Unit period, the total number of years he worked for both organisations was 20. Mainly going freelance for the rest of his career.

In 1962 or thereabouts he was sent to Wales to photograph a stee1 works. British Steel were opening a new plant and the Queen was going along to inspect it.

The production company was Verity who usually produced British Steel’s films under contract.

The film director was David Villiers and Fred's assistant cameraman was George Gill.

The set-up is described. They were shooting from a platform, taking a low angle shot, filming the molten steel as it was poured. Suddenly, there was an explosion, thought to be due to condensation, which showered the crew with molten metal.

Fred goes on to describe the dreadful events - people were enveloped in flames, burning from head to toe. Fred ended up in hospital with multiple burns and suffered a permanently damaged foot.

George Gill lost his life. No footage remains of the tragedy because the camera was virtually incinerated.

Whilst Fred was still in shock, he asked the nurse about his younq friend, George Gill. The nurse did'nt know how to explain his death to him and simply said, "You saw him, what do you think?” Later, David Villers also died.

ACTT Was involved with the compensation discussions, and eventually Fred was awarded £1000.George Gill's mother received just £50, a situation which was upsetting to Fred, as well. He mentions the legal loophole in the small print which resulted in this tasteless award.

Whilst Cavalcanti was setting up film production in Brazil, Fred was invited to go as a cameraman, but eventually decided to stay in England for family reasons.

The remainder of side 7 is taken up with details previously recorded during our first visit on the 5th July.


Although previously recorded as a subject, he provides fresh details of his work for the Coal Board. He also talks about the medical films which were mentioned during the first session and provides the gory details! 16mm Kodachrome stock was used and the camera was an Arriflex.




COMMENT [by Dave Robson]:- The reason for our second visit was to persuade Fred to talk about the steel works tragedy, a subject he is naturally reluctant to mention.

Although hesitant at times, the full horror is revealed. I personally found it highly emotional to even write about it. (Ed)

FRED GAMAGE was interviewed by JOHN LEGARD. DAVID MATHER ROBSON recorded it and wrote the Summary and makes the usual disclaimer about the correct spelling of some names which may need to be verified.

For the BECTU History Project.