Philip Bonham-Carter

Philip Bonham-Carter
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Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
5 Oct 2018
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Interview notes

Philip's career and thoughts about the way the BBC has changed across his time with them, as well as key moments such as working in Vietnam, and working with the Royal family.


Born 1945, Gerard’s Cross Buckinghamshire, and educated at St Paul’s School; Family antecedents meant that he spoke French before he spoke English so brought up in a very “French” atmosphere, which led to a love of French film. Father’s plan for Philip was the hotel management business, and he worked as a commis waiter, discovering that Arnold Wesker’s play The Kitchen was all too realistic! Not for him.

A contact of his mother’s, Les Bowie, found him a job in a unit on a Slough trading estate next door to where Gerry Anderson was doing Thunderbirds at the time. Bowie was engineering special effects for companies like Hammer and Philip got a holiday job there. They were doing two films. Ray Harryhausen was there working with Les on The First Men in the Moon; Philip worked on that and noticed that the people working with cameras seemed to be doing the interesting jobs; he was taught to load 1,000 foot magazines of film. Fascinated seeing guys working on glass matte paintings; tells about being responsible for putting tiles on a farmhouse roof with room for a rocket to pass through for a scene with an inverted Mitchell camera and the ensuing ‘error’. He worked there for about six months earning about £6 a week.

Eventually ended up at the London School of Film Technique, which he speaks highly of. [10.00 minutes]. Then freelanced as a camera assistant. National Coal Board for a while; the ACTT ran a ‘closed shop’. [only union members could be employed. DS] BBC holiday relief as a camera assistant. Refers to the Association of Broadcasting Staff. Distinct feeling that tv work was down the list as far as film people were concerned, and the BBC was a cross between a public school and the army. At Ealing: sports jackets and ties. Worked for one day on Cathy Come Home. Admits to being out of his depth focus pulling at first. After about 6 months in Dec 1966, became full time. The ‘golden years’ of the BBC in terms of film-making and people working there. You worked with a given cameraman for six or nine months if you got on. Asked to go for an interview with Head of Documentaries, Richard Cawston, not knowing that this was for a film about the Royal Family. Peter Bartlett was also present. [20.00 minutes] They soon were filming a day at Lord’s cricket ground and spent a year following the Queen. He explains how the project had come about and that he was on it almost full time. He talks about the technical set up. The crew included Johnny Austin, Sound Recordist Peter Edwards; two electricians; Barbara Saxon who was Bill’s formidable p.a.

Talks a bit more about the BBC system of working. The Royal film was shown in December 1969 and there was no Christmas Broadcast; it was decided that they would be shot on film from then on until much later when it reverted to being an Outside Broadcast. And from 1976 Philip did them after being made up in late 1975.

[30 minutes] 1973 and Francois Truffaut is the subject of Omnibus. Michael Darlow initiated the project, just after Truffaut had made Day for Night and Philip talks lovingly about the experience.

Talks about the origins of The Family directed by Paul Watson. No lights, shot as it happened, filters on the windows, just the room lights. Loved it and loved shooting it and it’s never going to happen again. You become a director. Shot with one camera only, Franc Roddam the co-director over about 3 months, a bit like Mike Leigh. The rushes made for mixed reactions, ethical discussions, a couple of things were not shot. Watson occasionally on set but mainly in the cutting room. [41 minutes]

Last weeks of Vietnam war, Philip was seconded to Current Affairs. Lunched by Frank Smith, editor of Panorama to see whether he would go to Vietnam via the coronation of the King of Nepal – on to Saigon, and what – unbeknown to them or the BBC was the Vietcong final offensive. Philip began to see things with a completely different perspective, under fire.

Next he talks about involvement in a series of children’s Stories around the world, Jamaica… being the setting for his one.

[46 minutes] In a quite lengthy section Philip talks about being made up from Assistant Cameraman to Cameraman c1975, having joined the BBC in 1966; nine years, but had been shooting since 1968/9; about the very hierarchical nature and the BBC ethos, and how “certain cameramen were regarded as gods” and gives his overall impressions of working there.

Talks about the moral dilemmas of documentary filming often when abroad; talks about the amazing talent available e.g. working on Adam Adamant for a few days with Ridley Scott (whom interviewer Darrol Blake had recommended to Verity Lambert). Brian Gibson; another was Stephen Frears; Omnibus: Give me Liberty or Give me Death, Julia Cave [BEHP Interviews 380 and 715], shot in Boston with Kenneth Griffith playing American historical figures. He talks about Griffith’s views on the IRA which at that time were rather upsetting to the crew. [60 minutes] Worked on Whose Dr Who? In the Lively Arts series produced by Tony Cash about Dr Who and ‘Whovians’ narrated by Melvyn Bragg. The Long Search, 13 programmes about religions of the world by Ronald Eyre (whom they talk about a little later) which leads in to a discussion about documentaries of that period and differences now [2018]. How documentaries were very presenter-led with say James Cameron holding a particular view of things. Others mentioned included Simon Reeve and David Attenborough. 1978: Crest of a Wave, directed by Peter Bartlett (cameraman on the Royal family programmes) as part of the Premiere series where the first thing Philip directed The Silence of the Sea 1980. Several Omnibuses: Discusses the recreation of the journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S Thompson anecdotes.

Several Arena arts programmes. Recalls trip to Moscow with Dame Margot Fonteyne and producer Paddy Foy where the Russians treated her rudely; The Front Garden, director Eddy Mirzoeff [Interview 492] linked with Candida Lycett-Green’s book. They talk a little about Eddy and his work.

[1hr 19min] They talk about Ireland – a history with Robert Key (presenter) and Jenny Barraclough (producer). Richard Kershaw of Lime Grove’s Panorama team suggested to Sean Hardy that a film about Rex Harrison would be interesting. Rex was moving house, from Portofino to a huge house in Cap Ferrat – he was fine with film crew but less so with his wife – Elizabeth Rees-Williams. Philip describes the insight into Rex’s lifestyle. Discusses filming at Ealing three Samuel Beckett plays for the BBC. Donald McWhinnie directed and Tristram Powell producer. Philip shot the one called But the Clouds, with Ronald Pickup. Beckett and McWhinnie took 2 hours to arrange a coat. Anecdote from Darroll about McWhinnie. Philip explains how we had somehow got into shooting films rather than directing, which had always been his goal. Producer Terry Coles gave him his break. [1hr 30mins] with The Silence of the Sea Directed in the Premiere series. It lent itself to one room it was filmed in a farmhouse with Gloucester doubling as the French countryside. Philip talks about the production, with well-established actor Michael Byrne loved doing it – and praises the designer Gary Pritchard. This led to more drama as a director and more drama as a cameraman as well. To get some documentary directing, Philip approached Will Wyatt who wanted suggestions for topics. He submitted a list with Children’s Parties on it, which caught Wyatt’s eye; essentially intended as a study of the class system using two contrasting families in the Forty Minutes slot. The BBC were so pleased with it that it got seven showings. Discusses filming Mr Attenborough and Mr Gandhi one of Philip’s nine films for Jenny Barraclough who had made Portrait of a Terrorist about Robert Mugabe which led to another film on Mugabe, and includes discussion about a specific incident visiting the estate of a Scottish tobacco farmer mistreating his staff. 

[1hr 40min] Talks about the thrill of capturing the unrepeatable and not always the obvious, and the film about the Notting Hill Carnival with Charles Stuart, cameraman which provides an example. And the Queen passed by about the Queen on tour. Talks about filming Bette Davies at her Los Angeles house, and how she lit the film for him; Talks about The First Term, a Play for Today for producer Rosie Hill, about public schoolboys in cadet corps during World War Two and how this showed him some of the tougher aspects of directing and the team involved and learned a lesson about scriptwriting. [1hr 50min] After this Philip was offered Outside Broadcast by Alan Shawcross which really was an OB with 4 cameras which was outside his scope; visited the writer Brian Phelan but ruled himself out, possibly a bad thing to have done and talks a little about this.

Worked on Contact in 1985 with Alan Clark; talks about the actors, from borstal etc handheld cameras. It was about an army platoon in Crossmaglen, Northern Ireland; the buzz of something real; talks about using night sights. Home Front with and about Don McCullin who had just ceased his Sunday Times work; possibly Alan Yentob’s idea to film Britain through Don’s eyes for Arena.  Philip shares his insights on Don.

Frontiers of New Music. Worked a lot with Mike MacIntyre on new music Steve Reich etc. Spirit of Asia. An English Woman’s Wardrobe interesting in that it was Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe on the top floor of No 10 Downing Street. Did Dancing through the Dark with Willie Russell at a time when BBC were doing ‘feature films’. They talk about BBC changes and the shift towards competing co-productions – shift from “pure” to commercial. The atmosphere was greatly changed. [2hrs 10mins]

More documentaries: Sound on Film Release with Mark Anthony Turnage. There were specifically commissioned music pieces for the film. Talks about leaving the BBC in 1989 with their shift towards employing freelancers which didn’t sit well with staff. working with Buckingham Palace; Philip and another cameraman, John Hooper saw Paul Fox and Will Wyatt. It was a difficult phase at the BBC in changing times with many redundancies and it seemed the right time to move on.

Peter Edwards (sound recordist) and Philip were invited for a chat at the Palace with Bill Heseltine, the Queen’s Private Secretary and others to discuss ideas for films, one of which was to film investitures and provide a video tape for participants. This was accepted and Bonham-Carter Associates was set up. Slightly difficult for Philip because he had been approached by ICM agents, to do commercials and American Friends so balancing all this was difficult. [2hrs.20mins] Did that for about 3 years but wanted to get back to ‘proper’ film making, but Peter carried on and the company became British Ceremonial Arts. Talks about the National Theatre of Brent. Philip co-directed 4 films with Patrick Barlow now working without Jim Broadbent for Screen on 2 and filmed mostly at Elstree and Ealing.

Recalls being approached to do a film about the Prince of Wales following him for one year doing his work, and how it was in the end rather difficult because Jonathan Dimbleby did tackle the question of the Royal marriage which then tended to overshadow the rest of the film and all that followed with the [Martin] Bashir-Princess Diana interview.  Philip also worked with ITN as the Palace moved to the BBC sharing the Christmas broadcasts and contrasts the approach of the two. Talks about how the Delia Smith series How to Cook came about and filming in Suffolk with director John Silver and then directing the next two series. Continued working with Spire Films with Tony Robinson which was pretty much the end apart from odd commercials for Which magazine. Last Laugh about John Betjeman, with Eddie Mirzoeff’s light touch was a joy to make. They backtrack to talk about Elizabeth R (1993) following the Queen for a year including walkabouts and the Queen’s way of doing it with synchronised sound and marking a big shift in how the Palace regarded filming.

Talks about Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum with anecdote. [2hrs 40mins]

Status Anxiety one of several films with James Runcie about Alain de Boton’s view on life is mentioned as is one with James’s father the Archbishop of Canterbury, and another called Heaven – a film where James  discusses his views.

Finally talks about small units shooting Royal broadcasts and a change when ITN lumped the crew into the “press” – difficult to get private things from that point. A decidedly big shift. In “active retirement” so stopped searching for work as it got physically tougher.  [END]


Philip Bonham-Carter.

Born in 1945, Philip attended St Paul’s school. Following a holiday job in Slough on the trading estate, working in a special effects workshop with Hammer maestro Les Bowie and noting that Gerry Anderson’s team were working close by, Philip began to realise that it was the camera people who had more ‘interesting’ jobs.

He attended the London School of Film Technique and then freelanced with some work for the National Coal Board.

He applied to the BBC initially as a holiday relief camera assistant but he would work there for the greater part of his career, before later setting up the production company Spire films.

Behind the camera with the BBC he worked on many different kinds of programme: these included the Arts (Arena, Omnibus etc); Current Affairs (Nationwide); Drama: Screen One and Screen Two, Play for Today, Première. He worked on many documentary series, such as Ireland: a TV History and Spirit of Asia.

Significant landmarks in Philip’s career included his works on and with the Royal Family. These include the annual Christmas broadcast by the Queen as well as programmes such as Elizabeth: the first 30 years (1983) and Charles: the Private Man, the Public Role. Before that he was a pioneer of fly on the wall documentary working on the - at times - controversial series The Family.

His interest in the arts ranged from high to popular culture and included several programmes on pop music personalities. Other programmes included those involving Sister Wendy, the nun who loved art history; and Delia Smith, who brought plain cookery to a popular audience.

Overall his work has tended towards the non-fiction side of production.

David Sharp