Obituary: Freddie Young

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The Independent Culture
THE WORLD'S greatest cameraman, by general consent, and winner of no less than three Academy Awards, Freddie Young was one of the last links with the silent era. He had the longest career of any cameraman.

He was born in 1902, and lived in Shepherd's Bush. As a boy, he was fascinated by films, and he and his brother Bill went to the cinema at least twice a week. His favourite actress was Mary Pickford - probably because of the exquisite lighting she received from the cinematographer Charles Rosher.

He also went regularly to the Lime Grove swimming baths. Opposite was a vast greenhouse of a building which aroused Freddie's curiosity. He was told it was a film studio. He thought how marvellous it would be to work in such a romantic place, and he knocked on the door. He was very surprised to be taken on at once. It was 1917, and most of the workers had gone to France. Freddie himself, at 14 too young to join up, had been doing war work, drilling hand grenades in a munition factory - a job he hated, and which he quickly abandoned.

His first position at the Gaumont Studio, Lime Grove (later occupied by the BBC) was in the laboratory, the best possible training for a cameraman. A year later, he was left entirely in charge of the lab, and he was able to experiment with tinting and toning. By 1919 he was lab manager, and when Gaumont closed the lab he was made assistant cameraman - he did "all the jobs nobody else felt like doing".

He drove the studio car, took the stills, projected the rushes and even cut the film - in addition to helping the cameraman six days a week and often Sundays as well. During the making of features like Rob Roy (1922), he volunteered to do dangerous stunts - falling 50 feet for instance, from a castle wall into a sheet which looked the size of a pocket-handkerchief, held by members of the crew. The director, William Kellino, rewarded him with 10 shillings.

Young was as handsome as any leading man and as a young man he looked like a tougher version of Ivor Novello. He doubled Novello in Triumph of the Rat (1926), dodging through the Paris traffic so the company wouldn't have to risk their expensive star.

During the Twenties his most ambitious film would have been a version of Lawrence of Arabia which M.A. Wetherell was planning in 1927, but which fell through. However, he had already been on a location trip to the Egyptian desert for Fires of Fate (1923) - and he was present when Howard Carter uncovered Tutankhamun's tomb. Back in England, he did a lot of newsreel work and he photographed an elaborate recreation of the Somme in documentary style as well as a feature film set in the last weeks of the Great War, Victory (1927).

During the making of Victory, Young married Marjorie Gaffney, an assistant director with Victor Saville and Alfred Hitchcock. He worked for Hitchcock on Blackmail (1929), doing the elaborate series of dissolves (in the camera) for the montage which opens the picture. Blackmail is famous for being the first British talkie. Young had, however, already converted a silent into a talkie - White Cargo (1929), using a hastily converted studio at Elstree. He had to work incredibly hard - 72 hours non-stop - under miserably hot conditions so that carpenters could come in and start building the sets for Hitchcock's picture.

Young subsequently joined Herbert Wilcox. He worked out a system of multiple cameras, rather like the technique used in television, and could complete a talkie in a couple of weeks. He and Wilcox formed a partnership which was to result in some memorable pictures. Goodnight Vienna (1932), for instance, made a star of Anna Neagle (and Wilcox married her). During the Thirties, Young trained many of the men who would become the great cameramen of the future - such as Jack Cardiff and Freddie Francis.

He first met the director David Lean on Major Barbara (1941), adapted from the play by Shaw, which was supposed to be directed by Gabriel Pascal. In fact Lean and Harold French were doing the directing and when Lean gave Freddie some terse instructions, Young replied "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs." This stuck in Lean's memory, and years later he was unwilling to use Young for Lawrence of Arabia. When he bowed to the inevitable, however, Young arrived on the location, marched up to Lean and said "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs."

By this time, Freddie Young had had a far more adventurous life even than David Lean. He had been back to the desert again, directing the second unit on Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) - shooting the Egyptian army for Pascal - and had crossed the U-boat-infested Atlantic to film Michael Powell's 49th Parallel (1941) in Canada. He spent four months there, travelling 20,000 miles. He was commissioned into the Army Film Production Unit and was blown up by a phosphorous bomb. He spent 15 years at MGM - making pictures like Ivanhoe (1952), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and Mogambo (1953) for John Ford - and was a stern disciplinarian.

Often during the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia he had to drive Lean - lost in thought in his beloved desert - back to the camera. He was nearly 60, but displayed ferocious energy. The company saw virtually no rushes in the desert and the impact of Young's work when they eventually saw it in London was stunning. No shot in his entire career aroused so much comment as the scene when Omar Sharif emerged from a mirage - achieved with a unique telephoto lens he had had the foresight to bring with him from Panavision in America.

David Lean and Freddie Young formed a partnership. "He gives you an inspiration," said Young, "so you go out of your depth and try and do something extraordinary." Lean knew there was no need to hover at Young's shoulder. As he wrote to him, years later:

For the most part I will give you a set-up, fiddle around with the props, talk to the actors and go and have a cup of tea. I know a bit about lenses, consider myself rather bright about composition and, at a pinch, make a suggestion or minor criticism about lighting - but on the whole you're a lonely man left to your own devices.

Lean was being modest - he had a passionate concern for the visuals - but he knew that Freddie Young, of all cameramen, was equally passionate. He used him on Lawrence, Dr Zhivago (1965, Young's favourite film) and Ryan's Daughter (1970) and Young won an Oscar on each. He also photographed Lord Jim (1965) for Richard Brooks, with Peter O'Toole, The Battle of Britain (1969), and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) for which he was again nominated for an Academy Award.

I first met Freddie Young when he was working on You Only Live Twice in 1967. I was amazed that in the midst of terrific pressure on a colossal production (Ken Adam's set alone cost $1m) he took the time to answer my questions with immense enthusiasm and friendliness. And he continued to do the same throughout the years, helping immeasurably with my biography of David Lean and a television series on the European silent film, Cinema Europe. I never met his first wife, who died in 1964, but Joan, a remarkable woman and his second wife, was absolutely devoted to him, as was his son David, and they were both with him at the end.

In his fascinating memoirs (which Faber will publish next year), Freddie Young concludes his story with his one directorial effort, Arthur's Hallowed Ground, which he made for television in 1985. And he added a note, in his own hand: "Mind you, I'm 88 years old now and I spend most of my time painting, and I enjoy that enormously. I'm creating pictures with a paintbrush with nobody to interfere with my work. It's marvellous."

Frederick Archibald Young: born London 9 October 1902; OBE 1970; married 1927 Marjorie Gaffney (died 1964; one adopted son, one adopted daughter), 1965 Joan Morduch (one son); died London 1 December 1998.

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