Obituary: Michael Samuelson

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The Independent Culture

THE FAR-REACHING influence and considerable activity of the Samuelson brothers, David, Sydney, Anthony and Michael, throughout the British film industry is by no means as publicly well-known or as well-documented as contributions by far lesser lights, and perhaps that's the way they'd prefer.

The four offspring of the British film industry pioneer G.B. "Bertie" Samuelson, a Lancashire cinema exhibitor who became an early film producer in the days before the cinema could speak, went on to build up the Samuelson Group, the largest film equipment servicing company in the world. Founded in 1955 as the Samuelson Film Service Ltd, it grew under the control of the four brothers and was eventually acquired by Eagle Trust in 1987.

At that time Michael Samuelson organised a management buy-out (funded by his own family, his two daughters and two sons) of the Lighting Division of Samuelson Group, and established himself - and the company - world- wide as Michael Samuelson Lighting Ltd.

Among the many films serviced by Samuelson Lighting were Gandhi (1982), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Howards End (1992). Television series included Poirot, The Camomile Lawn, Jeeves and Wooster, Love Hurts, and Minder, among many, many others, before the company was taken over by the VFG group earlier this year.

Michael Samuelson was born in 1931 and educated at Shoreham Grammar School. During his National Service in the Royal Air Force he received training as a photographer, but a career in film was not immediate, for he found a job with the Worthing Repertory Company, assisting the assistant stage manager. The stage manager was Andrew Sachs, now better known as the actor who played the Fawlty Towers waiter, Manuel.

Samuelson toured Europe as stage director of the spectacular Holiday on Ice extravaganza from 1952 until 1956, with responsibilities including supervising the erection of the portable ice rinks and lighting rigs. In Spain, the ice rinks were often set up in bull rings; one of the difficult tasks was to prevent the ice from melting in the hot summer months.

Coinciding with the launch of independent television in 1955, Sydney Samuelson founded what was to become the Samuelson Group by purchasing, for a down payment of pounds 300, a Newman Sinclair clockwork camera, which swiftly paid its way in rentals. Sydney persuaded his three brothers to stump up a further pounds 100 each to invest in another cameras and thus "Sammy's" was born.

Michael Samuelson eventually secured a position in the film industry as a unit manager and joined Movietone as a cameraman, where he developed a new manner in which great sporting occasions were captured on film. Many of the sporting events he was sent to film were being photographed in the conventional manner, cameras shooting the FA Cup Final, for instance, from inevitable fixed positions. Samuelson recognised that with more flexible cameras and longer fixed focal length lenses available, football and other sporting events could be made much more exciting for the home or theatre viewer. His associate Drummond Challis recalls: "Michael had his crews drill holes around the touchline of the turf and from ball height penetrate the otherwise hidden depths of our national game."

Michael eventually joined Sydney Samuelson in the family firm in 1960, and in 1965 the four brothers took the company to the London stock exchange, but executive management never stopped Michael's work behind the cameras.

In 1966 he was the Director of Photography on the official film of the World Cup, Goal!, but his contribution to that was not merely in photographing tha Bafta Award-winning documentary. On the very evening before the final at Wembley, the film's producers ran out of cash and it was Samuelson who paid the technicians out of his own pocket.

Unsurprisingly his craftsmanship, care and sheer professionalism began to win him world attention. The Mexican government appointed him Director of Photography for Olympiad in Mexico (1960), and he followed with a remarkable succession of theatrical features including The World at Their Feet (the 1970 World Cup film) and Visions of Eight (1972, the multi-directorial Olympic feature). He also directed another football film, Heading for Glory, and produced the 1976 Winter Olympic feature White Rock. Other features as producer and/or director included Olympic Harmony and Golden Opportunities (both 1976, Montreal Olympics) Europa 80 (1980, the European football Championship) and G'Ole! (1982, the official film of the World Cup in Spain).

Samuelson built up an impressively strong team of loyal technicians who worked regularly over a 35-year period with him and with the passing of those years, became known affectionately as "Dad's Army", with Samuelson as Dad. Only eight weeks ago, he was the senior member of the team at the Stade de France for this year's World Cup Final.

As though film-making in itself was not enough for one life, Samuelson also undertook tireless charity work. He regularly produced appeal films for the Variety Club of Great Britain, the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, and for Canterbury Cathedral and the Royal Opera House. He organised film crews to travel to Biafra, Vietnam, and Uganda, and took a controversial but admirable position in insisting that the Variety Club should take a leading role in resettling the many children among the 50,000 refugees expelled from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin.

Samuelson had joined the Variety Club of Great Britain in 1965, and by 1974 had become their president (known as the Chief Barker). From 1989 to 1991 he was chairman of Variety Clubs International. A prolific fund- raiser, he was instrumental in the club's policy of arranging life-saving surgery for children from the Third World and, to date, over 200 children have had such operations.

He was also responsible for instigating an Australian branch of the Variety Club (Chief Barker: Paul Hogan), plus new branches in both Israel and New Zealand. At the time of his death he was planning the formation of a South African branch.

The biggest charity appeal ever in Great Britain, the Wishing Well Appeal, was set up in 1987 to raise money to redevelop the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. Samuelson was the vice-chairman of the appeal and co-chaired the special events committee. In 1989, the appeal passed its target a year early, raising a total of pounds 54m, and the hospital's Variety Club building was opened in 1994 by the Princess of Wales.

Nothing indicates Samuelson's embrace of charity more than the tale of his witnessing an unknown javelin thrower create a 64-metre throw back in 1978. He found himself travelling on a plane with the young record- holder, Tessa Sanderson. Finding that there was no official support for her among the UK athletic establishment, Samuelson formed a group of fellow Variety Club members, dubbed "Tessa's Six Gentlemen Friends" who privately funded Sanderson's training. She did them all proud in 1984 by winning Gold with a world-record Olympic throw.

Samuelson's influence in the film industry was far-reaching in many ways. His daughter, Emma Samms, became an actress, most notably as Fallon in the US television series Dynasty. Additionally, he was appointed to that august and secretive group, the Council of Management of the British Board of Film Classification, working with the outgoing chief censor James Ferman.

A long-time lover of opera, Samuelson also supported the local Holland Park Opera Festival, entertaining many guests at each production. In a uniquely fulfilled life, his only source of constant disappointment was his undying affection for his football clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton and Hove Albion.

Michael Edward Wylie Samuelson, film producer and director: born London 25 January 1931; CBE 1988; married 1957 Madeleine White (two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1990); died London 26 August 1998.

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