Cyril Page: News cameraman who covered the Korean War, Suez Crisis and Biafran War
Monday 14 February 2011
As a television news camera operator, Cyril Page saw some of the pivotal moments in 20th-century history – and showed great enterprise and courage in getting pictures that brought the realities home to viewers.
Filming for BBC Newsreel during the Korean War, he tied himself to the front of a tank to get a troops'-eye view of a battle – until an American general ordered him down. He also found himself involved in an incident that helped to stem at least some of the horrors of that war between the South and North, when troops in South Korea – where the United Nations "police action" was based – were killing women and children in mass executions.
Page, the BBC reporter René Cutforth and a Melbourne Herald journalist, Alan Dower, saw South Korean police officers escorting a column of women, wearing straw masks over their heads and many carrying babies, and followed them to a prison after being told that these "Communists" were to be shot. On witnessing the captives kneeling next to a freshly dug pit, with two machine guns trained on them, the trio confronted the jail's governor. Dower, a former commando officer who was carrying a gun, told him: "If those machine guns fire, I'll shoot you between the eyes." They were assured there would be no execution and United Nations officials in Seoul subsequently promised no more women-and-children death marches.
In 1968, 13 years after moving to the freshly launched ITV's ground-breaking television news service, ITN, Page was covering the Biafran War with Peter Sissons when the reporter was shot in both legs, one of the wounds several inches wide. Having just watched his friend Priya Ramrakha, a Kenyan photographer working for Time-Life magazine, die in the incident, Page ripped off his own shirt, tore off the sleeves and tied one around each of Sissons's legs to stem the flow of blood. With the sound recordist, Archie Howell, he found a plank to use as a stretcher and put it on a discarded pram, wheeling Sissons along the road until a Jeep picked them up and rushed the to a makeshift hospital.
With no suitable facilities there, Page and Howell bribed a soldier with their watches to let them travel 60 miles in an ambulance to the hospital at Port Harcourt, where Sissons's life was saved by a blood transfusion. Later, he was flown to hospital in Lagos for surgery before returning to London.
It was Page who insisted that Ramrakha's body go with them all on the ambulance and plane journeys, allowing the photographer's family in Nairobi to recover his body for burial, after being told at the first hospital that it would be thrown into a hole there. Page, who had filmed from a ditch, in pampas grass behind a tree, before his colleagues were shot, recalled: "Some of the bullets were hitting the tree trunk only a foot or two above our heads. Pieces of bark kept splattering down on to us. The noise was unbelievable. We were all shit-scared, lying there."
Cyril Henry Page was born in 1921 in East Ham, London, where his parents ran a tobacconist's shop. On leaving school at the age of 15, he went into the film industry as a clapper boy and worked his way up. By 1941, he was the focus puller on a George Formby comedy, South American George.
He was a camera operator with the Royal Navy during the rest of the Second World War and worked in the same capacity after returning to feature films, on the Nazi war criminal thriller Eyes That Kill (1947), the Robert Burns biopic Comin' Thro' the Rye (1947) and the crime drama A Gunman Has Escaped (1948). Page then joined the BBC, filming inserts for programmes such as the panel game What's My Line? and the variety show Café Continental.
Increasingly, he worked for its Newsreel programmes, which were presented like "radio news with pictures" and for Page – apart from his nine months in Korea – they tended to be leisurely. "We used to go away a lot, for a week or a fortnight, and find stories," he recalled. When he covered the South Coast Air Race, in Sussex, Page climbed aboard a Percival Proctor to give a pilot's view of it, flying over countryside, beaches and cliffs while heading for the finishing line at Brighton Pier.
For years, his legacy remained at the BBC, with "The Potter's Wheel" and "The Swans" sequences shown during intermissions in programmes. But,in 1955, he switched to ITN when the commercial channel was launched,the only BBC news camera operator then to do so. ITN revolutionised news on British television, with "newscasters" in vision who projected their own personalities, lightweight, 16mm cameras for Page and his colleagues, and live sound on the film – so that the reporter, camera operator and sound recordist made viewers feel like they were living each story.
The first big foreign assignment for ITN was the Suez crisis, in 1956, and Page was despatched to join the Anglo-French invasion fleet. After covering the landings at Port Said, he commandeered a lemon-yellow Chrysler Bel Air convertible touring car from a showroom and used it to travel around the streets filming the carnage of war – including dead bodies being loaded onto a Coca-Cola truck. The result, running for seven minutes, was ITN's biggest scoop of the year.
The following year, Page shot Robin Day's famous interview with President Nasser of Egypt – still technically at war with Britain – which displayed the new, undeferential style of interviewing being pioneered by ITN. Page was eventually appointed chief camera operator and foreign assignments took him to the Belgian Congo, Anguilla for Britain's 1969 invasion, and Idi Amin's Uganda.
But he never let his emotions become anaesthetisted to the human catastrophes he witnessed. Filming the dead children of Aberfan being dug out of the slurry following the 1966 disaster, when a tip of coal waste slid down a hill and engulfed their school, had a profound impact on him.
In Northern Ireland during the 1970s, he relieved the boredom of waitingfor the next atrocity from the Republican or Loyalist side by making model trains, a hobby he continued after his retirement from ITN in 1986. A great dog lover, he was an active campaigner for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.
Cyril Henry Page, television news camera operator: born London 15 November 1921; married 1946 Micky Apperley (two sons); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 21 December 2010.
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