A life devoted to capturing the action: World in Action will be 30 years old this week. Andrew Morgan meets a man who has been at the sharp end, in every sense, for 500 editions

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The Independent Online
SCUFFED PASSPORTS litter the kitchen table of George Jesse Turner, the World in Action cameraman. Their pages display permits in most languages, collected with the frequency that others acquire petrol tokens.

World in Action celebrates its 30th anniversary on Thursday. For much of that time Turner's name has featured high in the credits. A Lancastrian, he talks calmly of filming the release of Vietnamese after years spent in 18in high Tiger cages; dying babies the size of a man's hand in Biafra; and tracking down wartime Nazis in Paraguay.

His work on more than 500 editions is secure in the Granada archives, and reflects late 20th-century history: Korea, South Africa, United States ghettoes, the Cold War, Ulster, Thalidomide, the Birmingham Six, among others. At the last count, he had filmed in over 70 countries - only China has escaped his attentions. The Royal Television Society recently acknowledged his work with a special award.

The son of a garage owner, he is the sixth George Jesse Turner in his family. Like others in the early Sixties he came into television by chance, at a time when the cameras were powered by car batteries. His first complete World in Action, called 'War and Ice', was filmed in Korea. He went out with the Special Forces and ate raw snakes in the depths of winter. That programme, shot in grainy black and white, still ranks among his favourites.

Turner remains obsessed with the job and refers to the 'privilege' of covering stories for a programme with average viewing figures of 7.6 million, although a recent two-parter on Los Angeles gangs, filmed by Turner, attracted more than 10 million.

Inevitably, he is just back from Bosnia, which he compares with his early days in Vietnam, where he first made his name. An early venture, 'The Quiet Mutiny', was made there alongside John Pilger when the US had more than 400,000 men in the country. It was the first to dwell on troops eager to go home in a seat, not a bag. Turner filmed terrified 18-year-olds being disgorged from transporters, 'Doughnut Dollies' entertaining troops up jungle, and men going with Vietnamese call girls (a sexual disease could mean going home).

He took close-ups of executed Viet Cong youths, either shot cleanly or with heads blown off. The more gruesome bodies were at the far end of a shot then, but now 'I would probably let the more violent deaths dominate the shot', he said.

Turner risked death many times to bring back early pictures of starving Biafran children - 300 babies in their final hours, wriggling on banana leaves down the length of a room. In pre-satellite days, the film arrived from Africa on a Saturday and was processed and edited before transmission the following Monday. 'Its impact was so strong because it was such a startling new image,' he said.

His only notable injury has been a bullet through a buttock on his 24th birthday while filming Al Fatah guerrillas on a night raid from Jordan into Israel in 1969. The crew had floated across the Jordan on tyres when the Israelis opened fire. An entry a quarter of an inch lower would have left him paralysed.

Like any cameraman, he knows when he has exceptional shots. A recent example was the Kuwait oil-well fires when he filmed the scene reflected in a car windscreen and wing-mirrors, giving multiple images.

Turner is not mentioned in the same breath as the stills photographers, Don McCullin or Philip Jones Griffiths, who made their reputations in war zones, but he is philosophical. 'TV film is fleeting, a range of images. Those two would spend days seeking the perfect shot but TV has different criteria and the film can't be studied in coffee-table books.'

But television can produce compelling results from undercover work. Hours were spent inside a van near Santiago, Chile, in the search for Walter Rauff, the high-ranking wartime Nazi. The eventual confrontation made thrilling television.

The exercise was made easier by the advent of videotape. Earlier, in Paraguay, while hunting Joseph Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor, the crew used elaborate codes to show that the film was running out. Turner said: 'We got within five miles of him. Some guards told us to leave. You can be brave, but not foolish.'

So far, his film has been ruined just once - when Ethiopian officials exposed film and destroyed the sound-track on three weeks' work. But the crew still got to interview the durable emperor, Haile Selassie. 'We weren't allowed to watch him enter this room with its solid gold lions. So we went out for a cup of tea, and came back to find him on the throne. We couldn't watch him walk out either. I think he was supposed to float'.

Despite being toughened by his experiences, some recollections still hit him hard, particularly the Romanian orphanages and meeting Nelson Mandela. 'We apologised for getting him up so early for the interview. He said: 'You must remember, I was used to getting up early for 26 years of my life'.'

Some of the most effective programmes were on the Birmingham Six. The first led to the unsuccessful appeal in 1987. When the verdicts were quashed, Turner was outside the Old Bailey to greet and film the men.

Apart from World in Action, Turner, 47, has also worked with Michael Apted on the award-winning 21 Up, 28 Up and 35 Up, as well as filming Bamber Gascoigne's The Christians and a Granada series on the Spanish Civil War. The latter meant that he was unable to cover the Falklands war, which remains a deep regret. 'I would have done anything. Marched over the hills to Goose Green, been on the boats or the planes,' he said. 'That footage would be kept forever. I tuned in every night in Spain, just longing to be there.'

He added: 'Filming in a war zone need not be that dangerous. With care, the bullet with your name on it need never be fired.'

(Photographs omitted)