Sir Sydney Samuelson

London, England

War-time Rewind Boy

In 1939, the Second World War had just started as I was approaching my fourteenth birthday. I was not particularly thrilled by lessons at the local state school I attended and I was definitely disappointed that the UK Government had just extended the minimum school leaving age to 15, rather than 14. I was ‘saved’ from having to endure an extra twelve months of schooling, however, because there was an instant shortage of labour nationwide due to the war and its military requirements. The school leaving age reverted to 14 and I managed to get taken on as a trainee rewind boy in a new cinema in the town where I lived – in Lancing, Sussex. I now realise that I am one of the relatively few cinema techies who can actually claim to have landed a job in the 1930s.

It was a joyful experience to see my ‘box’ for the first time with its pristine, brand new equipment, colleagues (all senior to me, of course) I did not yet know and glorious Ernemann water-cooled projectors, the last pair to be imported from Kiel, Germany before the war began. My initial pride and anticipated work satisfaction dutifully rewinding the reels after they came off the projectors was somewhat dashed when my Chief, Frank Chipperfield, outlined my duties. I found that my entire job consisted of cleaning, floor scrubbing and polishing, little else. Furthermore, I soon realised that the Chief had very high standards and used strong words when expressing dissatisfaction with my cleaning efforts. I am subsequently of the view that his work ethic included making the ‘boy’ around the place (me) cry, at least once a week. In doing so, he satisfied his training agenda and caused me to disappear regularly into the privacy of the rectifier room to do my sobbing. Having said that, this boss man taught me, from the very beginning, the highest standards of projecting excellence. There were never any fluffed change-overs or differences in reel to reel sound levels when he was in charge and our work station was always shining bright, more like a hospital than a projection box. The standards instilled in me so harshly (for a 14 year old lad) have never left me and I am happy that such criteria came to me so early in my career.

As difficult as my early days in the box of the Luxor in Lancing were, mighty changes came into my life before too much depression affected my mind. First, because the Chief had a full day off once each week, the ‘Second’ was in charge and life was a real happiness for me on those single days. This kindly young man was quite happy to allow me to not only rewind the reels, he also taught me how to ‘lace-up’ the Ernemanns and, later, glory of glory, he let me actually do change-overs – under his careful supervision, of course.

Perhaps the most momentous event in my entire life as a projectionist occurred around about June, 1940. What happened was a crisis in Luxor’s projection caused by several reasons, all of them unfortunate. First, the Chief had a blazing row with the Manager, Mr Fortesque, and walked out. The young Third projectionist (who had come with the Chief when he had been pirated by the Luxor from the Plaza in Worthing to be in charge of projection when it first opened its doors) walked out for reasons of loyalty to his boss. The Second projectionist was no longer with us, having been called up for the army. This left only one member of staff in the box . . . me! By that time I had all of six months experience and knowledge of the job and of working life. Happily, the nitty-gritty of running a projection box had come to me when the Chief was on his days off. On that famous day, this precocious fourteen year old rewind boy asked his boss what he had in mind regarding the running of the shows starting at 1:30 p.m. that day. Mr Fortesque explained that he was urgently trying to get replacements and hoped that at least one experienced man would turn up quite soon during the day. Unbelievably, I must have said (with considerable chutzpah, thinking about it now): ‘Sir, I could do the show until somebody arrives’. Mr Fortesque must have been dubious as to the veracity of this statement, nevertheless he thanked me very much and, having nothing more tangible available to see to the Ernemanns upstairs, told me to go ahead. He also asked if it would be helpful for me to have the under manager, Mr Kirk, as an assistant. I remember doubting what this particular front-of-house man would be able to do to help me but he came up into the box anyway. I remember I asked him just to stand by whichever machine was running while I was lacing-up the next reel and trimming the arc carbons ready for the change-over. I recall clearly that we were showing Raffles, starring David Niven, together with a second feature, a newsreel, a cartoon and trailers for programmes to come. There were also adverts for local businesses but they were presented via a slide projector. I explained to my new, inexperienced assistant how to do it so that I could myself attend to the house lights, stage lights, screen tabs and the non-sync sound (vinyl record player) when it was needed. We got through perfectly well, there being only one mishap when the slide for the local chemist shop was momentarily projected upside down. I remember clearly being furious about this especially as I had explained the procedure for showing slides so carefully beforehand. I had one and a half days of glory before the first of the replacement projectionists appeared. And I then received instant promotion to ‘Joint Third’. I later realised that having two Third projectionists avoided the salary cost of a Second projectionist. I was perfectly happy as my salary was almost doubled (to 25 shillings per week) plus the further 2 shillings I was given for pasting up the posters announcing future presentations on the large billboards outside the premises.

I have never forgotten the sense of well being and happiness which came about so unexpectedly. There were several reasons for this happening, of course the principal one being caused by the Second World War which was seriously taking place across the Channel by that time. The labour market continued to be difficult right up to the time when the war ended in 1945. I remember another example of this when I was working in the Midlands a year or so later. An independent cinema owner in one of the Birmingham suburbs actually waited for the end of the last film of the day at the cinema where I was working as I left to catch my bus to go home. This total stranger said, as I ran down the steps, ‘Are you a projectionist?’ I replied that I was and he offered me a job there and then. What times they were!

May 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

The son of a British silent film pioneer, Sir Sydney Samuelson has relished more than 70 years in the film and television industries. He started work at age 14 as a cinema rewind boy in the projection box of his local cinema and subsequently, after four years (1943–47) in the RAF, became a documentary cameraman and director. In 1954, with a £300 down payment on a 35mm film camera, he set up his own company, Samuelson Group, which became the largest audio visual equipment rental service in the world. In 1991 the Government appointed him, as the first British Film Commissioner, to lead the team which helped to bring about a resurgence of film production in Britain. Sir Sydney has received both the Michael Balcon Award and a Fellowship of the British Academy of Film & Television Arts and is the immediate past Chairman of Trustees of the David Lean BAFTA Foundation. He is also a Fellow of the British Film Institute, Patron of BKSTS – the Moving Image Society and President of the Projected Picture Trust. In 1978 he was awarded a CBE and in 1995 he was knighted for services to the British film industry and as British Film Commissioner. In 1996 he was awarded a Doctorate, Honoris Causa, by Sheffield Hallam University. He and his wife Doris have been married for 62 years, they have three sons, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. For relaxation he enjoys movie nostalgia and vintage motoring. Sir Sydney considers his most unlikely achievement was when, aged 57, he ran the 1982 London Marathon for charity and finished a mere 13,006 places behind the winner.

School leaving picture of the author aged 13 just before first job at Luxor Cinema, Lancing, 1939.
Projector on Western Universal Base circa 1929. The old projector shown is exactly as was installed from the late 1920’s when talkies came in. It carries two sound systems, the ‘sound-on-film’ mechanism is shown just above the bottom spool box. At the rear of the stand is the large ‘sound-on-disc’ player with pick-up. It was exactly the kind of machinery that was still used in the cinemas Sir Sydney worked in, after leaving the Luxor, Lancing and working in a number of flea-pit cinemas in the Midlands.
Sir Sydney Samuelson with state-of-the-art 35mm camera circa 1996. This is a ‘Moviecam’ camera with anamorphic lens as in use when the author had just retired from being Chairman and Chief Executive of the Samuelson Group of Companies.
Sir Sydney’s 1995 Investiture for Knighthood was carried out by Prince Charles whose mother (HM The Queen) was on a Commonwealth Tour in New Zealand at the time.