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Tony Poole of Warnham

Tony Poole

Published on 5th October 2017

 

I was born in Newport, Wales in 1939. My dad was a civil servant, working for what is now the Department for Transport. He was a dispatch rider in the war, but didn't talk about it. I know he served with the 8th Army in Italy and North Africa. 

My overriding memory of Newport is the construction of Llanwern Steelworks, with trucks filled with rubble piling through the town. I've seen it built and later mothballed and closed. I did learn the language and still sing the anthem when Wales rugby team play. 

Work took my dad to London in 1960 and we moved to Horsham. We lived off Merryfield Drive and I went to Collyer’s Grammar School. I didn't have an illustrious academic career as I enjoyed socialising at the Boys’ Club on Hurst Road or going to gigs.

I first became interested in broadcasting when I saw Our World, the first live international television production, in 1967. It showed a studio full of cameras and I found it fascinating, so when I saw the careers master, I said I wanted to work at the BBC. He remembered a former student who was a cameraman and lived in Broadbridge Heath. This cameraman gave me a tour around Television Centre. It was magic and cemented my desire to be part of that world.

I needed A’ level maths and physics to join the BBC, so I went to night school at Crawley College. In the meantime, I worked at Horsham tax office. I remember naively looking at business figures and not comprehending how they had such huge turnovers without making a profit! 

Having gained the qualifications, I started work as a technical operator at the BBC in 1968. I went to an engineering training centre at Wood Norton Hall near Evesham to learn about radio and TV. It was used as an emergency broadcasting centre during the war and had an underground bunker that everybody knew about but didn’t talk about! 

After completing the course, I was sent to an operations centre in Cardiff. Regional broadcasters would opt out of Radio 4 for regional news and programming, and it was my job to make sure each transition went smoothly. I learned to never ‘crash the pips’ as they are timed to the split second. I developed an appreciation for presenters. To engage with the camera or an audience via a microphone is an underrated skill.

I also learned radio editing techniques, splicing tape together for interviews and features. I would have to edit reports in Welsh, but the language can sound the same backwards as it does forwards, so finding the right cue on a tape can be a challenge. There was an occasion where I spliced in a small section in reverse!

I moved to Television Centre, which was brilliant. There was a ring road all around the building, with production galleries on the first floor and the studios bolted on around the outside. It was easy to move scenery and technical equipment around. You could shoot a drama in one of the big production studios and the moment it finished the lights would be raised, the cameras rolled away and the sets pulled down. Within hours, the studio could be re-painted and ready for Blue Peter. 

There were 20 crews at Television Centre, with five cameramen, two assistants and three or four sound specialists in each. My crew tended to shoot light entertainment programmes, so I was fortunate enough to film The Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise. Everyone filmed children’s shows like Playschool and Jackanory as we all had to work our way up. 

The BBC had a series called In Concert which I enjoyed working on, with artists like Elton John and Carole King. I filmed Top of the Pops on numerous occasions. The one performance that sticks in my mind is Stevie Wonder. In those days, acts sang live vocals to backing tracks, so there were pads on the drums and guitars were not plugged in. Stevie Wonder insisted his performance of Living for the City was all live and the atmosphere was electric.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was the outlet for performing live and I filmed that many times. It was so noisy! On the fourth floor, there were two tiny studios. One was for weather reports and Presentation B was where they shot Barry Norman's film show. That was also where they filmed the Old Grey Whistle Test. I remember the Director-General coming along once as he could smell marijuana drifting down the corridor!

In 1983, I became a lighting cameraman. This meant I went out on the road with portable cameras. I had experienced outside broadcasts already, working on shows like Match of the Day, which I hated. It was a step up in pay although I missed the ‘esprit de corps’ of a studio crew. With documentaries, life can be lonely as there is only a producer, a sound recordist and one cameraman. But it brings privileges as I visited places out of reach for most people. I flew in helicopters and filmed The Queen whilst she sat for a portrait, Nelson Mandela in Barcelona and Tony Blair inside Number 10.

A lot of my work was for current affairs documentaries like Money Programme or Panorama. I went freelance in 1992. BBC current affairs merged with news and being a news cameraman didn't appeal. They’re a brave, streetwise bunch and I had two young children to think about! 

I continued to film Panorama, winning a Royal Television Society (RTS) award along the way. Perhaps the work I’m most proud of is a 1995 documentary called Whose Death is it Anyway? It highlighted people who had made a living will, in case they reached the point where they were mentally incapable of making decisions. The patients we met came from the Hospital for the Incurables, which was a dreadful title. Despite their will, patients were being kept alive as doctors couldn’t let them die. It was a huge moral dilemma and still is, 20 years later. 

There was a patient who could only communicate through blinking, once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no.’ He was dribbling, so I shot just his eyes to try and maintain his dignity. Nicolas Witchell was the journalist and did a fine job interviewing this man. He said that he did not want to end his life because of his love for his children. It was a genuinely emotional scene. Nowadays, I see interviews where a journalist is pushing to make a person ‘crack’ and cameramen zoom in during pre-conceived, overly-long pauses. I don’t like it. I find it insensitive and view it as tabloid journalism.

I travelled to New Orleans two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, when the 9th Ward was still underwater and without power. But of course, the most famous Panorama I filmed was the interview with Diana in 1995.
In late October, my agent called asking if I would work on a Sunday. She said, ‘I think it’s a big one. Would you mind if Martin Bashir called you?’ Martin phoned and said: ‘I will mention the name only once. It's Diana at Kensington Palace.’ Right from the start, there was a paranoia that phones might be tapped. 

The interview was cancelled, which I was not surprised about. However, it was re-scheduled for the following week. I went to BBC White City to discuss it with producer Mike Robinson and editor Steve Hewlett. Diana had stipulated that only three people could attend as she didn't want to draw much attention, so there could be no sound recordist. Mike wanted to film the interview with two cameras, which is difficult as you need to light in both directions and synch the time codes. It became complicated as I decided to have a back-up tape in case of a ‘drop-out’ as we filmed on Betacam.

On the day of the interview, Martin made a call to Kensington Palace and to my amazement, we got the green light. I hid my equipment in cardboard boxes as our cover story was that we were demonstrating a new hi-fi. Security was expecting us, so we passed without a problem. Martin had been told where to park, out of sight of CCTV cameras. He rang the bell and Diana opened the door. It was quite surreal. She was very relaxed and showed us around whilst we discussed where the interview should be filmed. There was an immediate warmth and I understood the empathy people felt she had. 

It took an hour and a half to set up and we weren't ready to shoot until 9pm. I put on my sound equipment and could hear a fridge clicking on and off in the background, so I asked Diana if I could switch it off. So that I remembered to turn it back on, I used an old trick and put the car keys in the fridge! The table lamp was too bright, so I attached a neutral density filter to get the exposure right. It may well still be on the lamp. 

The tapes recorded for 32 minutes, so every half an hour we’d stop and change all three. We’d have a brief chat about the next line of questioning before carrying on. There were nine tapes in total, so about 90 minutes of recording. I remember Diana become flustered when asked about James Hewitt. But she answered very cleverly. Martin did tread carefully, although he had prior approval to probe. 

At no point was I thinking about the importance of what was being said. I was just hoping that there would be no ‘drop-out’ and making sure the lighting and sound levels were good. I was listening of course, as it was important to alter the framing at key moments. But I’m never sure what to say when people ask if I enjoyed the interview, as it was work and I was spinning plates.

When the interview was over, Diana brought out some champagne but I couldn’t have any as I was driving home! We left at gone midnight and drove to meet Steve Hewlett, who was worried as he hadn’t heard from us since 7pm. I remember Martin saying, ‘I can't believe what has just happened!’ But there were nerves too as we checked to see if we were being followed.

I believe the duplicate tapes were locked in a safe. An editing suite was created in an Eastbourne hotel, with security personnel either side. Marmaduke Hussey was Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors and his wife was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, so there was great secrecy within the corporation. On the night of broadcast, I was in a room full of BBC bosses. They would shake my hand, telling me what a good job I’d done whilst looking over my shoulder for somebody interesting to talk to.

For the next week, I received calls from the tabloids. They were after any gossip or details about what had been cut. The Sunday Express ran a double page article quoting a supposed ‘insider’ who claimed that Diana had the crew ‘eating out of her hand.’ I phoned the journalist and said the article was fabricated. He claimed that he’d spoken to one of the crew but couldn't divulge his source. I knew he was lying. The story implied that I had advised Diana on what to wear, which made me laugh. Me? Giving tips to a global fashion icon?

When Diana died, it did have an impact on me. I was part of a team heading out to film in Nevada and Americans would come up and say they were sorry to hear about our Princess. I did like Diana and felt sorry for her. She was a young woman who produced an heir and a spare, as they say, whilst her husband was still seeing another woman and I find that somewhat despicable.

The trip to Nevada was to film the land speed record attempt in the Black Rock Desert for The Mission: Supersonic Dreams. It was a good documentary. At the start of the film, you see a moving cloud of dust on the horizon, then a tiny black dot appears and gradually grows to become a car. It’s a magnificent clip and we filmed at the 11-mile marker to pick up the sonic boom.

You feel this boom through your gut as the shockwaves pass through. It’s an incredible feeling. What is fascinating is that the car travels in total silence as it is moving faster than its own sound, until you hear the sonic boom and then there’s a roar from the engine. It made for powerful television, although I’m told that the American broadcaster dubbed in sound, as they couldn't understand why there wasn’t any!

Lumping around heavy equipment is a young man’s game. So, whilst I never retired, the phone rings less. I continued to film for the BBC, including a series called Rolf on Art. I also went out to Rio to interview Ronnie Biggs at his home, before he returned to the UK.

My work has allowed me to travel extensively. I filmed in East Berlin before the wall came down. I also visited Iraq whilst Saddam Hussein was still in power, to film a documentary about the country’s missing treasures. I also travelled to Ghana, Togo and Benin. When you have a camera in an African village, you are surrounded by children who want to peer down the viewfinder!

In October, I’m heading out to Ghana with a team of medical professionals who will perform operations and procedures that local medics cannot. The medical team give up their time to work in association with the charity Simon's Mango Tree. I’m filming with a former producer friend who now works in healthcare. She thought it would make an interesting documentary.

I first moved to Warnham in 1983 and Sharon and I are still here. We have two boys. One recently returned from Australia and for the first time since 1995, I watched the Diana interview, with my son. That may be the documentary that people want to talk about, but my whole career has been very interesting. 

That's not to say that being a cameraman isn’t bloody hard work. We would regularly work 13 hour days and not get home until midnight. There were times that working was fun but it could be extremely boring. However, it has certainly left me with many memories. 


WORDS: BEN MORRIS

PICTURES: TOBY PHILLIPS/TONY POOLE

 


Tony filmed in some unusual locations with the BBC
He travelled to America for a documentary on electric vehicles
Filming Panorama with journalist Kate Silverton
Filming the Thrust SSC land speed record attempt (pictured on a test run in the Jordanian desert in 1997)