Ken Gordon 1890-1969 was employed on lighting duties in 1904 by Films Limited at their show at Hengler’s Circus in London and was soon working as a projectionist both there and at the Earls Court Exhibition.
Gordon wanted to become a civil engineer and studied electrical engineering whilst working as a stills photographer with Bolak’s Press Agency. He afterwards became a press photographer on the Daily Mirror and, in 1908, covered the stadium events at the London Olympic Games.
After a number of provincial jobs returned to London in 1911 to work in the laboratories at Gaumont, making the transition from press photography to newsreel work. He was the replacement for Brooks-Carrington and his first major assignment as cameraman was at the Coronation of King George V in June 1911.
In 1944 Gordon also covered the liberation of Paris and was instrumental in organising the Association of Cine Technicians (ACT), in conjunction with George Elvin. In September 1944 the ACT reached an agreement with the Newsreel Association over staff wages and the employment of ‘learners’, for which Elvin and Gordon received the credit.
In May 1945 Gordon filmed the German surrender on Luneberg Heath and the first demobilization of British troops in Belgium. After the war he spent six months in Germany, filming both the occupation and the war crimes trials – including the Belsen trial in September 1945, where he worked alongside Ian Struthers of Paramount. He also provided film for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. Gordon officially retired in 1955, but was still filming for Pathé News in 1965.
Now read on……
The filming by Robert W Paul of the Derby in 1896 may be described as the first newsreel. This was followed the next year by the record of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The story of the late René Bull, the great war artist, building a rostrum of bamboo poles in order to film the charge of the Dervishes in the Battle of Omdurman – and the London Times’ report of filming the action in Crete in 1897 by the war correspondent, F Villiers, constitute the first coverage of war news.
The First Newsreel – The first regular news coverage was by the Biograph Company, an American firm which established laboratories in Great Windmill Street in London. Each subject was only 160ft in length and a single frame measured 2¾ins by 2ins – this will give some idea how short the subjects were.
In 1898 A J West inaugurated his combination of news and interest films of the Royal Navy which, for so many years ran in the West End of London under the title of ‘Our Navy’. Shortly afterwards came the era of Charles Urban, Will Barker and W Jeapes. Their firms – the Warwick Trading Company and later the Charles Urban Trading Company – dealt mainly in one-reel news events such as the Grand National, the Derby and the Boat Race.
A number of new firms were started to cover the great news events. Cecil Hepworth, whose pioneering work did so much for British film production, came into the picture. WS Barker founded the Autoscope Company and WC McDowell and A Bloomfield, two members of the Biograph Company, started British & Colonial Films. Each of these firms covered news as well as story pictures.
The Biograph cameramen, WKL Dickson and J Rosenthal, covered the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. During the Boer War the two photographers carried their very heavy camera – which perforated the stock at the same time as the film was exposed – in a bullock cart!
Newsreel Equipment – Later came the newsreels as we know them today. Pathé Gazette was at first filmed here and then processed in Paris. It has been stated that the Gaumont Graphic followed only a few days later. Shortly after came the Warwick Chronicle (founded in 1903 by Charles Urban), Topical Budget (founded by Jeapes and W Wrench, the projector engineer), the Williamson News and the Éclair Journal. All produced two issues weekly at 2½d per ft (much less than a current 1p!)
The cameras used were hand-cranked – Pathé used their French model with outside boxes, Gaumont use the Prestwich (an English model) also with outside boxes. Moys, Williamsons and Éclairs were also used. Later, Topical Budget used Debries, and Warwick started using the first automatic Proszinski Aeroscope. This was run by compressed air and the first models were fitted with a gyroscope to keep them steady when hand-held.
The Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, whose cinemas were amongst the first to be built as such in England, had darkrooms in their main theatres. Local films were taken, processed in the local cinema and shown the same night.
Speed of Production – About this time Charles Urban introduced the Kinemacolor and William Friese-Green was experimenting with a process known as Biocolor. King Edward’s funeral and the Coronation of King George V gave a great incentive to the newsreel producers. Many production records were broken with the laboratories working day and night. One of these speed records was made by Gaumont Graphic – they filmed the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon. On the pilot engine of the Royal Train were coupled a pair of large milk vans – these were turned into travelling darkrooms. The negative was developed, dried and rough cut – and a print was made on the way to London. As we sped along, every time we crossed any points the developer, hypo and washing water would splash over and cover us. The developer was so low when we developed the print that it did not cover the frame – but the movement of the train saved the day – and the resulting film, nearly 1,000ft in length, was shown the same night at the Electric Theatre in Marble Arch. The negative was re-washed before further prints were made.
News in Colour – It was the colour version of this film, made by Charles Urban, that put newsreels in the big money class. Kinemacolor was made on a black and white print, using rotating filters both in the camera and in the projector, therefore it was able to be processed in the same manner as black and white. The colour film ran for a long while at the Scala Theatre and many other key theatres throughout the world.
Charles Urban and Biocolor had some difficulties with patents. The costs of the resulting law suits rendered them both bankrupt. Gaumont brought out Chronochrome which stopped during the First World War.
About this time I had my first assignment in Turkey. This was during the Balkan War. My apparatus was an inside-box Prestwich camera fitted with 3in and 6in lenses.
The First World War – During the First World War the newsreel firms banded together and formed the War Office Film Committee under the Chairmanship of Sir William Jury. This enabled cameramen to work to a common purpose. One of them, JB McDowell, won the MC and the OBE for his work on the battlefield.
The Government bought up Topical Budget and ran it as an Official War News. I joined them after the war and went to Russia as a war cameraman. Jeapes re-purchased Topical from the Government and attracted the attention of many newspaper owners.
After this I went to Ireland to get some shots of the internal strife prevailing. The resulting films attracted bottles of ink when shown in the cinemas – some people even used my films of the Black and Tans for target practice with revolvers!
Newsreel War – In England at this time a newsreel war was developing. The main cause of trouble was the granting of exclusive rights of the various sporting events – the Grand National was an example of this. This was the end of the ‘closed season’ for unemployed cameramen – all who could stand were certain of work, either as a ‘pirate’ with all expenses paid, or in the official party. One stranger, a ‘pirate’, was looking around for a position – I carried his gear, installed him and left him quite contented – but ignorant of the fact that I had left a ‘minder’ with him to see that no film was taken!
At the last Cup Final at Stamford Bridge, the flats at one end of the pitch was the position of one Pathé camera. This had been spotted by Topical Budget, who had exclusive rights to this match, as was intended. Topical planned to fly a balloon in front of the camera with a banner hanging from it in an attempt to stop us ‘pirates’. They did as they had planned but we had another camera already in place which was put to good use, much to the consternation of Topical. This was the time the Debrie ‘Sept’ automatic camera was introduced – it would run only 15ft of film. I managed to get shots of the King inspecting the teams, a fair coverage of the game and, by good fortune, the only goal – which was a penalty. Every roll was taken back to the office by messenger as soon as it was ready.
Exclusive Rights – Then Gaumont entered the war, buying up all the rights they could, some of which they shared with Movietone. Pathé lost the rights to the Grand National by being outbid and we had to become ‘pirates’ at this fixture. Pathé used scaffold towers and fights took place around these, although they were outside the racecourse. The towers were built at the last minute – on our stand were Jock Gemmell, with his range of long focus lenses and myself, with the slow-motion camera. Then the fight was on! Our opponents got hold of the rope which we used to lift our gear and started to pull the tower over. Just as this 60ft tower was about to topple over someone cut the rope and we just managed to get our cameras lined up – the race had started – then we were attacked for a second time. Fireworks were fired in front of the cameras, which frightened the horses causing the favourite, Golden Miller, to fall in front of our slow-motion camera.
That season’s cricket test matches brought out balloons, heavy netting and many other tricks to stop filming. The balloons were punctured by airgun fire and the pictures stolen!
Later the Newsreel Association was formed and agreement reached on the conditions of exclusive rights. By competitive bidding the price demanded for the exclusive film rights had risen out of all proportion to the earning capacity of newsreels.
Footnote – An unnamed radio & television presenter, in his thanks to the lecturer said ‘….there is still a tremendous vigour and enthusiasm in the newsreel business and, wherever and however the film industry develops, the newsreel men will be right out there in front. Newsreels were there to see the twentieth century in and will still be in the picture when we see the century out….’