Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Newsreel Cameraman's Letters Home. Burma, c1942.

For anyone interested in the way things used to be done in the TV News gathering industry, a new book has been published by a good friend of mine in the USA, Amanda Emily, who runs a fine website called The Dope Sheet. To see if i could find anything for her next book i took a trip to BBC Bush house, London, where they are preparing to leave. During my visit i came across a small bundle of letters in the archives marked:

'Newsreels: Personal, Mr Jack Furtling-Titmuss. (Cameraman) WW2'

Now, being of a nosey disposition, i read one of the letters and what it revealed was a wealth of information as to life as a newsreel cameraman back in the days of WW2 and film cameras. For historical reasons, i have decided to publish the first of these letters for you to read. I hope you like it as much as i did.

Burma, 1942 with my ever faithful Char-Wallah.

 Burma. 6 January 1942.

Clarissa Furtling-Titmuss,
14 Ffarte Gardens,

My dearest Clarissa,

As you know my dear, being of flat foot and unable to serve in His Majesties forces, I rue the very day i signed on for this BBC newsreel filming job. Following the fall of Rangoon to the Japs, I and the BBC Newsreel team retreated into the jungle. I miss the hotels, crisp clean sheets and profligate gambling. I now find myself in a shell-scrape with the 14th Yorkshire (East Riding ) Regiment of Foot and Mouth ( Territorials ). We seem to be fighting off the Japs on a daily basis, who swarm everywhere in the jungle like bees.

Our dispatches to London are on at the cinemas next week. Amazing just how quickly we can send our films back what with an RAF runway close by, 8 days from camera to cinema. An amazing feat of modern technology i'm sure you will agree. 

The jungle humidity is stifling, making my BBC issue camera easily susceptible to rust. Oil is reserved for weapons only, so i find myself making do with the Char Wallah's curious oil substitute to loosen the spigots and shutter. A white sticky concoction consisting of i know not what, but only comes in thimblefuls once a day. He's always got a sweat on that chap… but it does the trick. May have to get you to make some upon my return to Blighty when i get around to getting the recipe. Not speaking the local lingo, sign language prevails, but it seems to involve a lot of whisking….

My dear Clarissa i miss you so. Sleeping in the mud next to my BBC correspondent James, is a trifling disconcerting. Regular consumption of the local whiskey means the chap snores frightfully, bringing our location under Jap sniper fire on many an occasion. This earns us a severe berating from the Sergeant Major of our rifle company to whom we are attached.

My BBC Correspondent, James Gaultier Stickleback Jones, is an ex Coldstream Guardsman. 3rd generation. His father Crispin, was the Colonel in charge of a British forces expeditionary unit during the ill fated attack on Reims by the Germans during WW1, Terribly good show. Being the only survivor of that attack earned him a bar to his DCM, which he won by attacking a Boche machine gun position dressed only in his scanties and tin hat.

Made of good stock though is James, only last week he saved my life. When attacked by local Burmese tribesmen, he fired a warning shot straight between the eyes of their chieftain, with his fathers service revolver. All the while taking notes for dispatch to the BBC in London.

In other news, there was much rum goings on in the camp last night, Gunner Perkins fell asleep in his bunk with a lit cigarette. The resulting fire and screaming brought the entire front line on stand-to, until the fire was put out. Clean water being a scarce commodity in the jungle, the fire was extinguished by the combined bladder efforts of 6th and HQ Company. By morning Perkins and his bunk had disappeared and there was much mumblings amongst the troops.

The Regimental Sergeant Major boosted morale though, by announcing a suckling pig barbecue for that very evening. Lord only knows where he got the lumps of pork from, but morale has indeed lifted. When the Char Wallah produced an unexpected pot of his relish that seemed very similar to his camera oil substitute, smiles were returned all around in the enlisted ranks. Made a delightful change from the daily bully beef with rice.

Now, do not be alarmed my dear Clarissa, but crotch rot has returned with a vengeance. Please send more of mothers goose fat and bandages, as much as you can manage. Filming becomes hard with a camera on your shoulder and the other hand down your trollies to relieve the itch, i'm finding it hard to focus. James's pustulating bum boil was finally lanced last week at the first aid post, using a rifleman's sharpened pull through spike and wire wool pilfered from the Officers mess tent. I must say he took it like a man. Much mirth for the Dhobi Wallah's though, they find it all highly amusing and highly profitable.

Well my dear Clarissa, it is time to sign off this letter. A big push along the Jap lines is expected for the morning and i am tasked to film it for next weeks newsreel films. I do hope you get to see them.


your loving husband,


Well, there you have it. They were certainly different times back then, a world away from the modern technology we have now. There are more letters which i am taking the time to read, and i may post more of them here on this very blog. If i can be arsed.

You can buy Amanda's sparkly new book HERE.

Paul Martin is @ukcameraman on Twitter.