David Bowerman – Life Behind The Camera

Jo Ward talks to cinematographer David Bowerman who relates some of the anecdotes and talks about just a few of the famous personalities he met during his long career behind the lens.

Born into a family of pharmacists in Bristol, David became a trainee assistant cameraman, age 18 in 1962, when ITV was in its infancy. “I was lucky to get a job with no qualifications in a photographic role,” David explains, though he’d owned a camera since he was 8 years old and knew that he had the aptitude for the role.

Most of David’s work involved television commercials. “I learnt on the job and went from taking still photographs to becoming a cinematographer.” Recalling what he calls ‘a terribly non-politically correct commercial for Carlsberg lager which we would not have got away with nowadays’, David describes the one-shot take: “We had a close up of a very hot and sweaty missionary pulling back to reveal that he was actually in a cooking pot then easing slightly to the right to reveal a gorgeous African girl drinking a Carlsberg beer with the slogan ‘Enjoy one with your next meal’.”

Some years later, married and with a month old baby he took on the position of cameraman for the Government of the Republic of Zambia. Filming President Kaunda on a trip to a fairly remote part of southern Zambia, David recalls the lunch buffet in a local school. “There was a tremendous scrum and the food didn’t look that great so I just stood back until a very attractive girl in full Zambian dress came up to me and said that the President was concerned that I was not getting anything to eat and handed me a plate of food,” David laughs as he says this. “Three weeks later at the Presidential Lodge the President came up to me and said ‘young man do you realise that you have got me accused of looking after minority interests’, so I realised that he had a sense of humour and that nothing had escaped him.”

David and his family spent 5 years in Zambia, during which time he also filmed President Tito of Yugoslavia and the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, before returning to the UK. Within a few weeks he was working fairly regularly for HTV in Bristol and Wales on current affairs programmes.  “I was filming Ginger Rogers who was walking round the Roman Baths and my abiding memory is of her saying ‘young man, be careful you don’t trip over while walking backwards’,” he says.

Through a contact from Zambia his name was put forward for a job in Germany which turned out to be a pivotal opportunity for David, who from then on became a regular contributor to BBC South. “I worked with a sound recordist, Martin Dale, who went on to be my partner in business until he died in 1995,” he says. David established his reputation by buying his own film camera for £4,000 (in those days the price of a house!) and became a recognised BBC network cameraman working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World, Jim’ll Fix It, Newsnight, Panorama and Horizon as well as continuing with his regional freelance work.

One of David’s favourite memories is whilst he was working on the BBC drama series Howards Way, filming the actor Maurice Colbourne in the role of Tom Howard. “Maurice was a very nice guy but he couldn’t drive a boat to save his life,” David says. “I was working with veteran director Jimmy Hill who had lined up the shot in a bed of reeds beside an estuary.” David explains how Maurice forgot which way to turn the throttle and the rubber boat he was in suddenly shot forward, flew into the air and landed in the middle of a reed bed. “A younger director would have done the shot again but Jimmy just said ‘a cut away I think’ and in the finished programme it all works smoothly, but the funniest thing was seeing Maurice in the boat carried by four grips back to the place he should have been at and plonked down in the water.”

An upgrade to the latest new SR film camera, on which he spent £12,000, ensured David his position as one of the best freelance cameramen of the time. David tells of a halcyon summer at the beginning of the 80’s filming children’s television series Worzel Gummidge ‎starring Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs for Southern Television. “We had three cameras shooting a cake fight which is quite a tricky operation to organise so it had to be choreographed,” David says.  “All the actors knew where they were supposed to throw their custard pies and each cameraman had about five different shots to get before moving on to another actor,” he explains, “but on the third shot one of the actors loses his footing and you see him flying backwards desperately trying to throw his pie – it was a beautiful shot you could never choreograph but the amazing thing was that at the end of it there wasn’t a single piece of custard pie anywhere near the cameras!”

Another interesting assignment took David back to Africa once again. “I was sponsored by Conoco Oil who had recently done some exploration in the French Congo and wanted to put something back. They heard about the fifty or so chimps living in poor conditions in the capital’s zoo and contacted the Jane Goodall Foundation to see if anything could be done,” David tells me. An ambitious plan was devised to build a fence round an area of woodland that stood on its own near a village in the south of the country to which the chimpanzees would be transported. “I had to make two trips to cover the construction, and then I had a final trip to film the chimpanzees moving to their new home, despite the fact that the normally peaceful French Congolese were having a coup,” he says. “Landing in Kinshasa after midnight I went straight to bed as I knew we had an early start. Emerging from the shower in the morning I heard a very insistent knock on the door which I opened, only to find a small chimp in a nappy demanding some attention. Breakfast was good, although somewhat bizarre, with every human having a chimp to feed!”

In 1980 ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who had just been asked to leave Japan over a drug related incident, arrived back in the UK and David was sent to stake out his house in East Sussex. “All morning we sat outside until I heard an engine start and a car appeared. Paul stepped out with his bodyguard and walked across to us saying that he would like to have his Sunday lunch in peace and he was sure that we would like to go home ourselves,” David relates. “He offered to do an interview there and then but noticing that there was just myself, my sound recordist and our reporter, he asked where everybody else was and I told him that they were busy putting their lenses through his hedge around the property.” David chuckles as he tells how Paul asked his bodyguard to go and round everybody up but the bodyguard said that he shouldn’t leave Paul alone with us, to which Paul replied ‘I don’t think they look too dangerous to me’. “So we stood there making small talk with Paul McCartney until the rest of the press had been rounded up.”

Robert Redford  – “They say the camera loves some people but I have never seen anyone like Robert Redford come to life the minute we started filming an interview; he grew, he lit up and he sparkled until somebody yelled cut and that was the end of it.”

Bob Hope – “I had been sent to film him arriving by train in Portsmouth and when he got there he was told his show had been cancelled due to an unexploded bomb that had been discovered underneath the Town Hall. With a totally deadpan expression, Bob said ‘haven’t you got a football stadium?’ and when he was told that Portsmouth did indeed have a stadium the show went on. He was a true professional.”

Peter Ustinov – “I was working for Italian television at the time filming an interview at the Dorchester Hotel. The reporter was late, so I had the pleasure of being regaled with stories and chatting with the wonderful raconteur for over an hour whilst we waited for him to arrive.”

On another assignment, David spent four days working with Prince Philip on a one-to-one basis making a film about carriage driving.  “We had permission to use a radio microphone because normally you are only allowed to use a rifle mic so far away that you can’t get usable sound,” David says. “Prince Philip wasn’t used to the fact that we could hear every word he said and during a tracking shot with him on the carriage he said things such as ‘the director’s an idiot’ and ‘what is that fool doing behind that rock’ – things that couldn’t be used in the final film.” On the final day of shooting David was told to go and stand on a scaffolding tower at Sandringham alone with Prince Philip for four hours so that he could help David decide what shots to get. “Luckily, he was perfectly charming with me,” David says.

By 1982 David and Martin had formed their own company, Cine Wessex, and were working on numerous dramas and documentaries.  “Within a couple of weeks of acquiring a third camera, the Falklands War had commenced and we had all three cameras at Portsmouth Docks providing most of the coverage for the BBC and ITV of the fleet preparing to set off,” David tells me.  He was also there when the ships returned and another of his most memorable shots is one of the frigates coming back with an Exocet missile still stuck in the bow.

In 1996 David was asked to go out to the Falklands to make a film with war veteran Simon Weston as the presenter. “I already knew him because I was the cameraman that filmed him when he arrived back in the UK after he had been severely burned,” David explains. “We were there to film a Horizon documentary on his recovery, so for the next two or three years I would go regularly to South Wales to film him during his rehabilitation.”

David’s profession has taken him around the world. “It has been hard work but also tremendous fun and I have become an expert in hanging around,” he says, “but what most people don’t realise is that if I’d had just one failure during my 42 years that would have been the end of my career, but I always managed to bring back the results.”

David has just completed writing his memoirs and these will be published in May 2017.

This article also appeared in InSight Magazine Gibraltar February 2016 issue. Pages 20 – 24.

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