Douglas Stewart Baker was a typical cinema manager of the era when the business was in fierce competition from television, bingo, and bowling. He came to manage the ABC Regal during 1955. Previously he had been the General Manager at the ABC Litchfield. The ABC was Chester’s largest “super cinema”, the other two supers being the similar sized, and grand Gaumont Palace in Brook Street, which boasted a full working stage, and the more modest Odeon in Northgate Street.
The ABC being a triple “A” grade theatre was regarded with some importance by the Associated British Cinemas Corporation company that owned it. Therefore, it had to be managed by a person of a certain calibre, with the experience required to boost admissions, particularly of such a large cinema, which had high operating costs. Douglas S Baker was one such person. A disciplinarian by nature, with a charming manner, which he used to his full advantaged with the press, and on other members of the local business community to assist him to promote ABC’s film exhibition to all four corners of the Chester district. He lavishly entertained anyone whom he considered would be a willing partner in any of his publicity campaigns. The drinks cabinet in his office was always generously stocked!
He led a team of hand chosen managers, who were dedicated to the profession, nurturing several of them into much higher positions within the company, and in the case of his trainee Chester prodigy Dennis Davidson, went on to form the international PR company of Dennis Davidson Associates.
With the staff in general, you would be expected to take part in Douglas Baker’s publicity campaigns, no matter what was involved. As a sixteen year old, I remember being told to ride a penny farthing cycle, dressed in a top hat & false beard around the busy Chester streets as part of a film promotion. When I protested that I was employed as a projectionist, he replied sternly “ and do you enjoy having that job?”. I duly got on the bike, much to the amusement of my colleagues! Unless management or staff gave a full 100% return he had a low tolerance level. He was very much a company man, and ran the operation strictly in line with the demands of Associated British Cinemas.
He had a traditional respect for his staff, and they in turn respected him. As business dramatically dropped, he steered the cinema through some challenging times, and it was important that he maintained the loyalty of his team. Notable times during Douglas’s tenure at the ABC were the major refurbishment that took place during 1963, followed by the immensely popular stage shows that commenced the following year. In 1965 the main entrance foyer was divided to make way for the Concourse Coffee Lounge, which boasted “Cooking By Radar”, as featured on Pathe News. This was because it was the first retail premises to cook by microwave in the UK.
He regularly won awards for his promotions, and indeed for the coveted National ABC Good House Keeping award, which he was particularly proud, as seen in this 1965 press photograph.
A surprise for everyone was when Douglas Baker announced that he was moving to Bristol to manage a brand new cinema there. He left the Chester cinema in a buoyant business position, and will always be remembered for his talented contribution to cinema exhibition.
Peter Davies © chestercinemas.co.uk
Cinematographer Alex Thomson. After trying to get into the film industry for around two years he managed to get in, and first worked on the film So Well, Remembered. (1947), starting as a clapper boy. His career started at Denham Studios. He later went to Pinewood and then spent four years working for Technicolor. Later, he became a freelance camera operator and worked with notable director Nicolas Roeg. He worked several times with Kenneth Branagh. The films were Love’s Labours Lost (2000), Listening (2003) and Hamlet (1996), shot in 65mm. Branagh wanted the large format because he had seen how good Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had looked. Alex had worked on the second unit of that film with Nicolas Roeg. Thomson said that the shoot was complicated because of the complex camera movements. Branagh said after Alex had died: Alex was always good-humoured on set. He gave you the feeling he had seen it all before but was still highly amused about the ever-surprising shenanigans of filmmaking. He had his own very dry, very wry sense of fun in response.
Nicolas Roeg said: Making movies was our life. Alex operated for me, and when I started to direct, he became my wonderful DP. He was just a brilliant and inspired cinematographer. He lived the film as much as the screenwriter or the actors.
Alex was on the board of governors at the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) for twenty-six years and was their president from 1981-1982.
How old were you when you started in the business?
I was eighteen.
Why did you choose cameras?
I didn’t know how films were made but I knew they had a camera and I loved the cinema. When I started at Denham I didn’t realise they were the cream of the studios. Being in the business was absolute magic, I was so excited. The cameraman on my first picture was the great Freddie Young. I later worked on the second unit of Lawrence of Arabia, which Freddie photographed.
click the above picture to watch the 1962 trailer
Did you have a favourite studio?
I did, it was Denham. I also enjoyed working at MGM British Studios, now gone. Elstree Studios are only a fraction of what they used to be. A Tesco’s occupies part of the area.
Have you worked in studios overseas?
I have worked at Cinecitta in Rome and at Warner Brothers in the States. I shot Demolition Man over there with Sylvester Stallone. I also worked with him on Cliffhanger, which was filmed in the Dolomites.
Did you have a favourite director?
It is Nicolas Roeg. I did a couple of pictures with him as his DP and also operated for him when he was a cinematographer. He is a great raconteur, and always makes me laugh. We have a great friendship.
What hours did you work?
At the beginning we worked five and a half days, including Saturday morning. Later it varied. On some pictures we worked six days a week. This is on most of them now. Some work up to fourteen or fifteen hours a day.
On some films you operated as well as being the cinematographer, why was that?
It started on Year of the Dragon (1985). The director Michael Cimino wanted me to do both jobs. I found I enjoyed doing both because I could see exactly what I was getting as a cameraman. After that I worked on several pictures doing both.
How many films did you work on in America?
There was Alien 3 (1992), part of Cliffhanger (1993), Demolition Man (1993) Executive Decision (1996) Raw Deal (1986) Track 29(1988) Date with an Angel (1987) and Year of the Dragon (1985).
click on the above picture to watch the 1993 trailer
What was your first film as director of photography?
The first was a black and white feature called Ervinka (1967) The colour picture was Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) starring the late Barry Evans.
Did you have a favourite camera?
I mostly used Arriflex, but I also used Panavision a lot.
click the above picture to view a tribute to Alex Thomson BSC
What do you think of digital cinematography?
The special effects done digitally are excellent. I was on Superman (1978), and we spent hours trying to disguise wires, lighting them out, shading them and all sorts of things.
Cinematographer Alex Thomson was born on January 12 1929 and passed away on June 14th 2007 aged seventy-eight and was cremated in his Cliff hanger tee shirt.
David A Ellis © chestercinemas.co.uk
Following on from our June feature of Barbara & John Paskin, and their time working at the Gaumont cinema. Several new photographs have now surfaced! The one published below is the earliest picture of Chester Gaumont staff (so far).We know that it is was taken during July 1933, It shows members of the projection staff standing outside the projection room which was situated on the roof.
The war time blockbuster, with a link to Chester!
click on the above picture to watch the closing of MILLIONS LIKE US
Gateway theatre Chester on June 28 2004 about his expeditions.
As a boy did you want to become an explorer?
When I was little I didn’t have any notions of expeditions, I probably didn’t know what they were. I was brought up in South Africa and did want to be in the British army; in fact I specifically wanted to become the commanding officer of the Royal Scots Greys Cavalry regiment, which my father had been commanding when he got killed in the war, so I was very knowledgeable about what I wanted to do.
How old were you when you went on your first expedition?
It depends what you call expeditions. In Sussex when I was about fourteen, my sister and I followed a river down to the sea by canoe. They got more and more ambitious and when I joined the army we crossed the Pyrenees by mule. Eventually we did the Nile by hovercraft. After that the expeditions did become fairly ambitious and by then we were trying to achieve big challenges, which hadn’t been achieved.
How many expeditions have you been on and which was your toughest?
I’d have to work out how many but it’s certainly more than thirty. I suppose the crossing of the Antarctic continent in the 1990s was probably the most difficult, or one of the most difficult.
During an expedition have you or any of your team ever been injured, bringing an end to the expedition?
In terms of serious injury most of the expeditions have had people suffer injuries of one sort or another. Someone was badly burned on one trip. On several occasions one or more members of the expedition have been badly frost bitten. We have had people break limbs and a young Danish member of our expedition in 1978 died in the engine room of our Polar ship. He was the only one to have died on an expedition.
Have you abandoned any of your expeditions?
Yes, over thirty-two years of doing it we have abandoned prior to the goal more than once.
Which of your expeditions have you enjoyed the most?
I think the ones in Arabia, the archaeological ones, searching for a particular lost city. On the first seven attempts we never found it, this was over twenty-six years. We finally found it in the early 1990s Just about all those searches were very interesting and very enjoyable.
How much training do you require before you set out on an expedition?
Some of them require rigorous fitness training; others don’t require any training at all. It entirely depends on what you are after.
Have you ever feared for your life?
Not overall – overall you plan the expedition so that you hope you will succeed. One of the things that is likely to make the expedition fail is if you run into a big hazard. You try and keep them risk free in order that they don’t get stopped. You can’t always plan for everything and sometimes you do run into trouble. When you run into trouble, for example you fall into a crevasse, the time when you are worried is the actual split second of realising you are falling into a crevasse, at which point you desperately try to do something to stop a bad result. So the period of apprehension and fear is rapidly taken over by some form of action.
Have you any adventures planned?
I have got one or two plans on the board; in fact over the last thirty-two years there have always been some plans on the board. The question usually is whether we can find sponsors for the particular plan. What we don’t like doing is announcing before we are ready to go because that is the most certain way of getting the opposition to get in there first. If it’s an archaeological expedition it’s usually the Germans who hear about it. If it’s Polar it’s very often the Norwegians.
When did you receive your knighthood?
I never got knighted, I got born a Sir because my father was a Sir and he was a Sir because his father was knighted for various services to the crown.
You are in great demand – are you planning to go on giving your motivational talks and other presentations for some time to come?
When you are abroad on expeditions it’s not possible to be hear lecturing about other expeditions, so if you were to say yes to every convention or conference you would never go on expeditions, so you have to be very controlled about that.
I understand you have written sixteen books – are there any more in the planning stage?
I’ve never written a book within two years of having done the last one – so sixteen books, thirty-two years.
Do they take a lot of planning?
Some do and some don’t. The general rule is if you have actually completed the expedition yourself and your writing about it, it’s a lot quicker than it is writing about somebody else.
Have you ever been approached by a film company wanting to film your life story?
I haven’t ever, and I haven’t considered it but there is lots of footage of past expeditions in the can from all over the world.
Have you been to Chester before?
I have been to Chester many times over many years.
Apparently your talk could have been sold three times over – will you be returning to tell us more?
I didn’t know that. If I’m asked again I’ll come again.
Where do you go after the Chester talk?
The day after tomorrow I’m doing one in the morning in Amsterdam and then in the evening in Monaco. Then the following day I will be in Milton Keynes.
David A Ellis © chestercinemas.co.uk
In our August update ~