Kirby Rickard 1950s
The film department at the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s ABV2, Ripponlea, was getting quite busy.
In the Autumn of 1959, Kip Porteous, Head of Films, said that he was taking on another cameraman and that he had had an application from one Kirby Rickard. The name was immediately familiar to me, although I remembered the name as “Kibby”.
Les Hendy, the Chief Cameraman, had asked him to do a test film and Kirby decided to do one of the most difficult shots that a cameraman could be asked to do. He chose to film a candle using studio lights to give sufficient illumination to be able to see the candle and its candlestick. The light from the candle could certainly not do this, and anyone could throw a studio light at the scene to enable you to see it. However, it required considerable knowledge of film and lighting to be able to film the candle in such a way as it seemed that all the illumination was coming from the wick. Kirby ushered everyone out of the studio before he began and shut the door behind them.
He filmed the burning candle and the result was astounding. He got the job.
Kirby was in his late forties, overweight, a paunch which hung over his belt, an open-neck shirt, balding with lots of hair either side of his bald pate, pointing sideways. He had slightly prominent teeth which gave the impression that he was always smiling. Usually he was smiling.
It was in such a condition that Kirby was assigned to cover the men’s fashions in Melbourne. The next morning, the newspapers had shots of him with his bare midriff and unkempt hair. He was famous. The fashion parade took second place.
Kirby had been a newsreel cameraman with Pathe News and this is how I knew his name.
He had been in Palestine in 1947, with Ken Hanshaw of Movietonews, filming the war between the Jews and the Arabs, with the British caught in the middle. On two occasions Kirby was captured, once by the Arabs and once by the Jews. I call them Jews because, at that time, there was no such place as Israel and therefore no Israelis. Of course, there had been Israelites, but that was 2,000 years ago.
Each time he was captured, he was threatened with a firing squad, but, somehow, he talked his way out of it. It must have been that smile. When Pathe heard about it some wag at the office sent him a cable which said “You dead query’. Kirby replied “No”.
In those days, communications between Palestine and London, that is to say between the cameramen and their head office, was by cable. Cable communication was quite expensive and was charged by the word. This is how early cablese came into being.
Kirby’s boss was Tommy Cummins, who was Chief Editor of Pathe News. Cummins wrote a letter to Kirby asking him not to use the word “Regards” at the end of every message. It was expensive. In typical Kirby fashion, he sent the next cable home and signed off “No Regards”.
Kirby would come to our house from time to time for a few beers. After a while he confided in me concerning his presence in Australia. The story reads like fiction, but with Kirby telling it, it sounds true.
It seems that he travelled to Australia with a film unit to make a documentary in and around Perth. The Director of the film was his wife.
The story goes that while filming, the provider of the funds for the crew stopped sending any more money and then disappeared. So the crew was left twelve thousand miles from home without “a brass rahzoo”.
The solution was simple, but Kirby never explained just how they got away with it. Kirby was to disappear and be pronounced missing or dead. This enabled his wife to claim insurance for his life and get the remainder of the crew back to England. What I don’t understand is: first, how the insurers could assume that Kirby was dead and second, how could she have got the required money so soon? What about waiting seven years to be declared dead?
What is true is that Kirby found himself at large in Australia all by himself. There’s another thing, how could he swan around the country using his real name. I will never know if this was one of Kirby’s more elaborate jokes. However, everything he did afterwards supported his story.
He had to make some money fast and he chose to try his hand in Coober Pedy. This place is around 500 miles to the north-west of Adelaide in the Stuart’s Range, on the way to Alice Springs. It is the centre for Opal Mining, although the word mining is not used by the locals. They call it “gouging”, since the opal-bearing material is found in the walls of a vertical hole and it is gouged from the wall.
When Kirby arrived in Coober Pedy, there was only one building above ground and that was the Post Office. Everything else was below ground, mainly because of the heat, but also some of the original workings, long “worked out”, provided the beginnings of accommodation.
Kirby soon found a hole and started to make friends. He met a man who had found a lot of opals in a short time. He sold them locally, apparently there were buyers on hand, and with some £15,000 in his hand he bought a car from a recently arrived miner and drove to Adelaide.
There he wined and dined, threw money at slow horses and fast women and in a few weeks was broke. He drove back to Coober Pedy and sold his car on arrival to sustain himself until he could find some more opals. Apparently the car had done the trip between Coober Pedy and Adelaide a number of times.
The interesting thing about opal mining is that no one can stake a claim. If you climb out of your hole for any reason whatever, someone else can go into it and carry on gouging. I imagine there was an element of fair play, but still there was no such thing as a claim.
The Aborigines were very active in the gathering business and it was thought that they were being ripped off by the local buyers.
Eventually Kirby had collected a fair haul of opals and decided that he would go to Sydney to sell them, to get a higher price. He travelled overland by car and he would have been driving in some of the most inhospitable country in the world. Mostly it would have consisted of tracks through scrub and semi-desert.
On the way, he went off the road, broke his ankle and had to wait until someone else passed by before he could get help. It was quite a long time. When an ambulance arrived, they patched him up, placed him on board, and then drove him up to Queensland. They realised that he was in no position to pay for treatment (not knowing about the opals) and took him to the State that did not charge for medical treatment.
Of course, he was in Queensland for months while he recovered. Eventually, he got to Sydney and plied his haul around the opal buying companies. He was told that the market had dropped out of opals in his absence, but they might get him a decent price in Japan. He had no choice. He waited in Sydney for his money to turn up. When it came, he was determined to get back to England. However, he had no passport and his only hope was to catch a ship whose captain was willing to turn a blind eye (Admiral Lord Nelson ?) concerning Kirby’s status. He also needed a ship that was sailing from Sydney to England. He was sure that he could “bum” his way into England when he arrived. After all, there was no mistaking Kirby for anything other than an Englishman.
He found such a ship, loaded his meagre belongings on board, paid the captain and then set off for Newcastle up the coast. Newcastle was to be the ship’s first port of call. He had been told that he would have a better chance in Newcastle of getting on board unnoticed than he would in Sydney.
When Kirby arrived in Newcastle, he went to the docks to await the arrival of his transport home, only to be told that the ship had sunk outside Sydney Heads. Now you could not make this up, could you ?
He went back to Sydney and finally remembered that he was a cameraman of some note. He applied for a job with A.B.C. Sydney. I imagine they took one look at him and then told him to go to Melbourne. They would do that.
Kirby turned in some fine work and got on well with all the other cameramen.
After a while, I asked him where he was staying and he said “I am lodging at the former residence of the Governor-General”. This was an imposing building in town and looked like a minor palace. He took me round there one time. It was in a bad state of repair and parts looked like they were about to fall down. There was a huge hall and reception rooms. Not a stick of furniture to be seen anywhere. He showed me up the palatial stairs to the first floor where there were rows of bedrooms. In fact there were seventeen.
He shared this edifice with an old lady who, it seemed, owned it.
They had a bedroom each and regularly burglars broke in and disturbed their few belongings. Instead of having a good tidy-up, they merely moved into the next two available rooms and started all over again. This was typical of Kirby. On his pay, I should think he could have stayed anywhere he liked, but, who knows?, he might have been saving up for his passage home. He never spoke about going home.
Years later, I saw an article in one of the London evening papers about the art exhibitors on the Thames Embankment. They were being warned off by the authorities. Their case was being supported by Lady Devonshire and their leader was Kirby Rickard.
I might have tried to find him, but I thought that he would not want to be found. I’ve heard since that he is listed as cameraman on a Pathe News story in 1964, according to this article.
The last job I did with him was in December 1960. My abiding memory is of him standing up in the back seat of a Winjeel aircraft shooting air to air shots, hand held, of a passing U2. What a character, you could not make him up.
Additional links: Britishpathe.com – footage of Kirby boarding a plane to Palestine in 1947.
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What an interesting character Kirby Rickard was. I’m particularly interested in the Coober Pedy bits (because I live in Coober Pedy). Did he take any photos here?
Sue, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I never saw any photos of Coober Pedy taken by Kirby.
It looks a fascinating place to live, I once tried to convince my company to let me film a documentary there (over 50 years ago) but it wasn’t to be.