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Scoops, pirates and pinching in the newsreels

For some years after I joined British Movietone News in October 1945, I heard stories from older members of the staff about the “Scoops” that had taken place in the early twenties to the mid thirties.

I found a lot of the stories unbelievable but it seems that a number of those stories that I did not believe were, in fact, true.  The big mystery to me is why did they do it ?

A scoop was an event where one newsreel company would, surreptitiously, film an event that the rights of coverage of which had been ceded to another company or companies.

These events includes such attractions as The Cup Final, The Grand National and Test Match cricket.   However, from time to time there were other stories that a particular newsreel company thought they had an exclusive right to and which another thought that they would deprive them of.

When one hears how various sporting events were covered by the pirates, one has to wonder why they bothered.  The coverage must have been outstandingly awful.

The Picturegoer published an article in their edition of 30th April 1932.

“The smuggling of celluloid ‘scoops’ with the aid of feminine confederates, picture piracy, with prison as a penalty for the unlucky, and thrilling road and air races with the news spools are all part of the day’s work to the modern cameraman-reporter.  For the newsreel company shut out by an ‘exclusive rights’ deal there are three alternatives.  One, to pirate the picture with silent cameras and to put sound on it from the library.  Two, to fake a picture and issue it before the ‘exclusive rights’ holder gets his authentic film out, and three, to ignore the event entirely and concentrate on some other news story”.

The people who write articles such as this were inclined to add fanciful stories to the truth, I suppose to romanticise what to me always seemed to be a stupid practice.  The reason that the pirates did not use their sound cameras when pirating is that, being so large and cumbersome, they could not get them in to the event unnoticed and, also, they could not have set them up without taking up a lot of room.  So the writer of the article tells us that they might pirate the event by using silent cameras.  Although small enough to be smuggled in, they were anything but silent and they would have been a dead giveaway when raised to the eye to shoot.

The companies who had the rights to shoot the Cup Final would have had excellent positions from which to shoot.  Typically, there would have been a sound camera in the ‘eaves’ on a platform slung beneath the grandstand roof, level with the half-way line.  All this opposite the Royal Box, giving an excellent view of the entire pitch, V.I.P’s and the presentations.

Next there would be a camera position constructed in stair wells opposite each penalty box.   Finally, there would be a camera behind each goal and a roving cameramen.  His job was to film the presentation before the match, crowd shots during the match and the presentation of the Cup.  For this he would walk up the exit stairs to get his close-ups.

How could a pirate compete with that line-up ?  They could not.

In an article published in Pictorial Weekly of 31 March 1934, Enne Fisher lists a series of events concerning cameramen ‘stealing’ shots at some important news events over the years.

He states that an un-named company having secured the rights to the 1923 Cup final, at enormous expense, found themselves ‘scooped’ by pirates who had managed to release their film at the same time.

English: Scene of the crowd crush at the 1923 ...

Scene of the crowd crush at the 1923 FA Cup Final. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In viewing their own film, it seems they spotted one of the pirates who was seen holding a large decorated hammer, a mascot for West Ham.  It was seen that this pirate was Jack Cotter of Pathe filming the 1923 FA Cup Final More on that later.

It seems that, in the mid thirties, British Paramount News refused to even bid for the rights to any event, claiming that all news events are public property.  Furthermore they would pirate as much as they could.

The Enne Fisher article turns to The Grand National telling anecdotal stories of individual cameramen stealing pictures of the race.

One pirate cameraman got himself a job selling refreshments at the circuit using his location in a private grandstand to shoot the race.

The legitimate companies would hire spotters to find the rogue cameramen.  The peddler was spotted, but, when confronted, he no longer had the camera, that had been spirited away by a small boy running to a waiting car.

At the Canal Turn, close to the canal, as the horses approached, we are told, a barge, hired by a pirate cameraman comes along enabling the cameraman to shoot the passing horses.  That would take a bit of doing – bringing a barge to bear at the precise moment that the horses approached the jump.

At this stage, I ask: what about the start, what about the finish, what about all the other jumps on the circuit ?.  We are not told whether all the pirates at this particular Grand National were from the same newsreel company.

Then there is the steam shovel appearing above the outer fence at Aintree.  It is bearing another cameraman, a pirate.  It is said that he is thwarted by a spotter borrowing a lady’s hand mirror and reflecting the sun into his lens.

There are other examples.  In the Grandstand a man dressed as a chauffeur is seen putting a camera into a lunch basket just after the horses have passed.  The camera is found, but there is no film in it.  That had already gone.

The race passes the Grandstand twice, so was this the first lap or the second ?.  If the second, how did he get away with shooting during the first ?  If it was the first, the pirate would have had to do without the finish.

A genuine bookmaker is seen to pick up a camera and shoot the horses passing by.  We are told that he has been coached by a pirate cameraman.  I find this hard to believe.  If the bookie was spotted by a member of the staff of Mirabel Topham, he would have been banned for life from the circuit.

A pirate sound crew spent the night in a hole dug in a rubbish tip.  They appeared the next day to provide a panoramic, shot of the entire Grand National field.

A shot of falling horses was supplied by a pirate who disguised himself as a messenger boy and who left the scene carrying a huge horseshoe bouquet to get past the detectives.

The story goes on to say that the film is flown from a secret location to be delivered to the laboratories in Acton.  That means it had to be British Paramount News who were the pirates.  I would love to see their edited version of the 1933 Grand National.

It should be compared with the versions put out by the companies holding the rights.  They would have worked from two positions in the grandstand, a camera at the off, the Canal Turn, Becher’s Brook, Valentines and some other salient points.  So-called ‘silent’ cameramen who have been deployed to provide an alternative finish shot, the parade, unsaddling and the presentation to the winner.

Paramount’s audience must have been easily pleased.

The article by Enne Fisher concludes with:

All the episodes above occurred last year, very soon the war will break out again.  Exclusive rights to film the Grand National and the Cup Final have already been secured by two of the leading news-reel organisations, and secret plane to steal unauthorised pictures have already been devised by all their competitors”.

In the Journal of the Association of Cine Technicians of May 1935 it is claimed that “Conditions of employment, salaries, allowances and expenses have been drastically cut to allow for excessive spending on exclusive film rights – an expenditure of £2,000 on rights is not unusual.  Attempts to stifle competition by excluding rival cameramen from national events impossible with new hand cameras – ‘pirates’ from the companies can get their shots in spite of 250 heavies hired for protection at an event like the Grand National”.

At that time, it was costing the newsreel companies around £1,000 to produce each issue.

At that rate, they would not be able to buy rights for many events.

How the A.C.T. could know the details of such cuts is another mystery.

Here is a story that was still doing the rounds in the late fortiesRonnie Noble confirms it in his book Shoot First. Gaumont British had the rights to cover a Test Match at the Oval.  Opposition newsreels were determined to pinch it.  “Pinch” was the phrase they used for this illegal filming. They used the flat roof of flats outside the ground from which to film. They had a good view of the playing area.

The story goes that Castleton-Knight of Gaumont British set up an array of balloons which were raised to block out the pirate cameras.  In reply, the pirates armed themselves with air guns and shot the balloons down.

Castleton Knight responded with another array – of searchlights, powered by a generator which were switched on and turned in the direction of the pirate cameras. This brought the actions of the pirates to a halt.  Soon, the pirates realised that play had stopped and the reason was that the searchlights’ beams aimed at the pirate cameras were reflecting from their lenses back into the eyes of the batsman.  The searchlights were extinguished.

You could not make it up – or could you ?.  It is stories like this one that make  me believe that there is a number of these yarns are apocryphal.

I ask myself where, at the Oval, could Castleton Knight have placed an array of balloons that did not also spoil the view of hundreds of spectators.  For that matter, where could he have placed an array of searchlights ?

The flats could only have been to the east and west of the ground offering the cameras a side view of the wicket, the worst position from which to film cricket.

I find it so difficult to believe these stories and when I see alternative versions that are so different in detail that somewhere along the line some fiction has crept in.

Useless If Delayed by Paul Wyand

Useless If Delayed by Paul Wyand

In Paul Wyand’s Useless if Delayed, he tells a different story.  In a different location and different circumstances.  The story is true and has been well documented, but it is still difficult to believe.

Paul writes that the first Test in the Ashes series with Australia 1934, both Gaumont British and Movietone had the shooting rights.  Paramount were the pirates in the form of Henry Hawkins.

The following is a contemporary report: The film rights had been sold to Gaumont British News for £250 and the photographic rights to Central Press. Spectators were searched for cameras which were locked away until play ended.  British Movietone News also had the rights.

Paramount built a great scaffold on the corner of Bridgford Road and Musters Road with cameraman Henry Hawkins perched on the top. Gaumont British erected screens on top of the boundary wall to block his view, then, as the scaffold rose higher, balloons were flown above the screens. Paramount  hired a car which drove close to the Bridgford Road boundary. A man clambered on top of the car and cut the guy ropes, releasing the balloons which were then seen floating off towards Market Square.

Paul Wyand’s story continues: “Henry Hawkins of Paramount paid a fee to a neighbouring householder for permission to build a steel tower in his garden.  From the top of the tower, thirty feet up, Hawkins could see into Trent Bridge and was thus able to film the match”.

He was spotted by Castleton Knight, the general manager of Gaumont British. (One might ask what he was doing there, I never knew of a general manager attending an event)

He, Castleton Knight, thought that a balloon would prevent the pirate from working.  He sent for a balloon.

(Hold on, ‘arf a mo’, where would you send an assistant to buy a balloon in Nottingham?)

Even Paul Wyand asks “Heaven alone knows where they obtained the latter (The Balloon) from”

Not only did they obtain a balloon, they also bought a winch and cable.

Paul Wyand goes on “We placed the winch into position, attached the balloon to the cable, and ran it up to the required thirty feet ”Hawkins was snookered – but not for long.  He soon has a gang of workmen adding more scaffolding to his platform and continued photographing the match from over the top of our balloon.  We adjusted the height, but this time Hawkins lowered his tower to its original thirty feet and shot from underneath the balloon.  The duel went on all day, and at one time Hawkin’s tower reached a height of 120 feet”.

So, who was shooting the Test Match for Gaumont and Movietone while all this was going on ?


Trent Bridge 1934, England v Australia test match

Paul continues:  “The next day the performance was repeated, until two Paramount men, Ben Hart and Jack Rogerson, entered the ground through the turnstiles.  While Jack engaged our winch operator in conversation Ben produced a pair of wire-cutters and severed the cable holding the balloon.  The freed balloon soared upward and brought a great roar from both players and crowd, who watched its progress with no little interest as it floated across the ground, burst and landed in the river Trent”.

I worked with Paul Wyand for many years.  He was a thoroughly honest man, but there are still questions that he might have found difficult to answer.

As soon as the balloon appeared it would have been perfectly obvious to Hawkins that whatever height he built his tower the balloon could be raised or lowered to block his view.

The balloon is said to have been twelve feet long and I very much doubt that it could have been transported already inflated, so the question is: How long did it take to inflate a 12-foot balloon ?  What sort of pump did they use to blow it up ?

Paul Wyand’s story goes on to say that, on the third day, they bought another balloon.

Was Nottingham known for its collection of balloons ?

Paramount were not to be outdone.  They sent for a shotgun.  Where would you go for a shotgun ?  What about the shells ? What about firing a shotgun in the close proximity of a crowd ?

Paul: “A marksman took aim, and when a loud enough round of applause came from the crowd he pulled the trigger and the deflated balloon sank to the ground”.

This farcical event was not yet over.  Army field kitchens were being used to cook items of food for the spectators.  Castleton-Knight told an assistant (poor assistant) to fetch one. (One wonder what the caterers had to say about that). He then ordered bunches of straw to be burnt on them to produce a smoke screen.  (Where did they get the straw ?)

Paul Wyand’s account continues :“The result was superb – until the wind changed and smoke stopped play.  The Nottinghamshire Secretary came over … and warned us to behave. Short of blowing up the tower, we could devise no other method of confounding Hawkins, so the first Test was won by Australia on the field and Paramount on the tower”.

They could devise no other method of confounding Hawkins ?… lack of imagination I’d say.  They could have borrowed the shotgun, or got another from the same place that Paramount had done, and then blow Hawkins head off.

It seems that the story of the balloon is a fact , or at least some of it, since it was reported in an article in The Times of June 11th 1934.  In it, the cricket correspondent wrote: “Grimmet (He took five English wickets) changed all that: he at once made it a game – helped, it must be admitted, by the absurd episode of the balloon.  It appears that someone wanted to take photographs of the cricket but had not obtained the necessary permit.  He and his friends accordingly built themselves a private grandstand on the top of the chimneys of a house near the ground; this expedient was countered by the enemy who sent up a big captive balloon – a dead stymie from camera to wicket.  The end of this story, which may have nothing to do with cricket, but., for all that, happened over a cricket ground, came when the balloon was cut”.

The following day the Times correspondent wrote: The Balloon Nuisance – “Balloons, too, were still there but from having been rather funny they had not become to be rather a nuisance”.

When Gaumont released the story in the newsreel, they included shots of the balloon and explained what it was doing there.  Click here to see the clip.

Having absorbed all this information, I have my own ideas about the story.   Castleton-Knight had the forethought to construct screens at the top of the grandstands to prevent Paramount from “pinching” the Test Match.   The screens would have taken some days to install. He must have had prior warning about what Paramount intended to do.  This would explain the presence of the balloon which, in my opinion, was  set up outside the ground before the start of play.  It must have been purchased earlier and may have been set up several days before the match started.  He would certainly have had to get permission from Nottingham C.C. to use it.

As for the rest of the story, that must have been added later.

Paul goes on to tell the story of the lamps at the Oval, but he called them sun lamps rather than searchlights.

Terry Cotter was a prankster.  He was also a Movietone sound recordist and sometime contact man.  He was fond of telling us all these stories about pinching.

There is a story involving Terry Cotter himself.

Gaumont British had the shooting rights at the Oval for a Test Match.   Cotter went along to see what was happening.  He saw that the cameraman located on a camera tower lowered each magazine down to ground level on a rope.  A young runner took the magazine outside the ground to a waiting courier.  He then returned for the next magazine.

Cotter watched this procedure.  Paid the boy to go for lunch and then waited to collect the next magazine himself.  This is took back to Movietone – a 1,000 foot reel of Gaumont’s film.

I would have thought that the Gaumont cameraman would have looked down and seen the familiar face of Terry Cotter.  He was very well known.

Another point –  In my day, the cameraman would have unloaded the magazine and placed the film in a can, all done in a black bag.  He would then re-load the magazine.

Magazines were sent to the lab directly only on the occasions when speed was essential.

The newsreels were always conscious of their release dates.  Test Matches start on a Thursday.  The day’s filming would go into the lab after close of play. It would be edited on the Friday morning and released to the cinemas on Sunday.  Friday’s and Saturday’s play could not have been shown until the following Thursday, so if the newsreels shot Friday or Saturday’s play, they would leave it processing until the following Monday morning. .  They would film the following Monday and, depending on the state of play, they might film on Tuesday.  These two days’ coverage would be released on the following Thursday.

So I ask, what was all the rush about ?

Another factor concerns the amount of footage involved.  Covering cricket for the newsreels was a hit and miss affair.  Cameramen in the main camera position were restricted in the amount of footage they could shoot each day. I would be surprised if they had more than 4,000 feet of film, that is a little over forty minutes of film to cover seven hours play.  The supporting ground cameraman would have only about two or three hundred feet to shoot.  His work would have been crowd shots and players walking to and from the wicket.

Getting a wicket at the crease was a pure stroke of luck.  Some cameramen were luckier than others.

I often wonder if the stories became embellished in The Nellie Dean over the following years.

Shoot First!

Shoot First!

The only story that I have heard that one might consider to have been a  worthwhile “pinch” is described by Ronnie Noble in his book “Shoot First”. The scheme was devised by Leslie Murray, former Movietone and Universal  cameraman, who had now become Editor of Universal News.  Pathe News had obtained the shooting rights to cover the Lincolnshire Handicap..

Noble travelled up to Lincoln with Leslie Murray, cameraman John Cotter and soundman Stan Crockett.

The needed to hide from the authorities prior to the race.  They found a path off the road where they could remain undiscovered.   Their aim was to come out on to the road, which ran parallel with the course, after the race had started and follow the race.  A trucking shot with Noble operating the camera on the roof of the car.  John Cotter, sitting on the sill of the opened rear window, held his legs to prevent him being thrown off the top of the camera car.  Crocket was the driver.

They backed out into the road just as the race horses were about to reach their position.

Going forward, Noble claims that he had a fine shot of the runners.  Crocket kept him abreast of the leaders.  Afterwards, they quickly unloaded and re-loaded the camera with a magazine containing junk film, in case they were apprehended by the police who would confiscate their film.

Their film was flown back to London for processing.  Later they saw the Pathe News version and realised that they had the superior shot of the race because their car had prevented the Pathe camera car from getting any closer to the race.  Pathe had only managed to get a rear-view of the race.

Is this one of the rare examples of the pirates finding superior material to that of the company holding the filming rights ?.

Noble does not say what happened about the start and finish of that Lincolnshire Handicap.

In his book, Noble has many a tale to tell about pinching.

In another article, I have written about another “scoop” that is probably true.  It is under the heading of Cameramen’s Tales: the Downing Street Scoop”

I suppose I am as guilty as all the other newsreel “boys” by passing on that story.

In an article written by Philip Norman in January 1971, he wrote:

They got locked in the maddest fights over cricket; one newsreel would buy the rights to film a Test exclusively, and all the others would go to acrobatic lengths to ‘pinch’ the event.  Newspapers used to publish photographs not of high moments in the play but of the numbers of light aircraft and autogyros circling above, stealing pictures with Jack Cotter of Movietone always taking more chances in his Puss Moth GAB SO”.

It beggars belief that people were actually trying to take picture of a sports event from a moving aircraft..   Some accounts will say that the cameraman was using “telephoto” lenses.

One can only imagine the results of shooting in this fashion.  The aircraft would have been under the jurisdiction of the Civil Aviation Authority which would have insisted on a minimum altitude.  I would have guessed that this would have been between 500 and 800 feet.

I would have thought that the best that the cameraman might achieve would be a general view of the stadium using a wide angle lens.  To use a telephoto lens from a vibrating unsteady aircraft would produce extremely shaky shots quite impossible to identify as action in a football match.

My summary is this: However ridiculous, many of the “pinch” stories are true.  They have been, in some cases, embellished over a pint in the Nellie Dean.  In almost every case, the pirated version would have been vastly inferior to that of the permit holders, so much so, one wonders what the reaction of the audience would have been.

An aerial view of Wembley Stadium with 22 players, like little dots, running around the pitch, quite unable to identify one from another, would not satisfy me.

Half a horse race, with no start and no finish would not satisfy me.  There appears to be no record of audience reaction to these pirate films within the newsreels.

After many years with Movietonews and many more in film and television, I have to confess that I have never, ever, seen one of these pirate versions of the sporting events of the thirties.

Post Script:  I have now, I have seen Pathe’s version of the 1923 F.A. Cup Final.  Click here to view it and you will see what I mean

My viewing of another version of the  1923 Cup Final showed me what Jack Cotter and his unnamed colleague were able to obtain:

Crowds arriving, crowds “breaking in”, crowds on the pitch, then a few aerials,obviously taken by a third cameraman from an aircraft of some sort, then shots of play from a position high up in the grandstand behind a goal.  Then another shot of play from high up in the south-west corner of the grandstand.  This is followed by shots of the goalscorer, probably taken at his own ground before the match and a finally a shot of the whole Bolton team, who had won the match by a single goal.  This does not constitute a record of the game, it merely shows that the cameramen attended.  Being silent film, there was a title card which came up announcing that Bolton had scored, but we cannot see it or, if we are shown it, we cannot recognise it as a goal being scored..

The aerial shots were taken with a wide angle lens and still the cameraman could barely hold the whole of Wembley Stadium in his picture.

I’ll bet no one ever uses them as library material of the event.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles on Newsreels click here.

Additional link: Ashes Fever in 1934 – detailing how Gaumont British tried to protect filming the Ashes test with balloons.

Sources: “Shoot First !” by Ronnie Noble, published 1955, Pan Books, London. “Useless if Delayed” published by George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1959 and newsreel gossip.

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