For more than 55 years, Sir Sydney Samuelson made a significant contribution to BAFTA, working tirelessly to serve its charitable aims, supporting film and television makers and promoting the British film production sector. Among his many achievements, he made a vital contribution to some of the most important developments in BAFTA’s evolution.
The son of cinema pioneer GB Samuelson, Sir Sydney entered the industry in his teens as a ‘rewind boy’ in the projection booth of the Luxor cinema in Lancing, England. He became a relief operator for ABC Cinemas before deciding to train as an editor with Gaumont British Newsreel. After demobilisation from the RAF in 1947, Sir Sydney joined the British Colonial Office Film Unit as documentary cinematographer. He remained active in this role for the next decade, including working for the BBC, and was part of the Westminster Abbey camera team capturning Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
In 1954, he co-founded Samuelson Film Service with his wife, Doris. The company, known affectionately within the industry as Sammies, was set up to service the film and television industries with cameras, lighting, grips, sound equipment, crews and transportation. In 1959, he decided to hang up his camera to concentrate on building the Samuelson business. Working with his brothers, Sir Sydney saw the Samuelson Group become a mainstay of the British screen industries over the coming years, eventually growing into the largest film and television equipment servicing company in the world, with additional offices in Australia, Holland, France, South Africa and the US.
Sir Sydney was also actively involved in many industry bodies during his lifetime. He held various posts at the Academy, before and after serving as Trustee and Chair between 1973 and 1976. His tenure as Chair was during the final years of BAFTA’s forerunner organisation, the Society of Film and Television Arts. The Society changed its name to BAFTA on the occasion of the official opening of its new headquarters at 195 Piccadilly in March 1976. Sir Sydney was instrumental in the events leading up to BAFTA taking up residence in the building, which remains BAFTA’s London base to this day.
BAFTA recognised Sir Sydney’s outstanding British contribution to cinema with the Michael Balcon Award in 1986 and then presented him with the Fellowship in 1993, its highest accolade.
In 1991, Sir Sydney was invited to become the first ever British Film Commissioner, dedicated to attracting international film productions to the UK. Among the many accolades he received in a long career were the BSC Golden Camera Award for outstanding services to the UK film industry, in 1967, and a special award for his services to UK film production as British Film Commissioner. He was also an Honorary Life Member of BECTU; a Fellow of the BFI; one of the founders and the first president of the UK Jewish Film Festival (1997-2005); an Honorary Life Fellow of the BKSTS (now IMIS); and an Honorary Life Member of the Guild of British Camera Technicians. He received a CBE in 1978 and was knighted in 1995.
Sir Sydney remained active in supporting the screen industries long after he officially retired in 1997. He was known for his professionalism, efficiency and flexibility and was always determined to give back to the industry. Throughout his life, he was particularly committed to nurturing new and emerging talent, not only at Samuelson Group but also through his involvement with many industry organisations, including BAFTA. In 2015, he was interviewed for the BAFTA Greats series.