The Bridge Interviews
a.k.a The Hawk
A few years ago a film crew were just finishing a location shoot for Birds of a Feather. Someone watching from the sidelines walked up to them, “Do you want my autograph?” asked one of the stars, Lesley Joseph. “No”, was the reply, “I want the cameraman’s autograph”. The cameraman was Martin Hawkins, cinematographer and lighting designer extraordinaire, famous for work on many television programmes. The Bridge recently went to meet him at the home in Asthall Leigh that he shares with his wife, Andrea.
Martin was born and brought up in North London, the son of a bricklayer and a school helper. He was not academic and had no interest in going to university but his father owned an 8mm cine camera and Martin enjoyed watching the footage of family holidays and other events. He had also seen cameras at football and cricket matches and this piqued his interest in what they did. By the time he left school he decided he wanted to become a cameraman. There was no direct way into this sort of work but he applied to several television companies and got a job with London Weekend Television as a post boy.
In between delivering all the letters and internal mail, he would go down to the studios and see what was going on. It was his chance to get to know LWT’s camera crews and express his interest. In 1976 he was given a job as a trainee cameraman and the first programme he worked on was Within These Walls, a prison drama starring Googie Withers. He also worked on Stanley Baxter’s Specials, Russ Abbott’s Madhouse, Bruce’s Big Night Out, The Gentle Touch, Enemy at the Door and many others. At weekends he would cover football matches and horse racing (“it was a great variety of camerawork”).
In 1982 Channel 4 was launched. Unlike the BBC and the ITV companies, Channel 4 did not make its own programmes and bought them all from independent production companies. The opportunities in the independent sector seemed more exciting so Martin and two colleagues went to work for one of them, Limehouse Studios, based in London at the Isle of Dogs. His work there included filming productions of Cyrano de Bergerac for the RSC, The Mysteries and Hiawatha for the National Theatre, plus regular programmes for Channel 4 such as Who Dares Wins and Network 7.
In 1989 the Limehouse Studios building was bought and demolished to make way for the huge Canary Wharf development. Facing an uncertain future, Martin decided to take the plunge and go freelance. This was a scary time but he soon found his first job on the BBC Challenge Anneka programme. For the benefit of younger readers, the format of the show was that Anneka Rice was given a task to perform with a short deadline, perhaps two or three days, and she had to find other people to help her. The tasks would be for the benefit of a charity or a community. Most of the time she seemed to be running around, and Martin would be running behind her with a hand-held camera. (He would often be seen on screen by virtue of a second camera filming him and his sound recordist Dave). One Challenge Anneka project he recalls as particularly memorable was to renovate an orphanage in Romania for a Christmas Special. He found this very harrowing. The rooms were filthy and the smell was unbelievable. There were open sewers but the children were amazing. Then, a couple of years later and as a result of this programme, the local school and hospital were also restored by more volunteers. “I loved that series because not only were you making a Saturday night entertainment show, you were doing something good for a community”.
Gradually Martin came to be known for comedies and particularly for hand-held camera work. He worked with Peter Kay on his stand-up shows and also with Ricky Gervais on Extras, Derek and Life’s Too Short (starring Warwick Davies). His hand-held-camera work was ideal for Ricky Gervais’s style of fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries. Comedy, he points out, although it’s fun, is a serious business. You need an artistic eye, as well as a few technical skills. Catching a certain look or reaction could be critical to the comedy working. You also need to get on well with people.
The list of shows Martin has worked on, as well as the celebrities involved, is immense, and we are only mentioning a few here. The full details can be found on his website www.martinhawkins.com.
Martin explains that a particular problem when filming comedy with a hand-held camera is ‘corpsing’, i.e. laughing at the wrong moment. It is almost impossible to laugh without your shoulders shaking and, if you have a camera resting on your shoulder, disaster follows.
After Challenge Anneka, Martin flew to America with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson for a film in which they followed Route 66 as featured in the Thelma and Louise movie. Just as they were packing up the kit, he received a fax from the BBC asking him to go to the Seychelles, “I thought they were joking” he told us! This was to work on The Holiday Programme with Jill Dando (“she was lovely, professional and easy-going”). Five years ensued in which he accompanied her round the world to all sorts of exotic locations including flying to Jordan on Concorde (“it was a fantastic aeroplane, I remember the bubbles in the champagne did not move as we went through the sound barrier”).
Another memorable moment from that period was joining the team that televised the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Martin’s camera was positioned by the west door of Westminster Abbey, filming the VIPs as they arrived and left. He recalls a man standing in the crowd nearby holding a bunch of red balloons. When Elton John was singing Candle in the Wind, the man released the balloons and they slowly floated up between the towers of the abbey while the crowd watched in silence. “Tears were running down my face and I could hardly see my viewfinder”. Another royal occasion was making a film about the Prince of Wales’s garden at Highgrove with Alan Titchmarsh. He spent two stressful days there and on the second afternoon filmed an interview between Titchmarsh and the prince all over the gardens (“I was walking backwards for two hours”). He later worked with Titchmarsh (“one of the nicest men I’ve worked with”) on the Chelsea Flower Show, including a continuous shot of him walking the length of the flower marquee while stopping to chat with gardeners. Another walking backwards moment. “…You do a lot of that when you’re filming”.
Martin first met his wife Andrea during the period when they were both working on Challenge Anneka but it took eight years for them to meet again and get together. She was a producer on shows such as Blind Date and Noel Edmond’s House Party. They married in 1998 and the following year they decided to buy a weekend cottage at Asthall Leigh while keeping their main base in Mill Hill, North London. They inspected the cottage on the same day that Martin was flying to Rio de Janeiro for another Holiday film shoot. They loved the little cottage and decided to buy after ten minutes viewing. Andrea subsequently commented that it normally takes her longer to buy a pair of shoes!
Their daughter Catherine was born in 2000 and they settled quickly into the local community and made friends. Then, their neighbour Nick Jones invited them to join St John the Baptist’s Church in Burford where they made many more friends. They now usually attend the services at the local Asthall or Swinbrook Churches, which have a smaller congregation but give a warm welcome to new arrivals.
Martin and Andrea’s present house came on the market in 2003 when the elderly owner died. They decided to take the plunge, sell their London house and make Asthall Leigh their sole home. They consulted an architect, David Hunt, whom they knew from Burford Church. He persuaded them that, rather than altering the existing house, they should demolish it and start again (“After we got over the initial shock, he made our dream come true”). The house has a commanding view across the Windrush valley. They love the view, the weather, the seasons, the community and the village. Their daughter Catherine is now studying for her A levels at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water and the household is completed by Alfie the whippet. Martin’s parents, who have been married for 65 years, also moved from North London and now live in Witney, as does his sister Linda with her husband Kevin. “It’s so lovely having them nearby”.
Asthall Leigh is a small but very active community centred on the Memorial Hall where Martin is Chairman of the halls trustees. Events include the film nights
(featured in The Bridge - all welcome), the Astally Arms’ Pub Nights (Martin stocks the bar), regular lunches and occasional talks. His favourite local walk with Alfie is down to Worsham and along the river via Asthall Bridge to Swinbrook, returning along the top road to Asthall Leigh. “The views are fantastic”.
Nowadays Martin works as a Director of Photography and lighting designer. Getting the lighting right before each shot is a particular skill. When filming outside on location it is important to have the same lighting – if the sun goes in between ‘takes’, it doesn’t work to have some shots bright and others dark. You have to make the scene consistent, so quite often you need to use a powerful light to compensate when you lose the sun. People often ask, why do you need a light when you are outside? Now you know. It is also important to get to know the director. Martin says there are broadly two types, ones who are good with artists and ones who are good technically. If you haven’t worked with them before, the key is to work out which sort they are, and to know what sort of suggestions to make. The art of a good cameraman is to support the director and also to know the script. That’s how you get the best out of each scene.
In 2011 Martin was given a lifetime achievement award by the Royal Television Society, watched by his proud wife and parents. In 2012 he won a TiCA award from the Guild of Television Cameramen, which is their highest honour.
In recent years Martin has been the cameraman on the BBC television series Outnumbered. This was written and directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. The scenes with the children were semi-improvised, with the child actors being told roughly what was to happen rather than being given a script. This led to filming What We Did On Our Holidays, a 2014 feature film with a different cast but the same directing and writing team and the same technique with the child actors. The main stars were David Tennant, Rosamund Pike and Billy Connolly (“Billy would always start to tell a story, just as the director was about to say ‘action’ and I would take the camera back off my shoulder. His stories went on for a while…”). He made the short film which revived Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em for Sport Relief in 2016, featuring Michael Crawford and many co-stars (worth catching on line if you missed it). Martin’s just finished lighting a spin off for the BBC of Porridge with Kevin Bishop as Fletcher’s grandson, and at the time of our interview, was about to start work on an ITV series in which Jack Dee plays a man who goes to live in the Yorkshire Dales seeking an idyllic life but it doesn’t quite work out like that. It is called Bad Move, a term Martin and Andrea definitely don’t use for their arrival in Asthall Leigh. And in between the filming jobs, he will be delivering The Bridge round the village, so in some ways life for this post boy has gone full circle.