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Under a spell


Acrobatic cameramen
John Julius Norwich Writer
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So, off we went to Persia and I'd had a bad experience with a previous camera crew. I mean, they'd been very bolshie and unfriendly and refused to eat with us and that sort of thing, and I didn't want this anymore. And my friend, Jim Mossman, who was a BBC Foreign Correspondent for television, said, 'You ought to get my friend Erik Durschmied, who would be really fun and who would work all night and there'd be no problems. And you'll love him too because he's great fun.' And so I got onto Erik Durschmied and he said yes, he'd love to come. So, the director and I fly off to Tehran and when we get there, there's a message from Erik Durschmied to say that he's got meningitis and he's not going to be able to come, but he's sending a young Frenchman, who is very good, he's a great friend of his, he's only 18 and he's just come back from Vietnam. And he will take over. So, this is the last thing we wanted and anyway, the young Frenchman who couldn't speak a word of English and the director couldn't speak a word of French arrived and was used to leaping out of parachutes, I mean, leaping out of aeroplanes and parachutes and filming on the way down, as he descended into the swamps of Vietnam, you know. That was his thing. Ask him to do a slow, sensitive close-up on a 6th century Armenian tile and he was completely useless. I mean, he'd never done that sort of thing before. So, the director despised him and refused to speak to him.

And then, fortunately, about 5 days later, we really didn't know what to do. I mean, we weren't getting any stuff in the can at all. And then Erik arrived. I mean, he can't have had, if it had been what he said it was, he couldn't possibly have got back, oh, I don't know, gone off with a girl or something. I don't know what happened, anyway. He suddenly turned up, so we were able to wave goodbye to the young Frenchman, who left with, I think, to his and our enormous relief. And Erik took over and Erik was the opposite of the young Frenchman because he could sort of do anything, but again, he absolutely horrified our director. For example, when Persepolis went up in smoke, Alexander the Great, you know, set fire to it and all this, Erik would turn his camera on and hurl it up into the air, 10 feet, so the camera was doing this while it was on, you know, and he'd catch it again. And the... you know, the director would be so horrified. It was his own camera, he could do whatever he liked, you know. Anyway, we only had Erik for the last three or four... and he wasn't really very good at all those sort of technical things either. It wasn't his thing. I mean, he was a newsman. Anyway, we got back and looked at the rushes and I thought, this is absolutely terrible, we have not got a film here, we just haven't got a programme. And it's all my fault, because if I'd settled for an ordinary BBC camera crew this would never have happened, it's all my fault. What will I do? My television career is over. The humiliation will be very great. And then Daryl, who had been pretty hopeless all the time we were there... put him back in England in a studio and he was absolutely brilliant. And somehow he cut this into a programme. It wasn't a very good programme, it was, I think, the only programme I ever made which was never repeated, but we got away with it.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Tehran, Erik Durschmeid

Duration: 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018