Out of shot

Frontline: the true story of the British mavericks who changed the face of war reporting

David Loy

Freelance photographers, frequently dismissed as "paparazzi", do not enjoy high public esteem. We associate them with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and with rows outside nightclubs involving celebrities. War photographers and cameramen are, notoriously, a breed apart from their celebrity-chasing cousins. A small band of mavericks scorn even the "usual channels" that war correspondents are invited to take, and wangle their way on to the front line to capture independent footage that commands a correspondingly high price. David Loyn's Frontline tells the story of four men - the founders of the Frontline Television News Agency - who chose this path.

One of their forerunners was Lord Cecil, son of the Marquess of Salisbury. In a preface, Loyn describes how, in 1977, Cecil was shot dead, a wind-up film camera in his hands, after jumping from a helicopter in Rhodesia. Those of us who reported the nasty little war that eventually drove Ian Smith to surrender - but reported it more securely, with notebooks rather than film cameras - became acquainted with his kind.

Most Frontline cameramen had done a spell of military service, and some were "public school men". They were not fearless or foolhardy. Indeed, they were better at assessing risks than most foreign correspondents, but to get good film they were prepared to take big chances. This book recounts some of the adventures that befell them in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Sarajevo, Somalia and other, equally bloodstained places.

They had to be ready to live very uncomfortably as well as dangerously. They had to be willing, occasionally, to cheat a little. Vaughan Smith, one of the driving forces behind Frontline Television, had to cheat quite a lot in Bahrain to win his way towards Iraq. He had been an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and it was their uniform he was wearing when he encountered a Guards sergeant major. "What the hell are you doing here, sir?" asked the astonished sergeant major. "I don't know anything about this, sir." The "sirs" were plentiful, but the questions were penetrating. Then the phone rang. While the sergeant major was distracted, Vaughan walked out to the Land-Rover waiting outside and put his pack in the back. The sergeant major came out. "Sir, I don't want you to get on that vehicle quite yet. I want to sort this out first. Sir!" Then the phone rang again. "While the sergeant major was inside [Loyn continues] Vaughan jumped into the passenger seat, put on his best arrogant Guards officer voice, slapped his palm on the dashboard as if on the neck of a horse and ordered the driver to set off. The driver had not heard the sergeant major asking him to wait, so off he went."

Naughty, but you had to dodge a bit to get film for Frontline Television. Much can be forgiven this breed of men. Loyn thinks that they were born at the wrong time - not long before television became a respectable, organised part of the establishment, and so could succeed without such mavericks. Frontline's cameramen were, perhaps, the last of the pioneers.

Having visited most of the places they filmed in - Kabul, Mozambique, Somalia, Sarajevo, Kosovo - I can testify that they were not, as they sometimes made themselves appear, vagabonds, but men of vast nerve and a spirit of adventure and daring. Filming conflicts, as Martin Bell knows, is a high-grade risk. A reporter can, if he chooses, observe and listen away from the front lines and write the results down in his notebook. He can choose which risks he is prepared to take. However, to secure good footage, a cameraman must get as close to the scene of action as he can, then hold the position while the camera rolls. This is twice as dangerous if you are aiming to work, as the Frontline team did, outside official channels. All army commanders look askance, rightly, at the man with a notebook or camera who threatens to increase the risk to their soldiers.

But this approach made a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to war coverage. Vaughan Smith thinks that television is now in danger of losing a diversity of ideas and images on the screen. As he told Loyn: "Organisations with big staff commitments often cannot afford to take a different view from the establishment. Frontline might, for example, be able to expose something in China where a larger organisation could not risk its Beijing bureau." And not only in China.

You can argue that the end of Frontline Television signalled the birth of a more orderly state of affairs. No more pulling wool over the eyes of sergeant majors in the Guards. Fairer shares for correspondents. Cheaper television footage. Or you may feel, as I do, that its virtues outstripped its defects. Men of this sort are still with us, and the enterprise and physical endurance Frontline demanded of its journalists survives. Temporarily, however, the mass market is the name of the game. Frontline's day is done.

An updated version of W F Deedes's memoir, Dear Bill, is newly published by Macmillan

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide