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Apr 04 2023




It is with great sadness that I report the death of my close friend and colleague, cameraman Tony Allen, at the end of January. Nearly one hundred people attended a memorial for him in St Hugh’s College, Oxford, on 24 February, and afterwards at Tony’s favourite pub, The Vicky Arms, on the River Cherwell.

I met Tony in the mid-1970s in Oxford where he was a stills photographer in the Zoology Department, also developing his filming skills with James Gray and Chris Catton with whom he would set up Green Films Productions. I was a Zoology student interested in producing.

Tony and I got on really well and a few years later began a working friendship that would last for forty years. Although I had to share him with other producers –well, how could I compete with offers such as that from Tigress to film Asian elephants with Goldie Hawn? – Tony was my go-to cameraman. We worked on five continents and he was always up for the challenge of tackling something new, particularly piranha feeding frenzies in Venezuela, above and below water. That done, we completed the breeding cycle of the much-maligned fish under scientifically controlled ‘wild’ conditions in a Zoo in Switzerland.

Tony was just sixty when he became ill after a shoot in Iceland. That was almost thirty years after his first trip to the same country to film pink-footed geese for the RSPB. Cameraman Ian McCarthy was with him on that earlier trip:

Way back in 1983, I spent three months camping in central Iceland with Tony, as his assistant. It was an absolute privilege. I was a complete rookie and I learnt so much from him. He was talented, kind, thoughtful and gentle – a big man in in every sense and we became good friends. Thank you so much Tony.

Cameraman Paul Stewart also recalls:

I knew Tony’s amazing work from Attenborough programmes and the Natural World strand, the very films that kindled my interest in film-making. How calm and kind he was. A gentle giant. His attitude to everything and everyone has stuck with me ever since as the paradigm for how it should be done. I can honestly say he was the kindest person I ever worked with.

Tony was also an arch diplomat in situations that could easily have gone wrong and jeopardised expensive filming plans. Cameraman Neil Bromhall, to whose younger daughter, Katrina, Tony was godfather, remembers being out on the Tibetan Plateau with him:

It was -20 °C, so our hosts put the only wood-burner in our room for the night. The heat warmed the room by several welcome degrees, but the burning coke and wood gave off such toxic fumes that we woke in the morning feeling really sick. Another night in those conditions would have been too dangerous, but we now had to avoid offending our hosts’ generosity. Tony gave it a bit of thought and then, thanking them for their consideration for our well-being, pointed out that as there was only one wood-burner, we could not have heating in our room if they did not have the same in theirs. It was a masterstroke of tact, the wood-burner was duly removed and for the next month, we enjoyed the now welcome benefits of freezing fresh air at night and the full co-operation of our hosts during the day.

Sean O’Driscoll began his career in the late 1980s as assistant editor at Partridge Films, but always keen on making the switch to camerawork. This was ideal for Tony and me because after this series on animal sex, we had a lot of Green Films work lined up in Italy and Venezuela where Tony would need an assistant. After a successful period with us, Sean went on to become a fully-fledged cameraman with strong memories of those early days:

I learned a great deal from Tony who always talked me through the basic steps of creating a sequence, making me realise that it is never as easy as it might seem. He was particularly keen on establishers. He would say ‘OK, Sean, put the tripod down here’ and nine times out of ten a lovely shot would be revealed. It didn’t help much when he said it was just instinct, but after many months of filming with him and Dan, from the snow-covered Alps to the dusty or muddy flood plain of the Orinoco River, his meticulous approach and generously shared knowledge rubbed off, giving me the confidence to take my own filming career to the next level.

Oh, and he was annoyingly good at table football!

From just looking at his rushes, you could see that Tony filmed both economically and with editing in mind, so it was no surprise when the late editor Ramon Burrows paid him the highest compliment, turning to me as we reached the fine-cut of the piranha film for a BBC Wildlife on One in 1997 and saying with a knowing grin, ‘Well, Dan, we’ve made him look good again!’ Tony loved that!

It was his reliability and conscientiousness that endeared Tony to other producers.
Nick Stringer was one of them. He worked with Tony on a number of projects, particularly for Big Wave Productions.

Tony was an incredibly gifted and versatile cameraman. He always kept a cool and level head, but beneath his calm exterior, he had absolute grit and determination. I recall him in a soft but quite insistent manner asking me to keep my arm still while filming bedbugs sucking blood from my hand. He absolutely wanted the shot…and I just wanted to get the buggers off!

Over and above the experiences we shared, Tony taught me the virtues of not just quiet persistence and calm…but also to be humble. So here’s to you, Tony, and thank you for all the wonderful times and wisdom. Always in my heart, Nick.

Tony lived his professional life honestly, openly and unselfishly, without any need for the limelight, though he was, of course, rightfully proud of the three Emmy awards for camerawork (on One Life, Nature Tech and The Body Snatchers) that sat on his mantelpiece at home.

After Green Films was disbanded in 2001, he began to work more closely with Andy Matheson who lived near him in Oxford. Andy recalls:

I first met Tony in the early 1990s when I was working in the video unit of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Tony had come to the Unit for advice on the appropriate video kit he might need to capture the intricate relationships between ants and plants. As our friendship grew, so too did the idea of eventually working together, but with Tony being so busy during the nineties, it wasn’t until 2002 that we were able to set up Panache Productions in a studio in his back garden. I had my my edit suite and Tony began taking on both commissioned and speculative set-filming for broadcasters and libraries, and he also began working with the high-speed phantom cameras owned by John Hadfield’s Green Door Films. It was for a commercial that Tony took the phantom to Iceland for a gruelling one-day shoot in 2012. After a long sleep back at home, he woke up with absolutely no memory of where he had been. It was the beginning of the end.

Fittingly, the last word goes to Producer David Reed who set up Tony’s first Iceland shoot in 1983:

My daughter, Gracie, will soon be in tree-planting mode on her few acres in the southern hemisphere. I’ve asked her to plant two Kowhai (Ko-fi) trees for Tony in a semi-memorial area. They will eventually grow upwards of forty feet, providing a mass of yellow flowers during spring, attracting bellbirds, tuis and small white-eyes to feast on their nectar.

They’ll last longer than a bunch of flowers!

Tony is survived by his wife Sue and their three children, Jonathan, Zara and Steffan, whose father, we all agree, was a very special and talented person.