“Who the hell is Leslie Seymour?”
That’s what journalist and broadcaster Ray Martin asks facetiously in his foreword to the autobiography of Les Seymour, his long-time mate, and it’s a fair question. Unless you’re a veteran journo or a media junkie, you may not have heard about cameraman extraordinaire, Les Seymour.
All he’s ever done as a camera operator and producer is work with journalists like Ray, Richard Palfreyman, Paul Murphy, Ian Macintosh, Allan Hogan, Mark Colvin, Paul Lyneham, Paul Lockyer, Tony Joyce and Richard Carleton, and film famous people like Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Sidney Nolan, Shirley MacLaine, Paul McCartney, US President Jimmy Carter, Pope John Paul II, Charlton Heston, UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Bryce Courtenay and Gore Vidal, to name a few.
Les has also covered the world, shooting stories in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Latin America, again to name a few. He’s been everywhere, man. In fact, he is an everywhere man. Have camera, will travel. He’s also a great storyteller.
I better disclose early in this review of his book, My Best Shot: A Life Through the Lens, that Les Seymour is a mate, and I first met him on the Nine Network’s Sunday Program more than 25 years ago when I was a field producer.
Les begins with a prologue in the Middle East: His assignment as an ABC cameraman covering the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 in the Golan Heights. He and reporter Roger Allebone and sound recordist John Page were in their twenties and involved in their first full-scale war. As bad luck would have it, their car hit a boulder and Les had to go to a nearby kibbutz to get transport. Caught up in the Israeli bombing and Syrian mortar fire, Les and Israeli soldiers were taken from a bunker by Syrian fighters to a prison outside Damascus. The Syrians thought Les, who had left his camera behind, was a plain-clothes military man, and placed him in a small cell, eight feet long and six feet wide. During daily interrogations, he was punched and kicked by guards for what seemed like weeks and he could barely say his name. Fortunately, a Swiss Red Cross officer found Les’ passport and confirmed he was not a spy but an Australian cameraman. He was released and taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Les said he was still haunted by the experience but has learned to live with it. He never discovered the name of the Red Cross officer, but he writes: “He was truly a guardian angel who saved my life.”
(Cover Photo Above by Allan Hogan: “Les in Gaddafi’s Libya, 1972”)
From a near-death episode, Les remembers happier times, growing up in the inner-city suburb of Leichhardt, in a Catholic family with four brothers and a sister. They lived in a small house with a traditional Aussie outback toilet, but as Les puts it: “We lived in poverty but didn’t know we were poor.” By the time Les was born, his father had separated from his mother, who kept the family together with several full and part-time cleaning jobs, helped out by neighbours like the Cohens, bringing food when money was short.
Les was taught by nuns, the Order of St Joseph, and parish priests, the Order of Capuchin at the local Catholic school, but a revelation in his memoirs surprised me. Les had been sexually abused by Father Dominic, the main parish priest of St Fiacre’s, for over a year while he was a choirboy and decided to go to the seminary to escape this “disgraceful creature,” as he describes him later in the book. He finally added his story about Father Dominic’s abusive treatment to the Royal Commission into Sexual Child Abuse in 2017. Les was in the Capuchin seminary in Plumpton west of Sydney from age 12 to 16, and said he was “living on harrowed rather than hollowed grounds,” but made the right decision because he was never again sexually abused.
In 1965 Les Seymour started his 20-year career at the ABC as a film dispatcher, but it didn’t take long before he switched jobs and became a Commonwealth driver for then Deputy General Manager, Dr Clem Semmler. Clem took an interest in Les and gave him experience as an assistant cameraman with one of his first big jobs shooting the tragic Blue Mountains bushfires of 1968. Les called it his “professional baptism of fire” with his footage of the burning suburb of Warrimoo leading the 7pm ABC News. Clem also helped Les when he moved to London to improve his career as a cameraman, and gave him the number of a contact at BBC’s Ealing Studios. Voila, Les got the job as a camera assistant in the documentary unit. Several years, documentaries and programs like Panorama and Z Cars later, Les Seymour was appointed as a fully-fledged cameraman, the first in the ABC’s London Bureau in the West End.
During his first five years in London, Les had another dream job: he was regularly sent to the ABC’s New York Bureau to work with journalists, including some of the best, Ray Martin, Peter Barnett and Jeff McMullen. One of his first assignments was the 1972 presidential election campaign, and he and Ray and the crew covered the New Hampshire Democratic primary, featuring candidate George McGovern. When Ray discovered Hollywood celebrities like Shirley MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty were fundraising for McGovern, he tried to get Shirley to talk about her role in the campaign the next morning at a local school, as well as chatting to George McGovern. After Ray had told Shirley that “Les” was pronounced “Lay” in Australia, and he was a Greek prince, Shirley responded by saying “Good night Prince Lay” to Seymour, and farewelling Martin: “And Sir, you can go fuck yourself.” The next day Les filmed the kids and George, but Shirley had no comment. Hollywood 1, ABC nil.
Four years later, Ray telexed Les in London asking if he could shoot a profile piece on the Democratic presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, campaigning around America on a Boeing 737 codenamed “Peanut One.” Of course, Les said yes, but on three separate flights serving wonderful meals like lobster, roast turkey and warm pastrami sandwiches, he wound up with a small aluminium tray labelled “Strictly kosher.” Les complained he wasn’t Jewish and Ray told him to stop whingeing. Third time around, Les stood up in his seat and shouted: “I want sandwiches and salad just like everyone else.” The steward burst out laughing and all the passengers applauded. Everyone, including Ray, was in on the joke, except Les, and 30 seconds later, Jimmy Carter came to his seat, shook his hand and said: “I knew you Aussies had a good sense of humour but we didn’t think you’d last this long, Les.” The future president signed Les’ press pass and the steward brought him warm pastrami sandwiches. Just two of the funny episodes in the Seymour Saga.
(Photo Above of Mark Colvin and Les on an extinct volcano in Uganda)
One of the most poignant stories in My Best Shot also involved President Carter, who attempted to rescue American hostages being held by Revolutionary Guards in Tehran with a military raid called “Operation Eagle Claw” in April 1984. With two of the eight helicopters destroyed by mechanical defects and blinding sandstorms, the mission was called off and eight US servicemen lost their lives. ABC London Correspondent Mark Colvin and Les returned to Tehran just after the failed operation to cover the hostage crisis. Mark, who died in 2017 from the repercussions of the auto-immune disease he picked up covering the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, wrote about the chilling aftermath of the Eagle crash in his brilliant autobiography, Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son. (There’s also a lovely story about Les meeting Mark again in 2016 near the end of My Best Shot.) Les remembers Mark’s vivid description of their encounter with the Revolutionary Guards two days after the aborted rescue attempt as journalists were allowed into the US embassy to watch the desecration of the servicemen’s corpses by Ayatollah Khalkhali, known as the “Hanging Judge.” Mark writes: “One of his guards gave him what was either a bayonet or a large hunting knife and he started hacking at the charcoal surface. As he scraped away he revealed what was recognisably an aviator watch. This was a man’s arm he was holding, a man who had been alive a couple of days before. It was certainly the worst thing I’d seen to that point in my life, and to this day, along with that unforgettable stench, it remains in my memory, as indelible as a brand.”
Days later, Mark and Les covered a mass rally of half a million people including Hezbollah and groups loyal to the Revolutionary Guards and the Ayatollahs. Les began filming Hezbollah “hot-heads” and got permission to shoot the proceedings from the top of an OB truck. A large group of youths pointed at Les, shouting: “Down with America! America Out! Kill America!” He got off the truck and the youths, believing he was an American, starting punching, kicking and pummelling him. Mark managed to flag down a truck of Revolutionary Guards who came to his rescue. Les writes: “There was no doubt in my mind that these soldiers of Iran’s new regime had just saved my life.” Taken to the emergency department of a hospital overflowing with casualties, Les was x-rayed by radiologists who neglected to hide his private parts. His genitals came up on the hospital screen, much to the amusement of some children. Les was suffering from a fractured pelvis and acute embarrassment. But he survived.
(Photo above of Les filming in Ethiopia)
Another sad story for Les Seymour took place in 1973 when he and ABC London correspondent Paul Lyneham flew to Ethiopia to cover another African famine, worse than Biafra in the late 1960s, where more than a million people died. Paul was outside a tent in one of the refugee camps talking to aid workers and doctors, while Les was inside filming haunting images: “One young woman with a beautiful face was holding her dying daughter as she took her last gasping breaths and died in front of me. The young mother’s tears flowed down her cheeks as she hugged her dead little girl. It was the most harrowing sight I had ever witnessed. This single image would portray the horror of the Ethiopian famine.”
On a happier note out of Africa, Les was asked by British producer Brian Adams to shoot a one-hour documentary in 1977 on one of Australia’s greatest artists, Sidney Nolan. The main location was Nairobi where Les filmed Sidney with African wildlife, travelling extensively across Kenya and staying at well-known game reserves and hotels. The shoot went well, and Les asked Nolan to draw whatever he saw in front of him, using a sketch pad and crayon, a new medium for the famous artist. It turned out to be a sketch of Les filming Sidney with his camera on his tripod. Asked why he drew Les, Sidney replied: “Well, you were in front of me most of the bloody time!” That sketch (see below) was used throughout Les’ book to end various chapters. The doco, Nolan at Sixty, was well received as a record of the artist’s incredible life’s work. Four years later Sir Sidney was knighted by the Queen and was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988, the bicentennial year.
Nolan at Sixty was such a success, Brian Adams asked Australian opera singer Joan Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonynge if he could produce a program on the life of La Stupenda. Despite a great recommendation from her friend, Sidney Nolan, Joan Sutherland had reservations, wanting to keep her private and professional lives separate. Brian and Les drove up to their chalet on the shore of Lake Geneva to talk her into it. Seated a table with Joan and Richard, the director of the Sydney Opera House and opera singers and friends, Les was a bit worried about the conversation turning to opera. Joan asked Les what his favourite opera was. The table was silent, Brian Adams was aghast, and Les decided honesty was the best policy: “I must be honest with you. I’ve never been to an opera.” Joan replied: “Isn’t that great? I can mould you!” Adams smiled again, and Joan agreed to do the doco. Over the next six months, Les travelled with Joan and Richard (Photo of Les filming Joan and Richard below) to the great opera houses of Europe, and the film, Joan Sutherland: A Life on the Move, was broadcast in 1980 with terrific reviews. In 1979, Joan Sutherland was named by the Queen as a Dame of the British Empire and was awarded the Order of Australia. At the end of his memoirs, Les Seymour praised Dame Joan and Sir Sidney as two of the most wonderful people he had known: “They both inspired me with their timeless art forms.”
My favourite story Les shot for the Sunday Program was one I produced: taking author Bryce Courtenay back to his South African homeland two months before the first multi-party democratic elections in the country’s history. Les filmed at Morris Isaacson High School, where the Soweto riots began in June 1976. Bryce was giving a moving speech to a senior class when police tried to stop students from chasing a suspect who allegedly raped a female student. Bryce and I were standing between two school buildings when a South African policeman pointed his AK-47 at me. Fortunately, Les was inside filming another class. And another place Les and I will never forget is Phalo Park, a shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. While Bryce and I tried to get permission to film in this dangerous squatter camp, Les heard beautiful sounds coming from one of the shacks. It turned out to be a local choir singing about Nelson Mandela. Les showed us the song on his camera viewfinder and we were gobsmacked. Bryce was delighted and the next day he spoke to a class of sixth formers at King Edward VII Boys School in Johannesburg where he won a scholarship. It was partly set in his novel, The Power of One. Bryce told the students he had been in Phalo Park yesterday: “The sun was setting and as I wandered alone through the human desolation of this forsaken shanty town, I heard the sounds of a choir coming from deep within the metal shack.” Les nearly dropped his camera as Bryce appropriated the story. Les forgave him: “After all he was the storyteller, and my contribution was part of a team effort to produce a terrific Sunday cover story.”
Les Seymour writes eloquently about two of his close mates who died while on assignment for the ABC. Tony Joyce was London Bureau correspondent in 1979 when he and a freelance cameraman flew to the Zambian capital of Lusaka to cover a story about a bridge destroyed by commandos on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. On the way back to Lusaka, Zambian soldiers stopped their car, arrested them and put them in the back of a police car. A man dressed in black, thought to be a political officer with the militia, shot Tony in the head, but he was still alive. Taken to hospital in a coma, two doctors flew to Lusaka from London to operate on Tony and remove a bullet. Several days later he was flown to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, but still in a deep coma. He remained that way for two months, and Les often visited Tony’s wife, Monica, who was at the hospital for nearly every moment of those ten long weeks. Tony’s good friend Paul Murphy flew from Sydney to deliver a moving eulogy to his mate. Les writes: “The day I helped carry his coffin out of that church in London was one of the hardest of my life. He is never far from my thoughts.”
His other mate, Paul Lockyer, was a special journalist. I was Paul’s producer in 1992 and part of 1993 and Les worked with us on the Sunday Program. We covered tourism and the Paul Keating election in 1993, to name just two, and Les was Paul Lockyer’s cameraman not only on Sunday, but Midday with Ray Martin, and shooting stories in Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Europe and Moscow. By this time, Les had become a field producer as well as a cameraman for Midday and found out from Paul that Nine was planning a special Sports Sunday story to sponsor the first Asian bicycle race in Vietnam. Tongue in cheek, he asked Paul why management didn’t tell him first, as he was the producer. Paul replied: “Mate, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not a producer’s arsehole.” The friendly banter between Paul and Les was beautiful.
But Les lost his good mate, Paul Lockyer, and two of his ABC colleagues, helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst and Brisbane cameraman, John Bean, when their chopper went down in South Australia on the night of August 18, 2011. Les hadn’t felt that much grief since the death of Tony Joyce. Paul was an award-winning journalist, and his memorial service at St Ignatius College in Sydney was packed with family, friends and colleagues from all the networks. Paul’s son Jamie said this of his father at the funeral: “I will miss Dad’s love and compassion, Australia will miss his stories, and the world will miss a man of greatness.”
(Photo above, l to r: Paul Murphy, Paul Lockyer, Richard Palfreyman, Maria Lockyer)
The last chapter of My Best Shot focuses on “New Beginnings,” after Les took a voluntary redundancy from Nine in 2006 and became a freelance producer and cameramen working with Ray on Nine’s A Current Affairs and the Fred Hollows Foundation. Ray first met Professor Hollows in 1980 when he did a 60 Minutes story on Fred, who restored eyesight for tens of thousands of people in Australia, Asia and Africa. It’s estimated more than 2.5 million people can see today because of Fred Hollows. Les met Fred in the early 1990s when he filmed his first lens production factory in Eritrea for the Sunday Program. After Fred’s death in 1993, Les filmed his first cataract removal and the insertion of flexible intraocular lenses developed by Dr Sanduk Ruit, who took over from Fred Hollows, in his Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Kathmandu. Since then, Les and Ray have been everywhere in Asia and beyond. It was in a tiny village on the Lao border with China that one of the Hollows team removed the cataracts of two seven-month-old Laotian boys, Samlan and Sintham, in a successful operation filmed by Les on A Current Affair. (Featured photo of the twin boys with their mother and Les at the top). Les received the annual “Fred’s Helping Hand Award” for 2016 for his special role in keeping Fred’s vision alive. No wonder Les is happy. His daughter Danielle, her husband, Iain, and two grandsons, Ethan and William, have a beautiful home on Sydney’s northern beaches and his daughter, Elisabeth, and her English husband Richard live in in a lovely terrace house in London with granddaughter, Amelie, and grandson Harry.
The last words of his memoirs should go to Les: “I’ve seen the best and worst experiences of human nature. I’ve heard the cries of starving children. I’ve smelt the stench of death. I’ve tasted the finest food and wine in the world. I’ve touched the lives of many people. I almost feel as though I have lived ten lives. I have been lucky to observe and capture so many of these aspects of life through the lens of my camera.”
That’s who Leslie Seymour is. His tales are worth reading.
My Best Shot: A Life Through the Lens, My Autobiography by Leslie Seymour, TimeWorks Media Ltd (Distributed in Australia by Woodslane P/L), 380 pages. RRP: $24.95
“Who the hell is Leslie Seymour?”