Mark Wilkinson’s determination to become a cameraman has led him all over the world, in very prestigious company. He talks to Roz Whistance.
“There I was, in the pit at Hyde Park, filming Tom Jones. And within 30 seconds of his opening number I was covered, head to toe, in knickers.”
As occupational hazards go this might to some be more enviable than most. Mark Wilkinson is a cameraman who has travelled the world with stars so numerous he genuinely forgets when asked to list them.
“It sounds crass,” he apologises, “but it would be easier to list those I haven’t worked with. Um, I haven’t done the Rolling Stones, or U2…”
It is Mark who films the footage on those huge screens that are used to make events visible to huge crowds. He is part of the entourage that accompanies musicians and groups on stints which last weeks at a time. The names that drop from his lips so casually are the legends of the music and entertainment world. He has just returned from a tour with Queen, with their new frontman Paul Rogers, and before that it was The Who, and Elton John. He’s toured with all the boy bands – “It was obvious Robbie Williams wasn’t going to be regimented by the minders from the beginning”, he notes. Sting is a perfectionist, Elton John, well, not so easy. And then there are the comedians…
As he lists them, Mark isn’t scouring your face for signs of jealousy or envy. He’s not exactly world-weary – he repeatedly says how lucky he is to be living a life where he visits the corners of the planet – but has long ago got over being star-struck.
It is a life that no-one would have predicted for him. At school where he lived in Burgess Hill, Sussex, he was, he says, ‘a cabbage’, completely uninterested in what he was being taught. “Then one day when I was about eight or nine I had an ear test – you remember those mobile units that used to come round to schools? – and it turned out I was pretty nearly deaf as a post,” says Mark. “The school told my parents I might not be quite as stupid as they all thought – I just couldn’t hear anything.”
The treatment prescribed was the removal of his tonsils and adenoids ‘at the same time’ he recalls ruefully. But the effect of the operation was miraculous. “I suddenly had hearing like bionic man and leaving the hospital I smelt cut grass for the first time ever!”
The effects on his school life were not so marked, however. He left with three O levels and with “the confidence beaten out of me,” and moved with his family to the Isle of Wight. Economically things were not unlike they are now, and his parents urged him to go into painting and decorating, based on the unquestionable logic that people always need their homes painted. “Nowadays when my mum proudly shows visitors a picture of me filming the queen I give her a look which says ‘so you wanted me to paint walls.’” He knew that wasn’t a route he wished to go down. “I kept saying I wanted to be a cameraman.”
For despite being ‘a cabbage’ Mark had rock hard determination, and at around age 17 an incisive self-awareness. “I realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere by being a drip. I made a conscious decision to turn over a new leaf – essentially to pretend I was something I was not until something started to stick.” It was the era of the New Romantics with their stylised hair and eye-liner, and Mark, wincing slightly as he recalls, says putting on the makeup was the only way to fit in. “As a result I felt better about myself.”
The reinvented Mark landed a job working for a photographer, carrying his bags and being paid a pittance, and eventually wielding a camera himself. After several years he felt video would be a natural progression, but the Island had no such opportunities. “I love the Island now but then it felt like Alcatraz with carpets.” Through a friend back in Woking he got involved in a company which filmed corporate events, providing sound and lighting.
Many people slide into their eventual career path by chance or accident, but for Mark the decision to learn on the job rather than seek qualifications first was a conscious decision. “I had a go at lighting, sound – then one day was asked if I could operate a camera and edit film. I realised this was what I wanted to do.”
So began the life of being up close and personal with the stars. The company made “junkets: whenever a new film was released a suite in the Savoy or other prestigious hotel would be taken for the day, lights and camera would be set up and different presenters would come each hour to interview the star of the film.
“The great thing is you get to spend the afternoon with whoever it is – and I loved it, it was fantastic. In the beginning I was a bit star struck, but after a while you get a bit blasé, and it gets a little bit painful,” he says, referring to some of the attitudes of the so-called great and the good. “But it’s still very good fun.”
Inevitably the excitement eventually palled, and Mark moved into a new direction – videos and pop promos, and those huge ‘audience enhancement screens’ which are today part of every large-scale event. These were Mark’s ticket to ride, quite literally, for he found himself part of the intimate entourage of a tour, travelling with such elevated individuals as Shirley Bassey or Michael Flatley. His legacy of the next ten years or so is in his collection of laminates – the photo security passes from each tour. He has about 500 of them. “Some people have been really nice,” says Mark. “The majority have been really up themselves.”
Travelling with the artist, whoever it may be, Mark soon learnt where the boundaries were. On one tour he found an uncanny resemblance between himself and the star caused confusion with fans and resentment with the artist. Another major star, known for his tantrums, used to ‘snap in a heartbeat’ and was best avoided. “When get into this business it’s not a good idea to say anything other than hello. Or if you start ingratiating yourself you come unstuck,” says Mark. “A lot of the Americans are painful, self-obsessed, just what you imagine them to be.”
The tour buses may be luxurious but the work is hard. A typical day would be to arrive at about 8am, unload anything between five and eight trucks, which could take till about 3.30pm. “You’ve got the lighting guy, sound guy, all trying to get their job done. It’s awful.” Then come the camera checks and talk-back system checks. “Then you eat dinner about 6.30, the show starts at 7.30 and finishes at 11.30. Then you do it all in reverse, you get back to the bus at 3am, drink as much as you can and get up and do the same the next day.”
Of course when you’re sitting behind a huge camera you can discover a multitude of secrets. Mark has zoomed in on obvious hair-weaves and toupes which their owners would rather were not made public.
When he isn’t on a music tour, Mark might well be found somewhere in Saudi, waiting to film a handover ceremony for some major project that has been going on. And waiting is the word. “You might be out there eight or nine weeks, and it’s ridiculously hot – if you step out of the air conditioning you’re ready to drop dead, but you’ve got to lay cables and things. And the day comes – and the king decides he doesn’t quite feel like turning up today. So we all stand down, back waiting again, with no booze, no telly, no internet, no women…”
Mark has started to resent the time away from his girlfriend, with whom he’s recently set up home. But if he ever feels jaded, coming back to the Isle of Wight has an instantly relaxing effect on him. “It is the nicest place to live in the British Isles. The only thing that drives me nuts is the ferry. It’s legalised robbery. Even Dick Turpin wore a mask!”
Thirty-odd years since he first worked with a camera he is still excited about where the work has led him. “The nicest thing is you get dumped off all around the planet, and you get a taste of something else. I would never had had a whiff of any of that had I done painting and decorating.”