Born: October 21, 1934;

Died: April 1, 2021.

WHAT character traits and talents do you need to become one of the country’s most successful cinematographers? If the rather incredible life of John McGlashan is held up as an example, prerequisites include the acute artistic eye of Turner, the daredevil nerve of Tom Cruise, and the reflective temperament of a priest. And a deeply focused mind.

McGlashan was a camera wizard who in his long career worked with such directing greats as Ken Russell, John Schlesinger and Ken Loach. Bafta-nominated four times, he strode across documentary, costume drama and comedy with all the confidence he had exhibited when he once embarked upon a hopeful four-week boat journey from New Zealand to the UK in order to find work in TV.

He brought out the best in those he captured on film, such as Sir John Betjeman, with whom he shot three documentaries and shared an interest in churches, and who became his friend. He was regarded as a lighting master, a shot-stealer, a bold and innovative lensman who threw himself into work as though it represented life itself.

Judy, his wife of 31 years, recalls: “I was a production assistant on the 1988 documentary Steel City, and John was the cameraman. We filmed in a steel works and we wore hard-hats, steel toe-capped boots, and we were filthy.

“What struck me was that he was a daredevil and so passionate about his work. He would hang out of helicopters to get the right shot, he would climb to great heights, despite being afraid of heights. He wasn’t afraid to be splashed with molten steel. He pushed his fears aside.”

Judy McGlashan realised the man she fell in love with was a visionary with a viewfinder. He knew instinctively how to capture a panorama, a moment. But how had this talent grown?

“At John’s funeral the priest suggested that John’s wild childhood in Thirties rural New Zealand, where he didn’t really see other children, perhaps made him a man of vision”, she says. “His mind was always seeking.”

McGlashan’s great-grandfather had emigrated to New Zealand from Aberdeen. His grandfather became an auctioneer and his father a sheep farmer in the Hawke’s Bay area of North Island. John’s was an idyllic, horse-riding, sheep-herding upbringing. But it was also stark and lonely, particularly for an only child; the nearest house was five miles away. The school bus picked him up from his gate.

But nothing could confine his imagination. Having seen the 1942 movie classic, Casablanca, he was entranced by the idea of working in film, and on leaving school at 16 applied for work as an assistant cinema projectionist.

To develop a career as a cameraman he knew he would have to leave New Zealand. Thankfully, once he had landed in this country, he impressed the BBC Film Unit, based in Ealing, where he would remain for 35 years.

McGlashan revealed himself to be a major talent, working on the Monitor arts programme. He shot a mixture of critically acclaimed dramas and documentaries, notably The Ascent of Man (1973) and The Shock of the New (1980). During the late 1970s, his credits also included TV shows such as Doctor Who and Porridge.

There’s a great archive photo of McGlashan hanging off the side of a cart by what looks like a slight piece of rope, as Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Brambell is being pulled along. “That was a long time ago,” says Judy. “Health and Safety issues weren’t so important.”

McGlashan was able to coax the best out of those he worked with, whether documentary film directors, comedy actors or leading ladies: “John was quiet and gentle. And quite withdrawn in a lot of ways. While he wasn’t someone who often made a joke, he appreciated one. But in his quiet way he did connect with people.”

McGlashan certainly connected with Betjeman. Judy says: “I was going through his letters this week and I read one of many from the Poet Laureate which began ‘Dear and Mighty John McGlashan...’ And they certainly stayed in touch. John, of course, never really talked much about his earlier life. He wasn’t one to boast at all. But I suspect part of the connection he had with John Betjeman was that they were both slightly unusual men in the sense that both were one-offs.”

McGlashan retired from the BBC aged 60, as was custom and practice, but he then worked for the Corporation for 10 years as a freelancer. “For the last three years he worked on Monarch of the Glen [filmed in Laggan] and he loved it. John didn’t even mind the midgies”, his wife says. “A big part of him loved Scotland, as I do, having Scottish blood. He wore a tartan scarf and was always aware of his Scottish forebears.”

McGlashan, who had been married twice previously, travelled as often as possible to New Zealand, maintaining ties with family there.

He enjoyed incredible career success with the likes of television dramas, The Buddha of Suburbia and Scarlet and Black. He also became a liberal Catholic priest at St Francis Church, Camberley, Surrey.

Why was he drawn to practise religion? “John tended not to talk about his faith,” said Judy. “But he had a universal, rather than a concrete view. He certainly had a sense of the wonder of creation.”

There is a commonality, however, in his film and religious work. John McGlashan lived to try to explain the wonderment of life through a camera lens and via the pulpit, trying to pull a sharp focus. “In a sense, he was always looking through the viewfinder”, says Judy. “Sometimes he didn’t really notice what was going on elsewhere. But he would go for it. And get away with it, pretty well.”

John McGlashan’s long-ailing heart finally gave way at the age of 86 and he died in hospital. He had never lost his passion for capturing the world around him. “John, in all aspects of his life, was a seeker of the truth”, Judy reflected.

She survives him, as do his children, Paul, Mark, Ruth and Stephen, step-children Emerson and Victoria, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.