An inquest into the death of British camera operator Mark Milsome three years ago will be held in London on October 19th later this fall.
Mark Milsome was liked by all who knew him. He was a talented camera operator and a decent human being with a wicked sense of humour. He was the son of Doug Milsome ASC, BSC, the highly respected collaborator with Stanley Kubrick, who had left his home in California some years ago to enjoy living near Mark and his family.
Death in Ghana
British camera operator Mark Milsome was killed three years ago in Ghana when filming a stunt. No one should die as a result of filming a stunt for a motion picture or television production. It is that simple.
The BBC/Drama Republic/Netflix Series “Black Earth Rising” included a night-time stunt, shot under established Health and Safety Regulations. If they had been adhered to when the stunt was performed and still resulted in death something would have been seriously amiss with the regulations. Film workers are hoping that the West London Coroner will recommend additional safety guidelines to prevent future deaths on stunts wherever they are performed.
The British Society of Cinematographers invited former Imago President and BSC Vice-President, Nigel Walters to attend a preliminary inquest earlier this year. IMAGO interviewed him recently to learn of his observations surrounding the tragedy…
IMAGO: ”What do you hope will be the result of the upcoming October 19th inquest in London?”
N.W.: ”It is important to understand that the sole function of the Coroner during the expected eight days of the inquest is to determine why and how Mark was killed. It is not intended to apportion blame. The inquest will hopefully be able to make recommendations to prevent such deaths from ever happening again.”
IMAGO: Can you tell us the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
N.W.: ”Unravelling any facts which would help to prevent a repeat tragedy has not been easy. The crew were originally told to remain silent, but slowly over the years a picture has emerged. A crucial factor appears to have been in replacing the original British Stunt-coordinator by one from South Africa named John Smith. He brought with him a stunt driver named Nathan Wheatley.
The stunt itself involved a Land Rover mounting a hidden ramp and overturning at speed on a country road. At night success required experience in precision driving. It is believed the vehicle hit the ramp area but failed to overturn, thus driving on and killing Mark and injuring his grip.
Many witnesses testify of Mark being assured that his camera position was the safest of the three-camera positions. The others were unmanned.
Neither the speedometer nor the rev counter of the action vehicle was working. Nothing is known regarding the previous experience, of either the stunt coordinator or his driver, to perform such a difficult stunt. As there is no extradition treaty between the UK and South Africa the Coroner is powerless to demand statements from the South African team. They are not expected to agree to give evidence according to the Coroner at the preliminary hearing.
The general agreement is the absence of the established pre-shoot Safety Briefing involving the rest of the crew. Bad weather and ground conditions on the day of the shoot had made difficult the positioning of the lights. Finally only one light was working of the three planned. It illuminated in front of the approaching vehicle as it approached the stunt point.”
IMAGO: ”How have the Trade Unions reacted to this tragedy?”
N.W.: ”Unfortunately Mark was not a Union member. As a result BECTU have in effect done nothing. My opinion, as a Union member of over 50 years, is that where future safety issues are involved the union should be assisting in giving vital evidence to ensure safety at any court. BECTU has an obligation in such cases to disclose to the industry the safest way forward. According to witnesses the Land Rover could have ploughed into the video village close by which housed the Director, Producer and others. When the driver finally brought the vehicle to a halt he enquired as to whether he “had hit something”. The female boom operator had taken her position near Mark assuming it to have been declared a “safe” position. Only after the full extent of the incident did she realise the implication of no safety briefing prior to the stunt.”
IMAGO: ”What are your feelings today?”
N.W.: ”If anyone is killed manning a camera in a static position in a controlled night shoot which involved a stunt driver hitting a hidden ramp, failing to overturn as planned and causing death and distress, something is seriously amiss. Nobody should die as the price of a stunt going wrong. Whether Health and Safety rules were broken or not, they must be strengthened to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again. After three agonising years that might be a small comfort for the Milsome family. A consolation would be for the Coroner to give a positive narrative conclusion to the inquest as a way of expressing any mistakes or problems surrounding Mark’s death. The Coroner should record any failings which may have caused the death. Mark should not have died in vain.”