Died Nov 1994
BENNY LEE who, with his brother, John formed the legendary Lee Lighting. They revolutionised the way films were serviced by lighting companies, blasting their way through the lacklustre companies of the day. I am reliably informed that their first job as Lee Lighting – either officially or unofficially – was the film Phaedra in 1961, Directed by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, photographed by French DP Jacques Natteau and gaffered by Bernie Prentice on location in Greece.
In the meantime, undaunted, John and Benny moved ahead in other areas until Benny died from a brain tumour in 1994 and not long after, poor old John suffered a major stroke in 1996. Although he amazingly recovered from that, John was beset by other conditions and infections which he bravely fought until he finally succumbed on April 5th not long after his 76th birthday.
Here is a tribute from director, Sir Alan Parker given at John’s funeral:
I knew John for near on 40 years but I know that many of you here today knew him longer. And better. It’s hard to talk of John without mentioning his brother Benny. There was “Fred and Ginger”, “Eric and Ernie”, “Gilbert and Sullivan” but for all of us in the British film industry, for three wonderful decades, we had “John and Benny”.
They were astute businessmen, visionaries, fellow filmmakers, scallywags, compatriots and brothers in arms. They were outspoken, gregarious and, for good or ill, not always politically correct. John and Benny’s story is a beautiful one which defines a unique period in the history of the British film industry and the triumph of two working class boys who had ambitions and a few dreams — dreams they allowed the rest of us to share.
John and Benny — Brindley and Brandon, as they called one another — began as electricians at MGM. John, the bodybuilder and weightlifter, was the strongest spark in the studio, as he climbed ladders, tanned and handsome, with a brute over one shoulder and a coil of copper cable over the other—well, that’s how John told it. They then struck out on their own renting their own lights and —as legend has it —sometimes, other peoples. The director Michael Winner tells the story that he was once given a Lee’s light — a pup— as a present. He said he knew it was a Lee’s light because it said ‘Mole Richardson’ on the side. This is refuted by the great and wonderful Ron Pearce who says that that was impossible because they spent ages scraping off the red Mole Richardson paint and painting them Lee’s yellow.
Setting up first at Goldhawk Road they expanded rapidly and bought a disused, derelict Askey’s biscuit factory on Kensal Road, which they also turned into a film studio. This scruffy, wonderful place saw the making of some of the seminal films of the period. It was said to be Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s favourite “studio” which puzzled many in Los Angeles who had never heard of it.
From the biscuit factory to the old London Weekend studios at Wembley — to their purchase of the prestigious Shepperton Studios and Panavision—With Joe Dunton’s cameras and Lee Filters, they were the glue that held the entire film industry together. At their height, John and Benny’s company was the biggest in the British film industry and the film lighting company the biggest in the world, as it spawned Lee Italia, France, Malta, Israel and Lee America. During these heady times the two brothers remained the same —down to earth, approachable, constantly generous and always ready to buy you a drink.
Benny was the pragmatist and John the tireless salesman, cheerleader and unquenchable optimist for all that Lees had done and strove to do in the future. To list the hundreds of films Lees have worked on is to recount the history of the film Industry from Star Wars to Reds—from Ryan’s Daughter to Chariots of Fire. The list is endless. The two brothers instilled in all of their people an ethos — a philosophy — a code of behaviour — a way of life based on loyalty and trust. John and Benny gave a ferocious loyalty and got it back. Lee’s sparks — their work ethic and personality — became the heart of every film. John and Benny wanted films to be made. They willed films to be made. In difficult times, they gave when other companies did not. They gave away their equipment to get films made. The producer David Puttnam says, some of our films would never have been made at all, but for John and Benny.
They grew their company but there was a genuine concern for people in the industry. They allowed young cameramen and filmmakers to experiment and in so doing created an entire generation of cinematographers who were devoted to them. Not just cameramen but operators, assistant directors, producers and directors — myself included. Their generosity knew no bounds. For years they ploughed money into the development of an alternative to the cumbersome brute which resulted in John and Benny’s Oscar for technical achievement in 1987 [“for the design and development of an electronic, flicker-free, discharge lamp control system”].
If we were being filmed in this church now, Lees would light it. Maybe with one of John’s revolutionary Helium balloon lights he championed to the end. When Lees lit St Paul’s for the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, the poster said, “Built by Wren, Lit by Lees.” Someone had scribbled on the bottom, ‘Drinks by John and Benny’!
Sir Alan Parker