27.3.1937 - 8.3.2010
The cinematographer Tony Imi, who has died aged 72, was instrumental in pioneering a new style of filming television drama in the 1960s, before he moved on to feature films. Few could forget the misfortunes that befell a homeless young couple and their children in Cathy Come Home, a program that shocked the nation and lent support to the charity Shelter, which was just then on the point of being launched.
Imi's handheld camera, on the move and close up to the action, made the story chillingly real, in the vein of a current affairs programme, rather than fiction. Cathy Come Home, screened as part of the ground-breaking Wednesday Play series by the BBC in 1966, proved that TV drama could be relevant to the lives of people in Britain.
The director, Ken Loach, was in the early days of establishing his method of social-realist film-making – shooting on real locations as much as possible, in sequence with the script and with no rehearsal, prompting natural performances from the actors. He found a like-minded camera operator in Imi, who once told me: "There would be a group of people, all chatting, and I was in the middle, trying to get sense out of what the scene was about; the energy there was incredible. At the same time, there were people on the film crew who had come up through the system and frowned upon it, saying, 'This is very amateurish.' I think, really, they felt out of it."
Cathy Come Home, starring Carol White and Ray Brooks as the couple enduring a string of disasters, provoked widespread debate and a national house-building programme. Fifteen days after its screening, Shelter was launched by five church housing-association trusts on the tide of public emotion
It was the culmination of Loach and Imi's previous attempts – along with their producer, Tony Garnett – to move television dramas away from the proscenium-arch approach, when they were filmed in a studio, in the manner of a stage play. This had begun with another Wednesday Play production, Three Clear Sundays (1965), written by James O'Connor, who had won a reprieve after being sentenced to death for a murder he maintained he had not committed. The title referred to the period between death sentence and execution.
While filming in the street, Loach persuaded Imi to pick up the heavy, 35mm film camera to shoot the action. Imi recalled that this resulted in shots that traditionalists considered "not technically acceptable", adding: "I was stuck in a rut after working on Dr Finlay's Casebook and Maigret – standard BBC productions. All of a sudden, with the Wednesday Play and Ken, there was a newness that fitted into the way I was thinking at the time."
Then came Up the Junction (1965), another seminal play in the series, featuring scenes of uninhibited factory workers, coarse language and a backstreet abortion, which was lambasted by the clean-up-TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse as presenting "promiscuity as normal". This time, Imi was filming the action with a lightweight, 16mm camera from the back of a motorcycle at one stage and in a swimming pool at another. "Follow what you think is going on and it doesn't matter if the camera goes out of focus," Loach told him.
After Imi shot Inadmissible Evidence (1968), a big-screen version of John Osborne's play, his career was split between feature films and TV movies.
Imi was born in London and attended Cardinal Vaughan school, Holland Park. His first job was as a messenger with Fox Photos, then he did clerical work for the Mobil Oil company before joining the BBC as a trainee assistant projectionist. He eventually became a documentary cameraman and, after leaving the BBC in 1967, was director of photography on feature films such as the musical fairytale The Slipper and the Rose (1976), International Velvet (1978), the second world war drama The Sea Wolves (1980) and Buster (1988, with Phil Collins in the title role, as one of the Great Train Robbers).
Among his later television credits were Inside the Third Reich (1982), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), the Gone With the Wind sequel Scarlett (1994) and The Shell Seekers (2006).
Imi's skill at lighting a scene and adapting to different directors and styles of photography kept him in frequent demand. In 2001, at the Santa Monica film festival, he won a Moxie award for best director of photography for The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (2000).
Elected to the BSC in 1971 Tony gave generously of his time and energy when not filming, serving on the board for a total of 23 years and acting as President from 1982-1984. A fair man with a deep sense of justice, his opinion was always sought and listened to with respect. Tony had a fantastic sense of humour and invariably any meeting with him would begin with a joke. It must have been as enjoyable to be a member of his crew as it was to have shared his presence at our Board meetings. He worked tirelessly for all cinematographers and will be sorely missed.
The Guardian & BSC Office