Meeting Walter Lassally – Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Walter Lassally shooting ‘We are the Lambeth Boys’ (1959), a Free Cinema documentary
Credit BFI (British Film Institute)

The Meeting – January 2014
As our train pulled into Diss station in Norfolk, Walter was on the platform to meet us. My colleague Rod Thorn and I had seen photos of him, but were unprepared for the sheer energy of this 87-year-old, striding forward energetically to greet us with a long mac flapping behind him. We shook hands with a rugged-faced man, with exuberant wavy white hair, and a ready smile. We piled into his car, which as I recall was on the rough and ready side, and he drove us to ‘The Abbey’ at Eye, his current home just over the border in Suffolk. As the name suggests, this was a former medieval Benedictine Monastery, which had evolved into a large and impressive house. Its permanent resident at the time was Walter’s partner, Kate Campbell. Walter himself was not long back from his second home on Crete, close to where he had filmed Zorba the Greek, his most famous cinematic feat. For a few hours that day, my colleague Rod Thorn and I were able to enjoy Walter’s company, listening to his philosophical ideas and sharing impressions of the Kabbalah group he had studied in, to which we also had connections.

Career

Walter had long been renowned as a cinematographer, in a career that spanned half a century.  He began his career as a lowly clapper boy at Riverside Studios, frequently sent off by the crew to collect cups of tea on his clapperboard, but swiftly moved on to greater things. His career as a cinematographer blossomed at the start of the 1960s, when he made three films with director Tony Richardson – A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Tom Jones. These titles became key films in the British cinema of that decade.

But the film for which he was most highly acclaimed worldwide came straight after these British triumphs. For his work on Zorba the Greek (1964), Walter won an Academy Award for cinematography.

Yet despite his status as an Oscar winner, which gave him the freedom to work wherever he wished, he largely stayed rooted to Britain and its film industry. He was a leading light in Lindsay Anderson’s radical Free Cinema movement, which favoured realistic, heavy-hitting narratives, shot with flair and imagination. Critics dismissed some of these works as ‘kitchen sink dramas,’ but they effectively portrayed the spirit of those times.

Walter remained a firm favourite with leading British-based film-makers, notably Merchant Ivory, who hired him as cinematographer on three of their major titles: Savages (1972), Heat and Dust (1983) and The Bostonians (1984). Thereafter he continued working on smaller films in various countries until the turn of the century.

This section has been augmented with the kind assistance of film critic David Gritten, best known for his writing in the Daily Telegraph and Saga Magazine. (David@Gritten.co.uk)

Walter in Crete, probably just a few years before we interviewed him

The Soho Group
Our own interest in Walter’s story began when a few colleagues and I started to research the roots of an organisation known as Saros, which we had been involved with for many years. This had started as a series of groups studying the Kabbalah, in its Tree of Life form, as a framework for peronsal and spiritual exploration. (Read more about these groups, their practices and Kabbalah at our ‘Soho Tree’ website ).

But our study groups, which began in the 1970s, were preceded by one simply known as ‘The Group’, which met in the coffee bars of Soho in the late 1950s. Our small band of researchers was keen to explore the connection, and see where our tradition had come from. As we began locating contacts who had themselves been in that Soho group, the name of Walter Lassally kept cropping up. Some former members were even still in touch with him, sporadically. Fired up by the fascinating interviews we were recording, and the intriguing world of 1950s Soho, we were keen to trace this man.

Walter’s Quest

‘My career as world-famous Director of Photography is well known and has been written about ad infinitum. On the other hand my other activities in the realm of philosophy and esotericism are not so well known but have in my estimation been even more important and significant to me than my main occupation.’

So Walter wrote in his later years, for a talk entitled ‘The Universe and the Individual: The Cosmos and the Microcosmos.

Walter’s chief interests were in Tree of Life Kabbalah, especially through the writings of Dion Fortune (her book The Mystical Qabalah was the one most readily available in the mid-20th century), and in the I Ching. He was also a keen and proficient astrologer. As he said to us at our meeting:

‘You have an aim, which can broadly be described as self-knowledge. The saying ‘Know Thyself’ – inscribed over the temple of Apollo at Delphi – is very important. …And now I firmly adhere to the idea that that is the only point of being on earth as a human being. Everything else is peripheral.’

Watkins Bookshop, just off the Charing Cross Road, as it was in 1960. This was about the only place where books on esoteric and mystical subjects were on sale, and was much-frequented by members of the group which Walter joined.

Walter’s Early Life
As we tried to get in touch with Walter Lassally – he had gone off radar, even to his close friends from ‘the Group’ – we started to look into his background. In a series of YouTube interviews, he gives an account of his challenging early years, a remarkable story of persecution and escape.

Walter was born in Berlin in 1926, growing up there during Hitler’s ascent to power. His father worked as an animator of industrial films, and the family seems to have been cultured and comfortably-off financially. However, although the family were Lutheran Protestants, they had Jewish roots in earlier generations, which led to them being classified as ‘non-Aryan’, even though they weren’t technically Jewish. Hitler’s regime clamped down on them. His father was prevented from working after 1933, and Walter excluded from school from 1938. At this point, his father was put in a concentration camp and would only be able leave if the family could prove they had permission to emigrate.

Walter’s mother tried every avenue, nearly securing a job in Canada for her husband, but finally obtaining a Peruvian visa with a transit visa for the UK. Armed with this, she was able to secure the release of her husband, and the family set out on a stressful and risky journey to Dover. Walter clutched his ‘Kinderpass’, stamped with the red J for Jew. They arrived in the UK with virtually nothing, since all their possessions were bombed while awaiting shipping in Bremen, and their valuables had in any case been confiscated automatically by the Nazis. On top of that, Walter spoke no English, a source of anxiety to him at first, but soon overcome by studying so hard that he came second in the English exams at school!

Walter showing the Kinderpass which he kept, stamped with the red ‘J’ for Jew.

In the UK, his father was at first interned as an alien on the Isle of Man, but set free after a tribunal assessment. The family then settled in Richmond, near London, and Walter left school at the age of sixteen with the firm conviction that he wanted to be a film cameraman. He ascribes his interest in film not so much to his father’s involvement, as to his passion for visiting the cinema as often as possible during those war years.

A teenage Walter, perhaps dreaming of his future life in the cinema.
(from his own collection, posted by the BFI)

Finding Walter
We were about to give up our search when a stroke or two of luck enabled us to trace him. It seemed he was probably in Greece. When our Greek friend Byron, another member of Saros, returned to his native country for a while, he agreed to help in the search. Contact was made. He wrote to me later, on Sat, 5 Oct 2013:

When I finally decided to post the letter to Walter to an address I accidentally found from an interview that he had given on the net, I went to my local post office to ask whether there was in fact a post office in that little village in Crete where I was sending my letter to. By sheer ‘coincidence’ the employee at my local post office hailed from Stavros Acroteriou, the very same place where Walter now resides. He didn’t know Walter himself, but described the place to me and also told me that there was no post office there and that the nearest one was in Chania. So anyway thank you all for your ‘intent’ it must have helped in this search!

However, at that point, it was only a distant possibility that one of us would be able to go out to Crete to meet him. But once again, luck was on our side, as he suddenly decided to return to the UK for a while. And so it was that two of us had the pleasure of getting off that train and meeting Walter for the first time in the East Anglian countryside.

The Abbey at Eye, where we spent the day with Walter Lassally
(This and photo below credit website of the Abbey )
The large living room where we sat with Walter to talk about his memories of ‘The Group’.

Conversation at the Abbey
Walter led us into the main drawing room, an impressive room where we began our talk. Later he showed us his equally impressive study which doubled as a projection room, its shelves lined with reels of the films he had made.

How did he come across ‘the Group’? What aroused his interest? We were eager to hear more about how his search began.

It was probably triggered by an unhappy love affair in the early 1950s, he said. ‘And that led to what I would call the search for the self. Which is still going on…First of all, I turned towards Yoga – I read Paul Brunton’s book, a classic book about Indian yoga, and then I became interested in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.’

One day in 1956 when he was in Soho, perhaps on film business – it was a hub for the film industry at that time -Walter entered a café where an energetic discussion was taking place. As a person of keen intellect, with a friendly nature and an enquiring mind, I imagine he wasn’t shy about joining in. He hadn’t retained an exact memory of the occasion – the Group met in various coffee bars, but he thought it was probably ‘the “Nucleus” [which] was the centre of it all, the coffee bar in Monmouth Street. And someone was always in there holding forth.’

The cafes were the place where most members of ‘the Group’ first encountered ‘the Work’. They were a magnet for young people, who flocked to London seeking something different and inspiring after the war years. The open gatherings acted as a hub for anyone who might be interested in following up ideas on Kabbalah and its associated practices – primarily meditation and astrology. But it wasn’t about putting pressure on people to join; indeed, the waifs and strays who ended up in Soho were often encouraged to go back home, sometimes with a donation of cash towards food or a train ticket. The ‘Work’, as it was known, was only for those who actively wanted to pursue the aims of knowledge.

Nor was it for guru worship. At the core of the Soho gatherings were three key figures. Alan Bain was the overt leader, and the man who became Walter’s teacher. He was a former merchant seaman, and an accordion player who busked for a crust in the early days after he arrived in London. He was far from being a typical sailor, however, and his life had taken a different turn after a transformative spiritual experience. A second figure who tended to observe from the sidelines, even though he was a teacher in his own right, was former RAF Radar Fitter Glyn Davies, originally from South Wales. Glyn became my own mentor, and later initiated Kabbalah groups which evolved into the organisation known as Saros. The third key person was Tony Potter; he too later founded his own line of groups in London. The talkative one of the three, remarked Walter, was ‘mainly Potter. Potter was great at holding forth, whereas Alan was really quite reticent, a shadowy figure in the background’.


Remarkably, a film clip has survived which shows Glyn Davies, Tony Potter, and astrologer Ernest Page discussing a horoscope in a Soho café. It was filmed for the ‘Look at Life’ series. View it here.

The clip of the three astrologers meeting – Ernest Page, Glyn Davies and Tony Potter – is about 5m 45s into the video

The encounter was an eye-opener for Walter, and what he discovered there became his lifeline. He described this type of Kabbalah as ‘such a wonderful system. It’s both simple and complicated. It covers all the areas…the Tree is a terribly dense, but a relatively simple diagram. It’s not hard to understand, although you can study, and study and study …the Tree in all its aspects, the paths on it, its connections with astrology.’

Group Meetings

At this point, so as not to overburden the narrative of Walter’s story, I’ll refer you again to the ‘Soho Tree’ site we have created, which explains the various teachings that these and subsequent groups practised. It also paints a portrait of Soho life at that time, as a fascinating mix of people and ideas. But here we can track Walter’s progress into a ‘closed’ group, and how he later started to hold private group sessions himself.

These closed groups were where the real focus lay, rather than in the casual gatherings and discussions in the coffee bars.  Anyone who showed a real interest would be invited – discreetly – to a private group meeting. As Keith Barnes, another early member and life-long friend of Walter’s told me: ‘Even the existence of the group was hidden. Everything was kept very quiet, and it was very hard to find out anything.’ But then Keith was handed a piece of paper, an invitation to visit a certain address at a certain date and time. This address turned out to be Walter Lassally’s flat. (Walter was becoming successful in his film career, and able to afford a very nice flat in Holland Park.) ‘There were 20-30 people gathered there, many of whom I’d seen around the West End, plus Glyn and Alan’.

Walter had joined a little earlier than Keith, and was still a regular member on the night that Keith turned up, but a few years later he started running a group. It was common practice in this particular tradition to ‘learn and pass it on’, and to set up groups that could offer a useful starting point for beginners. During our visit, he brought down old notebooks to show us, inscribed with ‘Society of the Common Life 1962’, listing attendance of members and their subscriptions (strictly for expenses only, as no one took a fee for their teaching). Two sample pages are displayed below, which he invited us to photograph.

But it became a tricky matter to balance initiatives related to ‘the Work’ with his own professional work, and his financial affairs. One of the most difficult crises he ever had to deal with came about because of conflict of interests, as we’ll see shortly.

Clip of the famous dance sequence, in Zorba the Greek, released in 1964. Walter Lassally won an Academy Award for best cinematography.
He allowed the award to be displayed in a local taverna in Crete, close by where the filming had taken place. Unfortunately, the place burnt down in 2012, and destroyed the statue.

Meeting Kate
At some point in our talk at the Abbey, we were summoned to lunch, where we joined Kate Campbell, Walter’s partner, and Kate’s son Adam. Kate was the widow of artist Peter Campbell – they had been childhood sweethearts, according to one source – and the Abbey had been their home until Peter’s sudden death in 1989. But Walter and Kate had a relationship which stretched back to the 1960s, during decades of her marriage to Peter, and sometimes the three adults had shared a home, both in London and Suffolk. Kate was also Walter’s business partner for a number of years. There seems to have been a kind of accepted arrangement between the three of them. But even so, Kate’s and Walter’s relationship wasn’t plain sailing – both were strong-minded, and Kate was a feisty person, who did not care for Walter’s more esoteric interests. Rod Thorn and I were treated politely by Kate and Adam, but very much kept at a distance.

Kate and Walter at the National Film Theatre in the early 1960s (Credit BFI)

It’s clear that Walter was very loyal to Kate over the years, but their modus operandi allowed for a part-time relationship. Perhaps ‘the Itinerant Cameraman’ (as he entitled his autobiography) preferred the freedom to travel for work and savour life in Greece. Just after I’d finished writing this section, I watched the film ‘Before Midnight’ (2013) in which Walter actually took on an acting role, playing the part of an elderly English writer (based on Patrick Leigh Fermor) living in Greece. At the dinner table one evening with assorted writers who are staying in his house, the conversation focuses on the nature of romantic love. Patrick, aka Walter, speaks the following lines about his marriage: ‘We were never one person, always two. We preferred it that way. But at the end of the day, it’s not the love of one other person that matters, it’s the love of life.’ Were these words, even if scripted, ones which Walter had produced and which reflected his own long-term relationship with Kate Campbell? I think it’s very likely. ‘Patrick’ also proclaims the inscription at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’, which we know was one of Walter’s favourite sayings.

Kate in her study at the Abbey in her later years

The I Ching

Walter had a great passion for the ancient Chinese oracle known as the I Ching. ‘The advice that you get – I did one yesterday – is absolutely to the point. It’s unbelievably practical,’ he told us.

Although the I Ching is well-known today, it was far less so when Walter began to use it around 1960. Remarkably, Walter kept a record of nearly all of his readings, which he later turned into a book called Thirty Years with the I Ching. (He probably practised it for over fifty years, although the book stops short of recent readings for discretion’s sake.) In the event, he failed to find a publisher but left a legacy of a photographic copy on his website.

The opening to the book states: ‘Some of my questions will be seen to refer to something I call the Work. This was the general term I used to denote the ongoing process of the ‘search for the self’ referred to earlier, and which for some years I conducted as a member of the Society of the Common Life, a small group dedicated to this search.’.

Every reading that he includes in the book quotes sections of the relevant I Ching text, with his interpretations of these, both at the time and retrospectively. He uses the classic translation by Richard Wilhelm, which has an introduction by Carl Jung.

Walter’s questions centre chiefly on a trio of concerns: ‘the Work’, his professional film work, and his relationship with Kate Campbell, referred to as ‘K’. On one occasion Walter asked the I Ching whether he should try and keep Kate in the group – the answer was that it would do no good to try and force her! She attended just once or twice, and remained suspicious of it thereafter.

Some questions were less about problems than to seek a balanced view of a situation. On Sep 2nd, 1961, Walter asked a question about the Kabbalah group he was running: ‘What is the present state of the group?’ The I Ching offered two hexagrams – no. 11 Peace turning into no. 55 Abundance. These are plainly favourable situations, and Walter reflects in hindsight: ‘The period in question turned out to be one of the best periods in the life of the group; the traumas connected with the over-ambitious purchase of the lease of the house [more on this below] were by now forgotten, and the group could get on with some productive work.’

Conflict and acceptance
But there were also tricky issues that kept cropping up, and one in particular related to Walter’s teacher Alan Bain. Alan was someone that I knew quite well in later years, and I can vouch for the fact that he was not a straightforward character. Although he didn’t seek to profit personally from his teaching, he had a weakness where money was concerned. As Walter put it: ‘He lived a very easy-going life.’ He looked for just enough money to get by, and if he hadn’t got it, he’d look around for a way to get it.’

That ‘way’ was often to solicit it from those who were in funds. Walter was doing well financially, and he wanted to further the Work as best he could. With the best of intentions, he bought a lease on a building in Bath Street, near Old Street in London, to set up a bookshop, provide premises for group meetings and accommodation for both him and Alan. His record of his I Ching readings tells the story, and I’ve inserted additional comments based on what Walter told us in person.

These grainy images are the only record of the place where this ill-fated bookshop was set up.

Page 4/5:
[In March 1960] ‘I had just taken on the lease of a building in London to serve as HQ for the group, as well as to provide accommodation for myself and A.B. [Alan Bain], the leader of the group and a small bookshop.’

But Walter couldn’t be there much of the time, as he was away a great deal filming on location.

Page 7:
I had left some members of the group in charge of the bookshop I had opened before leaving for Greece, and now K. [Kate, Walter’s partner in business as well as in his personal life] brought me the news that they had proved to be less than reliable, to say the least. The whole thing was a complete disaster.

Even if ‘stole’ is too harsh a word, they certainly ‘borrowed’ and lost most of the stock.

This prompted the question:
3/6/60: Will the bookshop prosper?…the I Ching’s answer indicated that the bookshop had no future, and that immediate steps were needed to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation. K. sorted out the mess, which was considerable, when she returned to England, closing the bookshop and managing to dispose of the lease of the whole building which I had foolishly taken on.

It was plain, as Walter recounted this sorry story to us, that it had caused him much grief and stress, although he found some consolation in hindsight that the lease was sold to Eduardo Paolozzi, who became a leading sculptor and artist.

It also threw into question his relationship with his teacher, Alan Bain. Perhaps it served to make him more guarded in future dealings.

Page 12:
‘After my return home to England I was faced with a number of problems. As result of closing the bookshop and disposing of the lease, my relationship with the group, and in particular with A.B. were rather strained.

Page 13:
He concluded that the I Ching counselled him ‘to proceed gently with the group, distancing myself a little, and taking care not to repeat the weakness that had led to my pandering too much to fulfilling the material needs of the group leader.’

Alan Bain, Walter’s teacher of Kabbalah, photographed later in life.

This wasn’t the only time that Alan attempted to get money from Walter.

Page 66:
‘A.B. was once more in financial difficulties, and asked for a loan to help him move to Glastonbury.
27/3/63 Question: Should I give him a loan?
Hindsight: Here is one of several occasions when I was asked to help A.B. financially, and the advice here is – don
’t!’

Further records refer to ‘the danger of pouring it [money] down a bottomless well.’

However, Walter showed great maturity and wisdom in the way he resolved the complexities of the situation. ‘But the I Ching also speaks of loyalty, so I had to balance my loyalty to him as the leader of the group against my misgivings about his abilities as a businessman. I made a series of loans to him over the period of our association, and whilst not regretting this, I was not surprised when all his business ventures failed.’

As far as Alan’s tendency to sponge off him went, he told us: ‘To some extent I saw that, and as far as Alan was concerned, I was prepared to go along with it as the sums concerned were never anything other than minor. And I think I was getting value for money. He was telling me things I wanted to know about.’

His admiration for Alan as a teacher remained, but he was now able to accept him as a mixture of weakness as well as strength:
‘As a teacher, he was patient; there was a lot of wisdom in what he said, which was never presented as ‘a word from ‘The Man’, it was just something he thought you might like to consider. And I was always very convinced….Alan talked to people who were willing to listen. Quite a lot of them sought him out…He never advertised himself…He was a person who you would pass in the street, and you wouldn’t give him a second look in his dirty mackintosh. And yet he was a very unusual person’

A mosaic of images from his long and illustrious career

The end of the connection

Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Dear Cherry,
I have some very sad news for you. My beloved Kate died peacefully in her sleep last Tuesday and will be buried here tomorrow… I shall therefore return to Crete permanently just after Easter as there is nothing to retain me here…

It goes without saying that you are very welcome to visit me in Crete at any time and I will keep you up to date as to my whereabouts.

Tomorrow evening I will embark on a short trip to Norway, which had been planned since before Xmas. I will be back here on March 26th.

All good wishes,

Walter

We didn’t manage to see Walter again, and he died in Crete at the age of 90 in 2017. His death was reported in the papers, and various obituaries were written, such as that in The Guardian.

But none, as far as I’m aware, mention Walter’s deep and abiding interests in Kabbalah, astrology and the I Ching. I hope that this account will add this dimension for those who are interested in the life of this unusual and talented cinematographer.

Walter celebrating what was probably his only acting role in a movie – as an elderly English writer in ‘Before Midnight’. Credit Cristophe Dupin

Material Videos

Playlist for Walter Lassally life story clips (266 clips)
Although most of these are about his work in film, and specific projects, it’s easy to see from the titles which are about his life story.

Walter reads the Free Cinema Manifesto

Full free and authorised access to We are the Lambeth Boys and Every Day Except Christmas, two short documentary films produced for the Free Cinema movement, with Walter Lassally as director of photography.

A collection of video clips from a Masterclass with Walter Lassally which mentions his interest in Kabbalah and the I Ching.

Websites
An excellent selection of photos of Walter at work, from all stages of his career, published by the British Film Institute.

Photos and descriptions of The Abbey, Eye, Suffolk, where we met Walter and his partner Kate Campbell. This is a memorial site to her husband, artist Peter Campbell

A traveller gives an account of meeting Walter Lassally in Crete in 2011

Books and Articles
Itinerant cameraman by Walter Lassally (John Murray 1987), is an account of his work in cinema. (Out-of-print but sometimes available second-hand)
Uploaded articles and essays by Walter Lassally
Among these articles is access to a photographic version of Thirty Years with the I Ching by Walter Lassally. Scroll down from the article ‘Big Screens’ on the opening page to see this.

Background research
This article has been written from research done on behalf of the Saros Roots Group, which for several years has been investigating the origins of a particular teaching line of Kabbalah and how it links through to present day activities. The members of this group have all been involved in this line themselves, and as well as myself and Rod Thorn, mentioned here, they include Jack Dawson and Michael Frenda. Thanks for our collaborative efforts!

Thanks also to Byron Zeliotis, who helped us to track Walter down. Byron’s website is at https://www.meditator.org

To expand references in this post, please visit The Soho Tree, a website created by Rod Thorn and myself, with collaboration from present and former members of Saros and ‘The Soho Group’.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

One thought on “Meeting Walter Lassally – Cinematographer and Kabbalist

  1. Jillian Tomkiss

    Really enjoyed reading this Cherry.Wonderful cameo films from the period.Zorba the Greek one of my absolute favourites.

    Like

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