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Obituary: Dick Macmillan

Stalwart cameraman saw worst of Troubles and was one of first on the scene of Claudy bombing

By Robin Walsh

Published 09/10/2015

Dick Macmillan has died at the age of 92, and yet another of the unsung heroes of the Northern Ireland Troubles has gone. His business was the lifeblood of TV news: the moving picture brought to the screen, not by the instantly recognisable reporter, but by the anonymous cameraman.

Dick Macmillan was one of the best, proven time and time again from the start of the Troubles in 1969 to his retirement as a senior BBC Northern Ireland staff cameraman in 1983, and thereafter working for many years as a freelance.

Dick was urbane yet streetwise, calm under the extreme pressure of the riots, bombs and the bullets. It was to be severely tested on the morning of July 31, 1972 when along with his dear friend and sound recordist Brian Willis he was on his way to an assignment in Londonderry. They heard an explosion and saw the rising smoke as they neared the village of Claudy.

The scene they encountered was indescribable as nine people lay dead as a result of the IRA's three no-warning bombs.

A politician of the time accused the BBC of having advance notice of the bombing, such was the immediacy of the pictures. Little did he know that Dick had stumbled across a close family friend carrying the body of his eight-year-old daughter who had perished in the atrocity.

It was the one occasion that Dick abandoned his camera. But when informed, the politician still refused to withdraw his gross slur.

There was, as the years rolled by, the virtual acceptance on the part of the camera crews that the abnormal was normal. No war-zone training. Limited protective clothing. No stress counselling on return to base - job done, where to next? There was the equipment - particularly in the case of Macmillan and Willis: heavier and more visible with its umbilical cord that inextricably linked cameraman and sound recordist - a far cry from today's lightweight gear that allows mobility and independence. It was difficult to hide from those who did not welcome the camera.

In 1960, Dick Macmillan manned the first camera in the Belfast newsroom that brought sound to pictures. The life of the pre-Troubles news camera crews was to be found elsewhere in regional broadcasting - the varied round of assignments that painted a picture of their communities on the nightly news magazines.

From August 1969, all was to change, and the local crews found themselves covering an international news story shoulder-to-shoulder with the battle-hardened outfits from the networks, fresh from the trouble spots of the world.

There was much to learn and quickly - when to produce the camera when a riot was brewing; sensitivity of what to shoot in the deadly aftermath of the bomb and amid the harrowing scenes of countless funerals. Dick Macmillan was the quickest of learners.

Television news veterans long retired continue to marvel at the work of today's camera crews.

Yet within the Northern Ireland context, it was the crews of old for whom there is everlasting admiration.

They learned as they went along because the awfulness of the Troubles was new. The legacy of those who have now retired - or who, like Dick Macmillan, have sadly passed away - is to be found in the excellence of the new breed.

Dick Macmillan's funeral service will be held at Roselawn Crematorium tomorrow at 9.30am.

He was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy, and mourners will be led by his only son Michael, a former foreign correspondent of BBC television news.

Belfast Telegraph

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