A tribute to a pioneering TV cameraman who devoted half a century to capturing North East life…PETER BARRON looks back at the career of Les Coates ahead of his funeral next week

AS a boy of seven, Les Coates watched, mesmerised, as neighbours crowded round a small black and white television set to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

On June 2, 1953, in the village of Croft-on-Tees, near Darlington, it was the moment that defined Les’s life.

“From then on, he had a fascination for TV and moving pictures,” says his son, Jonny. “He loved it so much, he always said he’d never worked a day in his life.”

Les, who has died, aged 78, after a short illness, went on to build an award-winning career as a television cameraman, mainly for the BBC, covering a multitude of historic events in the North-East.

No matter whether it was the Royals, presidents, prime ministers, celebrities, the man off the street, or kids seeking careers advice, Les could chat to anyone with consummate ease.

And it all started with The Coronation, when those black and white images of Queen Elizabeth II flickered magically across the screen and sparked young Les’s imagination.

Born on March 6, 1946, in Newcastle, he considered himself to be a Geordie, despite the family moving to the picturesque village of Croft-on-Tees when he was four. His dad, “Pip”, had got a job at Whessoe, in nearby Darlington, while mum, Mary, was a housewife and played the organ at the village church.

After attending Scorton Grammar School, Les got a job in the accounts department of an abattoir but never lost his fascination for film and photography.

His first step into that world came in 1964 when he became assistant to Peter Dearden, who owned a photographic studio in Darlington, and had a BBC contract to provide film.

The BBC took a shine to Les and he went on to team up with celebrated TV reporter, Luke Casey, who had an office at Norton.

Working as a freelance but with a rolling BBC contract, Les got to know Look North and Nationwide presenter, Mike Neville, and gradually built a reputation for providing high-quality network news and features.

Always wanting to be ahead of the game with the latest equipment, he was a pioneer – the country’s first cameraman geared up for electronic news gathering, and one of the first to have a camcorder flown in from Japan.

From the pomp and ceremony of Royal visits, to the grit and bitterness of the miners’ strike, Les hardly missed a news event in the region, with sons Karl and Jonny joining him in the family business and going on to develop careers of their own as TV cameramen.

Perhaps Les’s biggest highlight came in May 1977 when he filmed American President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Newcastle. After being awarded the Freedom of the City, the world’s most powerful man entered North East folklore by announcing: “Howay the lads!”

To build bridges between the US and the rest of the world, the president’s wife, Rosalynn, had launched ‘The Friendship Force’, and the North East was chosen as an early destination to promote the initiative.

The Friendship Force was based on the idea that people spent time in each other’s homes, getting to know different cultures, so Mike Neville and Les were flown to Washington to follow up the story, along with Karl and another sound recordist called Shaun Johnson.

President Jimmy Carter arrives in the North East on Air Force OnePresident Jimmy Carter arrives in the North East on Air Force One (Image: Press Association)

During one interview in The White House, the door of The Oval Office kept creaking open. Karl – determined that the filming shouldn’t be disturbed – defiantly prevented whoever it was from coming in. To his horror, and Les’s great amusement, he later discovered that he’d shooed away The First Lady!

Les filmed various members of the Royal Family during North East visits, including the time The Queen Mother turned to the press pack and said: “Gentlemen of the media, would you like to join us for a drink in the pub?”

Another memorable moment came when Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, underwent a refit on the Tyne, and the press pack sailed out on the first sea trials. Les was left chuckling again when Karl became the first to be treated for seasickness in the ship’s new sickbay.

Other highlights were being onboard Concorde to record its visit to Teesside Airport in 1986, and filming Margaret Thatcher’s ‘walk in the wilderness’ to launch the Teesside Development Corporation a year later.

Intrepid as well as technically assured, Les’s exploits included filming while going down rapids in a canoe, riding on the back of speeding motorbike, flying in a helicopter, and inside an upside-down plane during a display by the Rothmans aerobatic team.

As well as being a daring TV cameraman, Les was also an entrepreneur, running a wedding car company, and a TV and theatrical lighting business.

There was the time he and colleague Tony Baker invested in Russian TV, spending £5,000 each on shares, only to be arrested when they landed inside the Iron Curtain, before being sent home, with the sobering revelation that the shares didn’t exist.

But filming always remained Les’s first love, never going anywhere without his camera, and always happy to give his time to help the next generation of camera operators and sound recordists.

He loved a pint and word soon spread that the best way to find out about getting started in TV was to meet Les for a chat down his local, The Vane Arms, in Long Newton. When that pub shut down, his base switched to The Eagle, at Eaglescliffe.

“We’ve counted at least 40 people who are working in TV thanks to Les,” says Jonny. “He was just a kind-hearted person, who always told us ‘civility costs nothing’.”

Les finally retired after clocking up 50 years, and his half-century was marked by a Royal Television Society ‘special achievement’ award.

“He realised it was time to pack up when he could no longer run after criminals outside court,” laughs Jonny.

As well as Karl and Jonny, Les leaves a daughter, Lisa, wife, Sybs, and five grandchildren.

His funeral takes place at Darlington Crematorium at midday on Monday, July 15, followed – naturally – by a celebratory drink in The Eagle.

The final song at the service will be Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, because that’s what he always did.

It may have started in black and white – but Les Coates enjoyed every minute of the colourful life that developed.