On the 2nd July I came back to our London flat, after an errand somewhere, to find a phone message from my old friend, Richard Keys. His voice was surprisingly clear, almost as if he was in the room with me. His tone was amiable, though the content was depressing. He told me his doctors had informed him his cancer had reached his lungs and he had a short time to live. He stressed that he was in no pain. He then switched the topic to recent films that he’d seen. He also asked if I’d made any progress in setting up the film I’d planned to do about Isaac Newton.
Last night – the 10th July – I returned to the flat from a visit to friends who live near Oxford. I switched on the phone to hear messages. There were no new ones, so Richard’s voice was the first of a few old messages. Initially, I thought he must’ve called again, but then realised it was the call from 2nd July. A text appeared on my phone a short time later. It was from Richard’s son, Nick, to tell me that Richard had died in a Canberra hospital on 8th July.
I first met Richard in 1955, when I was a student at The Kings School in Parramatta. My memory may be faulty, in fact I know it is these days, but I think that Richard was a year or so older than me and had already left school. I was introduced to him by another student, a film obsessed boy named Barrie Pattison. With Richard and Barrie as guides I was introduced to a group of film societies around Sydney, all of them run by a bevy of eccentrics. I remember odd halls in odd locations where I sat through 16mm prints of films like D.W. Griffiths 4-hour “Intolerance” a vast but naïve epic made before 1920.
I think it was some time in 1957 that Richard and I both saw – in different theatres – a print of John Ford’s “The Sun Shines Bright”. We were both wildly enthusiastic about this still virtually unknown film and it cropped up regularly, very regularly, in our phone conversations even when we were in different countries. Over the past few years, Richard often visited me in my house in Birchgrove whenever he came to Sydney. I know that we bored my wife relentlessly as we enthused about Ford’s celebrated (to us) funeral scene, which we declared to be among the very greatest sequences ever put on film.
After high school, Richard’s passion for film resulted in him turning down the idea of further education. He found a job as a camera assistant in the Cinesound studios in Balmain. For some years Cinesound had produced a number of feature films, mostly unremarkable “Dad and Dave” comedies and an occasional drama such as “Smithy” (1946). Virtually all of the Cinesound output was directed by Ken Hall. By the time Richard Keys joined the studio, around 1957, production was almost entirely commercials for cinemas and TV.
When I was a student at Sydney University in 1959, I had the idea of making a dramatic film using some of my friends, including the soon-to- be-acclaimed actor John Bell, in an ineptly scripted (by me) story “The Devil to Pay”. Knowing that Richard had learnt a lot about photography from Cinesound, I asked him to be the cameraman. Filming took place in fits and starts over many months. Richard, as amiable as always, gave up an enormous amount of his time to help me in a project he probably suspected was not worthwhile. Ultimately, “The Devil to Pay” had value in the sense that it taught me that a film director should tell stories that result from his observation of life, not from previous films by admired directors.
After I graduated from university in 1963, I went to England and spent many years away from Australia. Richard and I always remained in touch, invariably exchanging phone calls, letters and then emails, discussing, analysing, praising and denigrating the various films we’d seen.
Sometime, in late 60’s or early 70’s, Richard was in London for some time operating an animation camera for a small company in Bloomsbury. When he returned to Australia his career shifted to work with the Australian Film Commission and then the National Film and Sound Archive, in Canberra. His good taste, his amiable and frank manner and sheer good nature earned the admiration of all who worked with him.
Interestingly, he never lost his passion for film societies, even though their ranks were depleted after the onslaught of the numerous films available on TV channels, DVD, and websites. I recall a couple of visits I made to film societies in Lindfield, Canberra and Katoomba, all engineered by an unfailingly enthusiastic Richard Keys. I’m now at an age where many of my contemporaries have reached their final fade out. I realise now how much I always valued Richard’s friendship. His humour and his enthusiasm, the warm support he gave me as my own film career flickered into life.