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Life through a lens

Ben Patey chats to original celebrity snapper Philip Townsend before his upcoming exhibition, <i>Sorry you missed the 60s</i>

Published on August 26th 2008.


Life through a lens

Two teenage girls were walking down Bold Street discussing current affairs."I saw my second celebrity of the week the other day", said one.

"Oh yeah? Who?"

"Mikey from Big Brother"

Someone who knows a thing or two about real celebrities however, is Philip Townsend, a photographer in the swinging sixties who captured all the 'movers and shakers' of the day - film stars, socialites, artists and rock stars.

No one had ever got to him closely so I thought for six months; I'll go and get a job as his butler. Besides, I wasn't doing anything else at the time

During Townsend's early career on the waterfront in Monte Carlo, he snapped some of the biggest names of the day including Marlon Brando posing with Joan Fontaine, and Sir Winston Churchill with Aristotle Onassis. During his time in France he also had his first meeting with Andrew Loog Oldham.

"He said to me, 'I'm going to find the biggest rock and roll band in the country and you can photograph them for me,'" recalls Townsend.

"I said thank you very much, not thinking anything would come of it."

Something did come of it. He went on to photograph The Rolling Stones for the first nine months of their career.

Aside from The Stones, some of his most recognisable shots are those of The Beatles' first meeting with their Indian spiritual svengali of 1967, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

"The Maharishi requested me to be there. I thought I'd get thrown out after five minutes, but I didn't. They were so taken with him that they didn't really notice I was there".

Although unquestionably a world class photographer, Philip classes himself as a journalist first and foremost.

"I freelanced for the Daily Express in the 1950s. Rupert Murdoch was there as a sub just before I started".

Philip would later meet Murdoch in slightly closer proximity.

"No one had ever got to him closely so I thought for six months; I'll go and get a job as his butler. Besides, I wasn't doing anything else at the time".

A job like that is not something you'd find advertised in the local paper so it was lucky for Townsend he knew someone who ran an agency for butlers.

"I said if anyone ever really famous comes up tell me and I'll go and get a job. It was so cushy there we ended up staying for five years and I flogged stories to all the newspapers while I was there.

"I couldn't get a publisher for the book so in the end I sold it to Punch which was Mohamed Al-Fayed's at the time. He ran it over three weeks and it trebled his circulation."

Would it be safe to say then, what with snapping celebs and living undercover with press barons, he likes a bit of excitement?

"I just love stories. I'm the world's worst gossip. I can't keep anything to myself."

In that case, what did he really think of The Beatles?

"The Beatles were alright. George and John were the nicest. They were more approachable. Ringo was alright but he didn't have much to say and Paul was always after the main chance.

"Without him they wouldn't have made so much money. It's like The Rolling Stones. Every group has one. It's half business and half music. It's Mick with The Stones and it's Paul with The Beatles.

What about other Liverpool originating celebrities he photographed in the sixties? What was Cilla like?

"I saw her the other day actually. I happened to have my computer with me and the guy I was with showed some pictures to her. She was pretty nonplussed, to be honest, although she did say, 'Oh, that's why I had my nose job.'"

A selection of Peter's black and white photos will be on exhibition at The Watergate Street Gallery, in Chester, throughout September. The collection, titled Sorry you missed the 60s, includes shots of some of the most recognisable faces of the era and includes The Fabs, Twiggy, The Stones, Frankie Howerd (on a skateboard) and Sheila Mumby, a model in the 60s who is, in Peter's opinion, the most beautiful woman he photographed.

A far cry then from the 21st century celebrity world of Jade Goodys, Jordans and Paris Hiltons in which we currently live. What's changed?

"The interesting thing about celebrities is that, in the old days, all these people had publicity. They knew it was part of the show and the act. When an opportunity arose they took it and that was it. But now it's completely changed and what they try and do is switch publicity on and off. They want publicity when they want it".

So would Philip not consider going undercover again for a butler's job any time soon?

"Well I did get a job as a chef for an Israeli drug dealer. The only problem being I couldn't cook".

Sorry you missed the 60s
September 1– October 1 @ The Watergate Street Gallery60 Watergate Street Chester
CH1 2LA
01244 345698
www.watergatestreet
gallery.co.uk/exhibition.htm

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Lord StreetAugust 26th 2008.

Dear Mr. Pastry,Is this the same Phil Townsend who used to loaf around Kirklands Wine Bar in the late 1970s? I can't tell from the photograph - his distinctive feature in those days was his funny seventies lank haircut.

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