Snapshots of History: the story of John Cura’s Tele-Snaps by Mark Lewisohn

Telesnap of Queen Elizabeth II
Tele-Snap of Princess Elizabeth attending the 1949 FA Cup Final

Jane writes: While recording our Copyright Waffle podcast with Mark Lewisohn we had to move a few boxes around in his archive to find somewhere to put our recorder. “What’s in this box?” I said curiously, not realising we were looking at a little known archive of television history. “These are John Cura’s Tele-Snaps” said Mark. And there ensued a fascinating conversation captured in Part Two of our podcast about the history of Tele-Snaps and the man (John Cura) who inadvertently ended up changing UK copyright law in 1956. Other people write about Tele-Snaps (see the entry on Teletronic and also the Wikipedia article on Tele-Snaps), but Mark has a unique collection of several hundred of them, as well as a lot of copies of BBC correspondence about them from the 1950s. We are grateful to Mark for sharing the full article he wrote 20 years ago which had been online but subsequently has disappeared from the Internet. We’ve reproduced it below in it’s entirety, with a selection of Tele-Snaps from Mark’s collection. Mark writes…

British television’s formative years are lost to history. Programmes went out live and there was no effective means of preservation. Yet one man, at home with his camera, was making an unusual visual record. Mark Lewisohn investigates the story of John Cura and his Tele-Snaps

‘As I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted …’

On 7 June 1946, after a near-seven year suspension, the BBC resumed its Television Service following the Second World War. It had ceased abruptly on 1 September 1939, at the end of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, for fear German bombers could use transmitted signals as a navigational aid. On resumption, the BBC re-ran the same Mickey Mouse film and announcer Leslie Mitchell voiced the greeting that articulated both a very British humour and the BBC’s standing as the nation’s mouthpiece.

The BBC had launched the world’s first high-definition television service in November 1936 but the programmes were not beamed beyond London, and sets (‘receivers’) were expensive. The post-war restart was, in many senses, a new beginning, and the monopoly BBC invested greater resources in establishing the medium as an alternative to radio. In 1949 the service extended beyond the capital for the first time, to the Midlands, and as the 1950s ticked by so coverage unfolded throughout Great Britain. In 1952, Princess Elizabeth insisted that television cameras be permitted inside Westminster Abbey for her coronation; sales and hiring of sets soared in expectation of a feast of regality, splendour and history, domestic style.

The technology was limited, though. Up to and into the 1960s, television was live, unless a purchased film was being screened. A technique called tele-recording was an oafish and far from perfect means of preservation, and video-tape was in its infancy. In order to ‘repeat’ a weekly Sunday night drama a few days after transmission, the cast and crew would return to the studio and perform it all over again. It follows that scant few of the landmark moments in the first 25 years of British television exist for study or enjoyment today …

Photo of John Cura
A Tele-Snap of John Cura himself – perhaps taken by his wife. He appeared once on TV, talking about photography

Yet there was one man busily capturing the images that caused the valves of his tiny His Master’s Voice to glow. In 1947, working in a back room in a flat above a grocer’s shop in Clapham, south London, 45-year-old John Cura – small and meek, bespectacled, earnest, industrious, proud – had invented something rather novel.

Operating for 21 years, until 1968, this gifted amateur took considerably in excess of 250,000 still photographs of television programmes as they were being broadcast, perhaps even as many as half a million. He called them Tele-Snaps, the name a literal definition: by the direct method of fixing a 35mm camera to a tripod a short distance from his screen and shooting rolls of film, Cura photographed entire programmes from the opening titles to the closing credits, creating usually up to 80 stills, sometimes more, as a unique record of a broadcast.

Using a camera constructed to his own experimental specification, Cura went for a thumbnail-size exposure, the tiny images shaped to include the entire screen and its natural elliptical border. Enlargement was possible and often resilient, despite the movement inherent in the image, and the era’s low-tech 405-line transmission standard. Mostly blur-free, Tele-Snaps were ideal for print reproduction. Newspapers and magazines beat a path to Cura’s door. In many instances, he was the only person to capture a historic moment.

John Cura was really Alberto Giovanni Curà, a name that confirms Italian lineage. The suggestion is that the Curàs came to England from Palma in the mid 19th-century. Alberto’s father, Guiseppe Curà, was a master fishmonger; his mother, born Emily Alexander, was British. Alberto was born at home on 9 April 1902, home being a middle-class, new block of flats above a shop in Venn Street, just off Clapham Common in south London. Cura spent his whole life in the area.

As a young man – he is recalled by two relatives as intelligent, bookish and meticulous – Alberto Curà displayed a flair for home hobbies, teaching himself electronics, photography and the piano. His nephew, Roger Smith, remembers, ‘If something attracted his interest he would have a look at it. And he was a marvellous pianist, totally “by ear” – he never knew any of the current tunes but if you sang something to him once he’d pick it up.’ For a while, Curà ran his own dance band and along the way he met local girl Emily Watkins, nine years his junior. She won a competition to be ‘Champion crooner of all England’, first prize being a chance to sing on stage with the great American musical maestro Cab Calloway, which must have been quite a moment.

One of Alberto’s greatest passions was electronics. When he and Emily married in October 1937 he described himself on their wedding certificate as an electrician. Though this may have reflected ambition, it was some way wide of the truth. ‘He was a meter reader for the London Electricity Board,’ recalls Roger Smith. ‘He went round door to door, reading the meters in people’s cupboards. Understandably, he was a bit depressed doing things like that. He was really a very clever man with so much more to offer.’

Sheila Smith, husband of another of Cura’s nephews, Roger’s brother Jack, remembers, ‘John was a little bit of a Heath Robinson inventor. You stood on the doormat and the door opened automatically. Jack also used to say that his fridge door opened as you walked towards it.’ Roger Smith confirms: when John was as one with the screwdriver the family had a phrase for it – ‘He’s fiddling about again’.

The Second World War changed everything. Anglicised as he was, Alberto Giovanni Curà made clear his allegiance to the Crown by refashioning himself Albert John Cura, the middle-name uppermost, and volunteering for the RAF. Nothing is remembered about his national service but it seems likely that he was able to use his talents for photography; with peacetime demobilisation, these wartime endeavours energised Cura in exploiting his gifts more appropriately than meter reading. Though it is also unclear what made him think of television, when he did he clearly spied commercial potential as a means of funding his activities. There was Cura when the BBC’s service resumed in June 1946, quietly working away at 176a Northcote Road, just down the road from Clapham Junction station.

According to one of the very few articles about Cura, published in the magazine What’s On in February 1948, he ‘was experimenting with the camera for two years before he got it up to the standard he wanted; during that time [he] had many set-backs, lots of failures.’ This may be stretching time a little: it was more likely 15 months rather than 24, for on 11 September 1947 Cura wrote to the BBC Television Service advising them of his activities. He enclosed some samples of his TV photographs and asked for clearance to exploit the idea commercially. The BBC was puzzled about how to respond. A flurry of internal memos (still on file) worried the matter along to the Legal Department who expressed the general concern: ‘A rather difficult and unusual question of Copyright Law is involved.’

The BBC’s deputy director-general was brought in to authorise the official response, which gave Cura a green light but applied restrictions.

The legal position is at present rather obscure, but for the time being we do not wish to raise any objection to your proposal provided that … you only photograph the television image of individual artists who have instructed you to do so prior to their television appearance, and that you do not give or sell the photographs to any one other than the artists in question. We do not propose to ask you to pay any royalty on the photographs and we would prefer that you should not make any references to the Corporation on or in connection with the photographs.

Cura set to work. On 26 October 1947 – on ‘John Cura, photographer’ stationery – he typed a letter to Joan Gilbert, who hosted and edited TV’s popular magazine programme Picture Page.

Since leaving the R.A.F. I have made numerous experiments to photograph images on my television screen but with very little success.

I have now built a camera entirely to my own design which, I think you will agree, gives me pretty good photographs.

I am enclosing Two Enlargements and Two Miniatures which I took of you during last Wednesday’s “Picture Page” which I trust you will accept with my compliments, free of charge.

I am also enclosing two of Mr. Nat Allen and one of Miss Winifred Shotter which I trust you will kindly give to them. There is no charge. Please tell Miss Peters and Mr Hobley that they will receive theirs shortly.

My charges are One Guinea cash with order for One 8 x 6 enlargement on 10 x 8 sunk mount and Three mounted Miniatures all as enclosed. Extra Enlargements – 10/6 each. Extra Miniatures – 2/6 each.

I will photograph any artiste or other person appearing in future television programmes if they send me One Guinea with order giving if possible, three days notice.

I shall esteem it a great favour if you will write and give me your opinion of these photographs.

Tele-snap from the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 2nd June 1953

Joan Gilbert sent an encouraging response and the Tele-Snaps operation was off the ground. Although many of the images Cura shot were subject to commission and prior payment, he also (despite the restriction placed upon him by the BBC) worked speculatively and sent photographs to potential customers, usually with an order form. Passionate about the royal family, Cura was snapping away during the televising of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Philip Mountbatten in November 1947, and sent them the results; and when the King and Queen attended a royal command performance of the popular comedy ITMA, Cura was active once more. By December 1948 revised stationery boasted:

“Tele-Snaps” – as presented to and accepted by Their Majesties The King and Queen and Her Royal Highness, The Princess Elizabeth. Also supplied to leading television personalities.

BBC files make it clear that some senior staff were not amused by Cura’s direct business methods. Moreover, there was alarm at how much money he could be making from exploiting their broadcasts. As early as February 1948, Cecil Madden – the foremost figure in British television at this time – was writing:


I don’t know if you have heard of the activities of this man, but I gather he photographs almost everything that appears on the Television screen, and then writes to everybody suggesting they buy copies at thumbnail sizes, which can be enlarged. Cura must be making a splendid lot out of it. He has discovered a business with almost no overheads and an inexhaustible supply of buyers!

Tele-snap of the boat race
Cura’s unique photograph of the 1951 university boat race, shot when Oxford were sinking

By the dawn of the 1950s, the inexhaustible supply included newspapers and magazines around the world. When the Oxford crew sank in the 1951 university boat race Tele-Snaps were the first published pictures. Cura had also developed a sizeable customer base of actors and performers. Like many others acts, the Beverley Sisters vocal trio used his services for every TV appearance they made, and also got to meet him from time to time. Teddie Beverley remembers, ‘We were known for our precision but we had never seen ourselves on television, so we used Tele-Snaps to see what we looked like. John was very quiet, very studious, not a bit showy, a very valuable man. We always told him what wonderful work he did.’

Cura was similarly appreciated by BBC programme makers. Producer Mary Burrell-Davis recalls, ‘The staff found it a very useful service. If you were doing a live broadcast you didn’t really know what the result was, but you could sit down afterwards, look at the Tele-Snaps and think “That was a good camera position” or “That was a rotten camera position.” I never met John Cura but we had a nice phone relationship. When I was going to get a screen credit for the first time I rang him and said, “If you miss my credit I’ll not give you any more jobs!” He not only got it but sent me a blow up of it, an extra one, for free.”

While this was the real position, the BBC continued to be officially concerned over copyright. Cura had opened their eyes to the possibility of a potential deluge of TV-related commercial activities over which they had little or no control. In 1951 the Corporation submitted written evidence to a government committee citing Cura’s work ‘as one of the reasons why unauthorised use of broadcast programmes should be controlled by the creation of a broadcaster’s right.’

Governments had a lot on their minds in this period of post-war rebuilding; the eventual Copyright Act, in 1956, gave the BBC no such resource – and by this time the Corporation had long since mellowed, coming even to endorse Cura’s work. Its magazines Radio Times and The Listener both published Tele-Snaps, and in 1953 some of Cura’s Coronation images were mounted in a commemorative album presented by the BBC to the Queen.

Tele-Snaps simply thrived in the 1950s. The instruction books of most leading TV manufacturers reproduced them, and Cura continued to present his work to the great and the good. Soon he was able to declare:

Among those who have honoured John Cura by accepting Tele-Snaps are the Royal Family; the King of Norway; the King of Denmark; Queen Juliana of the Netherlands; Ex-President Auriol of France; Sir Anthony Eden; Sir Winston Churchill; Earl Attlee; Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt; Mr Charles Chaplin; and too many celebrities to conveniently list here.

That text is excerpted from a biographical CV in the book Correcting Television Picture Faults by John Cura and a television engineer named Leonard Stanley. Published in 1956, it was a blockbuster, and, moreover, a reissue of Television Picture Faults from 1953, itself reprinted ten times, approved by the many TV, radio and electrical industry bodies, and seller of more than 120,000 copies. Together with a third book, Improve Your TV Reception (1956), these publishing endeavours made a tidy sum for Cura, and by 1959 he was able boast both an impressive fact and a sponsorship tie-up:

‘Over 250,000 “Tele-Snaps” have been photographed from an “His Master’s Voice” television receiver.’

With all this work, and his reticent personality, Cura wasn’t getting around much any more. His nephew Roger Smith remembers, ‘He was a bit reclusive. He even had a barber come to visit because he wouldn’t go out to the hairdressers. Some of the television stars used to go up to see him, though, up the iron staircase at the back of the shop to get to the door. They would talk through a script and say, “I want you to take a picture here and here.” Benny Hill was a regular visitor. Emily used to say, “Oh, Benny’s coming up today.”’

BBC presenter Richard Dimbleby in Calais for the first TV programme live from abroad, 27 August 1950

When Cura did venture out he seems to have made little impression. One of his most regular customers at the BBC was Peter Dimmock, the senior Outside Broadcasts producer and presenter of Sportsview. ‘Most of my contact with him was by telephone or through my secretary,’ Dimmock recalls, ‘but I met him once, very briefly. It was at some event and he came up and said, “May I introduce myself? I’m John Cura.” I said, “How very nice to meet you. I suppose you must have a lot of spare time to do all your work!” He said, “Well, I’m fascinated by it.” He struck me as being very retiring and shy, not a flamboyant, pushy man at all. If I’d seen him again I doubt I would have recognised him.’

Though meek in company, Cura could be strident at the typewriter. The BBC became accustomed to receiving letters criticising not only picture quality but artistic endeavour (‘May I say that I enjoyed every minute of your production and want to see it again on Thursday. What a change to see a cast that can not only act, but all good singers who can sing IN TUNE’). Cura was veritably pixillated by the 1955 arrival of commercial television. Five days after its launch he wrote to the BBC, telling Cecil Madden, ‘…as for the “plug spots” – words fail me! Regarding about 90% of them, I have never seen such inane rubbish, most of them never rising above the “Tales For Tiny Tots” intellect. Already, when I am forced to look at one, I could cheerfully kick the screen in.’

The arrival of Britain’s second TV channel, far from inducing such violence, created a tremendous surge in Cura’s workload. ITV producers had money to spend on Tele-Snaps and Cura now had to divide his attention, eventually buying an additional television, assembling a second camera and somehow working with the two. The 1964 launch of a third channel, BBC2, complicated life still further. Sheila Smith remembers, ‘My husband said that John had televisions all over the place, in every room. We never went to visit because he was so wrapped up in his photography you didn’t dare disturb him.’

Drama remained Cura’s most profitable sphere of income. Z Cars, Compact, The Newcomers, A For Andromeda, Softly Softly – the list of productions he photographed is long and fascinating. Producer Terence Cook remembers, ‘I worked in all kinds of positions in TV drama and every show we did was covered by the good man. I directed a programme called Spycatcher and still have about 1800 Tele-Snaps from that alone.’ Doctor Who fans are particularly grateful that Cura was regularly commissioned to cover the popular Saturday sci-fi serial. More than 100 episodes were carelessly wiped by the BBC and surviving Tele-Snaps of some have enabled devotees to at least see what they’re missing.

Technology turned the tide. By the mid 1960s a high proportion of TV programmes were pre-recorded on film or video. When Cura applied a routine gentle hike to his prices in March 1964 the Drama Group Organiser at the BBC, his department spending £1300 a year on Tele-Snaps, asked producers to re-evaluate their worth. Though Cura was honoured to be published in the American news magazine Time, which reproduced five Tele-Snaps in a feature about the first two-way TV satellite link of Europe and the USA, this was a brief moment of respite. Business was steadily ebbing away.

And so, as it turned out, was John Cura. He contracted cancer of the colon and died on 21 April 1969, aged 67, in a Battersea hospital. He had no children and his passing went unnoticed by the public: the many acquaintances he had made in the television industry were simply unaware of it. During his illness he had dropped quietly out of view and if anyone gave him a further thought it would not have been for long.

John Cura is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery. He didn’t make a will, so his estate, valued at £12,500, went to Emily. She never remarried. And his known archive of Tele-Snaps? According to Teddie Beverley, excepting the shots of the royal family and – thanks to a particularly timely visit – the Beverley Sisters, everything was destroyed in a fit of pique. ‘Emily told us that when John died she got in touch with the BBC and said, “I’ve got a garage full of photos, do you want them?” and an executive had replied, “We’re moving forward, Mrs Cura, not backwards.” Emily told us she was so upset that she destroyed the lot.’

I have been unable to disprove this. Emily Cura left Northcote Road soon after John died. She herself died in 1981. Her will, drawn up in 1971, is specific about many things she wanted to bequeath but it makes no mention of Tele-Snaps; surviving legatees with whom I have spoken have no idea what happened to them.

A fraction of Cura’s work has survived, neatly pasted down in the scrapbooks of artists and retired producers. The British Film Institute and BBC have some, too. But most of it, a vast treasure-trove of post-war British social and cultural history worthy of publication and exhibition, does appear to have gone – for no other reason than a sheer lack of appreciation. As Sheila Smith reflects, ‘I don’t think any of us realised quite how important it all was.’

Huge thanks to Mark for allowing us to reproduce this article and agreeing that in the interests of open research, it can be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence. This licence doesn’t apply to the Tele-Snaps images which are included on a fair dealing basis.

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