Originally printed in the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, March 7, 1979
Adventurer Ernie Christie, who died as he lived By Bob Hitchcock -‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐ Ernie Christie, pilot of the deathplane that hit a Johannesburg block of flats yesterday, died as he lived, in violent action. BOB HITCHCOCK, who knew Christie well himself, talked to the cameraman’s friends and associates about the adventurous life that ended so tragically with that of two elderly people this week. -‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐-‐ PROFESSIONALLY, Ernie Christie lived in an atmosphere of violence for more than 20 years. He died a violent death. In flames. Trapped in the cabin of a single-‐engine aircraft. In an inferno in a block of flats in a pleasant northern suburb of Johannesburg. Christie himself came, metaphorically speaking, from the other side of the city railway track. He was a Southern Suburbs boy, and proud of it. The boy who lived for a while in an orphanage grew up to be classed, at the height of his career in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, by top British and American TV reporters, commentators and producers, as being among the top six in the “big league” of the world’s television cameramen. He started his career in a fairly orthodox way – as a news cameraman for the Rhodesia Herald, Salisbury, and later for the Rand Daily Mail in Johanesburg, Drum magazine and other South African publications. In 1959 the painfully shy Ernie Christie was my photographer on a job for Drum and the original Ernie Christie ... his friends remember Golden City Post in the old Nyasaland. The British him as a "tough cookie." were about to “take” Dr. Hastings Banda, just returned from exile in Britain, from his tiny bungalow in Limbe, outside Blantyre. We arrived in the dark, by taxi, to find 500 chanting Banda supporters outside the house. We were immediately surrounded, the leaders telling us to raise our arms. The driver was hustled away. The crowd found a pick axe handle in the boot of the taxi.
They pointed at us, fingers crossing their throats. A man took a swipe at me with the heavy wooden weapon. Ernie Christie felled the man with a backhand chop before the weapon found its target. There was a hush. A man came forward to lead us to Dr. Banda, who now was standing on his stoep. In those days, Christie was already preparing himself for the rigours ahead. He had studied karate. He was obsessed with physical fitness. What I didn’t know at the time was that he held the Royal Humane Society gold medal for bravery. He had earned it Left: Thick b lack smoke billows above the building while servants saving a drowning man from a try to escape the flames. Right: Balancing precariously on a ledge, swollen, raging river in Natal. two traffic officers dislodge a piece of the Cessna’s ripped wing. The next eight hours were extraordinary for us in that bungalow in Limbe as Dr. Banda kept up a constant tirade against Sir Roy Welensky. In his anger he hopped from chair to chair, Christie capturing through his view-‐finder every changing expression. This was probably the first picture feature Ernie Christie sold overseas. Later he was to collect television and still camera awards galore. He was self-‐taught. He became a hard taskmaster with those with whom he worked. He was a star and he knew it. Yet threaded through the professional confidence he had acquired was still that boyish reticence. It was the distinguished war and foreign correspondent, the late George Clay, who persuaded Ernie to become a TV cameraman. They went through hell together, and separately, in the war-‐torn Congo in the early 1960s. Clay stopped a bullet that killed him. They were a few hundred kilometers apart at the time. Christie, at great personal risk, drove to the spot where clay had fallen – and personally buried him, in torrential rain, under fire. A dramatic film Christie shot of an incident involving United Nations troops in Katanga, the former Belgian Congo, earned him the international Encyclopaedia Award as TV news-‐cameraman year man of the year.
Also in the 1960s, Christie shot some outstanding film on protest marches in Johannesburg. Television cameras were a novelty and Christie became a target on the streets, of rightwing whites and, on occasions, of the police. Subsequent to one of the first Christie's famous Congo shot of a Belgian, Albert Verbrughe, treason trials to be held in begging mercy from Indian UN mercanaries a fter his car was shot South Africa – at the Drill Hall, up at Jadotville. Joubert Park, Johannesburg – he was awarded about R700 damages for wrongful arrest while carrying out his duties as a cameraman. For some years Christie travelled the world on TV news and documentary assignments – missing death by hair’s breadth many times – in the Far East, Cuba, and the United States, among other places. He carried television and still cameras for the British Broadcasting Corporation, United Press International and American broadcasting companies NBC, ABC and CBS. Such was the measure of his competence and vitality. At the peak of his career, he covered the Vietnam war. One of his films for the BBC’s peak viewing Panorama programme won him the J. Arthur Rank award as TV cameraman of the year. A book written by a British television star commentator, Robin Day, is dedicated to Ernie Christie. Day wrote on the flyleaf: “To the most courageous television cameraman I know.” This type of tag embarrassed Christie. He once said: “It’s not courage. Everything looks different when you look through the viewfinder.” Sort of remote. It’s the reporters who see the actuality of the situation. In that way it’s more scary for them than for me.” Christie learned to fly out of what he termed professional necessity. He didn’t particularly enjoy it. Certainly no scholar, he battled in the early years to gain his pilot’s license. But he went on to become instrument rated and qualified in night flying. For some time Christie had been running his own television production company with associates Tony White, a producer and scriptwriter, and veteran newsman Peter Hawthorne. They had lunch with Christie on Monday. They discussed six documentary films they had contracted to do for the SABC. These films were in various stages of production.
This was a sort of professional homecoming for Christie, them man who had made the big time overseas. He had had enough of roving the world. Says Tony White: “He was incredibly stimulating to work with. We had other projects in the pipeline for the SABC. The king is dead. But I want you to know that the production of those television films will be continued in the best Christie tradition.” Says Peter Hawthorne: “Christie was a tough cookie. A professional in all senses. We’ll miss him. Worse, South Africa has lost a television star. Our aim is to carry on.” Ernie Christie died in the same street in which he was working with Tony White and Peter Hawthorne, just 600 metres down the road.
Published on Mar 6, 2012
Article about Ernie Christie, originally printed in the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, March 7, 1979