Brian Tufano, ‘poetic’ cinematographer who worked on Trainspotting, Quadrophenia and Billy Elliot – obituary

·5-min read
Brian Tufano
Brian Tufano

Brian Tufano, who has died aged 83, was a British cinematographer who worked on some of the most dynamic and successful domestic films of the past half a century and nurtured the talents of numerous rookie directors.

After many years working for the BBC, he had early success with Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979), loosely based on The Who’s rock opera, which is still regarded as one of the best movies on British teenage life. He was in the vanguard of the British filmmaking boom of the 1990s, working on Damien O’Donnell’s East is East (1999), and Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000), the Telegraph critic observing of the latter that Tufano’s “poetic cinematography lifts it far above the usual grimy realism of North Country dramas”.

He was particularly known for the productive partnership he forged with Danny Boyle, working on his feature debut, the black comedy Shallow Grave in 1994, which led to their groundbreaking Trainspotting in 1996.

Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting: Tufano said that the film's director Danny Boyle wanted a 'Francis Bacon' look - Rex Features
Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting: Tufano said that the film's director Danny Boyle wanted a 'Francis Bacon' look - Rex Features

The idea of making a film based on Irvine Welsh’s cult book about Mark “Rent Boy” Renton and other junkies in 1980s Edinburgh was dismissed by many in the industry; the film’s producer Andrew Macdonald recalled David Puttnam telling him that nobody would want to watch it.

Yet Tufano’s combination of grungy social realism and wildly imaginative visual imagery contributed to Trainspotting becoming regarded as a landmark of British cinema – as well as establishing the reputations of both Boyle and Ewan McGregor (as Renton).

Robert Carlyle, who played Renton’s psychopathic friend Begbie, described Tufano as “the unsung hero of the piece”, adding: “His lighting and cinematography became the benchmark for a whole generation of filmmakers. The look of that film became the look of the decade.”

Tufano recalled in an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2001: “Danny Boyle’s brief to us was ‘Francis Bacon’ – on Shallow Grave it had been ‘Edward Hopper’ – so we took it from there, really.”

Brian Richard Tufano was born in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, on December 1 1939. During the war he and his mother evacuated to a mining village in Wales, where she often took her infant son to the cinema.

Back in Shepherd’s Bush, he took to hanging around the nearby Gainsborough Studios in Lime Grove where, after the studios were taken over by the BBC, the security guards would often take him inside to have a look round: “It was fascinating, and that fired me up.”

Sting in Quadrophenia - Everett/Rex
Sting in Quadrophenia - Everett/Rex

After leaving school aged 16 he got a job as a pageboy at Lime Grove, then as a projectionist at Ealing Studios, home of the BBC film department.

There, he got to know the film crews and sometimes accompanied them as a spare pair of hands on night shoots and at sports events, teaching himself the arts of camera work with cameras and old film stock that would-be cinematographers were allowed to borrow at weekends. He also spent long hours studying films such as the early landmarks of the French New Wave, “to see where the light was coming from”.

He soon landed a job as a trainee assistant cameraman and by 1963 had been promoted to cameraman.

Tufano stayed with the BBC for 21 years, winning a reputation, in the words of Sir Alan Parker, as “the stand-out cinematographer”, having worked with Jack Gold, John Mackenzie, Ken Russell, Les Blair and many other star directors.

In 1975 Parker, a novice director at the time, worked with Tufano on The Evacuees, an episode of the BBC’s Play for Today series written by Jack Rosenthal, which nabbed a Bafta and an Emmy. He recalled the cinematographer as “a hard taskmaster – both tormentor and teacher. What he taught me was that however little time there was, everything ... could be a little better if you didn’t settle for what was easy and obvious.

“It occurred to me that it was no coincidence that Brian went on to bring out the best in other rookie directors.”

Tufano’s first feature as a freelance was The Sailor’s Return (1978), with Jack Gold. During the 1980s he spent time in America, working on commercials and films such as Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott.

Returning to England in the early 1990s, he became the leading cinematographer of the resurgent British cinema, his other credits including Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Menhaj Huda’s debut Jump Boy (1999), his Kidulthood (2006) and Everywhere and Nowhere (2011), and Late Night Shopping (2001), a beautifully shot romantic comedy from the debutant director Saul Metzstein.

Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot - Film Stills
Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot - Film Stills

He also worked on short films and television series including the Bafta-nominated 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

From 2003 to 2016, Tufano was head of cinematography at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, fostering the careers of younger cinematographers including Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Vanessa Whyte.

Asked in 2001 by The Guardian for his 10 top tips for filmmaking, Tufano advised: “Start with the script.” Even with short films, “it all comes down to a good script. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but if the script grabs me then I want to be involved.”

In 2001 Tufano won the Bafta for Outstanding Contribution to Film and Television, and in 2002 the Special Jury Award for Outstanding Contribution to Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards. In 2020 he was given a lifetime achievement award by the British Society of Cinematographers.

In 1964 he married Pamela Copeland, who survives him with a daughter.

Brian Tufano, born December 1 1939, died January 14 2023