Cara Spencer on her dad, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana and Victoria Beckham

By Ben Miller | 18 July 2014

Five years after his death, powerful pictures of war and classy portraits from the swinging sixties pay tribute to photographer and war hero Terence Spencer, curated by his daughter, Cara

A photo of a four-man band posing in suits
The Beatles, as seen by Terence Spencer© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
When Cara Spencer opens an exhibition of photos by her father Terence this weekend, it will perhaps be the only display in Britain combining a tribute to a war hero with classic celebrity portraits.

Having served as a World War II fighter pilot, including two Prisoner of War incarcerations, Spencer senior became one of LIFE magazine’s most respected photographers before its closure in 1972.

Cara has curated the startling selection from a vast choice of works. She’s also noticed a few missing shots.

“There are ones of Nelson Mandela I’d have loved to have seen,” she says, having grown up in South Africa and returned there in 1995, after Mandela, who she names as her hero, became President.

A black and white photo of a male photographer sitting in the middle of a motorway
Born in Bedford in 1918, Spencer went on to fly Mustangs, Hurricanes and Spitfires© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
“He followed him when he was on the run from the police. He was very friendly with his lawyer.

“Mandela hid out at his lawyer’s house for a while. When he needed to get some papers from his office, they followed him there. But anyway, I mustn’t grumble, because I’ve got a million negatives.”

Considering Spencer was a freelancer rather than a member of the magazine’s staff, his family have, admits Cara, been lucky to access archives many of his colleague's relatives have struggled to see.

Spencer was impressively organised, keeping a wall of shelves full of negative-filled envelopes, and although there was interest from Getty (“it was nice being fought over”), Cara settled on the smaller Camera Press, who had worked with Spencer before, on the task of cleaning and digitising 35 pages of photos.

Used to keeping RAF logbooks, Spencer’s diaries are kept in boxes by Cara and her sister. They were ripe for a joint autobiography, Living Dangerously, made between the photographer and his wife, Lesley, who he met on a blind date arranged by friends while working as an aerial photographer in South Africa after the war.

A photo of soldiers jumping from ships onto a coast during a war
Spencer started shooting for Life in 1952, travelling to the Vietnam war© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
“My mother had a few chapters of her own to show her side of the story, because she had to put up with a helluva lot,” says Cara.

“She was a West End actress and made films. She was on tour when she met him.

“She loved London and the bright lights, but he dumped her on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

“Dad managed to persuade her to stay there for 15 years, but she didn’t really like it much. And we lost my brother, who drowned in a swimming pool.”

Apartheid offered a grim backdrop.

“The atmosphere was vile. He covered all the independent struggles in Africa.

“The Congo Revolution was awful. I remember many nights worrying about him, particularly when he was in the Congo.

“That was a filthy war. He said later that Vietnam was like a playground compared to that.

“There were no rules, no laws and a lot of people died. Wearing a press band was no guarantee.”

A black and white photo of a man in a suit and top hat standing above a road in a city
John Cleese© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
Lesley suffered loneliness back on the farm. At one point, LIFE flew her to New York – where Cara also recalls the lighter prospect of two-hour long Martini-fuelled lunches – to reunite the couple once Spencer had been found.

“He had more than nine lives. Like a lot of things in life, you need a bit of luck.

“His timing was pretty good. He was larger than life - part Irish, very blue eyes, very, very English.

“He was incredibly down to earth. You couldn’t label him, he was unique. He came from a good class background but he got on with everybody.

“He was completely un-starstruck: whether he was working with Ava Gardner or the Queen Mother or the dustman, he gave them the same level of respect and interest.

“He was a great storyteller, loved parties. His motto, apart from living dangerously, was work hard, play hard.”

Spencer’s good timing was again apparent when he moved the family to London during the 1960s. Indeed, his experiences in the war instilled many of his qualities.

A photo of a female actress in a black and white shirt and white headdress posing in profile
Princess Grace© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
“There was a discipline there from the RAF. He said that as a journalist you have to learn to run towards trouble, even when every instinct in your body is telling you otherwise.

“His fellow photographers...the characters...they were just wild and great drinkers and partiers, but so professional as well.”

Whizzed to Heathrow by “a couple of rockers on their motorbikes”, the 1965 photos from Winston Churchill’s funeral were processed in a full on-flight laboratory before filling the Stateside stands the next morning.

Of the procession of perks Cara joyfully reflects on, meeting the Beatles at Twickenham Studios sounds particularly extraordinary.

“It was amazing. They were filming A Hard Day’s Night. I went in as dad’s camera-bearer.

“I was about 13 or 14 and I felt so smug because all these teenagers were screaming and I just said ‘excuse me, excuse me’ and pushed by. There were the Beatles inside.”

Spencer was charmed by the band. “They were so down to earth, loved their sense of humour and everything. They were very nice and polite: ‘oh yeah, your bloody father’s been hanging around with us.’

A photo of a man and woman in suits and a sparkly dress walking along next to a wall
The Prince and Princess of Wales© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
“During one of the long sessions waiting for a show in their dressing room I asked them if they’d make a tape for me, and they did. I had my 15 minutes of fame, played it on the school bus.

“The conductor came up to listen. We all cried for weeks when dad recorded over it. Think what that would be worth now.”

About 10,000 of Spencer’s Beatles negatives sold for £74,000 (their estimate was £10,000) at a Sotheby’s auction 20 years ago, bought by Bloomsbury for a best-selling coffee table book which Cara has copies of in English, German and Japanese.

She also saw Spencer photograph Hayley Mills (“she was sweet”), French ski champion Jean-Claude Kill (“gosh, he was dishy”) and Gardner, whose thespian beauty Lesley admired.

“She was, I suppose, into her 70s at the time, and having been famous for her good looks she was conscious of being photographed nicely,” says Cara.

Gardner had “kill rights”, inspecting Spencer’s shots on a sheet she could strike through at will. “Not a single one was crossed out. Mum, having been an actress herself, was thrilled to meet her.”

A photo of a four-man band in suits sitting in seats with an interview around a table
The Beatles© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
The family has a link to Earl Spencer, the father of Princess Diana, with Prince William’s coat of arms incorporating part of the Spencer crest.

“We loved Diana. Dad was very loyal to her. He photographed her a few times and said you couldn’t take a bad picture of her.

“He loved people who had nice expressions, who smiled. I think this is why I just loathe Victoria Beckham. Her expression is permanently one of posing – she seems to have no character.

“When you think of people like Princess Grace, who was just lovely in every photo he took, their warmth comes through.”

Spencer was a workaholic to the end, signing copies of prints while hospice-bound in the days before his death, in 2009, at the age of 91.

“He loathed being called retired. He was in his study every morning,” says Cara, who moved back to Africa, which she has tremendous affection for, before becoming a safari guide (“the best job in the world”).

She switched to Shropshire having made friends from the region during a guided tour of Tanzania after her parents had died, but rues what she sees as the serious nature of modern media and is uncomfortable about the paparazzi, believing “a lot of things have got nastier”.

“I think it’s an overcrowded world,” she suggests.

“We’re fighting like rats. Dad had the best of it, there’s no doubt about that.

“He had a tremendous work ethic. He thought me and my sister were pretty lazy and spoilt, but it wasn’t our fault we weren’t taken as Prisoners of War.

“He was a tough taskmaster and I could never quite live up to his expectations. But he was a great family man. He absolutely adored his family.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An old photo of a male photographer leaning on a van with two cameras around his neck
© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
A photo of a family in white costumes sitting on a boat with wheels at sea looking at a cloud of steam
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
A photo of a man standing in a field surrounded by planes with propellors
Harry Saltzman on the set of the film, Battle of Britain, which he produced in 1969© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
A photo of soldiers jumping from ships onto a coast during a war
Vietnam© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
A photo of a four-man band posing one behind the other while wearing suits
© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
A photo of a four-man band posing one behind the other while wearing suits
© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
© Terence Spencer Photo Archive
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Regarding women in Scotland being offered sanitary products when they cannot afford them: "the same women spend money on cigarettes, alcohol and junk food" (Cara Spencer, Facebook, 13th July 2017)
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