6th – 30th June 2015
Somewhere in the course of Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, a gossip writer absconds from a Roman piazza in his sports car with a beautiful foreign actress, fleeing both her anxious entourage and the frenzy of his photographer friends swarming around her. One of these impish go-getters, a photojournalist called Paparazzo, leaps onto a motorbike to give chase but, being too slow, in the end the couple escapes unmolested. Until recently I had always taken it for granted that Paparazzo had been named in jest, a brash allusion to a well-established culture. Not so, apparently. It was one of the most diligent paparazzi of the era who set me straight:
‘Paparazzi,’ says Ray Bellisario, pondering the word. ‘This was a term, a pure invention of Fellini’s. And it was a very good idea of his, of all these guys hanging around nightclubs. After that it became fashionable for any Tom, Dick and Harry to pick up a camera and just hang around outside these clubs taking photographs. Brilliant idea. But I feel it’s a dishonourable description. I was a photojournalist.’
It must be galling for the 78 year-old, then, that among his numerous epithets he is perhaps most often called ‘the original London paparazzo’.
‘Which I don’t like at all,’ he says, quickly. ‘All of those kinds of thing were never things that I did. I was a schemer, a planner, an opportunist. I was many things, but I wasn’t daring enough to do very stupid things that the so-called paparazzi still do today, on the backs of motorbikes and all that sort of thing.’
Still, as we understand the term today, ‘paparazzo’ is probably a fair description of Bellisario at that time. This was the man responsible for many of the first clandestine snapshots of the royal family, including the capturing the queen in her bathing costume. He was famously dubbed, ‘That Bloody Bellisario,’ by the Duke of Edinburgh, and, to slightly better advantage, ‘The Hammer of the House of Windsor’ by others. So he was undoubtedly a pioneer, of sorts. The man who brought the methods of the zealous photo rats immortalised by Fellini from Italy to London, and just in time for the most sensational decade in that city’s history.
I am astounded when he mentions Fellini, because all through the story he has just been telling me, I have been desperate to interrupt him and blurt out, ‘But this is just like La Dolce Vita!’ I’m talking to him, on the eve of an exhibition of some unseen photographs he took over two days in 1963 of the most beautiful woman in the world, Brigitte Bardot. The pictures, he says, are in fact a record of a fleeting affaire which took place between he and the French star after they absconded together from an Oxford Street shop in his sports car, leaving both her anxious entourage and swarms of other ‘paparazzi’ in their dust.
‘She was filming in London and had come over just for the weekend from Paris,’ he says, a little wistfully, launching into his tale. ‘Of course she was followed around by a good many others, French, Italian, German press, scribes as well as photographers, and I went along. I joined in. All these guys I knew as friends better than many of the UK press, because there was a little bit of resentment over the way I opposed the palace, whereas with the French and Italians that sort of thing was the norm.’
‘We were hanging around outside the hotel, and she comes out, and she wants to go to some shops on Oxford Street… I took some pictures there, you know, of her looking at bottles of wine and all she needed to go down Oxford Street to buy that she couldn’t buy in Paris. The security guys were
always making a big job for themselves keeping us back, and as she came out they said, “Where are you going now?” And she said, “I don’t know.”
Now, I’d just bought a new car. It was a Ford Consul, which I’d parked right beside us. So I grabbed her arm and I said, “Come with me,” and she did! And she said, “Oh, this is fun, I’ve been kidnapped!”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve been kidnapped by me!”
‘So she got in, I put her in the back, but of course all the other photographers piled in as well until there were about ten of us altogether, in this not very big car… And as the security guys suddenly found she’d gone, I drove off. And suddenly they did what we had done. They followed us. She’s laughing away and were all talking in French because several of my particularly good friends there were French photographers. I said, “Well, where would you like to go?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just having so much fun. Take me around London.” “Well we want photographs.”
“Okay,’ she said.
“Well why don’t we go and have a drink?”
She said, “That’s a good idea”—and here Bellisario makes great play of her low, mellifluous accent—“Why don’t we go to a little pub?”
‘So we headed back to a pub opposite her hotel, and by this time I think we’d lost—not intentionally, they just couldn’t keep up—those security characters, but she was happy with us. We went into the pub and the landlord was just opening up, it was a Saturday morning, about elevenish… We’d known each other a little bit before, and she said, ‘‘Ray, you’re living up to your reputation,’’ and I said, ‘’Well, thank you. You do all the time,’’ or words to that effect.’
‘Anyway, we got very close together, and we were talking. We’d taken photographs from different angles, this and that, all sorts, everybody had. So there we are sitting together having our drink, and Henri Bureau, who was one of my best friends, said, “Let’s get some picture of you two together.” Well I didn’t mind, so we got arm in arm and we started to kiss, and she said, “Ooh, you know how to kiss,” or words to that effect. So we were kissing and Henri and a couple of the other guys were taking these photographs… We were there for the best part of an hour and we got very friendly… Anyway, to cut a long story short, later we spent that night together.”
He grins as I ask him, not entirely without awe, the only obvious next question. How was she?
‘As cuddly, as loveable, as hot as one could have imagined. One can only really say that, in essence. She was good… The next day I took some more photographs of her at the airport and she gave me a special kiss to say goodbye and I never saw her again… All the photographs [in the exhibition] are from that weekend. You could say the whole thing tells the tale of our ‘petite affaire’… It happened so easily and so casually, on reflection even very quickly. I thought, well, there was nothing in it, no substance to it. That’s probably the way she is with guys, that’s what I thought at the time. She was such an attraction, a sexual attraction, that it could happen each and every night for her, and that’s really what it boiled down to. I thought it’s Ray today and someone else tomorrow, all that business, you know… She was very easy to photograph, delightful.’