Today is the 45th anniversary of daredevil speed engineer Donald Campbell’s tragic death on Coniston Water in the Lake District, Great Britain. Campbell was only 45 years olds, he was attempting to break the landspeed record by breaking the 300 mph barrier. For decades Donald Campbell was a childhood pin-up to boys in Britain and around the world, and he had been a popular subject for British Pathé who filmed many of his world record attempts.
So popular was Campbell that when he crashed his vehicle Bluebird at Coniston Water British Pathé rushed to push a newsreel out to cinemas as soon as possible, and so they issued a Pathé News Special simply announcing the news of his death. They then followed this up with a more dramatic piece showing the crash itself.
In the Pathé News Special from 1967 the narrator announces “Donald Campbell the man who lived for speed is dead… his love for speed has cost him his life. During the past few weeks he was dogged by misfortune. Early engine trouble forced him to hold off a record attempt, then the weather was against him.. Pictures of the last tragic moments at Coniston are being rushed to this theatre!”
And here is that footage, a second newsreel issued by British Pathé called Fate Stepped In:
The macabre newsreel has an unusually shaky start as we hear the final words and sounds of Donald Campbell over the top of a blank screen, a rather sensationalist move on Pathé ‘s part. The Pathé narrator then explains how the conditions were actually quite smooth, but the night before Campbell “drew the Ace and Queen of Spades, the deadly shadow of remorseless fate – he was a superstitious man”.
It’s bizarre now to see a newsreel that is so speculative and melodramatic in its tone, but this style of news delivery has maintained itself partially across the decades. Although newsreaders are more regimented and factual today it is still quite common to see an on-location news anchor rounding up a reports with a relatively creative ending, perhaps incorporating a literary quote or an epigram. British Pathé was a forbearer of that emotive style.
Leading up to the crash scene we see incredible close-up shots of Donald Campbell’s vehicle bluebird setting off across Coniston. From 01:45 the lead up to the crash is shown, Bluebird speeding across the surface of the lake when suddenly it lifts into the air, flips and smashes down.
The narrator talks of Donald Campbell’s legacy as the newsreel ends with shots of the Bluebird K7’s wreckage and Campbell’s family and friends collecting pieces of debris.
To see British Pathe’s collection of all 16 Donald Campbell newsreels, including footage of his many fantastic world records, see below:
You can view all 90,000 British Pathé newsreels for free on www.britishpathe.com