Unearthed Shorts Showcase Talent of Bill Douglas

By Andy Kimpton-Nye | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 18 2021
Look Unearthed Shorts Showcase Talent of Bill Douglas

By Andy Kimpton-Nye

In his lifetime, film-maker Bill Douglas was acclaimed by cinema legends including François Truffaut and Luchino Visconti. After his death in 1991, the novelist Andrew O’Hagan called him “the best Scottish director ever”.

Yet these days Douglas’s films are rarely, if ever, seen in cinemas or on television. Douglas produced a small body of work – just four films in nearly 20 years, plus a filmschool short called Come Dancing – but what films they are. Through the 1970s, Douglas wrote and directed three black-and-white masterpieces – My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home, collectively known as the Trilogy – followed by Comrades, released in 1986, which tells the story of early trade unionists the Tolpuddle Martyrs. 

The Trilogy is a bleakly poetic but inspiring vision of Douglas’s earliest years. Just weeks after his birth, Douglas’s mother was taken to hospital and then transferred into psychiatric care, where she remained for the rest of her life. Douglas’s childhood after that was one of deprivation, hunger and neglect. 

Comrades interweaves the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six farm labourers who were convicted of taking secret oaths in 1834 and sentenced to transportation to Australia, with the history of pre-cinema to magical effect. While the Trilogy is deeply personal and poetic, Comrades is vibrant, colourful and large scale. Indeed, Douglas called the latter film his “poor man’s epic”. 

Remarkably, these weren’t the only films Douglas made. Through my work on a 2005 documentary called Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image, I knew of a batch of 8mm films Douglas made during the mid-1960s, before he went to the London film school. 

Back then, though, these films were under wraps, as Peter Jewell (Douglas’s longtime friend) thought of them as “home movies” that didn’t add anything to Bill’s legacy. But, with the passing of time, Jewell has become more relaxed about people watching them. 

And so in the summer of 2019, I was invited to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at University of Exeter for a viewing. Between 1966 and 1969, Douglas made 20 short films, varying in length from two to 12 minutes and covering a dazzling range of genres – from homages to Hitchcock (one of Douglas’s favourite directors), through to the surreal, influenced by Cocteau and Buñuel (another of his favourites), to an ambitious adaptation of a Chekhov short story, A Visit to Friends. 

A number were scripted and even storyboarded. His penultimate 8mm film, Still Life, about a frail, elderly woman living alone with her memories, has clear similarities with his work in the Trilogy: the lingering gaze on inanimate objects, photographs used as storytelling components and a prowling camera scanning a derelict room for the history held within its four walls. 

One particular shot in a film called Fever is uncannily similar to a scene in My Childhood. The central character, Jamie, goes to visit his mother in psychiatric care; there’s a big closeup of her resting her head forlornly on a pillow. It really does feel like it came straight out of Douglas’s psyche into Fever, and then into My Childhood in its finally realised form. This previously unseen collection of films represents a prodigious outpouring from an aspiring director. It was the best possible introduction to film-making Douglas could have had.

 And it happened at a crucial point in his life: he had come to terms with his terrible childhood; he had tried his hand at acting; he had written numerous stage, screen and radio scripts; and, in 1969, he was to move on to film school and thereafter international acclaim, resulting in him winning a Silver Lion for best first film at the Venice film festival in 1972.

 It would make great material for a documentary: in partnership with Hopscotch Films, I am developing a project based on how Douglas’s 8mm films shed new light on his progress as a film-maker. Douglas looked on the 8mm films as an integral part of his apprenticeship. The 30th anniversary of his death is on 18 June – a fitting time, I think, for all devotees of film to make it part of their apprenticeship to explore the feature films of Bill Douglas and keep alive the memory of a unique and extraordinary talent, and a truly great artist. (theguardian)

By Andy Kimpton-Nye | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 18 2021

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