Bill Douglas’s three films about his childhood and adolescence form one of the great British films of the last forty years. Gary Couzens reviews the BFI’s two-disc DVD set.
There are notable directors whose output is sparser than Bill Douglas (1934-1991), but not many. To put that into perspective, it terms of running time this DVD set contains one half of his commercially-released output. That output comprises one early short (provided here as an extra), the trilogy under review (two short films and one barely feature-length one) and the two-and-three-quarter-hour “Poor Man’s Epic” about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Comrades, which is not included and which I’ll mention further later on. Further film-school work, not to mention 8mm home movies (all dismissed by Douglas as “rubbish” and as apprentice work) are unlikely to see commercial release, so that is all Douglas’s life’s work.
There are several reasons for this. One was, and is, the difficulty of making films in the UK that aren’t overtly commercial. The Seventies, after all, was the decade where such talents as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears spent most of their time working for television. And if you look at the career of Terence Davies, who also began a BFI-produced autobiographical trilogy in that decade, someone who has just made his first film in eight years, you shouldn’t be surprised that Douglas was only able to make one feature after his Trilogy, before his untimely death from cancer. It’s hard to argue that much is different now: the Eighties and Nineties are littered with directors who made one, or maybe two, well-regarded features and have since worked on the small screen, as yet unable to follow them up – take a look on IMDB for Edward Bennett, David Drury, Hettie McDonald and Mary McMurray, to name but four. Granted, in many cases this is TV’s gain – but even so you couldn’t imagine Douglas directing series television. And that’s without his acknowledged difficulty to work with. Integrity can have its prices, and a sparse output can be one such.
William Gerald Forbes Douglas was born in Newcraighall, a Scottish mining village just outside Edinburgh. By any standard he had a deprived childhood, with a mentally ill mother and an absent father. Only the movies offered an escape. He was brought up by his grandmother until her death. After times spent with his father and his father’s mother, with time spent in care and at a Salvation Army hostel, he went on National Service and was posted to Egypt. There he met Peter Jewell, who became his closest friend. Once back in England, they shared a flat in London until Douglas’s death. Living within walking distance of the famous, if now defunct, Academy Cinema in Oxford Street and of the National Film Theatre, Douglas sustained a passion for the cinema, which led to him enrolling in the London Film School in the late 1960s. The short film Come Dancing, described below, was his graduation film.
In the mid 1960s, Douglas had written to Lindsay Anderson asking his advice about a screenplay he had written called Jamie. He had not told Anderson that the script was autobiographically-based, but Anderson guessed that immediately and with his encouragement, plus the support and funding of Mamoun Hassan at the BFI Production Board, Douglas made the first of his Trilogy, My Childhood. As his surrogate (called Jamie) and his older half-brother Tommy, Douglas cast two young Newcraighall boys, Stephen Archibald and Hughie Restorick, whom he had met at a bus stop.
My Childhood (44:34) begins in 1944. Jamie and Tommy are in school, living at home with their Granny (Jean Taylor Smith) across the street from Jamie’s father (Paul Kermack) and his second family. German POWs work in the fields, and one of them, Helmuth (Karl Fieseler), strikes up a friendship with young Jamie. There isn’t a great deal of “plot” as such in the film, more a series of images, as if vividly recalled: we are left to fill in much of their context. The film was shot in 16mm on colour stock, but intentionally printed in black and white apparently for a “charcoal drawing” effect. (A colour print of My Childhood has been shown, inadvertently, on at least one occasion.)
The film has its rough edges, no doubt due in part to the tiny budget. There’s also a sense that Douglas is gaining in fluency and confidence with each part of the Trilogy. Yet Douglas’s eye for an image is obvious from the outset. This is a film where place and mood supersede narrative. Often moving but without an ounce of sentimentality, My Childhood contains several scenes that are hard to forget. But it’s also a preparation for what was to come.
My Ain Folk (52:56), made a year later, begins with a burst of Technicolor, the only colour footage in the entire Trilogy. This is a scene from Lassie Come Home. We draw back from the colour to see black-and-white Jamie, rapt, in the cinema. In the meantime, Granny has died and Tommy is sent away. Jamie is sent to live with his father and paternal grandparents. “Polish” is probably the wrong word for material like this, as it implies a slickness and a superficiality that Douglas’s films do not possess. But there is a sense of a greater fluency in the camerawork and editing. Douglas rarely moves his camera, instead inviting us to look: at a person’s face, at an object. Many shots resemble perfectly-composed still photographs. Yet sometimes it is what he does not show which gives the film its power: a late scene where Jamie receives a beating is all the more powerful for being done offscreen and conveyed through sound alone, with a cut to a single unmoving image at the end of the scene.
Douglas delayed production of the third film, My Way Home (68:46), until Stephen Archibald was old enough to play Jamie once again. Now Jamie is living in a care home, until his father (played in all three films by Paul Kermack) comes to take him back. Halfway through the film there is a cut. The moving camera (mounted on the back of a vehicle) is shock enough. So is the contrast, between the near-white of sand and the deep black of trees, a jolt to the eye after the dour greys of Scotland. We are now in Egypt, and Jamie is on National Service. He meets Robert (Joseph Blatchley), an educated Englishman, and they become friends. But the legacy of his upbringing isolates Jamie. By now Douglas has refined his style to such a point that images are held like still tableaux before there is any movement within it. At the end of the film, as Jamie and Robert part, promising to keep in touch when back home, Douglas pans his camera around an empty room. The final image is of a tree in blossom: a symbol of new life, and the beginning of Jamie’s (Douglas’s) life as an artist.
The BFI’s DVD of the Trilogy is a two-disc set: the three films on a DVD-9 and the extras on a DVD-5. The discs are encoded for Region 2 only.
All three films are transferred from the restored 16mm and 35mm negatives, and are presented in the correct 1.33:1 ratio. I have not seen these films in a cinema, only on TV (firstly when BBC2 showed them in 1981 – though the BBC removed the occasional strong language deleted from the soundtrack, though not from the lavatory wall Jamie has to clean in My Way Home). Suffice to say that these three films look very good indeed. My Childhood is very grainy, as you would expect given its 16mm origins. The other two films are less so, but the greyscale and contrast are spot on.
The soundtrack is mono, as per the originals. There’s no music score, the only music or songs occurring as part of particular scenes. Subtitles are available, which may benefit those who find some of the accents too strong. Occasional German dialogue in My Childhood is intentionally left untranslated.
Disc Two leads off with Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image (63:17), a 2006 documentary by Andy Kimpton-Nye. This is a thorough look at Douglas’s life and career, and interviews most of the significant people still alive. (Stephen Archibald, whose face haunts the three films, sadly died in 1998, aged only thirty-eight.) The documentary, made for TV, is in 16:9 anamorphic, which unfortunately results in clips from the Trilogy being cropped from their intended 4:3 ratio. Kimpton-Nye also uses an at first disconcerting device during the interviews: the interviewee begins to speak over a still shot of their face, while a caption identifies them…then a few seconds later his or her lips begin to move. The documentary leads up to the making of Comrades, which intriguingly was originally going to be made for Merchant Ivory Productions. Several actors (Philip Davis and Imelda Staunton among them) talk about working with Douglas, and there are plenty of stories about how difficult he could be on the set. Unfortunately, Comrades played for just six weeks in London (I caught it a few months later at the National Film Theatre) and has only had one TV showing. Although it had a video release, it remains missing on DVD. (There may be a rights issue here. Its eventual production company was Skreba Films, who made several interesting films in the 1980s, none of which are on DVD.)
Also on the disc is Come Dancing (13:21), Douglas’s short film from 1970, in grainy 16mm black and white. It tells the story of the meeting of two men in a wintry seaside resort. Already Douglas’s filmmaking style is unmistakable for anyone else’s, as he tells a story mostly through images and little dialogue. The print is somewhat battered, with scratches and spots galore, and the soundtrack is rough in places, but this is still in very watchable condition.
Finally, there is an interview with Douglas, done by Tom Goodison for ITV Westward Television’s arts show Preview West. The footage is in colour and 4:3 and runs 3:58. Sadly this is all that remains, the broadcast section of a much longer interview. The unused footage was destroyed: no-one realised at the time that Douglas rarely gave interviews. What there is, is interesting enough as an introduction to the Trilogy (which Douglas was presenting in the area), but you regret that there isn’t more.
As usual with a BFI release, there is a booklet enclosed. This contains a moving memoir of his lifelong friend by Peter Jewell, essays by John Caughie and Matthew Flanagan on the Trilogy, a profile of Douglas by Louise S. Milne and of Stephen Archibald by Sean Martin. There are also brief pieces on the TV interview by Tom Goodison and on Come Dancing by Peter Jewell, credits for all three films and the short, and a short item on the Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter.
Despite his sparse output, around six hours in total, Bill Douglas is one of the major British – not just Scottish – filmmakers of the last forty years, and this DVD set does a handsome job of presenting his autobiographical Trilogy. All we need now is whoever has the rights to release a DVD of Comrades…but this DVD will keep us occupied for the time being.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum