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Bill Douglas Among the Philistines – Cineaste


Late-night viewers of Film4 in Britain may, if they are lucky, stumble across one of the channel’s rare showings of Bill Douglas’s 1987 film, Comrades. It tells the story of six Devon men who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs when they were transported to Australia in 1834 as punishment for organising one of the world’s first trade unions. The film was only Douglas’s second major piece of work for the cinema; it was also his last. Yet together with the trilogy of autobiographical films he made in the Seventies about growing up in a deprived Scottish mining village, this “poor man’s epic”, eight difficult years in the making, constitutes one of the most important, and overlooked, canons in British filmmaking.

The reasons for his neglect were obvious to Douglas, and to those around him who recognised his rare talent and tried, against the odds, to foster it. Mamoun Hassan, who helped produce the Trilogy (My Childhood, 1972; My Ain Folk, 1973; My Way Home, 1978), also offered Douglas teaching at the National Film School when finance for his projects was unforthcoming. He recalls being told by Lindsay Anderson, an early admirer and encourager of Douglas’s work: “Remember, Mamoun, the English are philistines.” Douglas himself warned his friend, the novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan, that talent needed protecting but there was no system in Britain to properly nurture it. “He was a complete victim”, O’Hagan thought, of the “cultural intolerance in the British film industry of the non-commercial.”

At times this “intolerance” amounted to more than a refusal to fund Douglas’s work (when he died of cancer in 1991 he left several finished but unrealised scripts, including a life of the motion picture pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge, and an adaptation of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner). He was often the target of establishment disapproval, his films deemed “hopelessly slow” (Barry Norman) and unfashionable. Nor did they fit comfortably into the categories of British storytelling, in which, conventionally, the working class or dispossessed are portrayed in a realist vein. The New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, found Comrades, “elaborately misconceived”. Even Sheila Rowbotham, the socialist historian, while applauding the film’s effort, criticised him for a style she considered immodest for its subject: “The flaws of Comrades derive from the grandeur of Douglas’s cinematic ambition.”

As a child, Douglas spent as much time as he could at the cinema. Too poor to pay for a ticket he’d barter his way in with empty jam jars. His love of film stemmed from a desire to escape the meagre world he inhabited where “it always seemed to be raining or grey…my heart would sink to despairing depths. I hated reality.” Illegitimate and orphaned (his mother became mentally ill after contracting puerperal fever, his father absconded), life was so austere that even after National Service provided an escape route from Newcraighall, Douglas remained “obsessed” by his beginning and the uneasy distinction he believed it conferred upon him. Which is why when he came to make his first fully-fledged film he decided to face the bitterness of the place and its people. The Trilogy, in its depiction of cruelty and indifference to children, has something of George Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts”, though without ever succumbing to didacticism – perhaps because its view is that of an insider.

For the same reason, the three films have a degree of inwardness, seeming organic rather than shaped by the demands of character or plot. They are constructed as memory poems, assemblies of moments, feelings and atmospheres that leave the viewer in the same position as the children they are watching: struggling to understand the behaviour of inscrutable and alarming adults. Douglas’s scripts were similarly unorthodox, written without shot direction and reading more like works of pared back prose. The first of these was initially titled Jamie, so as to disguise its autobiographical nature, but when Douglas sent it to Lindsay Anderson, he was advised to take a leaf out of Gorky’s book. My Childhood is set in 1945 and was filmed in the same windblown village not far from Edinburgh where Douglas grew up. Its portrayal of two brothers, Jamie and Tommy, scavenging for coal, without a coat even in the iciest of Scottish winters, sears itself onto the mind. No one witnessing Stephen Archibald, the boy who plays Jamie, could forget his harrowed face.

The ‘performance’ Douglas was able to elicit from Archibald (the word seems perverse applied to something that looks so natural) owes a debt to Joan Littlewood for whom he worked as an actor and unofficial assistant at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. From her came the instruction most often heard on his set: “Don’t overact!” He also learned the value of seeking out that “something different” a non-professional brings to a project, to cast for look rather than experience. Archibald and his friend, Hughie Restorick, so authentic as the brothers, he found at a bus stop when they tried to cadge a cigarette.

The Trilogy films show life from the brothers’ point of view, from which men are absent or distant. The boys have a father apiece but these put in only rare appearances: Jamie’s doles out a sixpence, Tommy’s turns up one day with a caged bird. Equally remote, though more monumental, are the soot-faced miners seen rising and descending in the coal shafts. Despite their massed power, there is no sense of the boys finding protection in their wake; the men are merely a part of the landscape in the way that slag heaps, steam trains and turnip fields are.

With their mother in an asylum, the boys are shunted between orphanages and grandmothers – archetypal figures these, one silent and shawled in a rocking chair, the other, a terrorising witch who puts mouse-traps in the apple bowl. Jamie has little in the way of companionship: a cat, a washing line, these are his playthings. His main source of affection comes from an outsider, Helmut, one of the German prisoners of war still working on the land. The two of them read together and horse around, and for brief moments Jamie’s tense features relax into laughter. His look of anguish when Helmut is driven away in a lorry is dreadful.

After a period of destitution in Edinburgh, the army flings Jamie half way across the world to the Egyptian desert, and the friendship of a man who draws him out, brushing aside his sullenness in the face of the Pyramids (“Enthuse! You’re looking at one of the seven wonders of the world!”), showing him how to fillet a kipper (“It’s easy once you know how to get through all the rubbish”) and demanding that he think for himself. When Jamie says he’d like to be a painter, or even a filmmaker, he finds encouragement, not the tongue-lashing he faced in Newcraighall for shirking “honest work” and getting above himself. This unusual friend, who has piles of books by his bed and pin-ups of Kafka and Gorky, helps him see that through the possibilities of art he might achieve a life less alienated, might find – as the title of this part of the Trilogy suggests – a way home. (This was the destination, O’Hagan felt, Douglas had been dreaming of since he was a lad sketching horses on his granny’s doorstep: “He must have realised that self-enlargement and self-invention were everything a boy from Newcraighall could hope for.”)


I came across the Trilogy in the early Eighties when I projected the films at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton in South London. Even in a picture house then screening the full cinematic repertoire, they stood out as astonishing and singular works. As British films they were particularly remarkable, aspiring to verisimilitude but ingrained with a strong poetic sensibility. Douglas shot them in colour then re-mastered in black and white, a mark of his intention to use any means he could to intensify the effect of ‘the real’. Later he wanted the two halves of Comrades to be shot in different ratios: narrow for the English countryside and in Cinemascope for the Australian outback (an innovation that proved too expensive to accommodate).

Such ideas meant that Douglas’s films have a rhythm and look all of their own. What shaped his distinct way of seeing? You can sense the influence of Hardy and Hogarth in his view of the British; the ‘naturalness’ of Bresson and the Italian neo-realists are answered in Douglas’s stripped back landscapes and economic performances; and he has some of the subversive lyricism of Buñuel, Genet and Cocteau (a sadistic guard in Comrades traces a flower across a beaten convict’s face). But the greatest stimulus to his imagination seems always to have been the starkness of his early years, creating a taste for simplicity and stillness. Equally a part of that ‘taste’, however, was that its expression be restrained (something Rowbotham fails to register). For all the arresting sights, his audience is never made to feel they are being held merely to admire. He is unafraid to show beauty in even the most marginal life, the resonating power that objects and shapes acquire in a room uncluttered by poverty (the latched door, a chunk of bread about to be shared, hands raised to a fire). But the sparse imagery and reserved figures are always consonant with their context.

Indeed one sequence in My Childhood seems to be a commentary on the dangers of aestheticism. Tommy swipes a bunch of dead flowers from the graveyard. We see them drooping in a cup on a bare kitchen table, looking like a painting, but there is no time to bask in their compositional beauty. Immediately, Jamie comes clattering in and throws the flowers on the floor (this is wrenching, shocking even, for the viewer). He fills the cup with hot water and lets it spill out across the table. Taking the emptied cup to his granny, who is half-asleep in her chair, he places the warmed receptacle in her hands and closes her fingers around it.

It was in sequences like these, Douglas felt, that one could discern the language of cinema – something he tried to explain to his students, though he found it difficult to put into words (and perhaps like many artists he was wary of picking apart the almost instinctual sense guiding him). In an interview of 1978, he says that what distinguishes film from the other arts is the way it places figures in a landscape. Film, uniquely, is about the observation of people in their environment. This is the basis of his materialist poetics in which speech is often reserved or withheld and we understand instead through expression, gesture and, more mysteriously, the way human beings reveal themselves through their surroundings. For Douglas, habitat is vitally telling.

Rare television interviews show him as handsome and with an unforced charm. His voice had a soft Scottish lilt; he was engaging, but also watchful. There is one moment, though, where the guard drops. Talking about the strain of filmmaking on a tiny budget, he interrupts himself and says, “It’s not exactly working down the mines.” Another man might have made the point with greater irony but he seems simply to be reminding himself of something he knows, experientially, to be true. (Douglas is surely the only director in the history of British film to have worked down a mine.) If there is no great expectation the interviewer, or for that matter the audience, will catch the full weight of his words, it’s because he knows there aren’t many who’ve straddled both worlds.

Perhaps this makes too much of an off-hand remark. But it seems revelatory of something fundamental in Douglas’s temperament: a sense of apartness that was both the making and undoing of him as a filmmaker – feeding his absolute determination to realise his conception of every film, and his refusal to compromise, to bow to the ‘reality’ of budgets, producers and bottom lines. This earned him a reputation for difficulty, often understood as naivety, an accusation that came at him from both left and right and was furthered by readings of the films in which his liking for simplicity was misinterpreted as a lack of sophistication.

There was perhaps a degree of unworldliness about him, but I’d suggest it was willed, indicative of an unromantic sense that those with few possessions might be more capable of sharing. It’s an idea that seems at odds with the meanness of his childhood. But what the Trilogy reveals is that it is not being poor that is so devastating, it is being placeless. Loathed for their illegitimacy, the brothers live as pariahs, alongside but permanently cast out from a family and community that will not care for them.

By contrast, in Comrades, the spirit of fraternity seems to rise from the land itself. As much as the new ideas arriving by book and pamphlet that the literate lay preachers are able to read, it is a way of life the Martyrs act to defend. The threat comes from the machines appearing in the fields, devaluing their labour and causing the landlord to lower their wages (by the time they banded together, taking the ‘illegal oath’ for which they were transported, the wages in Tolpuddle had been reduced three times from 10 to 6 shillings). These are pre-industrial workers, still tied to the rhythm, beauty and lore of the land. In the opening sequence a man scurries across the chalk outline of the Cerne Abbas giant. The club in the giant’s hand is mirrored in the tools used by the farm labourers to smash the threshers.

What we witness in Comrades is the moment industrialisation came to the English countryside, the moment of Fall. Before this, a labourer smiles at his sweetheart, saying, “We are the most beautiful people in the whole world”. Eden is not idealised, however (a man breaks his back over a field of stones, a woman demands of her lover, are we “too poor to breed?”) but there is a proposition here about different ways of being and living. This is best understood in the figure of George Loveless, (in a performance by Robert Soans that should have won greater acclaim) the Martyrs’ leader, a ploughman and self-educated preacher. His guilessness, gladness in nature and cheerful greeting of man – “Welcome lad”, he beams at a newcomer to the barn where his Methodist congregation meet to sing rousingly, to praise and pray – and his uncomplicated morality, all these are not just individual traits, they are virtues made possible by community and solidarity. A member of his congregation reminds everyone, “it is worth bearing in mind, a grief shared is a smaller grief”; a mother tells her daughter, who is distraught after cheating a boy out of a halfpenny, “It’s quite simple really. We only have to love one another to know what we must do.”

Despite Douglas’s turbulence (he could be emotional when the day did not realize what he had in mind), the crew warmed to him, understanding this was uncommon work, and it mattered. When the budget overran during the complicated second half of the shoot – tracking the Martyrs on separate journeys across Australia– and it looked as if production might be halted, the actors banded together, offering to work for free. Alongside the then unknown actors playing the Martyrs, were the aristocracy of British theatre cast in the roles of the powerful or well-known: Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Stephens, James Fox and Michael Hordern. The Carry On star Barbara Windsor was also cast for her tangy Englishness, but Douglas had to fight for her against uncomprehending producers at Channel 4. Don’t worry, Douglas told them, brushing the problem aside: “There is always more money”. This might seem naive but having existed for the first half of his life with so very little money, Douglas refused to fetishize it, to grant it power over the man of art – O’Hagan saw – he had struggled long and hard to become.

Comrades was made in the heat of Margaret Thatcher’s counter-revolution against the unions, a time when, for some, there was indeed money in abundance. Shooting took place in 1984 and 1985 – the year the miners were defeated in Britain. The film was finally released in 1987, as Margaret Thatcher announced triumphantly to the Tory Party conference, “There is no such thing as society”, and Wall Street, with its mantra “Greed is good”, was a box office success. Those inclined to this sort of thing argued, as one might expect, that Douglas was out of touch. With hindsight, he looks anything but. The Trilogy now appears to be not only a record of one of postwar Britain’s most marginal communities, but anticipates, in its fracture and defeat, the future of the industrial working class. And Comrades, looks timely: a challenge to the Thatchers and Gekkos who dogmatically insisted not only history but morality was on their side. (“Greed is good” may have began as an ironic slogan but it quickly became – until market collapse proved otherwise – unchallengeable creed).

The film is prophetic, too, in the way it combines what Douglas called “the longed-for transformations of society” that the Martyrs were fighting for, with “the magical transformations of optics.” As a child his interest in cinema lay in its ability to transport him, bringing relief from the ‘reality’ he found so oppressive. In the cinema scene in My Ain Folk, the film being screened is Lassie Come Home. As an adult, Douglas’s taste for the taciturn led him to silent movies: at film school he made a short called Charlie Chaplin’s London. From here he was drawn further back to the pre-history of cinema, to the optical trickery and visual machinery that photography and cinema grew out of.

Douglas and Peter Jewell – the encouraging friend he portrayed in My Way Home – shared their lives, living in a small London flat for 30 years. Douglas was not gay, as many supposed, but the two men “relied on each other” and, as Jewell put it, “honed each other to our liking.” Jewell continued to support Douglas in his filmmaking, and together they built the finest collection of pre-cinema artefacts and memorabilia in the country. These are now lodged in the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at Exeter University.

Many of their discoveries made their way into Comrades (a few contraptions stem from the latter half of the nineteenth century so there is some cheerful anachronism). The actor Alex North, who previously worked with John McGrath’s radical 7:84 theatre company, plays a Lanternist, walking from village to village, carrying magic in the box on his back. In a herculean performance North also appears in 13 other guises as various kinds of showman: purveyor of the Raree Show, Diorama, Thaumotrope, Chromatrope, Camera Obscura and Kineograph flick book, as well as playing a silhouettist and shadow puppeteer. Besides these, the film includes hymns, folk songs, banner-making, hornpipe dancing (a sprightly Michael Clark), as well as varieties of child and adult play – all the storytelling forms and spirit-lifting activities of a largely illiterate community.

The broad range of arts on display are a part of the tale not simply because they tickled Douglas’s fancy, as some critics supposed, nor even as narrative device (though they are this too) but because they show working men and women as more than victims or martyrs, as self-reflecting people, with a denser, more intricate reality. (“The lives of these men”, Douglas thought, “was every bit as vivid as the men in coaches driving by.”) When Loveless’s wife, babe in arms, burns his books for the trouble they have brought into her home, praying, “Dear God, teach him not to think”, we understand the futility of her action. The tide cannot be held back because, as Douglas has revealed, even in rural communities itinerants would arrive bringing fresh delights and new ideas: “At the Lantern show you pay for the entertainment, but all the news is free!”

This reflexiveness also works at the level of the film itself, a commentary on the process of production and the way we tell stories. In other words, Douglas understood the disingenuous innocence of realism and opted in his work for less concealing forms. Nearly three decades after Jean-Luc Godard turned the camera on itself, such ideas were hardly novel in terms of world cinema, but they still seemed bemusing, even affronting, to many Anglo-American critics and audiences. And because film culture in Britain was so timid, Douglas’s inventiveness caused endless problems. Ismail Merchant who was the original producer on Comrades, finally left the project when he was unable to persuade his director to shoot the journey from England to Australia with a real ship. He couldn’t understand why Douglas wanted to use the cheap and contemporary device of a Grand Moving Panorama – a painted backdrop propelled by rollers. (There was one at the opera house in Covent Garden in 1832, illustrating the sea-going adventures of Puss in Boots.)

Douglas wasn’t interested in documentary realism, he stuck to his guns and employed Jim Clancey to paint a recreation of the voyage, which tells, with great charm, how the story is to unfold in another place – one so strange to the Tolpuddle men it is almost of a different dimension. Douglas trusted his taste in the matter of music, too, bringing on board Hans Werner Henze who composed a resolutely modernist score, played on only a small number of instruments, but perfectly evocative and apt in its spare sound.

Comrades ends with a Grand Finale marking the return of the Martyrs to England. There was a gala welcoming them back at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London (now the Old Vic), organised by Robert Owen and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union who had rallied protestors up and down the country on behalf of their exiled comrades, demanding and finally gaining their release. For a film concerned with ideas of artistic as well as material transformation, it makes a fittingly theatrical denouement. Over the closing credits, we are presented with a series of painted lantern slides that describe the Martyrs’ fate: five emigrated to Canada and lived full lives; one remained in Tolpuddle, ending his days in the Dorchester workhouse.

There was a similarly bad end for the boy who’d given such an extraordinary performance in the Trilogy. Stephen Archibald also failed to break decisively with the place he had come from. His background was just as bleak as Douglas’s, but like many of a later generation, he turned for his escape not to art or learning (he was virtually illiterate) but to drugs. Douglas had a part in mind for him in Comrades, and was keen to offer him this way out. However by the time the money was finally in place, Archibald was in jail for possession of heroin. Douglas tried to gain his release but failed, and filming went ahead without him. He died in 1998, at the age of 38.

When it comes to Douglas, it’s hard not to feel what a lost opportunity he represents for British, and in particular Scottish, filmmaking. It’s a terrible indictment that he said towards the end of his life, “I don’t want anything more to do with the film industry. It’s deadly.” If he’d been allowed to develop, given more opportunities, who knows what lasting impact he might have had? As it is, Douglas’s contemporaries remain divided by class and aesthetic (Loach and Leigh versus Jarman and Greenaway) and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that this division arrested – still arrests – British culture. With his feel for authenticity and great love of showmanship Douglas might have been the man to break down old barriers. There is a legacy, of course: his influence can be felt in Terence Davies’ films about working class life in Liverpool, and on a new generation of directors such as Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold whose films have some of his raw poetry. Yet Douglas’s early exclusion from the scene and death at only 56 means there is forever a piece of the jigsaw missing.

Such regret does not diminish the achievement. At the end of the Trilogy, Jamie returns to Newcraighall. The camera pans around the deserted room in which he once lived. Douglas cuts unexpectedly to an outside view, revealing what the young man has learned: the world is larger than the place that once confined him. He may remember it now, and contemplate its meaning, but he is no longer constrained by the past. The final glorious image of an orchard in blossom tells us he is free – he has reached that fruitful place of the imagination. When people complained to Douglas that there were no happy endings to his films, he would smile and correct them: “I am the happy ending.”

This is a version of an article that appeared in Cineaste in the summer 2012 issue.

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