On Stony Ground. next Monday‘s
Ex-S documentary on BBC 1 looks back at the life and work of Bill Douglas. Thom Dibdin talked to the programme‘s producer Richard Downs.
Bill Douglas died last June. having made only four films during his life. yet he is hailed as one of the most distinctive and inﬂuential talents of British cinema. BBC Scotland‘s ()n Stony Ground looks at these films and his career. and provides a wider platform to examine the state of the British and Scottish film industries.
Douglas was born in Newcraighall in 1937. the illegitimate son ofa miner. He never knew his father. his mother was incarcerated in a mental hospital and he was brought up by a grandmother who almost killed him. It was a brutal. impoverished childhood. In the 50s he escaped into National Service and met his lover and life-long companion Peter Jewel while serving in Egypt
Yet it was the early part of his life which formed the basis for his first three films: My Childhood. My Ain Folk and My Way Home. They are starkly visual films. shot in grainy black and white without a hint of sentimentality. [t is said that when audiences protested that the life be depicted could not have been as bad as that. Douglas would tell them ‘No. It was much worse.‘
After leaving National Service. Douglas worked as an actor and writer for the theatre. was an assistant to Joan Littlewood at her Theatre
- Workshop. and eventually went to film school. ‘lt
was on the strength of his graduation film that the British Film Institute funded the three films that
were to be called the Trilogy". says On Stony
Ground's producer Richard Downs. ‘It was quite a precedent. because at the time the BFI were trying
to prove that you could have quality art films by
British filmmakers for a reasonable amount of money. Bill Douglas proved that.‘
‘From the start. Bill was not a commercial filmmaker.‘ remembers director Lindsay Anderson. who was a friend of Douglas and who appears on the documentary. 'He existed in that other area where people are working on films [in the same way] as painters paint pictures or writers write poems. It is just always a struggle because films are so expensive. I knew him first because he sent me a letter and we met and talked about his plans to make a trilogy about his childhood. I remember that in those days I didn't really know
him. but I did advise him not to change his ideas in order to make a commercial film. but to hold on and try and get backing from the film institute.’ Besides being a true artist. Douglas was a painstaking and uncompromising director. The trilogy took five years to make as he wanted to use
‘He actually communicates visually. He was an artist, a poet, in his own particular medium. He has been compared to Tarkovsky and Bergman, the cinema greats, and this is what sets him aparttrom everyone else: this visual talent.’
the same lead actor. Stephen Archibald from liast Lothian. in them all. ‘He was totally at odds with the money men in the industry.‘ according to Downs. 'he never understood schedules: well. he did. but he refused to abide by them.‘
For five years after completing the trilogy. Douglas worked on. and tried to get funding for. Comrades his epic version of the history of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Although a big budget
A scene lrom Douglas's lastlilm. Comrades
production. shot in colour. the film reﬂects one of the central themes ofthe trilogy. that ofhumanity caught in the harsh reality ofan uncompromising world. ‘The basic story is how those who are nobility behave very badly and those who are common behave nobly.’ says Downs.
At the time of his death. Douglas was working on an adaption ofJames Hogg's ( 'onfbs:vions ofa Justified Sinner. a macabre 19th century novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil. The final scene. where a suicide is dug up in the Borders. will open ()n Stony Ground.
Douglas was obsessed by anything to do with the visual image. This obsession. highlighted in the use of pre-cinematic lantern shows in Comrades. is echoed in his visual sense. ‘Most people film a piece oftheatre.’ says Downs. ‘He actually communicates visually. He was an artist. a poet. in his own particular medium. He has been compared to Tarkovsky and Bergman. the cinema greats. and this is what sets him apart from everyone else: this visual talent.~ ()n Stony Ground is part ofthe Ex-S strand of one-oﬂ‘docurnen(arias. It will be shown on Monday 2 March at [0.10pm on BBC 1.
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