Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bill Douglas Weekend

Below is a wee piece I wrote for Scottish Socialist Voice last week.

Later this month, Craigmillar Arts Centre will be hosting a weekend of events to commemorate the life and work of Bill Douglas, twenty years after the film director’s death. The planned events include an art exhibition, cinematic artefacts, and screenings of his own films and those of local children.

Born in the Lothians mining village of Newcraighall in 1934, Douglas was brought up in abject poverty. He found respite in the cinemas of Musselburgh and Portobello which he managed to enter by exchanging jam jars or sneaking in through the fire escape.

National Service saw to his permanent escape when he met and bonded with Peter Jewell over their mutual love of cinema. The two would become lifelong companions with Jewell supporting him in his burgeoning film career and acting as an advisor in all his major works.

On leaving film school in 1971, Douglas set about shooting My Childhood which would form the first part of his Trilogy, perhaps his most celebrated work.  Set and largely filmed in Newcraighall and Edinburgh, the Trilogy is based on Douglas’s own childhood. The Observer film critic Philip French described it as a “bleak, almost physically painful picture” adding “I believe this trilogy will come to be regarded not just as a milestone, but as one of the heroic achievements of British cinema.”

The Films of Scotland Committee did not share this foresight, refusing funding on the basis that it failed “to project a forward-looking country.”  Douglas had no time for simplistic sentimentality- the Trilogy is full of digs at a kitsch idea of Scotland that never existed for him- the embarrassment of the boy whose trouser legs come down while he’s wearing a kilt; the cosy cottage with an alcoholic granny; the public school boy who mocks his pronunciation.

His next film took some time to come to fruition due to funding issues and his own perfectionism.
Comrades would be shot in colour with a stunning countryside backdrop and sharing much in common with the Trilogy: the stillness and stripped back dialogue; the focus on the painful minutiae of poverty; and the subtle and moving performances.  “There is so much to be read in a person’s face,” Douglas said. “I use the camera to read that face and it will speak volumes if you will listen to it.”

While Douglas himself stated that it was not the politics and historical significance of the Tolpuddle martyrs that interested him so much as the characters, the closing speech, written by Douglas and delivered to the viewer in a style reminiscent of the end of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, gives us an insight into his values.

“Has not the working man as much right to protect his labour as the rich man has his capital? [...] let the working classes of Britain, seeing the necessity of acting on such a principle, remembering that union is power, listen to nothing that might be presented before them to draw their attention from the subject [...] then no longer will the interests of the millions be sacrificed for the gain of a few, but the blessings from such a change would be felt by us and our posterity even to generations yet unborn.”

He wrote a further three film scripts which he was unable to go on to produce, including one for Confessions of a Justified Sinner. With his untimely death twenty years ago, Scotland lost one of its most imaginative and significant contributors to cinema.

Place of Dreams-The Bill Douglas Weekend is being held at Craigmillar Art Centre, 58 Newcraighall Road, Edinburgh on 29-30 October.

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