ALAN Riach continues his conversation with Kenneth Munro, archivist and sculptor, about his rediscovery and championship of fellow film-maker Bill Douglas

Alan: Glasgow Film Theatre last week hosted a showing of the film, Bill Douglas: My Best Friend centred on Bill’s relationship with Peter Jewell. How did it go?

Kenny: Brilliantly. A full house, the film was much appreciated and there was a great question and answer session at the end. And Peter Jewell himself is hopefully coming up to the GFT on March 20, for the screening of early short 8mm films made by Bill.

He’s in his early 90s now, which will make that a very special occasion and it’s worth saying that Bill Douglas himself would have been 90 this year.

Alan: Last week, we talked about his films and career. You yourself clearly feel a kind of affinity with Bill Douglas?

Kenny: I grew up in Musselburgh in the 1950s. Bill Douglas often visited the picture houses there in the 1940s. It was just along the coast from Newcraighall and he and I both experienced the intense social atmosphere within the mix of industrial, agricultural and  sea-fishing communities.

Alan: That’s a shared geographic link but with a very different family background. What happened next?

Kenny: Well, many years later  I trained as a public artist and after periods of time working in France, India and Australia, I returned to help promote “empowerment via the arts”.  I became inspired by the social reformer and ecologist Patrick Geddes and the theosophist Annie Besant, adopting the idea that creativity is a catalyst. 

I was passionate about this and the creed I believe in is to engage in educational work, locally and internationally. With this driving me, I befriended like-minded folk, some involved with Craigmillar Community Arts.  In 2010 I was made aware that the famous pedestrian rail bridge featured in Bill Douglas’s Newcraighall film My Childhood was under threat and due to be demolished because of encroaching property development.

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With my friend, the artist Mike Greenlaw, who was at that time manager of the Craigmillar Art Centre, we embarked on a collaborative project to try to save the bridge – which sadly failed. This took the form of a schools and community project, supported by Sustrans [a transport charity] To assist raising awareness we organised the delivery of a Bill Douglas Film Weekend at the church art centre, showing Bill’s films.

And co-incidentally, a conference was held in the University of Exeter in September 2011.  As a result, I was introduced to Peter Jewell and Phil Wickham, curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (BDCM) in Exeter, and Simon Relph, the producer of Bill’s cinema film Comrades. Peter generously helped fund the Bill Douglas Weekend in Scotland a month later, at the old Church Art Centre on the outskirts of Edinburgh. 

I created a video diary of the Exeter conference and also made a short film covering the local community and school of Newcraighall. Many folk contributed and the video-diary includes their recorded responses to Bill Douglas and their own memories of childhood in the local area.

Alan: It must have been one of those exceptional things, a real community event, a coming together of people with shared interests and experiences and a common purpose.

Kenny: Exactly so. Scotrail innovatively also printed large posters, with many school pupils’ designs, which were displayed on the rail platform at Newcraighall Railway Station.  However, we achieved a broader legacy by re-engaging with Bill’s old community. The evolving friendship and continuing interaction with Peter Jewell, Phil Wickham and the BDCM has been marvellous. 

And it was a great opportunity for me to design two stainless steel sculptures commemorating Bill’s work. One, called A Place of Dreams, was installed at the station in 2012 and a second, Reflected Vision, was located outside the BDCM in 2015 at Exeter. I feel a unique cultural bond has been reignited and continues to be galvanised between Edinburgh and Exeter with Bill being the creative catalyst that connects the two geographic places hundreds of  miles apart.

With Bill’s passion for trains, expressed in his film My Childhood, it’s interesting also to think of the contemporary railway line as a creative conduit between the two major cities!

Alan: And in a sense a conduit across time, transporting us to Bill Douglas’s time and his art, the film-maker’s art.

Kenny: Yes. It’s exciting to feel that there is a resurgence of interest in Bill’s work. The creation of the new book, Bill Douglas: A Film Artist, published by Exeter University Press, reinforces this rising interest and when I attended the book launch, in 2022 I was introduced to photographer, David Appleby, who worked with Bill during the filming of Comrades, and David’s wife Juliana Malucelli, both of whom have renewed friendships.

We have been developing a portrait card print project inspired by Peter’s relationship with Bill and the museum they both helped establish.

Alan: You mentioned the book launch and the charity shop books which brought Harry Watt into focus for you.

Kenny: Yes. Although their careers commenced 40 years apart, they offer a powerful shared legacy, since both had a visionary work ethic and believed in enlightenment through a disciplined, visceral struggle, and with empowerment via creativity. Their sense of what humanity truly is, is reviewed in this appraisal of both artists, focusing on what guided their work.

There’s a form of mutual respect and also a focus on Australian colonial influences and connections. Sharing, as I think they did, an enduring passion and need to express universal truths through filming the interpretation of dramatic historic social events.

Alan: And taking into full account humanity’s experience of the Earth, at either end  of the globe.

Kenny: To an extent one might argue Bill was following on a tradition which was in part pioneered by Chaplin, Keaton then the symbolic style revolution with Griffith, Vigo, Flaherty, Eisenstein, Bergman, Tarkovsky and the Social Realism of John Grierson and his sisters Ruby and Marion Grierson.

The French films of the Nouvelle Vague also formed a strong counterpoint as experienced in the potent 8mm short films, such as Fever composed by Bill and Peter Jewell, partly inspired by Le Clezio’s dystopian novel.

Alan: It’s an aspect of international creativity in film I hadn’t quite thought of in that way before now … Kenny: There is, I feel, an important matrix of scientists, photographers, then film-makers who laid a fabric of optical foundations with which Bill identified – Brewster, Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson and Muybridge, to name a few. The latter inspired Bill’s unrealised film The Flying Horse.

Alan: And women film-makers … Kenny: Yes! Think of them: Margaret Tait, Helen Biggar and Ruby Grierson to name only a few, who should be considered as forerunners to Bill’s work,  as well as being distinguished in their own right.

Alan: It’s not a competition.

Kenny: Within this sphere, I feel there’s an expression of what we might call Filmic Folk Art, melded within an expression of social politics. It’s curious that Margaret Tait, although she was trained in Rome, also struggled to keep her production company viable in Edinburgh, despite inventive determination.

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Her last major work was a feature film entitled Blue-Black Permanent, in 1992, with actors such as Gerda Stevenson, Jack Shepherd and Celia Imrie. Another individualist production which is often overlooked.

Alan: That’s a haunting, remarkable, beautiful film … Kenny: The sculptor and film-maker Helen Biggar evolved as a multi-talented artist who was fortunate to collaborate with Norman MacLaren to produce early anti-war films, most notably, Hell Unlimited (1936), which railed against the immoral profiteering of warmongers. This film can be viewed on You Tube. I’d be surprised if Peter and Bill hadn’t seen it. 

Helen then worked with socialist theatre groups in Glasgow and London – another critical commentator on capitalism. The biography  Helen Unlimited, by Anna Shepherd (2014), refers to  Helen attending a conference  at which Hugh MacDiarmid spoke in 1938.

Then in the 1940s she befriended artists Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun when the Glasgow Unity Theatre was presenting The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, in which Helen was involved in London.

Alan: I wonder if she ever met Joan Littlewood … Kenny: There’s a question. Ruby and Marion Grierson revealed their skills as pioneers who were often overshadowed by their strident brother. But Ruby herself blazed a documentary trail through the 1930s.  She was an ideologically driven artist who was tragically killed in 1940 when the ship on which she was travelling to Canada was torpedoed. I sense these artists formed the groundswell of innovative film-making to which Harry Watt also contributed and which, taken altogether, formed a cornucopia of evocative material for Bill to experience.

This was often driven by the impact of world conflict, economic avarice and often violent exploitation. Colonial empire building was also at the heart of sordid foreign policy and the promotion of this utilised film to a great extent.

Alan: All this forms the context, or cradle, you might say, of the work of Bill Douglas and Harry Watt.

Kenny: Yes. I believe this filmic melting pot influenced Watt and then Douglas. They shone an intense light on the local and international communities and their challenging situations.

Alan: How would you say Bill and Harry’s film-poems have significance now?

Kenny: Much of their work presents visceral cinema, social realism and documentary humanism with an ability to transcend and communicate across national boundaries. It’s often exciting and at times emotionally distressing but it forces us to identify with the complex struggle of existence and, essentially, what it means to be human.  The new documentary, My Best Friend, examines early forms of inspiration and explores his unique relationship with Peter Jewell, friend and creative collaborator for more than years.

Their international cultural awareness reveals a multifaceted life influenced with a passion for sharing and experiencing the magic of cinema and films.

Alan: Their films make us watch them very differently from most forms of experience of screen media today, don’t they?

Kenny: We are now overloaded with the endless streaming of films with no quality control of digital sensations right across social media.  So it’s refreshing to be reminded dynamically of tactile objects, representing a recognisable visual history, which is re-inforced in Bill and Peter’s passion for collecting cinematic artefacts: physical, functional tools, toys and equipment which can be seen to illustrate the history of the moving image. 

They’re there in the BDCM at the University of Exeter, a unique public resource that contains thousands of items collected by them both, and presented in an attractive location, the historic origins and evolution of film-making. 

This marvellous Cabinet of Optical Curios displays the exhibits in an entertaining, informative, coherent way, showing the earliest of scientific machines, optical toys and the potent influence of the advent of photography. It’s free to access, for all ages and has been running for more than 30 years within the university on the ancient Roman city of Devon.

Alan: You might wonder what optical entertainments were presented in Devon two millennia ago.

Kenny: When we return to the viewing of Bill’s epic film Comrades, we follow several strands of the plot guided by a key character, The Lanternist, played by Alex Norton, who invites us to experience many optical devices and see how they work, and he’s portrayed in his many guises, in a series of scenarios presented as public entertainments, spread through the duration of the film.  This gives us a kaleidoscopic progression of optical vignettes creating, a pattern throughout the film which predates and perhaps prophecies or suggests the future invention of cinema.

Alan: It’s a story about the historic struggle of  The Tolpuddle Martyrs that anchors the plot, with their ambition to establish a trade union and the film then follows their conviction and deportation  to Australia. It’s a revolutionary era.

Kenny: Andrew O’Hagan,  in his London Review of Books publication The End of British Farming in 2001 refers to William Cobbett, writing in the 1820s: “He railed against everything that was wrong with English agriculture – low wages, absentee landlords, greedy clergymen, corruption – and he was prosecuted for supporting a riot by these same agricultural workers the year after he published Rural Rides.” 

However, the inhumane act of deporting the ring-leaders of the farmers was one of the British Government’s habitual treatments of organised working-class groups. They were perceived by the state as seditious “revolutionaries” and therefore denying its citizens democratic rights.  Ancient feudal law promoted by wealthy landowners controlled communities and their quality of life.

And much of that wealth was generated by exploiting oppressed communities and in certain cases involvement in the slave trade. 

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Just a couple of decades earlier, in 1793, Thomas Muir, the famous Scots social reformer, was transported to Botany Bay with others after being found guilty of sedition due to public speeches he had given on “the ideals of democracy”.

Alan: It’s a story that has as much painful pertinence to us today, in this country as it had when Bill Douglas made that film.

Kenny: And as much pertinence in the 2020s as it had in the 1920s and the 1820s. In the spirit of Patrick Geddes, and his motto, “Think Global Act Local,” the new Bill Douglas film raises our awareness of creative communication. 

It’s already been on an international tour. Its premiere was at Venice in September 2023, then two weeks ago it was shown in Dublin, now in Glasgow, then on to Exeter in April and returning home to Edinburgh and Newcraighall later this year.

Alan: We do what we can.

Kenny: And there’s more to be done. Might we suggest to BBC Alba that they, with their global reach, might be interested in hosting this enriching documentary for a wider range of people to experience?