ALAN: Over the last two weeks, our conversation has centred mainly on Bill Douglas but also bringing in a range of film-makers whose lives and work have been eclipsed, one might say, by the commercial world. I’m thinking of Bill’s friend Peter Jewell, or Harry Watt, as well as Margaret Tait, Helen Biggar, Ruby Grierson, Marion Grierson. We talked of them a little last week but there’s more to be said ...

Kenny: Always. I hope these comparative sketches will stimulate feedback during this year when Bill’s films are getting more exposure than ever – and that the recent book about him will encourage others to write and read about these fascinating artists.

For me, this study has formed a stimulating catalyst for a response examining associations, real and imagined, over a number of years, considering links between two international film-makers, Harry and Bill, who were aware of, and I think inspired by each other’s work.

I hope we can bring Harry back into sharp focus and help us all become more aware of the relationship between them and the important position they have earned as part of a Scottish Renaissance.

Alan: That’s the word, isn’t it?

It’s the term Hugh MacDiarmid used in 1922 to champion the literary, cultural and political re-awakening, the re-energising of Scottish life. Various people, critics and literary historians, have tried to resist it, or even think it ridiculous – it’s such a potent term in the European context.

The National: Scotland’s  unending renaissance

You have a European Renaissance, an Italian Renaissance, but a Scottish Renaissance? To some rather cringing minds, that’s an embarrassing word. And various people have tried to put a time limit on it, saying that it happened, say, from 1922-39, or even to 1955 but it’s definitively over, if it ever existed.

Kenny: You don’t agree?

Alan: My own sense of it is that if you go back and read what MacDiarmid actually wrote, he said the Scottish Renaissance had taken place already almost before it began, with his own first three books of poems, which are about to reach their centenary years, Sangschaw (1925), Penny Wheep (1926) and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926).

Along with all the essays, journalism, anthologies, little magazines and the cultural production of so many others, that MacDiarmid either ignited or galvanised or were concurrent with the unleashing of artistic energies in the post-First World War world, that was essentially it.

What he meant was that the revolution was in the energy of a vision that just kept opening out and whether you subscribed to it or not, a kind of cultural rebirth, literally a renaissance, would continue to happen in unpredicted ways, in all the arts, and politically too.

The politics came later. You could say it’s been taking a long time and the politics still has a very long way to go to catch up but once you extend the meaning of the term to all the arts and accept that the effects of that “Scottish Renaissance Moment” are still evolving, that gives the term a wonderful sense of affirmation, a sense that Bill Douglas, Peter Jewell, Harry Watt, Margaret Tait, Helen Biggar, Ruby Grierson, Marion Grierson, were all part of this as much as Hamish Henderson or Naomi Mitchison, and our contemporaries today.

Kenny: That’s a big context for what we’ve been talking about …

Alan: An inclusive one, I hope, not a constricting one. Artists do their work and scholars retrieve it from oblivion or obscurity or political interference intended to oppress it.

Kenny: There are others to note. Murray Grigor has created some stunning architectural documentaries. His enduring interest in Charles Rennie Mackintosh has spawned films and a new book is due to be published. Jim Wilson is also featured in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter website, not just for his films but for his poem dedicated to Bill. Here it is:

Film was, for all of us,

a new way of seeing;

it was, in truth, a magic lantern.

We saw a world that was

both reel and – yes – unreal;

it was dream-like, but a dream we shared.

So many strange journeys,

so much to discover;

nature formed us, and we formed nature.

In time, of course, we learned

how much is paradox;

screens got bigger, but also smaller.

And film could cloud our eyes,

as screens could hide the truth;

that lantern might lead us anywhere.

Yet – set in the midst

of so much confusion –

you found your place and led us to it.

You were both scout and guide,

taking us home again;

you found a path that we could follow.

MORE can be read about James A Wilson, who also created the first BBC 2 film about Patrick Geddes, entitled: An Eye for the Future (1970). The essay James Wilson: Explorer and Teller of Celluloid Tales is on the Edinburgh University Press website.

Alan: From the 1920s to the 2020s we’re covering a lot of shifting territory but as we noted last week with Bill Douglas’s film Comrades, we’re also going back to the 18th century …

Kenny: There’s no time limit on this. Robert Burns identified and wrote in support of Liberty as expressed by Thomas Paine. In 1796, Thomas Muir escaped from Australia, then after serious injury he was received in France as a martyr and tried to persuade the French to help set up a Scottish Republic.

But the Tolpuddle men received a reprieve from Westminster, after a public appeal forced the government to reverse the sentence. In the final scene of Comrades the men are given a heroes’ welcome and the “Lanternist” projects images of them using a magnificent x3 barrelled mahogany and brass Magic Lantern. The relevant lines come from Omar Khayyam:

For in and out, above, about, below,

’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,

Played in a Box whose Candle is the Sun.

Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

This underpins the spiritual origins of all the pioneering international filmmakers –

Alan: And maybe all of those people, struggling towards some kind of liberty –

Kenny: Were the earliest origins of the camera obscura experience to be found in a dark cave perhaps?

Alan: Cave paintings in Altamira, Lascaux and Nawarla Babammang.

Kenny: Presenting the case that their cinematic visual thinking and a particular story-telling genre, which grew from the silent era of cinema, has a universal legacy and feel we can still strongly identify with their vision now. “… there is some primitive power at work in a darkened room only illuminated at one point …”

Go further. Does this hark back beyond cave art to our collective experience of emerging from the womb? In 1949 Michael Balcon had this to say:

“In 1928, just before talkies changed the world of entertainment, silent films were at their zenith; every civilised country big enough or old enough to have its own culture produced its own films; and these films had international currency: they were the first successful, universal language, because they were silent!”

Alan: You’re referring back to those Film Review books you picked up in a Liberty and Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge. 

Kenny: The first chapter in the Film Review drew me to Harry Watt’s detailed account of making his epic film The Overlanders (1946). Sir Michael Balcon (Ealing Studios) had funded Harry Watt’s trip to Australia for scoping out the potential to make a film towards the end of the Second World War.

Watt’s essay in Film Review entitled “You start from Scratch in Australia” is visceral and entertaining in equal measure, which reminds me that the documentation of creating a film is so important, so exciting, full of challenges, warts and all; often the equal in interest, as part of the process, to experiencing the completed film which is often heavily edited. Hence the documentaries about the making of a film are almost always so fascinating.

Alan: Can we come back to Bill Douglas in this context for a moment. 

Kenny: Bill used his passion for film as a way to escape the torture of his turbulent upbringing in Newcraighall, which drove his escape and liberation beyond Scotland to an almost fateful meeting in Egypt with Peter Jewell, who encouraged Bill’s creative expression and was to become his lifelong friend.

The early silent films and particularly Chaplin’s work inspired both men. There’s a poem by Peter about Bill that should be quoted here, from the British Film Institute booklet (the BFI supports the DVD presentation of the Bill Douglas Trilogy of films). Regarding the title, we should say that a rebus may be broadly understood as a riddle, being a word or idea represented pictorially instead of verbally.


Psychologists say deprived childhood can

Enflame adult destructiveness; or – when

Redeemed, enabled through relationship –

Set fire to ageless creativity.

Once cavemen painted shadows on the wall;

Now we project reflections on a screen.

Artists dance, composers sculpt, in riddles;

Likewise film spells poetry in pictures.

Crucial to Bill’s expression, the moving

Image opens and shuts a can of words;

Not hyper-manic but with measured and

Essential stillness dwells in time and space.

Mankind has made a mess of life on earth;

Art is the only immortality.

All pre-cinema optical entertainments stimulated Bill,and then these were followed by the impact of Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite and Atlanta (1934) which many feel resonates strongly with Douglas’s oeuvre: “a blend of lyricism/realism/surrealism – cynical; an anarchic approach expressing an original talent”.

IS that a quote just about Vigo or could it also describe Douglas? Hannah Lamarque wrote a full appraisal of Jean Vigo in 2013 that can be read on the BDCM website. And in 1934, after Atalanta’s release, Jean Vigo died suddenly of tuberculosis, strangely enough in the same year Bill Douglas was born.

Alan: Some kind of destiny?

Kenny: And that year almost corresponds directly with Harry Watt’s introduction to film-making. Was there something in the stars? Bill’s introduction was focused by being gifted a compendium of 8mm film movie-making equipment by Peter Jewell, and that was how Bill and Peter’s partnership began.

Some of these early films might be described as holiday home movies but many were refined, complex and professional in plot and execution, with classical literary influences.

But with storyline narratives many are silent films which embraced the most ancient form of mime/story telling. I would argue these films formed the celluloid foundations of the epic work which was to mature in Bill to earn immortality within the genre of international art cinema.

And so significant are these works that around 20 of the short (Super8) films have been preserved and some represented, initially within the new documentary about Bill and Peter entitled My Best Friend by Hopscotch films which was launched in Venice in September 2023 and was screened in Glasgow recently.

The National: Scotland’s  unending renaissance

This film and the 8mm short films are receiving public exposure this year in various locations. Scots film animator Norman MacLaren commented in 1975: “The spoken word is often used to adulterate and rob the cinema of its purity.”

Bill would have seen MacLaren’s Oscar winning outrageously poignant animation entitled Neighbours (1951) and other classic artworks, such as A Chairy Tale. Did he identify with how territorial tribalism can quickly revert to competitive possession and social conflict?

Alan: I can’t imagine otherwise.

Kenny: We can also fairly assume Bill would have known the work of Robert Flaherty’s such as the early epics, Man of Aran, (on which Watt worked), Nanook of the North, Mona and The Louisiana Story. Each reveals an introduction to diverse global culture, community life and a struggle for economic survival – impacted by western explorers. Now in this voyeuristic 21st-century world it’s difficult to imagine how informative and fantastic these early films would have been viewed.

Alan: Vital information of the sort we need simply to help us to live.

Kenny: That’s it.

Alan: It isn’t the aesthete’s empire of exclusive attentiveness, it’s a common world where the aesthetic devices and effects of film share the purpose and are part of a vision somehow shared and held by so many artists, across centuries.

Film is one of the strategies of the arts but all the arts share a vision, in their different ways, of what truth is, and how it can be told.

Kenny: In my own research I’ve attempted to reveal how “creative free thinking” enables artists and in particular these two Edinburgh-born film-makers, Harry Watt and Bill Douglas, and in Bill’s case through extreme struggle, to successfully complete films. Both worked in Australia, albeit 40 years apart. Their experiences there reveal some unexpected details.

They were from extremely different social family backgrounds and yet they were both fascinated by portraying the essence of human relationships. Especially within the social spirit of folk, working with non-actors, and their struggle in society throughout history, the gradual challenge of minority groups demanding their democratic rights and the lengthy conflicts with state control undertaken to seek equal rights and universal liberation.

Bill Douglas survived, with difficulty, in a dysfunctional family which was bonded to the feudal control of a coal mining community and overlord in Newcraighall. National Service with the RAF in 1954 took him physically and mentally to another place – Egypt – and it was in his fortunate meeting with Peter that he realised a form of re-invention and the discovery of a unique creative future, albeit with very hard-won filmic commissions and desperately poor financial support for his individualistic projects. As with many creative Scots, their work has gained more appreciation, recognition and acclaim outwith Britain.

Alan: It’s a familiar story. The first international conferences on the work of Alasdair Gray and Hugh MacDiarmid were held at the University of Western Brittany in Brest in 2012 and 2023 respectively, led by a professor there, Camille Manfredi. I wonder if Scotland will ever really wake up to the treasures we have here, always have had, and should be responsible for. I’ve said it before: We do what we can.