Bill Douglas

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You could do much worse this Saturday afternoon than head to the Barbican for a rare screening of the work of one of late twentieth-century Britain‘s great forgotten filmmakers

Bill Douglas
'My Childhood'
On Saturday, the remarkable ‘Bill Douglas Trilogy’ will show at the Barbican. The Scottish director has been hailed as a visionary of British cinema and the short-ish films of his trilogy (just shy of three hours in total) have been described as lost classics and named in one survey as the greatest films ever to have come out of Scotland. There was a BFI Southbank season of Douglas’s work earlier this year, but still the ‘Trilogy’ is not often seen, unavailable on DVD, and has more or less passed by a generation of cinema-goers.

The ‘Trilogy’ films are autobiographical to the core, each stamped with the possessive ‘My’ – ‘My Childhood’ (1972), ‘My Ain Folk’ (1973) and ‘My Way Home’ (1978). Douglas, like his alter-ego Jamie (played by Stephen Archibald throughout), grew up hungry and rejected in a Scottish mining village, shunted between his family and a children’s home. ‘My Childhood’ opens during World War II, and Jamie is living with his brother, Tommy and their granny. In our time of plenty – or at least plenty of stuff – their bare house looks Victorian in its poverty. In a series of scenes, powerful in their stillness, Jamie goes out scavenging for coal, plays with a German PoW and is taken to see his mother in an asylum.

He and Tommy fight like little savages, going at each other ferociously, though later we watch as Tommy curls an arm, cub-like, around his brother’s shoulders. It’s certainly bleak (Douglas was refused funding in Scotland on the grounds that the film did not show a ‘forward-thinking’ country). But Douglas gives us moments of soaring beauty. Towards the end of ‘My Way Home’, Jamie clambers onto a bridge as a steam train passes underneath. There he is at the top of his world, engulfed in the warm steam, only his arms visible as he reaches for the heavens. It’s a stunning piece of poetic vérité and ‘Trilogy’ is alive with these lyrical bursts (unsurprisingly in retrospect, Lynne Ramsay cited Douglas as an influence on her 1999 film ‘Ratcatcher’).

The boys who played Jamie and Tommy in the films, Stephen Archibald and Hughie Restorick, were real-life friends. They met Douglas by chance at an Edinburgh bus stop while skiving off school. The director was on his way to a local school to cast the film’s two young brothers, but straight away offered the two boys pestering him for a drag of his cigarette £4 each to appear in his film. The talkative and more confident of the two would be Tommy and his taciturn friend would play Jamie, a version of Douglas himself as a child. The two errant truants were only allowed off school two days a week for the three-week shoot, but Douglas couldn’t keep them away. ‘They did not want to go to school,’ he later said. ‘Seeing the children visibly improving themselves, I chose to break the law.’ On a budget of £3,000, Douglas shot the film in his hometown of Newcraighall near Edinburgh, casting villagers, with even Hughie Restorick’s mum working on the set, arranging the props. The director would acquire a reputation for being difficult to work with, due in part to the strain of recreating childhood so intimately. Lindsay Anderson wrote, ‘Film-making was a kind of agony for Bill because, particularly at the start, his films were torn out of himself.’

The second film, ‘My Ain Folk’ (1973), opens in a shock of Technicolor; Tommy is watching ‘Lassie Come Home’ at the cinema: the sight of Lassie on a cliff overlooking a lush, green pine forest to a swooning soundtrack says everything about escaping life while at the pictures. In an essay, ‘Palace of Dreams’, Douglas described foraging as a kid for jam jars – two bought the price of a ticket to the Pavillion. In the film, the brothers’ granny is dead and Tommy is put in a children’s home. Jamie goes to live with his father and paternal grandmother, a vicious old puritan who is nevertheless prone to bouts of drunken mawkishness. In the third film, ‘My Way Home’, Jamie finds redemption out of Newcraighall. Douglas waited a few years until Stephen Archibald, his ‘left arm’, was old enough to play Jamie in his late teens, stationed with the Royal Air Force in Egypt. There he meets Robert, a wry middle-class Englishman who introduces him to books and art. His equivalent in Douglas’s life was Peter Jewell, who would become a lifelong friend and later paid for him to go to film school.

Before his death in 1991, Douglas completed one more film, ‘Comrades’, the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Dorset farm labourers who were transported to Australia in the 1930s for starting a union. That he made just four films may well account for Douglas being overlooked in recent years. And yet these are four extraordinary films, made by a director with a unique vision.

The Bill Douglas Trilogy is at the Barbican on Oct 27 at 2.15pm

Author: Time Out



Users say

2 comments
Jennifer Douglas
Jennifer Douglas

The Trilogy is being released (at last!!) on DVD this June (2008). It's currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Comrades should be available on DVD by the end of this year.

bert
bert

i have all three films on video. did anyone ever turn these into dvd?



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