Obituary: Anne Balfour-Fraser, film producer and singer

Film producer and singer. Picture: Contributed
Film producer and singer. Picture: Contributed
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Film producer and singer. Born: 10 August, 1923 in Worthing. Died: 28 July, 2016, in Oxfordshire, aged 92.

The pioneering spirit was in her genes: her great aunt had been a suffragette, jailed for her cause, and her mother, a founder member of the Women’s Voluntary Services, was a qualified surgeon.

So when Anne Balfour-Fraser found herself a single parent with a toddler daughter to support, she had the innate flair and fortitude needed to face the future – firstly as a singer at La Scala and later running an Oscar and Bafta-nominated film company.

During her production career she harnessed the talents of a young Sean Connery for one of her first short films and specialised in documentaries, making numerous public information films, many of which are still remembered today. But she was also passionate about anti-slavery and the status of women – one of her films involved crossing the Sahara for Women of the Toubou, a portrait of the desert’s oldest nomadic tribe that focused on their women’s equality and endurance. Other productions featured such diverse subjects as Simone de Beauvoir, planned parenthood and the English artist Turner.

But films were a second choice for the young Anne, daughter of Brigadier Edward William Sturgis Balfour 9th of Balbirnie and Lady Ruth Balfour, a surgeon, who had been determined to become an opera singer.

She grew up at Balbirnie, where she was nicknamed Annie Get Your Gun by the gamekeeper as a result of her excellent shooting skills, and was educated at St Leonard’s School, St Andrews. During the Second World War she worked in a laboratory of an aircraft repair factory, analysing aluminium from crashed planes.

In the run-up to the war her mother, who was one of the first women to study at Cambridge and worked as a doctor during much of the First World War, had been contacted by Lady Reading who was involved in setting up a woman’s organisation which would work closely with the Home Office. Lady Ruth, president of the National Council of Women of Great Britain, was invited to sit on the advisory council of what became the Women’s Voluntary Services, a body that recruited a million women to help in the event of war.

After the Allies’ victory, Anne Balfour went on to study singing at the Royal Academy of Music and in 1947 she married army officer, later to become General Sir, David Fraser. They had one daughter but by the early 1950s the couple were estranged and she and her little girl headed for Milan where Mrs Balfour-Fraser became a singer in the theatre chorus as La Scala.

After three years in Italy she returned to Britain and, realising that singing was not going to become a permanent career, she turned her hand to film production, something of which she had no experience. But in 1954, with Independent Cine Art production company, she produced the short film Simon, featuring Sean Connery.

She also channeled her passion for music into her enterprise Music in Miniature Films, making, among others, You Take The High Road, in 1955, a travelogue featuring Scotland and Scottish music in which she also sang.

She went on to establish another production company Balfour Films and produced more than 100 documentaries, some under the auspices of Samaritan Films, covering a wide range of subjects. She was forging a path taken by few women at that time yet her enthusiasm, optimism and entrepreneurship, no doubt in part influenced by her family heritage of groundbreaking women, led to success.

Her grandmother Lady Betty Balfour was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and president of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association in Edinburgh. She also chaired an Emmeline Pankhurst meeting in Aberdeenshire and supported the suffragette cause but was against any violence or vandalism. However Lady Betty’s sister, Balfour-Fraser’s great aunt, had other ideas. Lady Constance Lytton, well-known in the Women’s Social and Political Union, was jailed several times for breaking windows and suffered the ordeal of forced feeding on a number of occasions.

Their experiences left their mark and she upheld their convictions by voting on every election day. Issues involving women formed the subject matter for some of her films – she made a number of documentaries for the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Family Planning Association. And she was once woken in the middle of the night by an American television company with permission to make a film about Simone de Beauvoir, the French writer, activist and feminist – the only condition was that the entire crew had to be women.

Although she did not agree with all of de Beauvoir’s views she took the job, thought it was very difficult to find women camera operators, and was impressed by the Frenchwoman’s campaign for the legalisation of abortion.

Once asked if she believed women had achieved emancipation, Balfour-Fraser observed: “Women can achieve everything but it’s appallingly hard work and it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is.”

Her credits included a raft of productions for the Central Office of Information, including the 1973 film Mind How You Go in which Valerie Singleton, the Blue Peter presenter, showed children how to cross the road, and the 1971 production Never Go With Strangers, a fairly terrifying film warning children of the dire consequence of accepting sweets or lifts from strangers.

She also produced documentaries for the Arts Council of Great Britain and other bodies, including works on the English painters Turner and Ben Nicholson, and in 1977 Balfour Films produced The Shetland Experience which looked at the islands and the impact of the energy industry and which was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Bafta. Her 1988 film Kanuni Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent was a dramatised documentary of the life of the Sultan who ruled the 16th century Ottoman Empire and featured the historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich.

Beyond films, her other interests included the Anti-Slavery Council, now Anti-Slavery International, for which she worked tirelessly. She was also a crack shot, loved the desert, excitement and adventure and France, where she shared a house with a friend.

Latterly she lived in an Oxfordshire cottage, where she loved gardening, but is being laid to rest in Fife where many of the Balfour family are buried.

She is survived by her daughter Antonia, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.