Obituary: John Krish, documentary film-maker

John Krish, director of documentaries that charted 20th-century life. Picture: Contributed
John Krish, director of documentaries that charted 20th-century life. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 4 December 1923, in London. Died: 7 May 2016, in London, aged 92.

John Krish was the director who made the stylish opening and closing colour credits sequences for The Avengers, the epitome of 1960s fantasy television. However, his most significant legacy was a body of documentaries charting aspects of 20th-century British life – from his early days as an assistant editor at the Crown Film Unit alongside the pioneering Humphrey Jennings to his time writing and directing productions for government and commercial sponsors.

Krish brought his own distinctive style to public-service films at a time when they were held in high regard by both audiences and the industry, making them for the Central Office of Information, armed forces, Post Office, Coal Board, NSPCC, National Union of Teachers and others.

He always looked for ways of ensuring that his films were more entertaining or stimulating than the commissions sounded and enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with producer Leon Clore while making documentaries for the COI (previously named the Ministry of Information).

“I was never handed a brief by a civil servant that would make a film,” Krish revealed in a 2013 interview. “And, because I had the backing of Leon Clore, who was not anxious to please the sponsor but anxious to have the best possible film, I was at liberty to suggest an alternative. This is what I did every single time.”

Krish’s best-loved documentary was The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), a homage to London’s trams – although the sentimentality in this short was in direct contravention to the briefing he was given by producer Edgar Anstey, head of British Transport Films.

Anstey insisted that the unit’s remit was to look to future technology, not reminisce about the past, but Krish had film of London’s last tram journey shot and added to it specially written nostalgic music and a music-hall song, as well as a narration conjecturing about the driver’s reflections on a lost era.

As a result, he was sacked, although The Elephant Will Never Forget became one of British Transport Films’ most popular releases and his career continued unabated. Although not overtly political, he began making documentaries with a message.

Captured (1959) was particularly shocking, with its account of how British prisoners were brainwashed during the Korean War, including a disturbing scene showing the horror of waterboarding. Classified as “restricted”, the film was not seen by the public for 45 years.

Shocking in other ways – and earning Krish the nickname “Dr Death” – were Sewing Machine (1973), in which a girl is hit by a car as she runs across the road, Searching (1974), with the cries of children trying to escape from a burning house, Drive Carefully, Darling (1975), ending with a fatal car crash, and The Finishing Line (1977), discouraging children from playing on railway tracks.

Krish addressed society’s growing indifference to the other end of the age spectrum in I Think They Call Him John (1964), a compassionate documentary about a widower living alone in a large block of London flats.

John Jeffrey Krish was born in London, the son of Russian-Jewish emigré Serge, a classical pianist and conductor originally from Łódź, in Poland, and Jessie (née Konskier). Krish’s ambition was to be a musician, like his father, but he received no encouragement.

He felt inspired to go into film-making after seeing the “verse commentary” sequence marrying poet WH Auden’s words with Benjamin Britten’s music to the rhythms of the train in Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s celebrated 1936 documentary Night Mail, about the Travelling Post Office from London to Glasgow, although Krish personally regarded the rest of it as “dull”.

So he went to the Denham studio of the Crown Film Unit, asked for a job and was taken on by the organisation that had been set up as the GPO Film Unit by the “father of documentary” John Grierson, then renamed and transferred to the Ministry of Information on the outbreak of war.

After starting as second assistant-cum-runner to Harry Watt while he was directing Target for Tonight (1941), about a British bombing raid over Germany, Krish moved to the cutting room as an assistant to the film editors on wartime documentaries such as Listen to Britain (1942) and Coastal Command (1943).

However, he was then called up for Second World War service and became a light anti-aircraft guns instructor. When he fell ill, he was posted to the Army Film Unit at Pinewood Studios, where he was an editor on productions such as The True Glory (1945).

As demand for public-information films fell by the late 1970s, Krish spent more time making commercials for brands such as Guinness, Nescafe, Kleenex, Dettol and Citroen.

His fourth wife, actress Carole (née Mowlam), died in 2012. He is survived by the three children of his second marriage, Justin, a film editor, Julia, a barrister and judge, and Rachel, a fundraiser.