Scotsman Obituaries: Colin Young, film academic

Colin Young, film academic. Born April 5 1927 in Glasgow. Died November 27 2021 in Ivy Hatch, Kent, aged 94

Saturday matinee visits helped Colin Young develop a love of film
Saturday matinee visits helped Colin Young develop a love of film

The son of a Glasgow confectioner, Colin Young became head of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) film school and theatre arts department in the 1960s and the founding director of the National Film School in Buckinghamshire in 1970, an initiative that proved instrumental in revitalising the British film industry.

The National Film School produced a flood of new creative talent into a seemingly dying industry, including Bill Forsyth, the Scottish writer-director of Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, and the Oscar-winning animator Nick Park.

Young had a particular passion for documentary and the freedom it gave filmmakers. He once remarked “If you know the ending before you start your film, you’re in big trouble.”

His time in California coincided with a dramatic upheaval in American society. While leading a team of student filmmakers at a protest against the Vietnam War, he found himself scrambling up a tree in an attempt to escape an aggressive policeman, who proceeded to poke him with his night stick as best he could from his position below.

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His students at UCLA included Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather movies and part of what is now regarded as a golden generation of American directors, and Jim Morrison, the talismanic, but ill-fated singer in The Doors.

“He used to collect all sorts of odd people,” said Terry Macartney-Filgate, a Canadian documentary maker who taught at UCLA. “Anyone who interested him could get in the programme.”

Both at UCLA and at Beaconsfield Young was noted for his laid-back, free-wheeling style. There was no set curriculum. Although he ran successful film schools on both sides of the Atlantic, he was a great believer in people just getting out and learning by experience – but with the knowledge that at film school they could get it wrong, whereas there was no such latitude for newcomers in the industry itself. While at UCLA Young set up a pioneering programme to encourage Black, Hispanic and Native American documentary makers.

Back in the UK, he was director of the National Film School at the old Beaconsfield film studios – later renamed the National Film and Television School – from 1970 until he reached the then-statutory retirement age of 65 in 1992.

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A familiar, bearded figure at Edinburgh Film Festival, Young served as its chairman from 1976 to 1991. His contributions to film culture and education and to the development of observational documentary were recognised when he was made an OBE in 1976 and a CBE in 1994.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts honoured him with their top awards, the Michael Balcon Award in 1983 and a fellowship in 1993.

Colin Young was born in Glasgow in 1927. His father had a sweet shop and Young himself developed a particular liking for nougat, rock and fudge. He also developed an early love of movies at Saturday matinees.

He attended Bellahouston Academy and studied French and German at Glasgow University, with the intention of becoming a journalist, specifically a foreign correspondent. He was the first in his family to attend university.

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By the time he was called up for service in the Second World War the Germans had already surrendered. His middle-class origins among this batch of late recruits were betrayed during basic training at the Gordon Barracks in Aberdeen by the fact that he was the only one in his section who had brought pyjamas. He served as an intelligence officer at a POW camp in East Anglia.

Subsequently he did a degree in Philosophy and Morals at St Andrews, where he also served as president of the university Labour club.

He worked initially for the Aberdeen Bon-Accord and Northern Pictorial weekly newspaper, where he got an early opportunity at film reviewing, though his scathing critiques did not go down well with the local cinemas and the gig proved short-lived.

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He lived for a while in Switzerland, working at a village for war orphans, and Sweden, where he was a machine operator in a ball-bearing factory and became friends with Olof Palme, who went on to become Prime Minister and was assassinated in 1986.

After sailing to America, he worked as a gardener in California to fund studies in Theatre Arts at UCLA, starting off as a student and ending up teaching.

He had a brief period working in the scripts department at MGM before returning to UCLA to teach and run the film and theatre arts programmes. He also wrote on film and had a decades-long association with Film Quarterly magazine, where his writing met with a more favourable response than it had when he wrote reviews for the Aberdeen Bon-Accord.

After leaving the National Film School, he set up ACE, the Ateliers du Cinéma Européen, a training centre in Paris for European producers. He was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987.

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While at UCLA he met and married his first wife Kristin Ohman and they had two children. They later divorced and he married Conny Templeman, a documentary-maker he met at the National Film School in England when she was a student.

He is survived by his second wife and four children, two from each marriage.

Obituaries

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