Shooting star: The untold story of the cinematic genius that was Bill Douglas

Bill Douglas in Edinburgh in 1972
Bill Douglas in Edinburgh in 1972
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He has been ranked alongside Orson Welles as one of the world’s greatest film directors. But few have ever heard of Bill Douglas. Now plans are under way to shed light on one of Scotland’s finest artistic talents

BILL Douglas was dying. Scotland’s finest film-maker – of whom, sadly, many have never heard – was wrapped up in a wheelchair in the living room of the Devon home of Peter Jewell, his closest friend of 40 years. It was June 1991, a glorious summer, and after a day spent in the sunshine, examining their favourite pieces from an extensive collection of cinema memorabilia and historical items, the pair settled down to watch a movie. For Douglas, a lifetime’s passion for the cinema, which began at The Pavilion in Musselburgh – where jam jars paid for a ticket – and continued with screenings of his own films at the Venice Film Festival, where he won the Silver Lion, ended with Pay Day, a short film by Charlie Chaplin.

“I don’t know if he understood a lot of it, he was heavily medicated,” Jewell says. “But he had the most beatific smile on his face.”

In many ways, it was fitting that the last film Douglas saw was by Chaplin, whose movies he adored and whose poverty-stricken childhood he could identify with. But while Chaplin transformed poverty into laughter with the Little Tramp, Douglas unflinchingly captured all its pain in his remarkable trilogy My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home, (1978). He would go on to direct just one more film, Comrades (1987), a three-hour epic about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of farm labourers transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a trade union. It was not a box-office smash. Yet from just four films, Douglas secured his place on the pedestal of the cinema greats.

Mark Cousins, who highlights Douglas’s work in his 15-hour epic, Odyssey: The Story of Film, says: “For me Bill Douglas is the greatest Scottish film-maker. He ranks with the greatest directors that the medium has yet produced – Orson Welles, Sergei Eisenstein, Akira Kurosawa. This is because he understands shots and cuts so completely, and because his life – its poverty, his broken family, his homosexuality, his subsequent rage – gave him great subject matter.

“People sometimes talk about him as a ‘gritty realist’, but to say that is completely to ignore the glory of his film language, the poetics of his style. He is, I believe – and I say this in The Story of Film – the master of reconciliation in cinema.

“When, after the granny in the Douglas trilogy has swigged some beer and her heart has warmed and she reaches back under the table where wee Jamie, her grandson, is sitting, it is completely moving and gorgeous. I didn’t see his films until I came to Scotland – in the MacRobert centre in Stirling. That’s where I saw Comrades, in 1987. What I remember from it, and what I saw in the trilogy too, are films which end in some kind of sunshine. In all his work sunlight or lantern light means hope or love.

“Late in the trilogy, when Jamie is abroad and has met the man to whom his heart tentatively opens up, we see again the rooms in Newcraighall which were the furnace in which his heart was smelted. Now they are bright. The pain of his life is easing. So brilliant.”

Later this month, in his hometown of Newcraighall, The Bill Douglas Weekend will take place to mark the 20th anniversary of his death and, hopefully, a rekindling of appreciation for his artistic legacy. The British Film Institute has also released both The Trilogy and Comrades on DVD, and there is hope, though tenuous (with Douglas hope is only ever thus) that his final two film scripts, one an adaptation of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Flying Horse, the story of Eadweard Muybridge, an early pioneer of cinema, may yet see the light.

The Scottish film director, Gillies Mackinnon, who made Small Faces and A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin, was sent a copy of Douglas’s script. “In the 1980s I was sent his script of James Hogg’s Justified Sinner. The producer didn’t want a word changed, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It seemed like notes to himself. I am sure Douglas would have made a beautiful film, but what he intended I could not divine.”

However, he was hugely impressed by his work: “Bill Douglas is one of the almost forgotten pioneers of Scottish cinema, like Sandy McKendrick and Norman McLaren. It would be lovely to revisit them all.”

As well as screenings of his four films and two documentaries, The Bill Douglas Weekend, which will be opened by the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, will also be used to encourage the arts among the pupils of the director’s old school.

“Bill Douglas is an inspirational character on all sorts of levels: creative, social and political,” says Kenneth Munro, the event’s organiser. “In his work there is a metaphor of escape, of getting out of the challenges he faced. We are using it as a catalyst to stimulate new work, so we are doing a short film with the local school.”

Life for the current pupils of Newcraighall Primary School is a world away from the misery into which Bill Douglas was born, illegitimate, in 1934.

The opening scene of My Childhood is of a class lustily singing the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful, but for young Bill, life was anything but. He was the son of a philanderer, “Black Jock” Douglas, and Bill’s mother was confined to a mental institution. He was raised, initially, by his maternal grandmother, but upon her death he fell into the hands of his cruel paternal grandmother. She blamed Bill for ruining her son’s life and once hit him so hard with a pot that he almost lost his eyesight. Affection only emerged when the last bottle had been consumed, when, as the film showed, she would hug and hold him and young Jamie would pray: “Please Jesus, make ma grannie drunk every night.”

For Douglas, the cinema was always an escape. As he later said: “I could get into The Pavilion for the price of two jam jars, washed or unwashed. How exactly did the jam jar system work? Well, it began with the war years when waste of anything was discouraged. Whereas before children had used the jars for target practice, now they could make it rich by returning them to the grocer (one penny each) or simply leave the business transaction to the picture house. Sometimes, when I could not find any jars, I had to sneak in by a side door.”

If the cinema provided a brief respite, national service with the RAF in Egypt provided a lifelong friend and supporter. For it was there that he first met Jewell, who instead of denigrating his ambitions replied “wow” when he confessed to wanting to become a film director.

After they returned to Britain, Douglas moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and script writer. In 1968 he enrolled in London International Film School, where he graduated with a First and a script for ‘Jamie’, which would become My Childhood. The film was shot in 1971, on a £3,000 budget, for which Douglas, as writer and director, received £150. He chose Stephen Archibald as his alter-ego, Jamie, after the schoolboy asked him for a cigarette as he waited at a bus stop on route to a local school where he had planned to find his cast.

Douglas’s reputation as a difficult director emerged from the first shoot, when – according to Mamoun Hassan, the BFI’s head of production – he grew so frustrated at his crew’s inability to capture his vision that he threw a typewriter against the wall. But Jewell says his friend has been wrongly characterised: “We were friends for 40 years and shared a flat in London for 30 years, so I wouldn’t have put up with anyone who wasn’t a very pleasant guy. He was ‘exacting’, which I think is complimentary, whereas ‘difficult’ is uncomplimentary.”

His exacting manner paid off when My Childhood won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Yet despite the critical acclaim of the next two films, he struggled to find investors to fund his movies.

Jewell says: “Bill has his own vision. He knew how he wanted the films to work and he was unconventional. He wasn’t successful commercially. He was an artist, if I dare to use that word.”

Yet despite the frustration of spending seven years toiling on Comrades, which even at the time of shooting he felt would be his last film, Douglas was relatively content. Bonded by a love of cinema, he and Jewell built a vast collection of books and artefacts related to the history of film, though they had a rule only to buy a book when it was half price or less. The autobiography of Charlie Chaplin was one of only three books which they bought at full price.

In the spring of 1991, Douglas went repeatedly to his local GP who treated him for depression when, in fact, he had cancer. By the time it was diagnosed it was too late. So, in late May he and Jewell were driven down to Devon by a friend. “We took the journey slowly and we went past Stonehenge, which seemed like a nice sort of symbolic place to pass en route and then, even better, we thought we would stop for lunch and went to Lacock Abbey. It was the home of Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography.

“Bill had never visited. There is a famous first photograph ever taken by Fox Talbot of a window at Lacock Abbey, and so I have a photograph of Bill beneath the window.”

I am curious about Douglas’s last words, but hesitate to ask. But Jewell, who will be speaking at the forthcoming weekend celebration, asked first.

“Do you want his words?”

“Well, I was going to ask”

“It wasn’t very exciting. He was in bed the evening before he died. I asked, ‘Are you comfortable, Bill?’ He said, ‘Yes’. And I like that personally because when I first met Bill, we were only 18, and 18 was very young in those days, more like 14 today, He was a bit negative. He was always a bit sorry for himself and pouring out these stories about his terrible childhood and I got very bored, very quickly and I used to tease him that he was very negative. Eventually he became very positive and I was delighted that the last word he spoke was ‘Yes’. Positive.”

• The Bill Douglas Weekend is at Craigmillar Art Centre, Newcraighall Road, Edinburgh, on 29-30 of October. The Bill Douglas Trilogy and Comrades have been released on DVD by the BFI, priced £22.99.