Phil Wickham and Amelia Watts are interviewed about their newly published book, Bill Douglas: A Film Artist, by Helen Hanson (Exeter Studies in Film History series editor and Associate Professor in Film History at Exeter University).
Bill Douglas only made a handful of films. Why do you think a new look at his work was needed over 30 years after his death and how have the films stood up to the test of time?
It is true that Bill Douglas’s output as a filmmaker was very small. His career comprises one graduation short, three films ranging from 48 to 72 minutes that form his Trilogy and his three-hour historical epic Comrades. However the impact of these films has been considerable; not in commercial terms but in the response to them by many people who have seen them and their influence on other filmmakers. Harry Eyles in the Financial Times said “Bill Douglas was one in a million and that one in a million can make all the difference”.
Bill Douglas in Fever
The only previous book dedicated to his work, Bill Douglas: A Lanternist’s Account, was published thirty years ago, just after his death. Many of the contributors knew him. We felt that thirty years later there were important new things to say from different voices, including younger people who had discovered the films in recent years. We also wanted to consider Douglas’s legacy since his death and ask how the films have been seen, what are their critical status, and also how has the way we analyse and talk about films and filmmakers changed over this time. So we felt the films, while few, are still significant; if anything time has made them seem more important and Douglas can be recognised as a unique cinematic voice. The final chapter in the book is by Professor Duncan Petrie, who offers continuity as one of the editors of the earlier book on Bill Douglas from 1993. He looks at Douglas’s critical reputation over this time, and how his films and story have become part of the narrative of filmmaking in Scotland, the UK and internationally. In 2013-14 the films were distributed in both cinemas and on DVD in France, for instance, to huge acclaim.
What new approaches to his films do the contributors to the book make?
We have tried to assemble a collection that looks at Bill Douglas’s art from a multitude of angles and styles. Andrew Gordon has researched the impact of the Trilogy on local people who were involved in the production. The films were inspired by Bill’s own childhood, and he shot them in his home village of Newcraighall, just outside Edinburgh. Andrew went through some of the correspondence the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds that was sent to Bill from the families involved in the film and looked into the impact on the boys cast in the leads, Stephen Archibald and Hughie Restorick, and their parents (particularly Hughie Restorick’s mother Elsie, who was hired to work on the films as a set decorator) on the production and the ambivalent response to Bill’s portrayal of the Newcraighall he remembered. Jamie Chambers, who is a filmmaker as well as an academic, combines theory with knowledge of practice to take a close-up look at the filmmaking style of the Trilogy and the decisions that Bill Douglas made that created a unique cinematic vision. In considering Comrades, a film that is both very different in conception and scope to the Trilogy but shares the same sense of vision, craft and the importance of the film frame, Cara Fraser looks at the way the film borrow ideas from the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, creating a film where the audience is made conscious of the way in which the story is being told. David Archibald takes the contemporary approach of seeing the film as part of the history of the spectator, in his case, through the prism of his own viewing of the film at different stages of his life and as part of the way in which his politics have been formed. There are still many further ways in which Bill’s films can be considered, few though they are, because they are such rich sources. He had such a clear idea in his head of the image he wanted on screen and each image often resonates and is linked with another at a different point in the film; what he called ‘echoes’. We were also delighted that the renowned filmmaker Mark Cousins agreed to contribute a foreword to the book: Mark’s films and writing have emphasised the poetry of cinema and he has always cited Bill Douglas’s work as an example of the power of the image. Here he says of Bill, ‘You are continuing to teach me’, and his foreword is very moving on the impact the films can have on those that view them.
Still from My Way Home
What was it like having two editors? How did you work together with each other and with contributors while developing the book?
Phil: From my point of view it worked extremely well. Amelia had been working in the museum with us, looking at our holdings on Bill Douglas for her PhD so we had been working together on the subject for a while. We shared editing and our skills complemented each other, I felt, and Amelia’s clear eye for detail and her deep knowledge of the material was essential for the project.
Amelia: I agree entirely. I thought we each brought different skills to the process that really aided the smooth running of the project, giving us the opportunity to divide tasks and responsibilities well. As this was my first experience of writing for publication, I really appreciated Phil’s experience of academic publishing; his writing ability combined with his knowledge on Bill Douglas was invaluable. Phil was great at keeping in regular communication with each of the contributors too.
The book makes a point of looking beyond the films themselves and has chapters on his collection, his archive, and his amateur filmmaking. Why did you think they were important to consider?
Amelia Watts, the co-editor, has just completed a PhD putting Bill’s Douglas’s work in the context of the film industry in the 1970s and 1980s through the working papers that we hold here at the museum. Most of these came from Bill himself, via his friend Peter Jewell, but some also originated from the designer, continuity supervisor and editor on Comrades and the funding organisations and producers with whom he worked. Much of this material had not been accessed previously, so Amelia’s chapter is able to offer a unique insight into the making of the films in context.
The collection that Bill and Peter put together is vital to understanding his life and work. It was as much a part of his artistic expression as his filmmaking. Together the friends aimed to create something that would represent the history of moving images across the three centuries, and in particular, the impact of what they saw on the audience. As the use of items from the collection in Comrades showed, they can offer a new way of seeing the world. Phil’s chapter looks at how the collection reflected the way in which he thought about film but also how the collection was always intended to be shared with everyone as a tribute to the power of moving images, and the transformative effect they had had on him and that could happen to any of us.
Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell with items from their collection
Andy Kimpton-Nye writes about two other facets of Bill’s life. One is he and Peter’s favourite film, the now little-known Il Mare (1963), an Italian drama set on Capri by Guisseppe Patroni Griffi. He discovers with Peter the impact the film had on them and how it proved an influence on Bill’s own cinematic vision. He also writes about the home movies that Bill and Peter made from 1966-68, before Bill went to the London Film school. These had never been seen before and Peter was always quite disparaging about them, quoting Bill saying that ‘they taught me what not to do’. However, Andy digitised them from 8mm and looked at again they were absolutely fascinating, showing a filmmaker getting to know the medium and eventually finding a strong and ambitious voice, with hints of the talent to come. They also shed a new light on his life; far from being the dour and difficult figure that he has sometimes been characterised, here we see him laughing and joking with his friends in the Soho of the ‘60s.
All these aspects beyond his film texts add to the story of Bill Douglas. Just to analyse what we see on screen limits how we can conceive his contribution to cinema.
The book is called Bill Douglas: A Film Artist and states it has ambition to think more broadly about the artist in film. Can you say more about this and what you think the role of the artist can be in cinema?
Yes, we felt this was important – there has been much debate recently in film studies about the privileging of the artist (usually the director) in cinema and how they have been indulged in the past. Much of this is right, of course; cinema is a collaborative medium and many people make invaluable contributions to a film, not just the director. Bill Douglas is a fascinating case study that complicates this discussion, however. As we describe in the book, many other people were vital in Bill’s work making it to the screen, but it is also true that what we see is shaped by his distinctive vision; they really couldn’t be anyone else’s vision, and that is as true of Comrades as it is of the Trilogy, which was inspired by his own youth. That did however come at a price – as Chambers and others have pointed out, the process of making films and the compromises that it entailed was tortuous for Bill and frequently therefore very difficult for others involved, so it begs the question of whether it is possible to be an artist, as Bill aspired to be, and work in the film industry. Bill Douglas’s work is important enough to warrant a new book but also his career brings up broader questions about film culture that need to be considered.
Discover more about Bill Douglas: A Film Artist and order your copy here.
 Eyres, Harry. “Cinematic Poetry.” The Financial Times. 5 September 2009