Alan Riach talks to Kenneth Munro, filmmaker, archivist, sculptor, about his rediscovery and championship of the filmmaker Bill Douglas

Alan: The Bill Douglas trilogy of films, My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978) is one of the classics of modern cinema. His feature film, Comrades (1986) remains undervalued, and his unproduced film scripts include Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1988), based on James Hogg’s 1824 novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which this year is being noted for its 200th birthday. Kenny, where should we start? There’s something happening this week…

Kenny: Yes. There’s the new documentary, Bill Douglas – My Best Friend by Hopscotch Films, which will be launched at 6.15pm this coming Friday, March 8, at the Glasgow Film Theatre as part of Glasgow Film Festival.

It’s an exploration of the influences which highlight the international significance of Scots filmmaker Bill Douglas (1934-91). And although fellow filmmaker Harry Watt (1906- 1987) is not featured in the new film I’m introducing him as a key figure with his empathy for Bill Douglas as examined in an essay which I’m writing for the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter, essentially presenting many links and bringing both film artists back into focus.

Alan: Where did it all begin for you?

Kenny: It all came about as a result of my finding a “dog-eared” set of compact paperback editions of the Penguin Film Review in a charity shop, published in the 1940s. (Copies of which are held in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum). Pocket-sized, with a strong series of essays presented by professionals of the day and illustrated with powerful dramatic photographs which are gems of the period.

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Issue nine from 1949 caught my eye with its essays by Edgar Anstey, Eric Ambler and Catherine de la Roche, to name a few. However, Harry Watt’s essay, “You have to start from Scratch in Australia”. was the first chapter which drew me in and has led me on to present historic comparisons plus a link to film-making in Australia where I spent some time in 2000 to 2001. They were two original tellers of celluloid tales, and there was a sense of mutual respect.

Bill’s childhood challenges drove him to escape into the dream-world of local cinemas; however, I doubt if Harry Watt ever used a “jam-jar” as currency to enter a Picture House!

Alan: Going back to Bill Douglas’s early life, then, that was where this vision began to take shape for him. It’s a complex and fairly well-documented, this idea of his solitary imagination…

Kenny: Yes, but it’s important to mention that he also took part in community plays, as a youngster, and would have seen back-green Gala-Day dramas and the smoke and shadow-play games created around bonfires at Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night.

The spectacle of miners in Newcraighall descending the coal-shaft, to work under the Firth of Forth, and the robotic animated nature of local steam train traffic gave grist to his fertile mind.

The steam train symbolised a means of escape; desperate on one occasion he asked the way to get to England! With hindsight this was profound as he eventually travelled and found freedom.

Alan: You have to get out of Scotland, at least for a while, to see it clearly.

Kenny: Yes, and Bill’s journey to Egypt in 1954 is where he first found freedom and met his creative mentor and life-long friend Peter Jewell as part of their National Service.

In London, with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Bill presented new plays and had some success in television. This was expanded by inventing theatrical plots for his early filmmaking and he became a master of the use of visual symbolism, with sparse dialogue, and mise-en-scene set pieces seen from unusual vantage points.

Much of this was honed at The London Film School as he was exploring the medium further by creating a diverse collection of 8mm films in the 1960s due to a prescient gift of a movie camera and editing equipment from his best friend Peter Jewell.

Another friend, Helen Crummy, originator of the Craigmillar Festival Society, once told me that Bill continued to keep in touch with her and his Village by investing financially in local creative events/productions realised in the dramatically changing community of Newcraighall, near Edinburgh, despite living hundreds of miles away.

Alan: That’s a long connection, and a deep one.

Kenny: There’s a quotation from Peter Jewell, Bill’s life-long friend, when discussing the Italian film, Il Mare (1962), by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, with Andy Kimpton Nye, that comes to my mind: “films were something you could dive into and swim around in, and grow to love.” The film which became an obsession is examined in an essay which explores its enduring meaning for the two friends in the recent book: Bill Douglas – A Film Artist (University of Exeter Press, 2022).

The National:

Bill and Peter’s first filmic collaborations took the form of experimenting to create twenty 8mm short films in the 1960s, many of them conceived as silent compositions, an eclectic mix.

A few were produced with soundtracks which survive but most are un-synchronised and some tracks have been lost. But at least one film has now been re - acquainted with its soundtrack.

Alan: There’s more to be done…

Kenny: I believe it would be significant if the 8mm Douglas-Jewell film collection could be freely accessible to view by enthusiasts, academics and the general public alike. These film-poems tell the story of an emerging artist in collaboration with his partner who both had an insatiable inventive aptitude. Bill’s most memorable student film was Come Dancing, created when he was enrolled at London Film School in 1969.

It reflects on his passion for Griffi’s Il Mare, with multi-layered scenarios and it’s a precursor to his later films, with its often mute observational symbolism. Nevertheless both men had always recognised the audio-power of filmic storytelling which had been enhanced and given momentum by the rhythm of poetry and music.

Alan: And at that time, there was the rising, competing, or complementary medium of TV…

Kenny: Television was emerging as a vehicle for the arts and this was given an inventive profile with the “conceptually original” films of composers and artists and “Creators of Everything” by Ken Russell for the Monitor series with Huw Wheldon in the 1960s, which set a new poetic and experimental format presenting short films for cinema and television.

More than 20 films were made, and most have survived. One focused on the Scottish artists Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, in 1959. That collection of films must have inspired the early ideas of Bill and Peter as Ken Russell’s work stimulated a new audience for the arts.

Alan: I’ve seen that film. It is truly extraordinary, a double portrait, dynamic and both funny and tragic, I think of these two Scottish artists as very significant artists badly neglected today – as so many of our finest artists in whatever field still remain.

Kenny: There’s a much earlier, large-screen exploration well expressed in the 1936 film Night Mail in which Harry Watt had a major production role, with John Grierson’s team.

Alan: And for which, I have heard, Hugh MacDiarmid was originally invited to write the voice-over poem…

Kenny: Another innovative film of that period which resonates with drama and almost predicts the work of Watt and Douglas is the 1937 classic The Edge of the World by Michael Powell.

Significantly, later in Harry’s career, he recognised and identified with the unique emerging talent of Bill Douglas, in the early 1970s. This is mentioned in Watt’s autobiography Don’t look at the Camera (published in 1974 and reckoned to be the first major published reference to Bill Douglas by an international filmmaker).

Watt expresses regret as he refers to the traditional values within the movie industry as dying in the 1960s, despite the raw ambitions of Cinema Verité.


He confesses that: “The truth is that if we had indulged in real social criticism to any extent, we would immediately have been without sponsorship and our whole experiment, which was artistically a fine one, would have been finished. So we compromised.”

Alan: That’s the story today, even more urgently, perhaps. Freedom of speech, informed opinion, rather than prejudiced rambling or ranting, is under so much threat, sometimes mortal threat.

Kenny: Bill surely understood how often the arts are emasculated by funding agencies. Harry’s recognition of Bill as part of a new breed of film-makers comes on page 193 of his autobiography from 1974, held in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at Exeter. “There are still glimpses of hope. Quite recently, Ken Loach opened the way again for using amateur actors in films of feature length and shocked that most constipated of bodies, Cinema Exhibitors, when Kes became an unexpected box-office smash.

And in 1972 this Scots boy, Bill Douglas, having been given a few quid to experiment with by the British Film Institute, came up with a staggeringly realistic and moving film My Childhood…”

Alan: The first of his Trilogy…

Kenny: “…Using the actual people of his mining village, he combined our old technique of dramatic reconstruction with the modern freedom of shooting to give an unforgettable picture of poverty in our time.

“He is a boy we must watch and help, because a first success is a heavy burden to bear.”

Even now, fifty years later, I find this a very emotional assessment of Bill’s film by a man who had already had a very successful career working with John Grierson and as part of the Ealing Studios. Clearly Harry strongly identified with Bill – but did he actually try to physically help “The Scots Boy”? There were some that could have helped and didn’t but there are many who wanted to help and did.

Alan: I’m wondering who you’re referring to…

Kenny: Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994), the director of This Sporting Life (1963) and If… (1968), also had Scots ancestry and encouraged Bill during the realisation of his autobiographical film trilogy in the 1970s and is credited on the films.

Consistently, others, since, have recognised Bill’s strident and uncompromising visual language, He’s been referred to as one of Scotland’s most original film-makers and there are many international awards that testify to his achievements.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the most notable contemporary filmmakers who follows Bill’s footsteps. But in this country, there are still some critics that seem only to experience unrelenting struggle and oppression exuding from the Douglas films rather than a true portrayal of the essence of life.

And we might consider qualities of iconography similarly expressed in the integrity of Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Kay, the 18th-century Scots etcher, or go further and think of Courbet and Vermeer.

I wonder too if Bill and Harry’s work has been examined in relation to contrasting novelists such as Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot, or Andrew O’Hagan and Irvine Welsh?

Alan: More work to be done!

Kenny: There is still much to gather from artists who have gone before and fresh discoveries to make as part of the expanding Douglas film catalogue. And for those requiring more breadth and excitement, this will be provided when viewing the often joyous, hilarious and downright inventive charm of Bill’s early pioneering 8mm films, created in the 1960s with Peter and friends.

Alan: And these are coming up at the GFT…

Kenny: Yes. Recently restored and showing this year at Glasgow’s Short Film Festival at 8.30pm on March 20 at the GFT.

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The new, in-depth documentary Bill Douglas: My Best Friend was first screened at The Venice Festival in September 2023 and is also being presented at Glasgow Film Festival.

And despite Harry Watt’s considerable achievements and output which surpasses Bill’s in quantity, there is still, I feel, a sense that Harry’s personal contribution is overlooked, certainly in the context of the early works which were achieved as part of a team with folk like Flaherty, Grierson and Balcon.

However, films are produced as a form of creative collaboration. But now there has been a renaissance of documentary film production. The seeds of which have been encouraged by many personalities such as Jim Wilson (1923-2019) and Murray Grigor as pioneers of docu/drama productions with BBC Scotland in the 1960s-1970s.

In relation to this there has been a lobby action to persuade BBC Scotland to enable public access to the rich film Archive held by BBC. One suggestion is a “Transfer Agreement” with The Moving Image Archive.

Alan: There’s more to be done.

Kenny: Always. And to think that all this was conceived by a fruitful visit to the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge, Edinburgh in December 2023!

That’s a special charity shop with a stimulating cabinet of curiosities, and always worth revisiting.