Alan Riach drives his conversation with Kenneth Munro – sculptor, film-maker, archivist – forward to a challenging question...

Alan Riach: Over the last three weeks, Kenny, our conversation has been leading us to one major conclusion. There is a real contemporary need and value for a more democratised approach to exploring film archives. Looking at some of the comments we’ve gathered online, there’s clearly a growing momentum and a will of common sense to bring this about.

Kenny Munro: A synchronicity thing happened again the other day when I was heading up Byres Road to meet you. In another Oxfam charity shop I picked up a DVD of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), described as “The best ever filmed opera”.

It’s truly hypnotic. Even with the sound turned off, this is powerful storytelling with an often surreal visual treatment and the fabulous Moira Shearer in the lead. Spell-binding! Yet how often have we seen it, or The Red Shoes for that matter, on terrestrial television? It was my first viewing of this film.

Alan: I remember seeing so many wonderful European films on BBC2 in the 1970s. Simply by turning on the TV, you could have an education in film, almost as if by accident. Why doesn’t that happen any more?

Kenny: My introduction to Powell and Pressburger films was A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), both films with subtle, veiled references to polymath Sir Patrick Geddes.

Apparently, actor Finlay Currie had read about Geddes and maybe visited the Camera Obscura, Geddes’s Outlook Tower, and mentioned this to Powell and Pressburger. There are clues in the films, mention of a Professor Culpepper’s Camera Obscura gives you the link to the historic botanist/ecologist Culpepper, who was known to Geddes.

So there’s a curious connection from Powell and Pressburger, with Dirk Bogarde playing Major Patrick Leigh Fermor in their film Night Ambush (also known as Ill Met by Moonlight”, 1957) and the significant fact Bogarde spent three challenging years “studying” (so to speak) at a technical college in Glasgow, as a youngster, in the early 1930s.

In his autobiography from 1977 he tells us he first decided on an acting career when watching his godmother performing on stage in the King’s Theatre at the end of Bath Street. I was walking past it the other day, going to the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) to meet Peter Jewell and his friend Ian.

Alan: When I worked in New Zealand, from 1986-2000, there was a great spell when we were bringing films and literature together in a coherent course of teaching.

There is a connected way of thinking about such work and presenting it to a younger generation, and teaching these different but connected arts, and all the arts, and not to settle for the contemporary fad of categorisation. You remember that proverbial wisdom: who wants water-tight compartments? They’re only useful on a sinking ship.

Kenny: Wasn’t it Geddes who said that? So, can we speak of “The Literature of Films”? After all, films themselves are essentially multidisciplinary works. Let me give an example – the Hopscotch Film Production Company, established in 2008. Its website suggests it has already created more than 100 titles.

Most recently, it produced and screened the powerful Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell film My Best Friend but also closed the Glasgow Film Festival with a moving documentary about Janey Godley. There’s surely an essential need to encourage and persuade agencies such as the BBC to democratise access to its archives.

Alan: Simply to broadcast them, to find ways to bring the material into the public domain, to make them more accessible.

Kenny: This is actually under way, with BBC London becoming more flexible with its Genome project, celebrating the Beeb’s centenary.

It’s a massive project to digitise and preserve nearly 100 years of audio-visual material. In a Guardian article more than a year ago it was stated that the BBC, this great institution of enlightenment, education and entertainment, now recognises its archives as a major “community resource”.

Alan: That’s Reith, isn’t it? “To educate, inform and entertain.” I’ve wondered about the connection between those three words and then a few years ago I hit on the idea that they have a specific relation that unpacks their real meaning. They aren’t just three separate words.

The first is primary, the second two are connect in its service. Work backwards and you’ll see what I mean. It’s an old wisdom: you teach by delight, to inform effectively, to get the vital information across, you must entertain. If you are entertaining and informing, then the end product is an education.

This is what education is, or should be, an acquisition of knowledge leading through to wisdom, brought about through a partnership of information and entertainment. If these things are not all working together, in balance, you’ve blown it.

So why, when all that is there in the archives, is terrestrial TV such a barren territory, a wall-to-wall disaster area? Is it ratings? Commercial priorities? It shouldn’t be if people still pay a fee to get the broadcasts. You might ask, why are the real treasures being so deeply hidden away from public perception?

Kenny: There are such film depositories as the NLS Moving Image Archive at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, and there’s material from the BFI, the BBC, the School of Scottish Studies and even more deeply obscured “cabinets of filmic curiosities” such as those in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter and in various locations throughout the world.

Alan: Such material would be so much more welcome on our small screens than … well, I don’t need to pollute the air by naming bad programmes. Or to remind ourselves that whenever terrestrial TV is turned on there’s the instant feeling of insult as you’re being treated like an imbecile whose only interests are buying things, disasters elsewhere, sports, game shows and a vast number of utter nonentities who seem to think they’re more important than they are.

Kenny: I was particularly taken by you explaining you watched the Bill Douglas Trilogy in New Zealand somewhere in the early 1990s … Alan: I saw the trilogy there for the first time. There could be no doubt. This was the work of a major film-maker.

Kenny: I remember seeing excerpts of these autobiographical films and the feature film Comrades in Munich in 1994, coinciding with the publishing of maybe the first definitive book about Douglas, entitled A Lanternist’s Account, edited by Eddie Dick. And this reinforces the international scope of the Moving Image, which we’ve emphasised in the last three articles in this series.

Bill Douglas met Satyajit Ray at the Kolkata Film Festival and many years later I worked in Bengal, following in the footsteps of Geddes, and this year we celebrate the centenary of him setting up his International Scots and Indian College in Montpellier.

And more recently the book Bill Douglas: A Film Artist was launched by Exeter University Press in 2022. Various film festival events disseminate knowledge and evoke responses, including, as we’ve noted, the commemorative sculptures, the new documentary Bill Douglas: My Best Friend, and then the screening, just last Wednesday at the GFT, of some of the 20 or so short experimental 8mm films by Bill and Peter from the 1960s rescued by Andy Kimpton-Nye. The role of the Hopscotch Film Company should be especially acknowledged here.

Alan: I have a particular reason to be grateful to them. Tell us more about them.

Kenny: Hopscotch was pioneered by John and Jack Archer and their team and for some of their innovative projects they’ve adopted a means by which archive film can be acquired and included in new films at a nominal cost.

The term is “fair use”, which is “a provision of the Copyright Act that allows certain uses of copyrighted works, such as making and distributing copies of protected material without permission”. That’s taken from the internet.

Alan: Well, I’ve been watching – or rewatching – Mark Cousins’s series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which was possibly Hopscotch’s most ambitious project, from 2012. It’s a really magnificent survey of the history of world cinema, thereby beginning with the proposition that almost all histories of film, insofar as they’re histories of US film, are institutionally racist.

The story of film is truly international and depends, as Cousins says so eloquently in the first episode, not at all on money and big business and commerce and the economy, but on light, the control of light and the illusion of movement, creating moments, sequences, representing time in different ways, so you get flashbacks – a cinema invention (there are no flashbacks in Shakespeare, as he points out!) – movements in time from shot to shot, each one implicitly prefaced by unstated meanings, like ‘WHEN’ or ‘MEANWHILE’ (when this was happening, meanwhile this was happening elsewhere), or close-ups on the eyes to register emotions, recognition, fear, love, or evil intent, or unstated, non-literal understandings, things that only film can do.

And some of them cannot be explained. And that’s the definition of magic. Magic is what you cannot explain.

Kenny: The Story of Film, I think, was conceived and related to EH Gombrich’s publication The Story of Art. It was a film history, eventually released as a five-DVD box set which traced the international history and development of seminal global films. But many other Hopscotch films tackle the rich artistic legacy of Scotland, and cultural diversity is right there in the mix.

There’s a documentary of the photographic and film work of Oscar Marzaroli, recording also his documentary production company Ogam, established in 1967. This reminds me of Margaret Tait’s filmic aspirations at the time, the challenges she faced in Scotland after her training in the Mediterranean environment of Rome.

Oscar also shared a similar sense of wonder at humanity, as did Bill and Harry Watt. I’m thinking now of Oscar’s moving portraits, Joan Eardley and her friends at her studio up at Catterline, near Stonehaven. This is depicted in the Hopscotch film with various innovative treatments.

Alan: It’s frustrating just to be talking about these films. We should be watching them!

Kenny: The compelling grip of such work is partly to do with the experience of travelling back through time, through the adaptation and creative re-editing of historic archive film, much I believe made available via the British Film Institute.

There are even some clips to be discovered extracted from the Bill Douglas Trilogy and one of the colour film innovators, Freise-Green. Again, I imagine the film Arcadia was made possible adopting the “fair use” principle of collecting short sequences from historic films, while complying with this demo rating process, and thus enabling controlled access to use brief vignettes from existing films for new projects.

Alan: Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film is an anthology of clips, an epic exercise in tantalising, but it’s also a fulfilment of the vision that the story tells. It’s coherent, beautifully and lucidly narrated, guiding you gently but quickly through what is actually an epic tale.

It’s a narrative with a vast international cast of characters, heroes, villains, unsung and forgotten or overblown and horribly familiar, full of digressions and returning to central themes and priorities, and never losing sight of the light. It’s also visually a kaleidoscope of clips from, I imagine, literally thousands of films.

Kenny: This is surely a key to the way forward to enable access to, for example, the James A Wilson collection of documentary films in the BBC archive.

I've suggested and tried to encourage BBC to set a digital film “transfer agreement” with the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive, a new public-friendly archive resource which enables public access to view films. The online resource is also significant.

Alan: So how best can we encourage further public access to these organisations which hold such valuable elements of Scottish and world history?

Kenny: The Wilson collection has, for example, tantalising documentaries about some of the great modern writers of Scottish literature – Neil Gunn, Compton MacKenzie, Margaret Tait, Geddes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Grassic Gibbon to name a few.

And Jenny Gilbertson (1902-90), the Glasgow-born film-maker who purchased a 16mm camera and went straight to the Shetland archipelagos in 1931 to make her first documentary, A Crofter’s Life in Shetland.

John Grierson was impressed with her work and told her to get a better camera. She bought a 35mm Eyemo and made five more films in Shetland, including The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric.

Alan: She must have been there when Hugh MacDiarmid and Valda, his wife, and their son Michael were living there. Juxtapose those creativities!

Kenny: She later made films for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, working in Arctic Canada, and another film about Shetland, People of Many Lands: Shetland with Elizabeth Balneaves, broadcast by the BBC in 1967. All her films focus on nature, farming, fishing, families.

Alan: An ecological vision, then. Again, I’m thinking of MacDiarmid’s great poem, “On a Raised Beach”. What a film could be made of that poem!

Kenny: Excerpts from the films we’ve mentioned and many more could be composed and woven together with contemporary material to give us a fresh view into the lives and contributions of many folk who are part of the Scottish Renaissance and deserve to be back in our screens, back on our cultural agenda more vigorously as they are celebrated in our universities and life in general.

My friend the Arran artist Ed O’Donnelly and I used to receive permission to use clips of archive films for integrating into educational arts/documentary projects for the National Trust, Museums of Scotland and the East Neuk Festival.

Alan: Let’s be optimistic then, for a moment. If these things have happened, it proves they can happen and that means that more can be done. Let’s pause and imagine a Hopscotch production along the lines of Mark Cousins’s Story of Film series, only this time it’s The Story of Scotland.

I don’t mean the usual thing, Wallace and Bruce, the Reformation, the big-names tragedies, Mary and Charlie, industrialisation, modernity, dates. Put all those to one side and think about this.

A 12-part series, Scotland’s Story: The Truth, based on the principle that truths are only ever told through the arts. Music, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, film – and with that “fair use” practice, we kaleidoscope the images and instances so that viewers get a full sense of the sheer range of the quality of all these forms of cultural production across millennia. Film is part of this story but it’s pre-eminently the medium in which the story could best be told …

Kenny: That’s ambitious …

Alan: But could it be done?

Kenny: There is both need and hunger for it. At the Glasgow Short Film Festival, a full house viewed the Douglas and Jewell experimental Super 8 films.

An in-depth series of films about Scottish culture, using archive clips (such as Jim Wilson’s) certainly could be done, and it should be done.

Alan: A celebration of the archives of the BBC …

Kenny: I believe BBC Scotland and BBC Alba are interested in investing in “serial themed projects”…

Alan: Let’s do it!