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Palace of Dreams: The Making of a Filmmaker

Bill Douglas's Trilogy

After the Trilogy

Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image

Bibliography on Bill Douglas




by Bill Douglas

Good work cannot succeed unless the creator feels compassion.                                        


For as long as I can remember I always liked the pictures. As a boy I spent so much time in cinemas, a friend suggested 1 take my bed with me. I would have, had it been possible. That was my real home, my happiest place when I was lucky enough to be there. Outside, whether in the village or the city, whether I was seven or seventeen, it always seemed to be raining or grey and my heart would sink to despairing depths, I hated reality.

Of course I had to go to school-sometimes. And I had to go home and apply myself to the things one has to do. But the next picture, how to get in, was the thing that occupied my mind. There was never any money to buy a ticket. Still, there were ways. I could get into the Pavilion, or The Flea Pit as we called it, for the price of two jam jars, washed or unwashed. That they were acceptable unwashed was no mean concession as I would sometimes have to ferret through buckets for the sticky objects and make a desperate last minute dash so as not to miss the beginning of the picture. 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.

What an agonising experience it could be lying in wait, down the side of the cinema, hearing only the sounds of the magic show inside, waiting for what seemed an eternity for that heartening clack of the door opening. Imagine actually penetrating the Palace, lurking for a moment inside the toilet so as not to arouse suspicion, sliding open the swing door to a crack, getting the eyesaccustomed to the dark, keeping an eagle watch on the usherette. And then the final brave move forward into the auditorium, careful not to sit on a strange lap searching for a place. It was danger stations if that happe.ned, for at the first signs of a rumpus the torch became a spotlight for interrogation. It was no use saying that you had chewed your ticket by mistake. Out you went.

We sat on hard wooden benches, in the "cheapies." The Pavilion interior was a cobwebby place: an ancient curtain hung sadly to one side of the screen, sometimes refusing to be drawn, while mice nibbled at the ankles. But who cared about that when Sabu was riding his elephant? It was paradise sitting there in the cosy dark being hypnotised by the play of light. Up there was the best of all possible worlds. To enter this world, that was the dream. Only later did I become aware that real human beings actually worked on the films, that behind the stars was a producer, director, writer, cameraman, designer and so on.

lt was ahout this time I nourished the idea of working in the industry. There was, however, one major snag: how to apply myself. I had no fixed ambition. I would shift from movie star to movie director and back again as the fancy took me. It was all exciting to me. There was one brief moment of hope when 1 sent some drawings to Hollywood to a certain Milo Anderson whose name I picked out of a fan magazine. I waited in suspense for the invitation to become a designer. There was no reply. I can laugh now thinking how imitative my drawings were. So I plodded on, doing any kind of odd jobs and they had to be odd because my heart was never in them. In short, I did anything to make enough money to get to the pictures.Ab

About this time-I was seventeen-a certain ritual took place. Returning from work, I would shave, comb my hair repeatedly, bring my shoes to a high polish and perfect my tie to keep my date - with the cinema. At thirty I was still nowhere near my goal. In fact it looked as though I was going to preserve the dream forever. Then an incredible thing happened. A friend gave me an enormous Christmas gift. Inside the crate lay all the 8mm equipment any film-maker could wish for. There was a camera, film, projector, editor, splicer, titler - everything. I wandered the streets filming everything I could set my eyes on, zooming, tilting, panning, whizzing, rarely static, learning from my mistakes.

In time I became very ambitious. I wrote a screenplay, made costumes, built sets for an adaptation of a Chekhov short story. All amateurs will know the excitement of waiting for the postman to bring back the processed film. Breakfast was the last thing on my mind. I would quickly get up, draw the curtains, and sit there transfixed, marvelling at the miracle of everything moving. In no time at all I talked my way into the London Film School. Two years later 1 was out in the real world of film. 1 sat in my room in front of the typewrilt:r wondering what I could write. Adaptations of present day novels or plays were out of the question on account of cost. I rejected period pieces as too ambitious and costly for a beginner like myself. And so I wrote about my childhood. Strangely enough, my trilogy is not about a dream world, but about the real landscape I had wanted so badly to escape from. But the making of these films, financed by the British Film Institute, could not be a cathartic exercise. There had to be a distance. I had to be objective so that the characters could come to life, so that the work could have shape.

Good work cannot succeed unless the creator feels compassion. He can only begin when the self is put into perspective, when he has fixed a point of view. Chekhov put it better than 1: "I can write only from memory, 1 never write directly from life. The subject must pass through the sieve of my memory, so that alone what is important or typical remains there as on a filter." It is as simple as that.

Reprinted from The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at . With permission from Peter Jewell.


BILL DOUGLAS TRILOGY                                            BD Jamie
By Andrew Noble

My Childhood was oiginally titled "Jamie", after the central character. Bill's screenplay was different from any I had read. One could see the film immediately. He eschewed the convention of scene headings; there was no generalized description and no emotional padding. It was lucid and concretely imagined. It unfolded in a series of descriptions, some deliberately ungrammatical, that without the use of technical terms evoked the shot, size of frame, and who and what was in it. Dialogue was spare. It was almost a silent movie. It was also a fine piece of writing-poetic even. The script was the film.

Mamoun's instantaneous, comprehensive awareness of Bill's cinematic virtues was in inverse proportion to his fiscal capacity to reward them. He could only commit £3,000 to what was then "Jamie." Bill received a personal fee of £150. Money was to remain a persistent problem. My Way Home, partially shot in Egypt, was allotted £33,000. Production time being money, Bill and his various crews were always under a financial cosh, though more often than not they managed to convert this incessant pressure into near miracles of improvisation. Mamoun also worked fiscal wonders. Completely against Bill's intention, it was prescribed that the film be shot in colour, because black and white was allegedly redundant. When the first rushes reached London, Mamoun, under the guise of saving money, had the color stock printed in black and white. The power and veracity of the projected black and white images were so overwhelming that the notion of Technicolor was immediately dropped. Despite the fact that "Jamie," retitled My Childhood, received the Silver Lion at Venice, Mamoun - in order to ensure further finance - had to outwit an increasingly doctrinaire Marxist-dominated board at the BFI whose collective tendencies found individual genius anathema. Under the pretext that Bill had always intended a childhood trilogy, akin to the Gorky and Apu trilogies, Mamoun successfully argued that they were not backing one film but one film in three parts.

BD actors   During a break in filming, the actors have fun on the set

Invaluably, Mamoun was not only the hands-on producer for the first two films, but from his network of young talented and altruistic technicians, he was able to supply crews capable of withstanding the severe physical and mental rigours of a Bill Douglas shoot. When I interviewed many of these men not long after Bill's death for my piece in Bill Douglas: A Lanternist's Account (BFI, 1991), I not only encountered my own sense of palpable grief at his loss but a unanimous assertion that filming with Bill had been the harshest but most educative period of their lives. Men who had risen to international prominence as cameramen, sound men and editors still spoke in awe of the focus and framing of Bill's camerawork and his use of natural sound. Invariably, they thought he was capable of realizing in celluloid the often ferocious intensity of his own internal vision. If not supernatural, Bill had shamanistic powers in the strict sense that truth is revealed in trance-like states. He admitted that his script writing depended upon inducing a trance-like state in himself, and with his technical crew and actors, he aspired to make this a collective form of consciousness. Mamoun perfectly describes it thus:He was not a prima donna. He was, however, exacting - at times beyond reason. He would "remember" a scene, imagine it anew, write it down and then want it exactly like that. I believe he was persecuted by these images that had the power and hold of dreams. If he couldn't get it to work, it hurt him. Bill made people work for him through pain. His pain became the crew's pain. What was terrifying was how much it mattered to Bill. In return, the crew gave him more than their best - they over-achieved.

What was also terrifying was, that Bill was tapping into a primary, universal childhood terror of abandonment and exclusion, an explosive substance on location and, perhaps even more, in the editing suite, where Bill became horrified by what he had conjured up. While the film is finally resurrective, a dark line of imminent suicide runs through it.

BD locker room

A photo of the Russian director, Dozhenko, is visible on the locker behind Jamie in an homage to a film maker Douglas admired

So much of the Trilogy is autobiographical that it is often wrongly assumed not to be driven by art but by a kind of primitivist realism derived from an extraordinary memory. Certainly Bill insistently sought out the actual locations of his earlier experiences. He got to Newcraighall, the small mining village of his childhood, as it lay derelict awaiting the bulldozers. In Egypt, he unsuccessfully tried to gain access to the very barracks where he had served in the R.A.F. All the principal figures of Jamie's convoluted, convulsed extended families existed. His own mother and aunt were, as bearers of illegitimate children and victims of post-natal depression, incarcerated for life in nearby asylums. Bill's mother was still alive when he died in 1991. The weak, promiscuous father and the nightmare paternal grandmother were life studies. Bill was insistent, however, that he was involved in art, not personal catharsis. Thus he wrote:

There had to be a distance, I had to be objective so that the characters could come to life. so that the work could have shape. Good work cannot succeed unless the creator feels compassion. He can only begin when the self is put into perspective, when he has a fixed point of view. Chekov put it better than I: "I can write only from memory. I never write directly from life. The subject must pass through the sieve of my memory, so that alone what is important or typical remains there as on a filter." It is as simple as that.

Chekov's notion of transformative memory was Bill's principal creative credo. It also, happily, allowed him freedom from strict biography: Jamie's heartbreaking relationship with Helmut, the German P.O.W., had absolutely no basis in Bill's own life.

Like any filmmaker, however, Bill was not uninfluenced. After meeting Peter Jewell, Robert's model, Bill was introduced to European cinema-especially the lyrical factualism of Italian neo-realism. Les Quatre Cent Coups was also a seminal event. It was to silent cinema, however, that he was most powerfully drawn. The photograph of Alexander Dovzhenko on jamie's Egyptian locker indicates Bill's most specific silent source. Bill himself is witness to the power of silent cinema over his work: "Surely it is imagery that is the language of cinema, a brand new language that almost a hundred years after its discovery is still to be properly learnt!" As Philip French astutely remarked, "Bill reinvented that medium for his own purposes so forcing us to open our eyes to an eloquent visual language we may have forgotten or never learned."

BD Jamie 2   Stephen Archibald offers a brutal and raw performance as Jamie

Bill's reinvention of the silent medium is consequently based on an often contrapuntal image stream, so creating a narrative form that is essentially showing rather than telling. The demands he makes on his audience by this procedure are quite deliberate: "One thing I do is hold from spelling everything out in my films. The film is an archetypal middle man in a two-way process." Thus in an extraordinary binary manner we see Jamie from within and without. The brilliance of the narrative structure is that at no point are we more aware than Jamie of the menacingly convoluted world that surrounds him. We, the audience, are consequently involved in a simultaneous, anguished act of interpretation.

Such a narrative procedure inevitably demands a different kind of acting. Analogous to the treatment of his audience and, indeed, his crew, Bill did not believe in spelling everything out to his actors. Indeed, none of the cast ever saw the script. The number of local, nonprofessional actors he so brilliantly employed made this easier for him, but he also mostly managed to overcome the doubts of his professional actors. He shared Andrei Tarkovsky's belief, as expressed in Sculpting in Time (1986), of the complete distinction between theatrical and cinematic acting.

Also derived from silent cinema is the dwelled-on projection of the human face. As Bill wrote:

What interests me is reaching into the soul of a person, other than the mask so often presented, There is so much to be read in a person's face. I used the camera to read that face and it will speak volumes if you will listen to it.

No face in the Trilogy speaks more eloquently than that of Stephen Archibald in the role of Jamie. In the most brilliant of his many hunches and against all advice, Bill intuitively understood the potential emotional intelligence of this deprived, dyslexic, near illiterate child. Stephen, in his symbiotic creative relationship with Bill, triumphantly overcame every obstacle, even his own physical immaturity, for the Egyptian section. His is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.


By Andrew Noble

Bill Douglas made only one picture after the Trilogy. Comrades, released in 1987, was a two-part, historical, Technicolor epic portraying the fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset and Australia. It was awarded the BFl Sutherland Trophy and a prize by the London film critics as the best film of that year, and it was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin. It ran briefly in the West End but never received a general release.

BD After   Bill Douglas on the set of "Comrades"

Bill left two unmade scripts. The first, initiated by Mamoun Hassan, was a formally innovative adaptation of nineteenth-century Scottish novelist James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner: The second, Flying Horse, is an account of the extraordinary events in the life of Eadweard Muybridge, the first photographer of motion. The film is brilliantly constructed in its interweaving of Muybridge's life in the West with a 1940s screwball-like HolIywood crew who want to make a film about it. The same actors play in the two different storylines. Potentially, it could have been one of the great American films.


By Andy Kimpton-Nye

Bill Douglas taught me to see film in a different way. As a young film fan, my earliest, most memorable movie experiences included the young Hayley Mills in any number of films throughout the early 1960s, Steve McQueen's indomitable rebel in The Great Escape, Hammer Horror films on Friday late-night TV, and the mystical, yet magical, Clint Eastwood screen persona in his run of late 1960s spaghetti westerns. But then, I left my small hometown of Huntingdon in rural East Anglia, moved to London at the end of the 1970s, and discovered a whole new range of eye-opening British films from the likes of Alan Clarke, Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, and Bill Douglas.

BD faces  Lingering on charaters' faces, as Douglas did, is like providing a window on the soul.

Bill Douglas taught me that the camera could linger long and hard on a character's face, going right down into the depths of the actor's soul - without any sign-posted performance or over-acting. He taught me that storytelling doesn't have to be crudely coercive, but instead he invited me, as a member of the audience, to work out for myself the connection between one scene, or sequence, and another. And, he taught me that if a filmmaker has a clear vision of what he or she wants to say, then this is worth a 100, even a 1000, others who simply direct by numbers - which is the failing of so much commercial cinema. His Trilogy is a too-often overlooked masterpiece, combining the expressiveness of silent cinema (Bill was a big, big fan of Charlie Chaplin - who also experienced an appallingly deprived childhood) and the poetic qualities of Humphrey Jennings' documentaries.

When I was making the documentary and mentioned it to people, common responses were a blank expression, "Bill who?;" or "He made Gregory's Girl, didn't he?" In some ways, this is understandable, because sadly, Bill made only three shorts, which became the Trilogy, and one feature, Comrades. What is unforgivable about the lack of recognition for his work is that, in many ways, it stands in the pantheon alongside such cinema greats as Bresson, Dreyer and Satyjit Ray. So, this documentary is my tribute to a remarkable filmmaker, who certainly helped develop my education as an eager, young is also my small way of helping to keep alive the memory of Bill Douglas and his films, hopefully spreading the word of his work to new audiences.

Finally, I made this documentary completely off my own bat, out of my own pocket, and for my own company, 400 Blows productions. So, I would like to say a big thanks to those that really made it possible by offering their excellent services for little monetary gain and mainly in response to my overwhelming passion for the subject: cameraman Mark Howe, editor Stuart Eade, sound mixer Tracey Ladlow, Liz Shirley for lending her lovely vocals to the project, and Tanera Dawkins who composed the original music. I would like to add a special thanks to Peter Jewell - Bill's lifelong companion - for all his encouragement and support along the way. And, of course, to Facets Multi-Media for bringing out this wonderful Bill Douglas DVD.



• Barefoot, Guy. "Autobiography and the Autobiographical in The Bill Douglas Trilogy," Biography, Winter, 2006, pp. 14-29.

• The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture. University of Exeter.

• Caughie, John. "The Way Home," Sight and Sound. November 1991, pp. 26-7. Dick,

• Eddie, Andrew Noble, and Duncan Petrie (eds), Bill Douglas: A Lanternist's Account. London: BFI Publishing, 1993.

• Graham, Rhys. "'The Glimpse Given Life: An Elegy for Bill Douglas," Senses of Cinema,

• Hassan, Mamoun, "His Ain Man,' Sight and Sound. November 1991, pp. 22-4, 26.

• Hassan, Mamoun, "His Pain Was Our Pain;' Guardian, June 20, 2008.

• Noble, Andrew, "Bill Douglas's Trilogy" in From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book, Eddie Dick (ed.). London: British Film Institute, 1990.

DR. ANDREW NOBLE taught American and Scottish Literature at Glasgow's Strathclyde University. He was responsible for Bill Douglas's appointment as a Carnegie Visiting Fellow at Sirathclyde in the year before Douglas's death. Having co-edited The Canongate Burns, he is now writing a biography of Robert Burns partly due to the fact that Douglas had seriously considered a bio-picture of the poet.

ANDY KIMPTON-NYE started out as a trainee director with the BBC in 1994. Having made hundreds of programmes over a wide range of subjects, he became an independent producer/director in 2000 to pursue an abiding passion for film-related documentaries. He has made full-length docs on filmmakers Alan Clarke, Terence Davies, Derek Jarman, and Bill Douglas and a series of shorts on Julie Andrews, Michael Caine, Hammer Horror, and Laurel and Hardy fans. He is planning a documentary on British Film institute films for 2009.

BD Biblio pic

Bill Douglas Trilogy

My Childhood

My Ain Folk

My Way Home

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Monday, 03 March 2014
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