The Film Interview: Derrick Knight

A conversation with the veteran British documentary maker.

Derrick Knight is a British documentary film director and editor. In 1957 he set up DKP (Derrick Knight & Partners), which went on to become one of the most pioneering small production companies in the history of the British documentary short film. It was instrumental in producing the 1958 film on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, "The March to Aldermaston". DKP went on to produce films such as "Smoking and You" (1963), one of the first films to highlight the health risks of smoking, "Faces of Harlow" (1964), a portrait of the New Town at Harlow in Essex and "Travelling for a Living" (1966), a groundbreaking film which followed the folk group, "The Watersons". In 1974 DKP went bankrupt and in 1977 Knight took a job as a researcher at Christian Aid, where he finished his career.

Three of Knight's films are included in the BFI's recent box set of post-war British documentary, Shadows of Progress, and Knight is the subject of an essay in the accompanying book, edited by Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, "Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain". His groundbreaking 1963 piece of "direct cinema", "A Time to Heal", a study of a miners rehabilitation centre in South Wales, will be screened at BFI Southbank on 16th December 2010, where Knight will also be in conversation.

How did you come to make A Time to Heal in 1963?

I got called to the office of Charlie Cooper at Contemporary Films, who was one of the main left wing producers at the time. Contemporary really went in for humane social films. He had contacts with the miners union in South Wales and he called me in to tell me he had a request from south Wales for a film about their Gala day, which is a big thumb-bagging, orchestrated march through Cardiff, and then out to a field for speeches and rugger matches, but he said "they've hardly got any money. Would you be interested?" Well I was interested and went down and talked, and I was absolutely mesmerised by the then secretary of the miners' union, a man called Dai Dan Evans.

Evans been involved in Humphrey Jennings's film The Silent Village, about the massacre of Lidice. They had shot it in the village where he'd been a shop steward in the mines, so he'd got involved in film and become passionate about the possibilities of using film in the union in South Wales. And so they said "we've only got hundreds can you do this?" So I went back to London and reckoned that with a two day location, and a limited amount of stock, and one camera crew, we might be able to do something like a news reel, and we did and the resulting film, Miner's Gala Day (1960) was successful, and it was shown in the Welsh valleys, where they had access to about thirty cinemas. We didn't make any money, but we didn't lose any out of it.

As a result of that Dai Dan Evans drew me into his trap and said "Listen, we've really got an issue down here with the recovery of miners from injuries and we have a rehabilitation centre which is bloody marvellous, and we want to have a film about it, would you be interested?" So I said yes I would be interested, but how was it to be done? Well he said, "what we can do is we can pay your train fares down, we'll find you somewhere to stay with mining families, so you can research the subject, and if you write us a presentation, we'll try and push it through". So I did that, which didn't earn me any money but it wasn't painful, and it was at a time when we (DKP) were really scavenging for work and had a fair amount of editing but not much else.

So I went down to Wales whenever I could - weekends, odd days- and stayed with Dai Dan, or with Dai Francis, his number two, and went out with them to pubs, visited Talygarn the rehabilitation centre, talked to the consultants, and I produced an outline script and sent it down to him, and he said "well, we may have to wait some time but I'm going to seek an opportunity of nobbling the Chairman of the Board" who was at that time Lord Ravens, and about three months passed, then we got a call saying we were on.

A Time to Heal has often been described by critics and film historians as one of the first pieces of "cinéma vérité" documentary to be produced in the UK. Why did you want to make the film is this way?

I had managed to do bits and pieces of direct cinema when making a film about a dam in Glen Morrison with 35mm old fashioned cameras, Newman Sinclairs. Someone set up the camera very loosely so we could get the effect of hand held and being direct.

So A Time to Heal coincided with a time when I was desperate to try and start using direct cinema and I was trying to push at the margins of film making at the same time, and wanted to make something brand new and effective. I wanted hand held cameras; I wanted to be able to go into the centre and take things on the go without rehearsal, I wanted a small crew so that we weren't actually creating any kind of mirage in the rehabilitation centre.

We were a bit early because the new self blimped cameras weren't available and so we had to make a kind of diving bell and sling this on the back of the camera man, and so we managed to have a very mobile camera. This method of shooting was very improvised but had spectacular results because the miners were extremely cooperative and out came A Time to Heal.

Would it have been possible to make the film in this way if the new hand held Arriflex cameras had not been available?

No, I mean it might have been possible but it would have to have taken what I call, "The John Krish direction", which is uses a huge crew. When he made his film on the school for instance, he had four cameramen, he had twelve continuity girls.

You're into a different kind of field of time, because we made A Time to Heal in something like ten days in the winter, and ten days in the spring. I got into the habit of working very fast because it was necessary to be economic about film making at my stage in the game. We were not into high budget brackets, so we really had to make the film as quickly as possible and maintain a high standard of filming regardless.

What was the budget for A Time to Heal?

It was about £6000. Something around that.

Turning to the aesthetics of the film, the fact that much of the film is shot in the snow brings a particular harshness to the photography. Was this purposeful?

No it was a stroke of luck. We had to start the film in the winter for various reasons, and when we got down to South Wales and it snowed. I'd got a very tough cameraman, Peter Jessop, who was prepared to take risks visually and we thought that the graininess of the 16mm film stock would not be a bad idea on the outdoor shots.

We were lumbered with the snow, and being lumbered with it, it actually helped, because the lads who were carrying the injured miner back in the first scene were as cold as hell and wet, and I had to do a couple of takes because I wanted this extra shot with the cameraman on his back, which was not strictly a documentary thing, but it seemed to be a good idea at the time, because you saw the faces of the men in some kind of tension, and they didn't have to act, they were really carrying somebody across the slippery slow ground, under difficult conditions. So the snow helped a great deal.

Does the fact that the opening scene, in which an injured miner is brought from the pit, is acted not compromise the film's claim to be a piece of "direct cinema"?

I thought about trying to really do it but you couldn't hang about waiting for an injury to come up from the mine. That would have been unthinkable; it's like waiting for an execution day.

I knew how to do the injury because I'd made a film as an amateur at Oxford with a road accident, and had used the St John's ambulance make up group so I knew that it would be possible to make an absolutely first class injury to an arm for instance, as in A Time to Heal.

One of the most moving moments in the film is a shot of some homing pigeons flying above the mining town. Was the freedom of this sequence a purposeful juxtaposition to the confinement of the mines?

Well I'd had a sort of preview of this when I was doing a newsreel film for Burtcock and Wilcox, up in the Glasgow area, about their workers at leisure. I'd done a story about a couple of blokes who had homing pigeons and put them on the train down to Cheltenham and then they were let loose and came back, and I thought the whole business of pigeons and muscular men was an extraordinary element which I kept in my head for later, and what I wanted to do in A Time to Heal was find a man whose been injured and who had recovered and you can see the scars on his arms so he was a sort of successful Talygarn recovery miner. And yes, the whole idea of the freedom seemed to be quite important to the film.

How did you decide to use the music for the film?

I didn't want to use Welsh music because its so clichéd the whole business of choirs and Welsh songs, and I was looking for some folk idiom which would enable me to use music over that sequence. And I knew Bob Davenport the folk singer, and Bob came and looked at it, and said that there was a Geordie song which he could adapt to fit the thing. In a funny sort of way, the effect of that was to introduce a national element to the healing. It was a Geordie voice in a Welsh setting, which might have been thought to be horrific by a Welsh audience, but was taken in good spirit, and stopped the Coal Board worrying about the fact that I had made a film in Wales and that the northerners would not accept it. In fact it was shown on Tyne-Tees television two or three times.

Prior to making A Time to Heal you worked as a part time film critic. What sort of stuff were you watching at that time?

I was very curious about the National Film Board of Canada material, it wasn't yet Challenge for Change, but there were some very interesting things that they were doing, and I was very close to people in the National Film Board through my ex-Oxford colleague Guy Coté.

Being a film society buff, I saw all the shorts coming in from Europe and elsewhere each Spring and Autumn at the selection screenings. There were some very interesting hand held films, very stylised in a sense, and these fascinated me and I wanted to do it, but we didn't have the gear until about 1961, '62.

Were you aware of the influence of the Documentary Movement and John Grierson when you started making films, or were you trying to reject that heritage?

I was very conscious of it. It was deep rooted because when I did my army years as an education sergeant I dug these films out to show to recruits continuously for a year and saw many of them five, six, seven, eight or nine times, because I was not only teaching a class but I was projecting the films as well. I showed Drifters, and I showed North Sea and I showed the Humphrey Jennings films and so on, and these things really became part of the source for my films. I won't say the actual techniques were followed but for the time they were very god jams so to speak. Post-war of course you wouldn't want to follow them closely, but the attack which the best of those have, and the whole idea of a creative interpretation of reality seemed to be firmly built.

In your 1966 book A Long Look at Short Films you wrote that "its virtually impossible to exhibit an independent short film profitably in Britain." Why, if this was the case, did you never try and make feature length documentaries, or feature length fiction films?

It's a good question. I didn't comfortable in the feature arena, I had gone to various studios to see friends, or to watch John Huston filming, and I didn't feel that this large scale film-making was something that I could do, so I took a more pragmatic view of my future, and stuck to things that I knew I could do and do better probably than people had done in the past. It was like taking a moderate fast car rather than a fast car and I never regretted that. I only made one commercial in the whole period and the exercise of working with advertising agencies that I didn't want to do it again, yet I read with some astonishment in the Shadows of Progress book, that colleagues who were speaking the speak of documentary were knocking off dozens of commercials for everybody in sight.

So I suppose I was cutting off my nose to spite my face but that's what I was comfortable with. We didn't make films that I didn't want to make. We made films for companies whose product was harmless and we made films that were more angry when we got a chance, like the film on smoking for instance, Smoking and You (1963) which for the next couple of years was the most used film in the Central Film Library. It also had this astonishing career in the United States, where over a thousand copies were sold, which was quite extraordinary, because I'd had to argue for £35 at the end of the film because they wanted an extra shot. The COI and I didn't get on.

In a critical article you published in 1957 in Film, "The Captive Cinema", you dismissed the concept of Free Cinema, and the films of Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. What did you object to about Free Cinema?

Technically I don't think it was going anywhere. In terms of what Free Cinema was doing it seemed to be bringing together people in a sort of artificial bubble. There was no such thing as Free Cinema. None of the films were free in that sense. They were extremely orchestrated, apart from perhaps Nice Time, which was a bit of a Swiss mess, but it was much freer and more improvised than anything else. The others were well budgeted, well prepared, sponsored films.

I thought most of the films were very close to what I call the cinéma de papa in France, where a lucky son who has a bit of money from daddy gets to make a film. I remember Everyday except Christmas and saw it at the time with respect. I couldn't fault it as a piece of work, but it wasn't Free Cinema. It was a sponsored documentary linked to Ford and subsidised by Ford through Karel Reisz who was their film man at the time. It was very much an incestuous piece of filmmaking.

A lot of the directors included in this new BFI box set - people like Sarah Erulkar, Peter de Mandeville, Derek Williams, Anthony Simmons - made films sponsored by big oil, or for big advertising. Do you see yourself as separate from them because you never did that?

No, one was friends with these people. Anthony Simmons I knew very well, we used to go to festivals together, and I liked his films very much. People have to live and if you are a freelance, you jolly well have to take what's given to you. Most of the documentary people were quite happy to take what was on offer. I was never willing to take what was on offer, I had to go out and find the offer. It was a completely different sort of set up.

I am fairly astonished to see by reading this book that most of these film units had twenty, thirty, forty people working for them We never had more than five. And nor did we have any support. We paid ourselves pennies, we worked on the basic low rates, and people were happy to do that. I had a happy team, and I still have. We all still keep in touch.

Was DKP a collective like DATA? Did you split the profits between you?

There were never any profits. If we had a £100 left over at the end of the film, it was £100 which might tide us over when a late payment came in for a script next time. We never made a profit. Never.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain