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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism