A child in time

Bill Douglas created the most powerful testimonies of poverty and childhood in film

The title of My Ain Folk (1973), the middle film in Bill Douglas's autobiographical trilogy about his harsh childhood in a Scottish mining village, became lodged in my mind many years before I first saw the film itself. Simple, lyrical, mono syllabic, it seemed to conjure a world of intimacy and kinship without sentimentality. Indeed, the trilogy itself seemed the stuff of folklore: I would scour the listings in vain for screenings, so rarely was it shown.

I finally got to see the film, and the two that bracket it - My Childhood (1972) and My Way Home (1978) - last year at the British Film Institute, which has just released the trilogy for the first time on DVD. Few films have ever seemed quite so familiar at first sight. Douglas conveyed the fundamental loneliness of a sad childhood (the one thing childhood is not meant to be) with the precision and conviction of someone who had never managed to shake off its effects.

Douglas's screen alter ego Jamie, played by Stephen Archibald, endures rejection and neglect throughout his 1940s childhood, largely as a result of his illegitimacy. With his mother in a lunatic asylum and his absent father otherwise engaged - walking his pedigree dog and being indulged by Jamie's hateful granny - he and his half-brother, Tommy, are left in the care of his maternal grandmother, who has long since given up hope of providing for them. The boys scrabble alone for coal and hunks of bread.

Jamie passes through the family like an unwanted parcel, each time shedding a further layer of trust. His paternal grandparents' home is itself a kind of madhouse, controlled by Granny, who lavishes the epithets "king" and "prince" on her sons, but regards everyone else as flotsam (flotsam, nevertheless, that is out to destroy her and her perfect sons). Against all odds, he retains sufficient sanity to recognise how such misery and madness infects entire families, and that he is not the cause of it.

There are remarkably few spoken phrases in the film, but long, languorous shots that con centrate on minute changes in the actors' facial expressions. Douglas did not write his scripts conventionally, instead conveying his directions in a kind of blank verse: "A lonely dog howls in the silence. The howl spreads across the dark landscape and dies."

"I think seeing things [as Douglas did] is very lonely because it isn't to do with human contact," says Charles Rees, assistant producer of My Ain Folk, in the documentary that forms part of the DVD release. Douglas saw things with a rare intensity that lent itself perfectly to film- making, and which allowed him to elevate cinema to the level of art. His greatest gift - or curse - was for the deep scrutiny of other people's faces, voices and sayings, which enabled him to tell both his own story and one that could be recognised universally.

That lonely eye bears unstinting witness to Jamie's experience of childhood, siding not only with him, but with all children, the people who most need advocates but who most often lack them. Jamie's paternal grandad, weakened by electric shock therapy, is unique in seeing him as a person rather than a tiny battering ram. When he tells Jamie, "I haven't got the strength to fight fer ye any more", the only adult the boy is left with is the one he will become.

Stephen Archibald was already 12 when he and his friend Hughie Restorick (who was to play Jamie's brother Tommy) accosted Douglas and asked him for a cigarette at a bus stop in Newcraighall, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Inspired by their cheek, he cast them - in his mind, at least - immediately. The encounter was serendipity itself: so small and undernourished was Archibald that he would pass easily for eight-year-old Jamie, while the more forthcoming Restorick could mimic his fictional counterpart's brash anger.

Douglas paid them £4 a week for two days' work, the maximum allowed by the school authorities, yet he could do little to prevent them from turning up to the set full-time; the boys had been playing truant on the day they first met him. To Helen Crummy, the Newcraighall teacher recruited to play the schoolmistress in My Childhood, Archibald was "the most damaged child I ever saw . . . I never saw him smile . . . he often looked like a little, depressed old man."

His care-wrinkled face carries every moment of the three films, shadowing the random failings and indignities to which Jamie is subjected as a result of his family's sheer inability to recognise him. In the most troubling scene from My Way Home, his paternal grandmother wails when she inspects the faded dedication on her only gift to him, a copy of David Copperfield:

"Why did you want to remove my name?"

"I didn't, it just faded."

"Why did you want to remove my name?"

"It just faded."

Moments later, he is tearing up the book, repeating, "I didnae do it! I didnae do it!"

Both Archibald and Restorick are now dead: the latter by suicide, the former, at 38, in circumstances of severe self-neglect and deprivation. Archibald could never make the leap towards stability in adulthood after it became clear that Douglas would never find sufficient funding for his films to keep Archibald in acting work.

The transformation in Douglas's own circumstances occurred by chance when he was sent to do national service in Egypt. There, amid the corrosive boredom and the cockroaches, he met a young serviceman so obsessed by art and poetry that he had postcards of T S Eliot on his bunk wall in place of pin-ups. Douglas and Peter Jewell were to spend the next 35 years as platonic partners (so Jewell insists), living together in central London and building a vast collection of film memorabilia now held at Exeter University.

Douglas died in 1991 aged only 57, a few years after completing his only full-length feature film, Comrades, his "poor man's epic" about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It had taken him 20 years of work to get just four of his longer poem-scripts on to the screen; but the trilogy will be remembered as one of the most powerful testimonies of poverty and childhood in cinema.

The "Bill Douglas Trilogy" is available on DVD from the BFI website: www.bfi.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug