Bill Douglas was 57 when he died, leaving the world with a handful of student films, three unproduced screenplays, his highly acclaimed Trilogy [My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978)], and the grand sweeping three-hour (often forgotten) epic period drama about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Comrades (1986). Having spent most of the 1970s helping to shape British realism with his Trilogy, Douglas endured the 1980s with a nine-year fight for the production of Comrades, pushing forward against funding issues befitting an era drenched in social unrest (1). The brevity of Douglas’ body of work is the result of both struggle and a relatively short life, though his lasting influence on and importance to British cinema can be seen in the films of Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway, Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay, and perhaps Terence Davies most of all. They admire and borrow from Douglas’ style of social realism – painfully honest even when indulgent – and build upon his socialist themes, taking from the harsh landscapes an inspiration for bold narratives. The most crucial and lasting element of Douglas’ legacy, however, is his ability to tell a story according to his own understanding of its truth. As such, Comrades is as much an extension of Douglas’ Trilogy as it is the retelling of the lives of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Douglas’ Trilogy is the story of his own hard life, from childhood into adolescence. And whilst the films are rarely thought of as hopeful, Douglas presents himself – a man making films, telling an important story – as their happy ending (2). Such honest social realism, grittily presented in its portrait of endurance, is both a social achievement and affords Douglas his unique perspective and approach to narrative in Comrades. Subtitled “A Lanternist’s Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and What Became of Them”, the film plays with the idea of social puppetry and class perception through the figure of The Lanternist, whether Douglas openly admits to this or not.
Producer Simon Relph (Douglas’ own comrade) – whom Channel 4’s Jeremy Isaacs asked to take over as producer on the project after Ismail Merchant became committed to A Room With a View (James Ivory, 1985) – in an interview with Jill Forbes, said that Douglas called the film Comrades because the men at the centre of the story were friends and not because of its socialist or communist connotations (3). Public statements aside, the social significance and political inferences of the film were clearly there even for critics who couldn’t quite make sense of the context. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby of could only guess that Douglas was saying “something pertinent about the low estate of Britain’s labour movement in this era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Government” (4). So whilst Relph insisted, “Comrades is not trying to be polemical” within the socio-political climate of 1980s Britain, he agreed, “it has to be a political film because it is dealing with that continuing divide between one class and another” (5).
In a key scene where illusions are revealed as disingenuous, Loveless (the “leader” of the Martyrs) demonstrates for Frampton (a local landowner) how silver quite literally prevents the ruling class from seeing things clearly. Intended as anti-polemic or not, motifs of light and shadow, seeing and believing, are used to highlight the importance of perception. They also contribute to a view of wealth as obstructive, something that resonates with Douglas’ poverty stricken childhood and the financial hurdles he faced in finishing the film. A relatively small production budget of just over two million pounds, especially for a large-scale epic shot across two continents and featuring a large cast, meant that when the production reached Australia the money ran out. Thankfully, even if Douglas would never realise his vision of filming in the Australian outback in full CinemaScope, he was lucky enough to have a cast of actors who agreed to finish the film gratis (6).
That almost nothing is documented of what happened to the six Martyrs when sent to Australia, branded convicts following their “crime” of swearing an unlawful oath at pre-union meetings, left natural gaps in the public knowledge of their story and allowed Douglas the kind of freedom he required to tell his version, one where poverty and sadness weren’t necessarily joined, and certainly one where struggle and hope weren’t strangers. It also created a space for Douglas to cast relative unknowns in the lead roles, rendering his Martyrs as genuine “Joe Anybodys”. Whilst some might consider it a waste of talent to have the likes of Michael Hordern and Vanessa Redgrave play second fiddle to Robin Soans and William Gaminara, Douglas was very deliberately universalising the story of these heroes whilst also participating in yet another rebellious act of class subversion.
Still, it is true that Douglas’ films are only political insofar as they are deeply personal. The Lanternist and the thirteen other roles Alex Norton plays in Comrades constantly insert curious and mesmerising objects of optical illusion into the narrative: the zoetrope, the magic lantern, the thaumatrope, the diorama and heliotypes (these items from Douglas’ personal collection). Possibly greater than his love for cinema was Douglas’ love for pre-cinema, a life-long passion he shared with friend and script editor Peter Jewell. Following Douglas’ death, Jewell had the collection donated to the University of Exeter where The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture was subsequently founded as both a museum and research centre, further affirming the filmmaker’s legacy and contribution to moving-image history.
Though his filmography is short, the reach and influence of Douglas’ talent lives on. His casting choices are reflected in the films of Andrea Arnold, who too discovered great “unknowns” in her films Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011). His empathy for the individual’s passage through adolescence is present in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999), and his vision for subversive perception speaks loudest in Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993). Where Douglas can’t avoid polemic in Comrades, Peter Greenaway deliberately and defiantly uses it as his subject in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). Greenaway takes an oppressed voice just barely present in Douglas’ work and invites it to take centre-stage. Finally, there is Terence Davies who has encountered his own share of funding difficulties in the face of telling important stories about repressed working class Britain and who filmed his own trilogy (The Terence Davies Trilogy, 1983) in homage to Douglas, taking from him more than just a shared perspective but also a shared view. Douglas’ style is often likened to silent cinema, gestural with static, interrogative cinematography; certainly the haunting stillness of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) is ever present in his examination of truth and the human face. Davies replicates this stillness in his own trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The House of Mirth (2000) and most recently with The Deep Blue Sea (2011), showing, as Douglas did, personal truth in Britain’s confronting histories, real or imagined.
- David Robinson, “British Epic of Visual Glories”, The Times 27 August 1987, p.?
- Kate Webb, “Bill Douglas Among the Philistines From the Trilogy to Comrades”, Cineaste vol. 37, no. 3, Spring 2012, p. 32.
- Jill Forbes, “The Dark Side of the Landscape”, Sight and Sound vol. 55, no. 1, Winter 1985-86.
- Vincent Canby, “A British Cause Celebre”, The New York Times 13 January 1989: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/13/movies/review-film-a-british-cause-celebre.html.
- Forbes, p. 35 (emphasis Forbes’).
- Webb, p. 30.
Comrades (1986 Britain 183 mins)
Prod Co: Skreba Films in association with National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC)/Film Four International/Curzon Film Distributors/David Hannay Productions Prod: Simon Relph Assoc Prod: David Hannay, Redmond Morris Dir, Scr: Bill Douglas Phot: Gale Tattersall Ed: Mick Audsley Prod Des: Michael Pickwoad Mus: David Graham, Hans Werner Henze
Cast: Alex Norton, Robin Soans, Imelda Staunton, William Gaminara, Stephen Bateman, Philip Davis, Patrick Field, Jeremy Flynn, Heather Page, Keith Allen, Robert Stephens, Michael Hordern, Barbara Windsor, Vanessa Redgrave, Amber Wilkinson, Katy Behean, Sandra Voe, Valerie Whittington, Shane Down, Patricia Healey, James Fox, Arthur Dignam, John Hargreaves