Film Reviews

On the Bill Douglas Trilogy

bill douglas 

“Don’t come here with your high-faluting ideas! You go and do an honest day’s work and get some dirt on your hands! If you were meant to be different, you’d be born different!”

And so responds Jamie’s father’s wife to his dream of becoming an artist in My Way Home (1978), the final part of the Bill Douglas Trilogy. This is a quote we have heard numerous times – in various forms and disguises – across the history of the British cinema, and the genre of northern realism in general: the hand of poverty snatching our protagonist from his (it is usually a he) dreams of escape and a better life, with the firmly held belief that the mine, or an equivalent working prospect, is the only option for the lad. Yet, while this and escaping one’s background is a common theme to such films, the Bill Douglas Trilogy, including also the earlier and shorter films My Childhood (1972) and My Ain Folk (1973), is a unique series of films, one of the few examples of British cinema and European art cinema coming together, combining in ways we have hardly seen before or since.

While I was watching the three films, I thought back to how much they would have meant to me when I was a little younger – in my pre-University days – when I was regularly asking the question: what kind of film can be made in Britain? (At this point, I was much more interested in making films than writing about them, and I was doing a lot more watching than reading). I was continually looking to both the cinemas of Italy and France, to Jean Luc-Godard, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, those masters of the medium, and to American independent films of the ‘70s and ‘80s which had a European flavour – those of Jim Jarmusch, Terence Malick, John Cassavettes, Charles Burnett, Wim Wenders, some names but not all – asking myself, why Britain lacks the equivalent of these figures? Is there something inherent within British society or the film industry itself which prohibits the creation of a British art cinema?

Of course Terence Davies, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway, in addition to Bill Douglas, demonstrated in this period that British films could be made with one eye on artistry and the other on the political, that such a cinema was on the horizon, waiting to be unified into a movement; yet, I think it is fair to say, that few have followed down this route. To make art films in Britain is to work against the grain, against a system which is much more interested in recycling the same stories of class, of struggle, of poverty, of escape, stories set in the grim north, on council estates, in touching distance of important industrial towns and later, ruined post-industrial towns, the surface politics of these films all too obvious, the filmmaking lacking energy and dynamism. Although this is not to say that I think such stories of working class life in the North should not be told, merely that in Britain, filmmakers have looked too fervently to the British New Wave, to the early films of Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, those Angry Young Men who once energised both British film criticism – within Sequence and later Sight and Sound – and the film industry of the 1950s and ‘60s rather than elsewhere.

Bill Douglas could only find funding for four feature films (his three of the trilogy and Comrades (1986) which underwent a long and troubled production), and despite the success he encountered on the European film festival circuit, he was rarely offered the artistic freedoms similar filmmakers in other countries were granted. While the films of the trilogy are preoccupied with inaction rather than action, with the isolation of his young protagonist Jamie – playing the role of Douglas in his poverty-stricken childhood years in mining village Newcraighall – and the harshness of the Scottish landscape, there are many tiny flashes of humour, jokes constructed in ways which look back to the silent cinema, gags which unfold in a purely aesthetic manner: a boy pickpockets a packet of cigarettes from an older gentleman and has the audacity to offer the victim one; a boy fills a half-drunk bottle of milk with tap water in order to disguise the theft; a classroom of children play their harmonicas in unison – they appear to have all received this gift at Christmas – with the cacophony of sound recalling orchestral tuning; and the centrality of apples, presented, stolen and found, to the lives of children who have few other ways of acquiring sustenance.

The moments of humour notwithstanding, Bill Douglas’ autobiographical study of his childhood and adolescent years, does, however, include many harsher sequences, moments of domestic abuse, of parental neglect and fighting between siblings, scenes which give the film its emotional power and directly grant political readings. Yet, the scenes of solitude and longing, captured in long static shots and perfectly organised framings, are at least for me the more powerful and depressing moments of the trilogy.

In My Childhood, Jamie gazes at the colliery in the distance – where fathers who have finished for the day greet their excited children – longing for a meaningful relationship, or at least comfort and affection from a fatherly figure.

And within My Way Home, where Jamie’s ever-changing family – as the films progress the relationship between family members become more complex and convoluted as characters die, return from obscurity (or in fact just a few miles away, where Jamie’s estranged father had been hiding) or become romantically entangled – ridicule his dreams and aspirations, leaving the young lad isolated in his bare home, estranged from the people who are meant to take care of him.

In Newcraighall, art and education are viewed as unobtainable, as the pursuit of others, and if Jamie stays here, his future will most likely be entwined with the colliery. Fortunately for Jamie, his alienation from the world of Newcraighall leads him first to the Salvation Army – where he sleeps amongst a great hall of other unfortunates – and then to the National Service in Egypt where he meets Peter, a posh southern chap also enlisted in the army. While Peter initially cannot understand Jamie’s thick accent, the two ultimately become good friends – for these parts of the film it appeared to me that they were alone together in Egypt –  and I think it is fair to say that Douglas wants us to read allusions to stronger, more intimate feelings between the two boys in these scenes. Peter – who incidentally Douglas remained good friends with for the rest of life outside the film – is the first person Jamie encounters who endorses his dream of becoming an artist, maybe even a film director, the first person he meets who truly believes he has what it takes to make a success of himself. Indeed, Peter, is also influential in other respects, with his library of great works of literature and thinkers offering intellectual nourishment to Jamie, who at this point, has been starved of both a good meal and an education.

My Way Home ends with a truly fantastic sequence: as the camera pans through the bare, desolate house of Jamie’s youth, Douglas, juxtaposes these images with the noise of aircraft taking off, a move which gives the trilogy’s final moments a bizarre, alien quality in an otherwise minimalist set of films.

As one watches the trilogy, it appears that Douglas’ filmmaking develops and improves, his cinematography becomes more impressive and distinct just as the narrative and script become tighter and more thoughtful, and yet it is clear that the pace of the films remains unaffected and the individual films continue to work as functioning parts of an integrated whole. Throughout the trilogy, Douglas’ aesthetic comes more into his own, his images and silences begin to form a particular style, which although indebted to grand figures such as Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, in the end, have a distinctly Douglasian quality. It is a great loss to British cinema that this man was unable to make more films.

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