Bill Douglas was born in 1934, in the Depression-hit mining village of Newcraighall outside Edinburgh. He was brought up initially by his maternal grandmother; following her death, he lived with his father and paternal grandmother. His early years were marked by hardship and poverty, later reflected in his films My Childhood and My Ain Folk. A temporary escape from this background came via the 'other world' found in the local cinema - he would collect and return used jam-jars to afford the price of admission. As he wrote in his 1978 essay "Palace of Dreams: The Making of a Film-Maker":
Bill did National Service in the Royal Air Force, stationed in Egypt, where he met his lifelong friend Peter Jewell. After returning to Britain they kept in contact and shared a flat after Bill moved to London, where in the late 1950s he managed to break into acting with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop company. In the following years he had some success both writing and acting, including a major role in the Granada TV series The Younger Generation in 1961.
However, it was as a film-maker that Bill Douglas found his true role. He managed to gain entry to the London International Film School in 1969, graduating in 1970 with first-class honours and directing a number of remarkable short films along the way. His first professional work retraced events of his own childhood and early adult life, though at the same time reaching beyond 'simple' autobiography. The Trilogy, comprising My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978) won many international awards and was hailed as "a true masterpiece of poetic cinema" by Derek Malcolm. His next project, the epic Comrades, took eight years to realise, finally emerging in 1987 as a three-hour account of the nineteenth-century trade union pioneers the Tolpuddle Martyrs interwoven with images of the remarkable optical entertainments, the collection of which was Bill's other great passion.
Bill Douglas died in 1991, diagnosed too late as suffering from cancer. With his death the British film industry lost not only a unique imagination, but also the tantalising prospect of future projects. At least three completed but unproduced scripts remain, including Flying Horse, a brilliant account of the pioneer of motion photography Eadweard Muybridge and his importance in the development of cinema as we know it.
A fuller account of Bill Douglas's life and work can be found in Bill Douglas: A Lanternist's Account, edited by Eddie Dick, Andrew Noble and Duncan Petrie (London: British Film Institute, 1993, ISBN 0-85170-348-8).
Bill Douglas - filmography