Derek Williams

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
1 May 2000
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs


Derek Williams

Side 1

Glyn Jones  0:00

The copyright of this recording is vested in the BECTU History Project. The name of the interviewee is Derek Williams, Writer Director. The interviewer is Glyn Jones. The date is the first of May 2002. And this is side one.

Have you had an extensive career in the particularly in the sponsored documentary field, we probably will call it. I know in fact that you must have filmed in pretty well every continent in the world, including Antarctica. And apart from a lot of awards for your films, you also have four nominations for Hollywood Academy Awards, in the live action short subject category, which I think is unique to any writer director in this country. How did it all begin? How did you first have a develop an interest in films and how you enter the business professionally?

Derek Williams  1:00

It began, as with many filmmakers, almost automatically. But But whereas with many here, we were born in the London area and live close to studios and so on. I come from Northumberland and I had a lifelong boyhood interest in Hadrian's Wall. And when I was an undergraduate, I decided to make a film about Hadrian's Wall during the vacations, so I made an amateur film. And before I'd finished the film, I began to think, Well, perhaps documentary filmmaking is more interesting than Hadrian's Wall. So, one thing led to another and I got a job in London and beginning in 1952. And as you say, I worked in the short British short film industry and making documentary films are largely of a sponsored nature until 1992. And the great majority of that time was as Writer Director.

Glyn Jones  2:17

So how do you start off there in 1952? What did you get a job as a trainee with a company?

Derek Williams  2:22

Yes, I was cutting room assistant dead cutting room assistant for some months. But having shot Hadrian's Wall with a 16 millimetre camera, I was able to shoot as well. So a job turned up which involved two years in Aden in the desert, covering an industrial project, and of course, nobody else would do it. And so they sent the most junior member and I went for nearly two years to live in, in Aden. In in what is now South Yemen, and shot 16 mil. Then it was I earned Amiga reputation as a one man outfit. And I was sent to the Antarctic with the transcend a Commonwealth transcend Arctic expedition in 1955. Because I was able to do everything myself, you see, and shoot. Then with a 35 millimetre

Glyn Jones  3:32

I think the Aden film must have been oil. How about Aden?

Derek Williams  3:35

That is so yes. That was my first professional film.

Glyn Jones  3:39

That was the worldwide as a worldwide Yes. Well, I think all the data when a company's wants to have a foothold. And on top,

Derek Williams  3:46

yes, yes, produced by Jimmy Carr, both of them.

Glyn Jones  3:50

And foothold on Antarctica was the cause. A BP film?

Derek Williams  3:53

Yes, my first BPF film as well. Yes. How long were you in in public? Only five months. I was there with the advanced party. Subsequently, I left camera work and became a writer director in beginning in 1956, and continued in that row till the end.

Glyn Jones  4:24

foothold in Antarctica was the your first connection with BP but you you have made a lot of BP films and over the years yes

Derek Williams  4:31

of my 30 short films written and directed. There must have been over 15 bp films. bp ceased to make films in the late 1980s and I finished my career making films for Shell similar similar films for Shell. So much of my career was under oil sponsors. But you might say almost all of my career, I was lucky to be under major industrial or commercial sponsorship with the bigger budgets. In documentary terms, the bigger budgets, and I worked for companies like ici and the World Bank and the oil companies and so on. And one or two films for government departments and non non government organisations, or were sponsored, of course, all we're at the mercy of other people's money.

Glyn Jones  5:38

But these films I've seen, I've seen a number of your BP films, they have no sense marketing or advertising. Would you think you've avoided entirely pretty well throughout your career,

Derek Williams  5:49

I tried to Yes, I tried to avoid films connected with a sponsor who was paying for and managed For example, to attach myself to the as other filmmakers, some other filmmakers did to attach myself to the environmental movement. And I was able to make environmental films for oil companies and so on. When the oil company aims rather changed or or subject matter, tended to change in the 80s, the 70s and 80s they became devoted more to Nazi engineering films and and and so on, harder sell type of subject, I managed only to make two films in the Nazi many, of course, devoted the second half of their career to making films and the Nazi the same film again and again.

Glyn Jones  7:02

At that time, it seems that a company like BP, from the mid 50s onwards, was taking a considered thoughtful look at its own activities. And to a degree, some of the better films that were made by sponsored by them reflected this.

Derek Williams  7:25

Yes, yes, I agree that is so but the big question, the ultimate question is, did the public did the country as a whole accept this as a sincere ploy by the oil companies? Or did they see through it, so to speak. And in my view, a part of the reason for the decline of this type of documentary which we call the prestige documentary, The Big general purpose good works documentaries, not attached to obvious commercial interests, the prestige documentaries sought to stand on non commercial ground and to give the the the the impression that the company which made them was disinterested, was above commercial interests, and had general welfare at heart, and so on. Now, the question is, did the audience's follow this? This is certainly what we, what we have striven to to make. And we told ourselves that we made them with a greatest sincerity, and that even that they were sponsored with the greatest sincerity. But the question is worthy.

Glyn Jones  9:09

My own experience, I think that sometimes the people was immediately responsible to were doing it sincerely. Whether the people felt the love who were providing the money for the whole thing, or I didn't say, I wouldn't be too sure, because undoubtedly, the one of the purposes of the film was to prevent the sponsoring client in a good light.

Derek Williams  9:35

Yes. And as it was often said, to enhance the environment, the environment in which great companies operated. to, to to improve the climate of business and industry general in a general sense.

Glyn Jones  10:00

The guards audiences, it always seemed to me that there were really two audiences because a number of the BP films I know were given sacred releases. Yes. I recall thing a number as short support films, though, in essence, they're the audience standards of typical cinema audiences of the day, which was kept good because it's really gonna be the main film. Yes. The other ones were they people in societies of various kinds, who in fact, hired the film, because they wanted to see it, which was a bit different. And now you're probably the audience's which in a way mattered more, though it was it was you know, rather useful to say that your, your film have been out and released with another good feature and have been seen by 4 million people, you know?

Derek Williams  10:52

Well, that is a subject. I have thought somewhat about and I would like to deal with it separately in a moment. Okay.

Glyn Jones  11:02

And in the, in the 50s, and 60s, rather and didn't leave any early 70s I associate you with Green Park productions, and Humphrey swingler and the film Producers Guild.

Derek Williams  11:18

Yes. I was a freelance filmmaker for much of my career. Suddenly, a long period after leaving worldwide in the middle 50s. for 10 years, I was a freelance filmmaker. And for the last 15 years of my career, I was a freelance filmmaker. But twice during the middle period, I worked for the vo film Producers Guild. Yes. And I met Humphrey swingler in a Aiden when he was making a BP film called they found a valley written by Jack Howells. I met them in Aden. And Rowley. Stafford was his camera man later, to become BP films officer. I met them all in Aden when I was working alone as a young, a youthful camera man in my early 20s. And that was really the first link I had with BP and the first link I had with Humphrey swingler. Who was my producer and friend for much of the rest of his life. Yes.

Glyn Jones  12:30

of the films that you made for BP, which ones particularly stand out woman john iron become making quite an impact at the time with other industries, because they saw it and began to wonder should they be doing the same kind of thing with the shadow was progress. The

Derek Williams  12:51

shadow of progress was undoubtedly my most successful film. And it actually won 25 national and international festival first prizes 25 which is almost half of my total award. It hit the peak of the environmental movement, and 1969 it was actually made for European conservation. Yeah, which was 1969. But when we started, the producer Humphrey swingler said to his secretary, keep any cutting maker maker combat population of any cuttings you see in the press, on the subject of pollution, or environment and what we now call green as yours. And she did, she began to have to make a combination at the end of the film that was abandoned or long before the end of the film that was abandoned because she had fell and lots of books they replaced was becoming a torrent in the press, you see. And so at that time, and that was this, only the second film that was made on the subject of environment. In Britain, I believe, the first being shells the river must live. Yes. But while the river must live was about water pollution only shadow progress was more generally about the environment. And it hit the nail on the head at the time. I certainly don't count it as my best film or my favourite film, but it certainly was my most successful film. And again, the director of BP in German we shot in Germany, among other many other places. The director of BP Germany said at the beginning of the film, to his Public Relations Officer, give them cooperation We can't help doing that. But I will not have this film in my company injure or translated into German under any circumstances. But at the end of the film, he very humbly said 100 copies in German. So there is the way that was good things were going Yes.

Glyn Jones  15:21

And you said it wasn't your favourite film, which of our own films would give you a call with the most pleasure or the least displeasure? Possibly.

Derek Williams  15:30

Well, that's a course a very personal matter of another of great interest to many people. But my most enjoyable film was a film called Turkey, the bridge about the history of Asia Minor. And that, too, was made for an oil company. But I just had to mention them a couple of times. And the rest of the time, I was free to roam the ruins and archaeological sites and, and museums and art galleries and nightclubs, and so on over Turkey. And I made a little film my own way. And about a subject that's closest to me, that is the past and history. And that is my favourite film. And it was a low budget film and with many defects and I, we had so little money, I had to give the narration myself and, and we could only afford eight instruments for the music, and so on and so on. But that film did get and was one of the four which had an Academy Award nomination.

Glyn Jones  16:45

Did you find in the 1980s, that the kind of film which you Amelie made your name in? And we were doing extremely well with? I mean, it's so big, like kind of film, the numbers of the number of opportunities to make them began to dwindle?

Derek Williams  17:01

Certainly, certainly. But I was then at the peak of my career and reputation such as it was a within this very small, narrow world. And I managed to carry on getting some of the best subjects, albeit that they were dwindling, which saw me out really until the end of my career until I was until I was 62, or 63, when I retired. But that in general, that is very true. Of course, the subjects were dwindling severely.

Glyn Jones  17:41

And in your Later career, probably tributed. You. You wrote scripts and commentaries without necessarily directing films or

Derek Williams  17:54

for others, for others, yes, yes, but I don't count them. Among the 30 films have mentioned. And I don't consider any awards that they might have won. Among my own awards, a Festival Award. I particularly worked for john Armstrong and my last year is making, making writing commentaries for him. And in the last year, over the last 20 years of my career, I fit it in several ambitious projects, which he was making and wrote for him.

Glyn Jones  18:33

Africa, john Armstrong had a career roughly running alongside you exactly. Yeah,

Derek Williams  18:37

I think he started a couple of years earlier. But it was very parallel to mine. Yes, yes, very parallel. Unfortunately, john Armstrong wasn't a writer fortunately, for me, perhaps he wasn't a writer. So, so he called upon my services. And I, so to speak, took over from Stuart leg, as his writer, as Stuart was ageing and so on and and disinclined to write many commentaries I took over from him in the 1970s, late 70s, I suppose. Did you ever have all think of having your own production company? No, I have no business. No business no claims to so I've never produced I couldn't handle the business side and on the water, the business worries and so on.

Glyn Jones  19:45

So you've relied on in that respect? Good associations, like obviously the one you had with Humphrey swingler. Yes, yes. Was there anybody else after

Derek Williams  19:54

a variety of people but nobody stands out as as important in my Career After that, because I moved from one to another one producer to another. Had I produced my own films I could have produced and directed films and made them on a more perhaps a more independent basis and taken more risks. But since I never had any financial ambitions, I mean business ambitions. I therefore, directed only and I was therefore completely at the mercy of the nature of the industry, which was a sponsorship. Although I could choose my subject to some extent within that framework,

Glyn Jones  20:52

did you find the the nature of sponsorship the nature of the kind of films that industry was making change gradually throughout the time or the changelog more dramatically toward towards the end. I you know, the what point you think the prestige documentary became a went into decline in the number of opportunities offered,

Derek Williams  21:24

the prestige documentary lasted throughout my career. That is approximately the the postwar year from the post war years to the present the prestige the second half of the 20th century, the prestige documentary lasted in albeit in dwindling form. It it changed somewhat in its motives and methods throughout my career, at first the golden age of sponsored documentary, you could make almost anything and people would watch it and come and see it and even write about it in the press and get excited about it. It was a not a discriminating time it was a time of enthusiasm and interest for the cinema generally. Then, the the sponsors latched on to environment, it was a safe subject, it was a popular subject, from 1970. And the the prestige documentary tended to move in that direction. Better World and finally, with the narrowing of, of outlets, the lack of interest in documentary generally and the lack of the means of showing them the audience's the sponsored document, the prestige documentary, tended to take refuge in education, and to make it films for Sixth Form type audiences and to distribute them on video. And so, in a sense, my career began with television being a very low quality and regarded by film makers and film technicians as something of a joke and not worth not worth working in. And ended with being the sort of luckiest of television to us. outlets, outlets being through video.

Glyn Jones  23:52

And during your career Derrick, were there any particular people with whom you work within the longer associations I'm thinking of, you know, did you have cameramen within the window number of jobs are editors for example.

Derek Williams  24:12

I worked with a number of cameramen. But Maurice Pico is especially associated with my films. James Allen, to a lesser extent. I met Jimmy Allen in in Bombay by accident. Many years later, and he had gone perhaps finished up one might say ended his career as a lighting cameraman in India. He didn't shoot but he lit these great sets with the Indian dances and theatricals and so on. India became the last refuge of Many British technicians in fact, because the Indian film industry was the biggest in the world, and carried on longest, and they still thriving and television made less impact had at that time made less impact in India. How about editors, editors, I worked with a large variety of editors and seldom worked with, with one editor on more than two films. It just worked again, it came out that way. So I couldn't say that there's one or two editors, especially associated with my films.

Glyn Jones  25:39

I know in any case that from watching your films, do you like to get your pictures and your commentary very nicely? tightly together? Yeah, presumably, you spend quite a bit of time in the editing room yourself.

Derek Williams  25:54

Well, I never handled film myself, so to speak, or video. But I like to spend a lot of time in the cutting room and especially as the film approached, fine cutting, and I like to work with filament words together, of course, and to match them carefully. And, and to, to to find ways of letting the Vizio prompt the words so to speak. And until the end of my career, of course, one could tape, take a tape of the film and take it home and do it at home. You could one of the few advantages of video, where and with the remote control, sit in an armchair and work out one's commentary without, without the tortures of commuter Railway, traffic

Glyn Jones  26:55

and of the value of the many countries that you visited. Obviously, a lot of the must have made an impression on you, which made the strongest impression you found most interesting, either as a filmmaker well indeed as a simply a human being.

Derek Williams  27:19

I worked in 50 countries. But there were in some cases, multiple visits to any given country. So for example, I worked in America, I visited America professionally about 20 times. I would single out the United States, as the filmmakers country is a country where the film industry was largely born, and which has the strongest filmmaking tradition. And the country where the general public came to respect the filmmaker most and where he aroused, great, greatest interest. Working in the streets of American cities, for example, people would come up to one and ask questions and, and show interest and sympathy in a way that it happened in no other country. Of course, in countries like India, you would be surrounded in five minutes by hundreds of onlookers. But that was not the same sympathetic, interested that was not the same intelligent interest in the cinema that was just curiosity and fascination. With the with this with the silver screen. No, America was the place par excellence and the extremely relaxed attitude of the American police and all sorts of officialdom to the filmmaker during much of my career. For example, filming in busy streets, which would usually in Britain mean being moved on by a policeman because of possible congestion and so on. A policeman would come across the road and stand swinging his truncheon in a most ominous way and your turnaround at the end of the shot to meekly and ask him what is wrong and he would say, Can I give you guys any assistance? any way I can help you guys and and sometimes even an invitation to come to his house for supper when were deployed arise from this, these extraordinary encounters very, very pleasant encounters. And it was such a pleasant atmosphere to film in that my two assistants on one occasion, assistant cameraman assistant director, you both young men devised an idea that they should come to America on holiday with a puppy Mash a camera, a fake camera painted up, and, and pretend tripod because of course, the real thing is heavy and unpleasant to carry about. But with something that was lightweight and no problem and set up this, this, so to speak camera on the street corners and the prettiest girls would come up to you and want to talk and so on and so on, and they devise the holiday on these lines. However, the American union has toughened and in the last 10 years of my career, it became impossible to take British technicians to America to shoot a documentary film, they would be spotted at the immigration with their equipment and so on and and trouble would often follow. And the director had to go to America and use an American film unit, which of course, is a very pleasant and interesting experience. But it often meant that we had to break our films into two units, one shooting outside America and one shooting within America, which has certain disadvantages. And even the director in America had to pretend that he was an advisor. And he was strictly speaking supposed to employ an American director to sit idly while he did the direction

Glyn Jones  31:23

as it used to be, I think in British feature films in the 50s. I believe

Derek Williams  31:26

so yes, I believe so it is a great shame because the two industries American and British are almost one in many senses, especially in the blending of talent, and so on. And ideas are almost one and it is a great shame when such obstructions occur. But that happened in the last few years of my career. And before that I was able to go to America with British technicians with impunity,

Glyn Jones  31:55

whichever countries do remember with particular pleasurable interest? Well, we're interested in

Derek Williams  32:04

America was a great pleasure to work to work in. But of particular interest to me was to film in the Soviet Union. I have spent my whole life discussing my whole intellectual life. I am an intellectual. I spend my whole intellectual life thinking about the Soviet Union, wondering about the Soviet Union, asking questions about the Soviet Union, discussing the Soviet Union with others, people have many political

Glyn Jones  32:37

May I ask just one question here. When did you go and wanted to deal with Soviet Union at that time?

Derek Williams  32:42

Yes, it was two years before the end of the Soviet Union. It was the end towards the end of the gob Gorbachev era when it was becoming very, where people could speak freely. At last, and I had the the privilege of working with two excellent interpreters. So I was able to go anywhere, speak to anyone, and have conversations of great subtlety and as if in one's own language. And then that way one can penetrate ideas and ask all sorts of questions and find out much learn much more about the Soviet Union and what had happened in the past and how things had been and how it was there and, and hopes for the future and so on. So it was that so this was the most intellectually stimulating the most intellectually stimulating experience of my film career, and we founded a Soviet Union Did you film I filmed in all parts of the Western Soviet Union, I never went to the Soviet east or Far East, also Soviet Central Asia. But I filmed in all parts of the Western Soviet Union from right up to the finish border, in the north to right down to the Turkish border, on the Black Sea. And I saw a lot of what is now Russia, the Ukraine, and Georgia. And my conclusion is that while I spent my life wondering who was right, the right wingers who said that all sorts of bad things about the Soviet Union, and the left wingers who said all sorts of good things about the Soviet Union. I'm afraid that on the whole, I found that the cynical, materialistic right wingers had been right about the Soviet Union, the Russian themselves were telling me what sort of life they had been living for the last 773 years. And I think it was a rather frightening and later grey and bleak life that they have lived.

Glyn Jones  35:20

Let's call a stop there. And we'll turn over the tape and continue on the other side.

End of Side 1

Derek Williams Side 2

Glyn Jones  0:01

The  copyright of  this recording is vested in the BECTU History Project. The name of the interviewee is Derek Williams, Writer Director. The name of the interviewer is Glyn Jones. The date is the first of May 2002. And this is side two. Derek, can you give us your reflections on how the industry has changed? In the sponsored the short films, they're in the times that you were active?

Derek Williams  0:39

I think the most important thing to say in that respect is that the industry has changed in the sense of decline. And the sense of deterioration from a significant, albeit minor, intellectual force, to almost wipe out almost disappearance. So that is the biggest change within my career. We have said that my career lasted from 1952 to 1992. Now the first half of that, and especially the even the first quarter of that, there was great enthusiasm for the documentary film, we had had the, the birth of the movement. Before the war, I did attracted a lot of attention, press attention, serious attention, books were written, universities were interested, the intelligentsia was interested. Then came the war. And, of course, the ideal time for making documentary films for the war effort. And they are very creditable response, that famous response of the documentary film unit to the war effort. And then in the in the post war years, the 1950s, there was still enthusiasm for the British documentary film, and it was often said that, at that time, our feature film, our feature filmmaking industry was overshadowed by the American at that time, but our documentary industry was the most important in the world. That was said, and public interest, in a minor way, reflected that. And my early films, although rather fumbling and groping and inexperienced, attracted quite a lot of press attention, and and general interest. And it's ironic that, I think the first quarter of my career I got more column inches, then the last half the latter half when I was more experienced, more capable and done and in fact, commanded bigger budgets and so on.

Glyn Jones  2:52

Well, I recall in fact that certainly the times in The Guardian both had fairly regular reviews of the most important documentary films, which have been completed.

Derek Williams  3:05

Indeed, indeed, there was considerable public interest. Although we must always regard ourselves as very much the small partner in the film industry compared with the feature industry, even the failing feature industry at its worst, and I think probably in the 1950s, it was at its worst. Why then what then happened in the second half of my career, people cease to take notice of films of short films. They went into decline, certainly, as far as people seeing them as concerned. And or I think all film, short film directors must have had the galling experience, perhaps many times in our life of friends and relatives saying, Where can I see your films? Where, where are you? I would like to see one of your films, where are they shown? And somebody said, launching a film used to be like dropping a pebble into a pool, there was a splash, an audible and visible splash and ripples. But after 1970 you drop the stone, it was as if you drop the stone into a pool of Trico or golden syrup, no splash, no sound and no ripples after a year's work after a year is very hard work. What went wrong? Well, I think in the first place, our weakness was that we had no really significant or effective outlet. That is means of showing our films. Means of bringing our films to the audience. A film could be attached to a feature film and go around. The cinemas occasionally go on circuit release. And that was quite a personal offence, a small feather in one's cap when that happened. But actually, they weren't taken seriously. Film distributors, I think had contempt for short films weren't interested in them. They were merely interested in making something which filled the programme. While people took their seats or left their seats on board ice creams, I went to the television, I'm sorry, went to the toilet. Or were shaking out their umbrellas or taking their their raincoats off and so on. So you had the impression when you were on a circuit release with a major film that it was just being used as a sort of lobby, to the main film and nobody would take any notice of it. So I think there was very little advantage in in in the in that sense.

In the second release, it certainly generated no interest generated no press comment, especially in the second half of my career. While television wasn't interested in taking our films, by and large, they resisted it. Some said it was through jealousy. Some said. We were so good that if our films were shown on television, the television filmmakers would be the television programme makers would be shown up by our excellence. So I think that was rather nonsense. The fact was that they developed a very different way of making their for their their programmes, thinking of journalism, that certainly is one aspect. Yes, that is certainly one aspect, but different techniques, which I'll talk about later. And films, didn't look at their best didn't didn't go down well on television. And in any case, they were rather neglected by television and, and refused, generally refused by the channels. So you couldn't say that we had a significant outlet on television at all. So that drove us that there remains what was called non theatrical. People will wonder what on earth this really means non theatrical, and even a filmmakers hard put to say exactly what it was. But it could be 16 millimetre projectors grinding away in village halls, the women's Institute's school showings, film, society showings and science are. Impressive statistics could be produced for audiences, by films offices by industrial films, offices for their documentaries, impressive statistics. But the effect was minimal. As far as the filmmakers, fame and fortune were concerned, because the impact was divided into Penny packets and scattered all over the world. Tiny audiences seeing your films over a long period of many years, diluted all over the world. So it was again that was an outlet that had minimum feedback, produced no press interest. It produced no serious intellectual interest. And it didn't reflect on the filmmaker in in the sense of giving him more prestige, better money, better subjects, and so on. So, we had this basic weakness. documentary film had this basic weakness of finding an audience and in the end, failed to find an audience because even the non theatrical people in the, in the second half of my career, became addicted to television and didn't want to sit in a school halls and see see 16 millimetre films anymore. You must remember in the first half of my career, films were of great interest because the amount of entertainment available to people was much less than now

Glyn Jones  9:48

There  were two black and white television channels.

Derek Williams  9:50

Yes. And they were a poor quality. Yes, they were. Dr. Johnson. I'm sorry, Boswell said to Samuel Johnson, that play you saw in the Strand. Was it worth seeing? And Johnson said, Yes, it was worth seeing. But was it worth going to see? Now there is a great difference in what is worth seeing and what is worth going to see, a film must be worth going to see. And that can mean standing in bus stops in the rain and standing in cinema queues. What is worth seeing television in an armchair beside the fire can be of a far lower quality, and get away with it. Because of that difference. Because of that difference.

Another reason for the demise of the documentary film was therefore the obvious one, the rise of television. In the first half of my career, television seemed hardly worth joining, it was considered a joke among film technicians. In the second half of my career, it advanced from strength to strength, not just in techniques, colour, satellite, outside broadcasting, and so on. But in maturity and confidence of all kinds, and with it, the public addiction to television deepened and the public disinterest in cinema in especially in documentary cinema, declined.

I remember often filming in the second half of my career under these circumstances, and people would come up to me and they would say, making a film, who are you making this film for? What is it about will tell them a documentary for the British Petroleum Company or something like that? Or they would say, oh, propaganda for the company for a company and they would wander off, they were not interested. So they the you would feel that they they killed us that the British documentary had in the 1930s 40s and 50s, had faded away very markedly as far as the general public were concerned. Children would come up to me and say, which channel? Are you making the film? For? What time will it be broadcast? And I would say, No, I'm not making a film for television. Actually, I'm making it for the show for international Petroleum Company. And it is. And before I'd finished, they'd gone, they'd wandered off, they'd had no meaning what I was doing had no meaning for them anymore. And this was, of course, the march of television, the march of television, and our weakness, having no significant and reliable and universal outlet. were destroying us.

Then I think there was most strange, interesting of all, there was a third reason which destroyed us. This was what you might call the green movement, or the hippie movement. To some extent, they were part and parcel parcel of the same intellectual movement, they produced something of the same intellectual climate. It happened in the late 60s, the very end of the 1960s. A little earlier in America, perhaps, between 1970 and 1980. This completely translates thinking generated by the green movement had completely transformed our position. And ironically, of course, as I said, many industrial sponsors had attached themselves to the green movement, and we're making environmental films and in my thesis, it is that which was undermining them, and in the end was destroying them destroying their credibility, because with the green movement, came as one of its accompaniments, a general disparagement of industry, particularly big industry. When I first started film, making films for the for the major companies, people regarded them with reverence with the deepest respect. They would talk about the great British Petroleum Company, shell international Petroleum Company, when they spoke, people listened people, people listened with respect.

between 1970 and 1980, that evaporated among the young. They started to see through this rap rules and to question it. And they began to see industry as a means of making money as profit. And, and to suspect any other motive and big industry. Now, this particular at the sharp end of this attack on industry, which is with a still at the very sharp end was the unfortunate public relations branch of industry. I remember when public relations was respected like the rest of industry, and public relations, one should I had was our link with industry, a filmmaker, made films for industry instructed by that industry, his public relations department. Now, the assault on the public relations industry was Cata, catastrophic because calamitous At first, I remember hearing hippies and dropouts and such people disparaging public relations. But I would live to see the day when cabinet ministers and bishops and prime ministers would disparage public relations. They would say a prime minister would say it within 10 years, a prime minister would say, Oh, this is the truth. By the way. This is true, by the way, this is not a public relations exercise. Now a phrase like that means public relations equals lies. This is truth, by the way, not a public relations exercise. So the public relations industry was in calamitous retreat. In fact, they were changing their name all the time, they were, say calling themselves public affairs, they were calling themselves industrial information, anything to avoid the very name public relations, as if by changing the name you could change the situation the truth. So this was a nail in the coffin of our films, we were making films for a despised branch of industry. And industry itself was becoming distrusted. That is outside it's legitimate sphere, which is legitimate spirit sphere was industry, commerce, profit. This was its legitimate spear sphere that is still, to some extent, accepted and respected. But when industry tries to pronounce on the great problems of our time, and to pretend if pretend is the right word, to pretend that it believes in helping the third world and eliminating hunger and things of this sort, the public. Now questions that, and as a result, came to question, the prestige documentary, which was about such subjects. So they're evolved, not exactly an attitude of active distrust. But at this interest in our films, they became progressively irrelevant. And people would watch documentaries on such subjects with interest and respect on television, because they knew that television had no wasn't being paid by industry to make them whether they knew that television is in that sense, relatively impartial.

I would now like to talk about the way we made films. And the way television directors now make films and some small differences. In some respects, I think our work was technically superior to that of television today. I often have the experience now of watching a television documentary, and after half an hour, slowly realising and saying to them Well, I think we've seen this before. Have we seen this before? Yes, yes, it must. And I look at the Radio Times. And sure enough, it's a repeat and I have seen it before. Why did it take me half an hour? To realise that I'd seen it before? Why do they these films so often make a blurred impact? For one thing, I think we learned to we in documentary film making learned to fruit sequentially. That is to see every visual opportunity In terms of a sequence, a sequence merely means long shot, mid shot close shot, so that you establish the framework, the general surroundings, the nature of the activity and the details of the activity. And in an artistic sense, you give cutaways ploughing, for example, your show a plough in a field, you show a mid shot of the plough and then the tractor, which which shows the operation, you show a close shot of the plan. And then the cutaways the blade cutting the sod and the hole, and the machinery snorting and wheels turning, and so on. So, and given an editor, this kind of coverage, he can build up a sequence, and the sequence has a much more compelling unity than scattered sundry shots. So I would say to a lead, let me continue. Later in my career, I worked for a producer who made compilation films, and he will, various videos in choosing took him a long time to choose supurb shots, all the best available from libraries all over the world. And I thought these are glittering shots, the film is going to be wonderful. And then when you saw it, was strangely weak, strangely lacking an impact. And I sat down with one of my colleagues, Douglas Gordon, why is this why it looks so promising. And he said, because it wasn't shot sequentially. These are marvellous shots, but they're all from different sources. sequence is essential to the film art. It is a way of moving your subject of penetrating your subject of giving it meaning an artistic flow. So I would advise television directors, young television directors, to avoid making a film out of sundry shots to avoid all this use of other people's scraps of other people's materials, because that is a serious weakening, and you see it again and again on television. minimise archive shots. minimise material from scattered sources. It is true, of course, if you make a historical documentary, you can't go out and shoot things. So therefore you are dependent on libraries. And it works. people accept it, you can make a good documentary out of archive material. But when you are shooting contemporary subjects, realistic contemporary subjects, should the buggers yourself, shoot them yourself. And if you don't know what a sequence is, then cover everything and let the editor carve a sequence out of it because he can, he will know what to do

all also minimise graphics, and artists impressions. These are important. They can say things that the filmmaker that live action shooting, can't say. But remember that we have as documentary filmmakers, we have few powers. We don't have the glitter of great actors, great scripts and dark, wonderful dialogue, all the means and the studio capabilities of feature films and so on. We have but we have one power that they don't. And that is realism. And remember that realism is best reflected in live action shooting. So use graphics if you must use library library material if you must use other people's bits and pieces of film, if you must. But remember, if you shoot it yourself, and you shoot it sequentially, and you place reliance on your own work, live action shooting that will make the best most memorable films, and the viewer is unlikely to take half an hour to think have I seen this before. Above all, make words and pictures work together. That is an another way of saying this is avoid unfilmable subjects. Avoid subjects where you can't produce Visio you can't you can't where there are no visuals and you are dependent on words. Let me illustrate. If you want to make a film about a bacteriological discovery in Paris, and there is nothing to show perhaps except One shot of things jumping about under a microscope. When you have a half hour film domain or a one hour film domain, and nothing to show, then your words and pictures will not be coincide, will not coincide, you'll be using shots of the Eiffel Tower and talking about microbiology. Now this happens continually and television filmmaking or the worst of all other news readers, the I'm sorry, the News, the news reels television news programmes were perhaps there's been a breakthrough in aviation in Spain, and they show you a shot of a boring or something like this. Here the words and the pictures are not related, they are not coinciding. Again and again. in television. You see, subjects are being tackled ambitious subjects, which really have no visuals. And the words are talking about things that can't be seen on the screen. Also, of course, the same technique, disguises sloppy work and cheap work where where the filmmaker can't afford or hasn't bothered to, to film his subject properly, and is covering, for example, I saw a film once about receive a television programme one's about Russian espionage in Britain. Now, the quintessence of a spy is that he doesn't show himself and that nobody will ever see what he does. Therefore, the filmmaker had one hour to portray the subject of Russian espionage in Britain. And this the videos consisted largely of shots of feet walking along streets. General views of Hyde Park, hand dropping envelopes behind trees in the dark, in, in, in, in sorted places, people coming in and out of gents toilets. And to add insult to injury, a caption over the shots saying simulation or actors voice interviews with people. And by the way, the interview in television is merely a cheap way of filling screen time.

And, and making a half hour subject, inflating a half hour subject into one hour by pumping in half an hour of wind bags and talking heads. But in this film about the Russian spies, of course, the people interviewed were in silhouette in the half dark back the camera with a caption actor's voice. And so really one wonders what that one has departed so far from realism and these in these techniques. And what above all one has divorced words from the pictures they should be with that the whole effect is weakened. So therefore talk about what you have shot or shoot what you are going to talk about. Don't talk about medical science over shots of boots in the high street. Be precise. Work.

Don't use the second best. Don't consider visuals as wallpaper. Because the greatest difference between film documentary and television documentary, I am afraid is that in film documentary, The visuals were always the principal, the senior partner and in television documentary, The words have become less senior partner. Television is a words medium. And that is was always considered by us a weakness. If it was words divorced from film, it was weak. You just didn't do it. If it was just words and words and words, that was another weakness. Good film had pauses between the words you used. Words and sound effects and music all had their place in the soundtrack. And here you had strength of soundtrack variety well summing up on my career I once asked one My camera man, this question, was it worth doing near the end of our professional lives? Was it worth doing? And he said, Well, my father was a manager of Woolworths in Camberwell High Street. And if I hadn't become a cameraman, I suppose I might have been manager of Woolworths and Cameron Camberwell High Street. And therefore I must say that I had a much more interesting and creative career than I might have had. But if I might say, so my situation was a bit different from that I had a good degree from a very good university. And all my contemporaries now live to be q C's, judges, university professors, school had masters, or medical science, eminent scientists, in some cases. I might have been one of those. And in that context, was it worth doing what I did? Well, I can't deny that I had a very interesting life. In a day to day or even year to year sense, sense, more interesting than any of my contemporaries. Yes. Many changes of subject, many fascinating glimpses into things that the vast majority of people will never see, like filming in a lunatic asylum. Filming in a submarine under the ocean filming in the gold vaults of the Bank of England filming in a diamond mine filming in, in in the furthest continents, filming in the Pentagon, we have all done these kinds of things, and have penetrated worlds which most people will never penetrate. So I can't deny that I have had an extremely interesting career. And added to it with the great pleasure that most people don't have that I had mixed company, continually changing environments with colleagues who came and went and new colleagues. And as a director, I could choose my own colleagues to a certain extent. So I didn't have this terrible condemnation to carry across and live with the same boss for 30 years, I'll work with the same colleagues for 40 years in the same office. None of all this. Now that is on the plus side. But looking back on my career, I feel that the 30 films I made and the 50 countries I visited, I like a lot of jigsaw pieces. Some are interesting in themselves, some may be even attractive and exciting in themselves. But when you come to fit these pieces together, they weren't meant for the same jigsaw. They are like pieces from all different jigsaws. So I feel that my life doesn't add up to anything substantial, particularly naturally, with the in view of the decline of our industry as well, which doesn't put an optimistic cast on on reminiscence. And my career lacks a certain substance in its achievement. I tried very hard, but in the end, I was making films that most people didn't want to see, or certainly the vast majority of people would never see. And so I feel that my career closed on a rather sad note.

Glyn Jones  33:53

On the other hand, Derek, I recall a few years ago at Shell just before your time at Shell  the number two on the public relations side was retiring. And I was invited by him and Max Mickey along to his retirement lunch that he had with other members of the film unit, which are two we've been associated over the previous three years. And then the finding for me at that time, he said, You know, he said, what I'm really looking forward to about retirement, which I said, Well, no, please tell me he said, I'll have nobody telling me what I should be doing. And it does seem to me that the problem of he would reasonably well up the scale of middle management into lower levels of senior management itself. Even I think probably by this stage in the PR people it was a job what they didn't Get as much satisfaction, I think, as they wanted to, or possibly had expected to. Okay, that is just one person. I often feel myself that maybe, maybe I should have recently got a serious job, like being a judge. On the other hand, the law that was impossible. I think yes, I mean, if you became one of the country's leading judges, yes. Leading professor, one of the leading medical people want to leave medical researchers, for example. But the vast majority of people with good degreed go into the city or two positions in industry. Could you been a marketing manager for BP? For example? I would doubt it. I don't think I could have been. How would you be in the civil service? I wasn't, wouldn't be the lack of environment for me.

Derek Williams  36:05

I do accept that my job was stimulating and interesting, far above the normal. And you have to look at considerable success in other professions to feel that they have had a more fulfilling life than mine. I do accept that. One might ask, Well, why on earth Didn't you go into television? If you're talking about television, winning the battle, so to speak? Why didn't you go into television? Well, perhaps I was over an unfortunate age I, in the first half of my career, television didn't seem worth joining. And in the second half, it was perhaps too late, because it meant giving up excellent opportunities to make the best sponsored documentary films, and going to the bottom and being the tea boy and television. And by that time, married and supporting a family. It wasn't such a viable and inviting proposition.

Glyn Jones  37:09

An additional question here. You have actually been on television, how would you?

Derek Williams  37:14

Yes. Since leaving the documentary film industry, I have written three books on ancient history. And they have led to two appearances in television programmes for Grenada. As ironically enough and I say with a chuckle as a talking head.

Glyn Jones  37:43

I don't I don't think it's a case of how the mighty have fallen then. Believe me. Okay, that was fine. Let's leave it there then . That was good.

End of Side 2


Derek Williams (born 20 August 1929) was a British documentary film director and writer who was active from the 1950s until 1990. His films received four BAFTAs and five  Oscar nominations (four as director and writer and one as writer only) all in the short documentary classification.

His first film, Hadrian's Wall, was made while he was at university and was self-financed. On the basis of this film he was able to enter the film industry as a trainee assistant for World Wide Films. His first commercial film, released in 1955, was Oil Harbour, Aden, made for the sponsor George Wimpey & Co who had the contract to build a port to service a nearby oil refinery being built by BP. Williams acted as cameraman as well as writer and director during the two year location filming.

His first big break came in 1955 when World Wide Films was appointed by BP to film the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition, under Dr Vivian Fuchs, which BP was sponsoring. Williams became a member of the sixteen-person party the sailed to the Weddell Sea aboard Theron with the intention of establishing an advance base for the main party due to arrive the following year. During the outward journey the ship became frozen is sea ice and also had to depart more rapidly than originally intended, having deposited the shore party who were to stay through the Antarctic winter. The resulting film, Foothold on Antarctica, was released in 1956. It received a private viewing at Buckingham Palace and went on to receive an Oscar nomination. The film was also shown on a number of occasions as part of public events which included a talk from Sir Vivian Fuchs and which raised private donations towards the costs of the expedition.

His next film, Oxford, made in 1956, was commissioned by the Central Office of Information as part of their efforts to attract overseas students.

In 1957 Williams moved from World Wide Films to Greenpark Films. He wrote and directed From the Good Earth in 1957 under the sponsorship of Hovis. This was followed by There Was a Door (1957), which looked at the care of the severely learning disabled and was sponsored by the Manchester Regional Hospital Board. This film represented his first social subject, an area that the British documentary film industry since the 1930s had had a strong track record. The film was subsequently televised by the BBC. In 1959 he made The Road to MIS, a film sponsored by BP to mark its fiftieth anniversary. Following The Road to MIS, Derek Williams became a freelance director and writer.

Subsequent films were Bank of England (1960), Hunted in Holland (1961), The Cattle Carters (1962) and Treasure in Malta (1963), the latter three films being drama documentaries. Hunted in Holland and Treasure in Malta were frequently shown to Saturday morning children's film audiences in the 1960s, and The Cattle Carters was frequently shown on BBC2 as a Trade Test Colour Film.

In 1962 Derek Williams accepted an offer from Films of Scotland to direct a film to commemorate the centennial of Glasgow's appointment of its first Medical Officer for Health. Williams' candid attempts to portray the Glasgow of the times brought him into conflict with John Grierson of Films of Scotland, who wanted a more positive portrayal of Glasgow. Williams was not credited on the release of the finished film, Health of a City (1965).

His next film was sponsored by BP about their attempts to find oil in northern Alaska. The film was released as North Slope - Alaska in 1964 and is notable for its music composed by the composer Edward Williams. His subsequent films were also sponsored by BP. I Do - And I Understand (1964) was on behalf of the Nuffield MAths Project and won a Society of Film and Television Arts (SFTA, the predecessor to BAFTA). Turkey the Bridge focused on Turkeys historical and cultural heritage. It was edited by Kevin Brownlow and was Oscar-nominated. His next film, having worked on but not been credited for North Sea Quest (1967), was Algerian Pipeline (1967), made for John Brown Ltd, who were building a pipeline.

1967 also saw the making of Indus Water sponsored by The World Bank and with original music composed by Wilfred Joseph. The film looked at a project undertaken under an Indo-Pakistani treaty to mutually harness the waters of the Indus for agriculture. This film also won a SFTA award.

In 1969, rejoining Greenpark Films, Williams made The Taking Mood for BP New Zealand, another small scale dramatic piece. This was to be Derek Williams' last dramatic film which proved not to be his strongest genre.

Arguably his most important and widely recognised film was to follow in 1970. Entitled The Shadow of Progress and sponsored by BP, the film was an early example of the environmental movement. The film exposed the consequences of industrialisation, particularly with regard to pollution, though coming prior to the identification of global warming, its focus is more on the visual impact and damage to wildlife and the lived environment. Over 1,900 copies of the film were printed and circulated in a number of languages and the film was twice shown by the BBC on prime time.

The following year he made Alaska - The Great Land again under BP sponsorship focusing on the history, wildlife and culture of Alaska. Edward Williams was the composer of the music. The film resulted in Derek Williams' last SFTA award.

In 1972, he made The Tide of Traffic under BP sponsorship, part of a planned three part series (The Shadow of ProgressThe Tide of Traffic and a scripted but never made film on the issues created by population growth).  The Tide of Traffic was about the impact of the car, particularly in terms of its damage to the urban environment. The film received an Oscar nomination and a Venice Golden Mercury.

In 1973 he made Scotland, a film sponsored by BP and focused on the history and culture of Scotland. His last film for Greenpark was made the following year.  A Heritage to Build On, released in 1975, was sponsored by the Cement and Concrete Association. He wrote the script for The End of the Road (1976) about Alaska, which went on to receive an Oscar nomination.

By now the British documentary industry was in rapid decline with the growing strength of television and the dwindling availability of industrial sponsorship, particularly following the 1973 oil shock. However, in his last significant budget film, The Shetland Experience, Williams worked under the sponsorship of the Sullom Voe Association to record the history, nature and culture of Shetland as the oil began to come ashore to Sullom Voe Terminal. The film was Oscar-nominated and Williams was able to attend the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles for the only time.

In 1979 he made Planet Water for BP, though on a much more limited budget than the films of the early 1970s. The film focused on the problems of access to water and covered some of the theme which were to be part of the unmade film on population growth.

Most of his remaining films reflected the declining sponsorship available and were of a more obviously commercial nature. These include The Science of Art (1976) for Winsor & Newton, The Chemistry of India (1979) for ICI, Army Cadet (1980) and an army recruitment film, South East Pipeline (1982) for Esso, Fair Wear and Tear (1982) for BP, Diamond Day (1982) for De Beers, Configuration Management (1985) and Replenishment at Sea (1986) for the UK Armed Forces.

In 1990 he made A Stake in the Soil, his first sponsorship by Shell's film unit and focused on the environmental theme of the exhaustion of soil by intensive farming. A second Shell sponsorship followed, Oman - Tracts of Time (1992), which won the Chicago International Film Festival Award for best documentary, a film requested by the Sultan on Oman, with the score composed by Charles Hart. During the making of the film Williams suffered from (temporary) ill health which was to bring to a close his film-making career at the age of 62.

Retirement and legacy

In his retirement he wrote  and published two books on Roman history with a third unpublished.

Derek Williams' films and the awards and nominations they received makes him one of the leading post-war UK documentary film directors. He was the subject of a retrospective at the British Film Institute on 6 December 2010.

Derek died on the 2nd August 2021 aged 91.