With a degree in physics and a burning ambition to "wangle it into documentary", Michael Orrom graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1941. He was fortunate enough to gain an audience with Paul Rotha, who, impressed by his science credentials, offered Orrom a job at his production company, Films of Fact, as researcher/scriptwriter on Science and War(1941), a two-reeler illustrating how science was being deployed for the war effort. In the event, the project had to be abandoned, but the ill-fated commission marked the beginning of a substantial career that spanned five decades.
Apart from a three-year stint at the BBC in the mid-1950s, where he worked on The World is Ours (1954-56) and Special Enquiry (1952-59) series, and the two university-themed programmes he made for Channel 4at the end of his career - A Fragment of Memory (1984), and Not Just Another University (1987) - Orrom's career unfolded largely in the sphere of the sponsored documentary. He made films for four of its biggest commissioners - the COI, National Coal Board and Shell film units and British Transport Films - as well for less prolific sponsors such as Cable & Wireless, for whom he worked for more than 20 years.
His career varied in terms of genre, subject matter and the locations to which he was dispatched by the disparate bodies for which he worked. It might have been even more wide-ranging had his numerous experimental art films got further than the pre-production stage; alongside his sponsored commissions Orrom persistently tried to raise funding for personal projects. He belonged to that category of postwar documentarists who saw sponsored work as a potential stepping-stone to other genres of filmmaking. What followed was a career of that appears fragmentary (though not unusually so for the postwar period) but Orrom's divergent interests in science, politics, adventure and formal experimentation are discernable.
After the liquidation of Films of Fact, which marked the end of Orrom's illustrious apprenticeship, he was rescued from unemployment by Donald Alexander, who offered him work at DATA, and his first directing role: Report on Steel (1948), a pro-nationalisation account of the processes of steel manufacturing for the Ministry of Supply. Orrom then turned his talents to shorter forms of public information through a six-month diversion into the eccentric world of Richard Massingham's Public Relationship Filmsand a handful of commissions for British Transport Films. In the mid-1950s an unexpected reunion with Rotha led to scripting and editing work on two feature projects. The first, based on Leo Walmsley's novel The Phantom Lobster, sadly got no further than the development stage, but the second, No Resting Place (1951), concerning the plight of itinerant workmen in Ireland, enjoyed a small theatrical release and competed at the Edinburghand Venice film festivals.
He spent most of the later part of his career on the payroll of Cable & Wireless,a position that presented him with unanticipated cinematic challenges in some of the furthermost corners of the globe. He travelled from Hong Kong, for East West Island (1966), to Ascension Island, a bleak outpost in the South Atlantic, for Apollo in Ascension (1967), and to the Middle East, to make Arabia the Fortunate (1974). By this point, he was increasingly seen as a scientific filmmaker. Whatever genre he was assigned to, he sought to apply his longstanding view that documentary should relate its subject to a wider social milieu. As he put it (discussing his Cable & Wireless work): "I have tried in the films to bring out something of the social implications of communications to the setting in which they belong."
One significant diversion from the vagaries of telecommunications came in the form of Portrait of Queenie (1964), a musical documentary featuring Queenie Watts, the notorious East End jazz-blues singer and publican. Independently produced by Eyeline Films and generously backed by British Lion, the project allowed Orrom scope for the creative expression and experimentation he had been hankering after. After this brief excursion he returned to the area of science and industrial films, remaining with Cable & Wireless until the late 1970s, producing as well as directing many of them though his own company, Film Drama.
Following in the footsteps of John Grierson, Paul Rotha and other pioneers, Orrom engaged with intellectual film discourse throughout his career. In this respect, he was unusual among his postwar documentary peers, many of whom preferred making films to writing about them. Whether by fluke, fate or practical necessity, his vision was largely applied within the field of sponsored documentary, which was considerably better off for his contributions.