Obituary: Douglas Gordon

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The Independent Culture
WHEN ONE of the oldest and most esteemed industrial film units in the world celebrated its 60th birthday in 1994, it is not surprising that Douglas Gordon was chosen to be its historian and to host a season of Shell films at the National Film Theatre.

From 1954, when he joined the Shell Film Unit as a trainee, until his retirement in 1995, he wrote and produced some of the finest sponsored films made in Britain, most of them for the Shell Film Unit. His productions both for Shell International and other sponsors won over 70 national and international awards, including Bafta's Robert Flaherty Award in 1976 for The Early Americans (made in 1975 for Shell Oil USA, directed by Alan Pendry). The film followed the rise of two contrasting Amerindian cultures from the end of the ice age to the 14th century. The Shetland Experience (made in 1977 by Balfour Films for the Sullom Voe Environmental Action Group) received a Hollywood Oscar nomination.

Shell's film-making policy, based on enlightened self-interest, suited Gordon perfectly, leaving him free to produce films often with no obligation to plug a Shell product, and on subjects of scientific and environmental interest close to his heart such as The River Must Live (1966), a study of marine biology and river pollution; Fate of the Forests (1982) on the threat to tropical forests; and For Want of Water (1983), showing community self-help as a means of providing drinking water in rural areas of the Third World.

Of all his films, This Land (1972) was, according to his widow, "his most personal statement", reflecting his interest in geology which began as a boy in Wharfdale. The film examines the geological evolution of North America, covering 40 million years of earth history in 40 minutes.

Those of us who worked for him as directors quickly came to admire his gifts as a producer: his regard for creative effort and openness to new ideas, his enviable all-round talent which encompassed directing itself, editing, scripting, commentary-writing and total technical command of all the post-production processes. His knowledge of music - like film- making, a lifelong passion - gave him a special strength at perhaps his favourite stage of film-making; working with composers - "an arpeggio over the freeze-frame perhaps?"

Every film he produced gained from his imaginative input. Along with this came his canny skills as a tactician. He knew how to keep the sponsor happy; when to concede on minor matters, when to dig his heels in if the integrity of the film was at stake; and he was never combative, using his Yorkshire down-to-earth commonsense to help win the day.

Douglas Gordon's interest in films started at the age of seven with an 8mm cine-projector. His parents attended premieres in the sitting room, where he had installed special lighting and curtains which pulled back as the first flickering image appeared. The son of a much-loved GP in Armley, Leeds, the young Gordon was forbidden to attend feature films until he was in his teens, but was allowed to go to news cinemas, where his interest in factual film-making grew.

John Grierson's essays on documentary were another profound influence, appealing to his own idealistic view that film had a social purpose, a duty to enlighten as well as entertain. At University College London, where he read History, he became one of the earliest presidents of the college Film Unit and Film Society. It was at UCL that he met his future wife, Sheila Clayden.

At the age of 19, Gordon was struck by polio. Disabled from then on, he never allowed his impediment to blunt his relish for life or his desire to become a film-maker. But for this handicap, he would surely have become a full-time director.

His first job was in a television film library, from which he moved on to become an assistant film editor and then an editor at the BBC, working on newsreels, current affairs and arts programmes. In 1959 Shell Centre sent him out to Nigeria to set up a local film unit and make a programme of films sponsored by Shell-BP. He trained Nigerian technicians who were to become leading members of the Nigerian film industry, and displayed his flair for discovering and encouraging new directors.

Returning to London in 1963, he served for the next seven years as an executive producer with the Shell Film Unit before going freelance as a writer/producer with Shell as his most consistent client until he retired in 1995. Others included BP, British Transport Films and the Central Office of Information.

At home, he was an accomplished, innovative cook and wine buff. The family was essential to his life. At work, in an industry where relationships flourish during production only to dissolve on last day of shooting, Douglas Gordon had the ability to form friendships with his fellow technicians that transcended the professional bond. His moral integrity was on the same high level as his dedication to his craft.

Douglas Gordon, film-maker: born Armley, West Yorkshire 31 December 1929; Assistant film editor and editor, BBC Television 1952-54; trainee, later film director, Shell Film Unit 1954-63, Executive Producer 1963- 70; Producer and Manager, Film Centre International, Lagos, Nigeria 1959- 63; married 1953 Sheila Clayden (one son, one daughter); died London 18 August 1998.