When James came to London in 1950 he soon showed his skill at discomfiting the smug when he was asked by the British Film Institute to make the film which became The Pleasure Garden. Those who expected to be given this commission, mostly members of the overpraised school of British documentary, who made exciting 15-minute reels on the life of pit ponies or pillar- boxes, were extremely cross. One of their rival projects was to shoot miles and miles recording a ping-pong ball and/or ping-pong balls bumping down a Venetian blind.
James's appearance caused as much unease as his movies. The ivory brow, the neatly trimmed fringe of jet-black hair, the even, shiny teeth, electric glance and waving, deliberate fingers of this Californian belied an artist who was oddly monkish.
He had shown his love of the crumbling and the neglected when he shot one of his earlier films in the Palace of Fine Arts building in San Francisco. The Palace of Fine Arts was part of the Panama Pacific Exhibition, a more extravagant and jollier affair than the rather coy and conceited, and - dare I say it, now that the old dear is about to be dragged back from limbo - more provincial Festival of Britain.
So it was not surprising, once the suggestion had been made, that he should use the gardens of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham with its improving statuary, dinosaurs hiding in the bushes and everywhere millions of fragments of broken glass as one of the locations for his film.
Looking at The Pleasure Garden now it might be considered overlong, a bit juvenile in places, but, in the dreadful stodginess of those times, what a relief it was to discover an imagination devoted to confounding the complacent, exalting individuals and damning the conventions.
Once, cheekily, I asked James how he financed his films. "I'm an orphan," he replied. Then he added, "But I have a kind and loving patron." She was an elderly lady living in some central state. Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas? Later he told me, in Paris, that her support came to an abrupt end when he made the long journey from San Francisco to interest her in his latest project and discovered she had lost her memory.Reuse content