Obituary: John Monck

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The Independent Culture
JOHN MONCK'S life was divided between film-making and farming. But such was his eclecticism and energy that he could have left his mark on any other occupation he chose.

His involvement with the film industry began in 1928, at the age of 20, under the name John Goldman. His father had been born in South Africa, and made his fortune during the gold rush at the turn of the century. Through a family connection, Goldman was introduced to Michael Balcon, who was running Gainsborough pictures at Islington Studios in north London.

Balcon gave him a job sweeping the studio floors, but in no time Goldman had graduated to call boy and assistant director. Gainsborough's editor was Ian Dalrymple. Sound was coming to the studio, bringing with it problems for which no one was prepared. Dalrymple had spotted Goldman's instinctive understanding of film-making, and made him his assistant. He soon graduated to editor.

Goldman had begun to live for the cinema, and his curiosity and passion were further sharpened by the films he saw from France, Germany and the Soviet Union. He could not help contrasting them with the theatrical and pedestrian productions on which he had to work. Appointing himself a one-man delegation, he applied to visit the Soviet Union. With a knowledge of French and German, he spent several months at the Mejrabpom Studios in Moscow, meeting some of the giants of the Soviet cinema, and watching them at work: Sergei Eisenstein, Viktor Turin, Grigori Kozinsev, Leonid Trauberg, Alexander Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin, of whom he made a lifelong friend.

Outside the studio he was appalled at the poverty he saw, but was impressed by the stoicism and determination of ordinary people to build a new society. Shortly after his return to England he joined the Communist Party, and helped to form the film technicians' union, the ACT (Association of Cinematograph Technicians, now Bectu).

At this time he had seen the films Nanook of the North (1921) and Moana (1926) by the pioneer American documentary maker Robert Flaherty, and determined to work with him. Flaherty had come to Europe to make a film on the women of Russia to be financed by the UFA Studios in Berlin, but Hitler's rise to power put a stop to it. Instead, with Michael Balcon's backing, Flaherty went to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, and Goldman joined him there as his assistant cameraman and editor. For two years they shot, processed the film, and edited it on the islands. The result was the classic documentary Man of Aran (1934).

In 1934, he married Margaret Thesiger, and gave her a camera as a wedding present. Like her husband, she had been inspired by the work of Robert Flaherty and his wife Barbara, and as Margaret Monck became well-known for her penetrating portraits of East End life in the Thirties.

He then turned down Robert Flaherty's offer to work on Elephant Boy with him in India: a prescient move since the film was an unhappy experience for Flaherty, and he was eventually replaced by Zoltan Korda. John Goldman instead joined Alexander Korda and became Associate Producer on King Solomon's Mines (1937).

Paul Robeson was to star in it, but had been refused a visa to enter South Africa, so Goldman had to take the black actor Robert Adams out there by liner, to act as a double. The first evening on board, he sensed trouble in the first class dining saloon, so he told the chief steward that Adams was an African prince. That not only assured them of a good table, but Adams received curtseys and bows from their belted and bejewelled fellow passengers for the rest of the voyage.

In 1938 John Goldman changed his name by deed poll, taking on his second name, Monck, as his surname.

From the high point of Man of Aran he had found it impossible to maintain the momentum of his film career, and by 1939 had decided to leave films. He bought a small farm in Sussex, which his wife Margaret ran when he was called up at the outbreak of the Second World War. Monck spent the early years of the war with the Royal Navy, until Ian Dalrymple recruited him to the Crown Film Unit in 1940.

Whilst there he produced two noted documentaries: Wavell's Thirty Thousand and Malta GC. After the war he made three documentaries in the series This Modern Age for Sergei Nolbandov. One of these, Coal Crisis, ran into trouble with the Censor, who considered some of the shots of appalling working conditions in the mines to be "Un-British".

In 1947 Monck finally decided to leave films, and the family moved to Hampshire and later to Wiltshire. He went on to play an active part in farming developments over the next 30 years. He realised that there were big gaps in communication between agricultural researchers and working farmers. He first looked at the area of cattle breeding and artificial insemination, and with Professor John Hammond and George Odlum, set up the British Cattle Breeders' Club.

The next logical stage was to study forage conservation, and in the early Sixties, he pioneered a system of barn hay drying. He worked closely with engineers from the National Institute for Agricultural Engineering, and scientists from the Grass Research Institute where they had just developed methods to predict the nutritional value of summer grasses.

Following the wet summer of 1964, his mind turned to the development of a low-cost farm-scale drying system, which was marketed as "the Hayflaker". Developed with the support of Shell, the system depended on oil as fuel, but the sudden 1974 oil crisis made it unviable. Undaunted, and at the age of 68, Monck changed direction yet again, and set up an engineering business, manufacturing a range of patented low-loading agricultural trailers.

Throughout his life, John Monck always found time to question, whether it was the length of a film shot, the best winter feed for his dairy herd, or to search for some kind of order in the maelstrom of world events. He had the gift of expressing his thoughts and observations with clarity and pungency, and was a stimulating and provocative conversationalist.

John Monck Goldman, film-maker and farmer: born Rottingdean, Sussex 24 January 1908; adopted the name John Monck by deed poll 1938; married 1934 Margaret Thesiger (died 1991; two sons); died Newbury, Berkshire 8 May 1999.