Dai Vaughan: Film editor hailed for his work on numerous hard-hitting TV documentaries

In an intensely quiet way Dai was simply, both technically and creatively, the best film editor I ever worked with," the Bafta-winning director Michael Darlow said of the film editor and writer, Dai Vaughan. His love for film grew out of a Festival of Britain trip to the National Film Theatre. Thrilled by an extract from Battleship Potemkin, he set out "to find out more about the guy Eisenstein". In Eisenstein's book Film Form, Vaughan, a teenage poet, found ways of evaluating films "image by image, shot by shot".

Brought up near Hackney Hospital in east London, where his father was the hospital's engineer, Vaughan trained as a technical draughtsman, then in October 1956 joined "Course No 1" at what would become the London School of Film Technique. Vaughan and his fellow student Arnold Wesker published a book of their poems and made a short film about Brixton Market.

In the years after Suez and the Hungarian uprising the British arts scene was in left-wing ferment, and with Boleslaw Sulik (Independent obituary, 2 June 2012), Vaughan set up Definition, a quarterly magazine studying the work of film-makers such as Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov. His first film job was as a "spotter", positioning subtitles in foreign-language films. Then in 1962 John Irvin's Gala Day was filmed using non-sync 16mm cameras at the Durham Miners' Gala. It was followed by six months of editing at evening and weekends by three alumni of the London School of Film Technique, David Naden, Vaughan and Jane Wood. It established a professional and social relationship that spanned four decades.

In 1965, they set up David Naden Associates, a "semi-co-operative" for film editors. Regular work began coming in from Granada and the BBC and ground-breaking film-makers such as Mike Grigsby, John McGrath, Brian Moser, John Shepherd, Norman Swallow, Gus MacDonald, Jana Bokova and Roger Graef began using DNA.

Michael Darlow recalled, "It wasn't until 1968, when he started editing the film "The First City – London" in my Granada series Cities At War, that I began to understand why he was held in such very high esteem. No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect."

David MacDougall described him as "An intellectual with an abiding curiosity in the subtle meanings of film construction. He used to create a category of shots he called 'Specials' for which there was no obvious use but which he eventually drew upon, adding immeasurably to the richness of the film."

The Disappearing World film-maker Melissa Llewelyn-Davies said: "If things were going badly in the cutting-room – if the director or the producer was being wilfully obtuse – he'd sing a mournful chorus or two of 'When this lousy war is over.' I sing it myself now whenever life gets tough."

Vaughan's prize-winning credits included films for This England, World In Action, Omnibus, The Space between Words, Disappearing World and Arena; but in the 1990s television's limited space for cerebral and reflective documentaries was further reduced. Increased interference from commissioning editors angered him: "The constant insistence that documentary material should be explained, identified, captioned, signposted, even musically accompanied... is a species of stylistic censorship far more insidious than the occasional banning of a current affairs programme."

Vaughan's frustration deepened during the editing of Peter and Harriet Gordon Getzel's Summerhill at Seventy (1992). Their account of life at the co-educational boarding school founded by AS Neill resulted in bruising battles with Channel 4 about the film's form and content; its commissioning editor triumphed. "We always hoped Dai's experience and integrity would protect us from the commercial clutches of prime-time's downwardly mobile tastes and trends," said Harriet Gordon Getzel. "We would present what all of us believed to be our best and most perfect cut, and the commissioning editor would rapidly inject some new, disfiguring form of DNA into it; the future stem cells – unbeknownst to any of us at the time – of what would become reality television."

The outcome, coupled with the changes of ownership and structure of British television, meant less editing work and more time writing. His first book, Portrait of an Invisible Man, The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor (1983), was a pioneering work about the editor of Humphrey Jennings' Listen to Britain. He prefaced the book with words from Ernst Toller, "What we call form is love".

His first novel, The Cloud Chamber (1993), came out quietly; of his second, Moritur (1995), the critic Gillian Beer wrote: "Farce, horror, humour and a glittering everyday manoeuvre us into a confrontation with our own complicities." His third, Totes Meer (2003), a homage to Paul Nash's painting of the same name, came with an introduction from Neal Ascherson describing him as "one of the most imperiously intelligent fiction-writers alive...'

Portrait of an Invisible Man and his book For Documentary were a success, but his fiction, while lauded, had minority appeal. The genre-defying Germs (2004) and his poetry collection Inconsequences (2007) barely registered. But he kept writing; his 2009 novel, The Treason of Sparrows, began with the words "I'm an old man and I want to scream." Extremely ill, he managed to drag himself to a ceremony at the Royal Institute of Anthropology to receive an award for a lifetime's contribution to ethnographic film-making. The publication, this year, of his novel Sister of the Artist and the e-book Ravenspur – a quasi-autobiographical meditation on his mother's illness and death – raised his spirits as prostate cancer bit deeper.

David Vaughan Jones, film editor and writer: born Hull 6 September 1933; died London 6 June 2012.

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