Michael Gill

Director and producer of 'the best TV series ever made', Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation'
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Michael Gill was one of the great film-makers of the 20th century, having made more than 150 films for television and the cinema and won more than 40 major awards, including four Emmy and three Peabody awards. With Adrian Malone, Gill invented one of television's most important genres, the authored documentary. The form was built on three BBC productions, Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), Alistair Cooke's America (1972) and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973), the first two made by Gill, the third by Malone.

In 2000, Gill was still a tall, preternaturally youthful, handsome man, when he himself realised - his sharp sense of humour not blunted - that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. As he said to his son, the journalist A.A. Gill, "I'm fine you know, except that I have got this terrible disease - what's its name again?" As accomplished a writer as he was a maker of visual images, Michael Gill was at work on his memoirs when he began to lose his memory, an irony that did not escape him. As the disease progressed, the task was completed by Georgina Denison, his second wife and later partner in his film company, Malone Gill; and the result, Growing into War, is published by Sutton next week.

Gill's mother, Mary (née Taylor), was from a family who had been well-to-do mill owners in Yorkshire for generations, while his father Arnold's people had been mill workers along the valley of Dewsbury Beck. "My father," Gill wrote, "won a scholarship to the local grammar school, became head boy and wanted to be a doctor, but his father, the factory worker, thought it safer to put him in a bank..."

Michael was born in 1923 in Winchester, where his father was by then a manager of the Midland Bank. An only child, Michael was frail and sickly, having contracted bovine tuberculosis, which made him an invalid for five years; and he later came to think that, although his unhappiness was mitigated by the unconditional love of his parents, he had been over-protected during his lonely childhood in Kent. He was made miserable by bullying at school: "The year I spent at Wootton Court [Preparatory School, 1937] and the following two at St Edmund's School, Canterbury, were the most unhappy of my life," he wrote.

In 1940 the family was evacuated to the north of England, but came back to Kent the next year, when Michael won a place to read Medicine at Guy's Hospital in London after the war. He longed to join the RAF, but failed his medical and was told he could never train as a pilot. His entry having been deferred for six months, he worked as a junior reporter on the Kentish Gazette, during which time his family was bombed out of their Canterbury home in the Baedeker Blitz of June 1942.

In August, he finally joined the RAF and did his basic training in a brutal world of "blanco and bullshit," bewildered and bemused by the pettiness and rule-bound incongruities of service life. He enjoyed his first posting as an operations room plotter in Northern Ireland, which stimulated him to apply for the commission he received in August 1943, when he joined RAF Intelligence Branch as a pilot officer.

Attached to a tactical bomber squadron in the south of England during the build-up to D-Day, he finally flew some observer operations over Normandy in the summer of 1944, journeying to Holland and on to Germany with his unit. There he witnessed (and never forgot) the final days of the war and its terrible aftermath for ordinary Germans.

Deciding not to take up his place at Guy's, he applied instead to read Philosophy and Psychology at Edinburgh University. He took what would now be called a gap year and went to America, where he had a lot of family, as a great-great-great-uncle had emigrated in 1830 from Yorkshire. Although he thoroughly appreciated the contrast with post-war Britain of cocktails, fast cars and plenty of food, he returned to do his four years at Edinburgh. There he met and married his first wife, the actress Yvonne Gilan, with whom he had two sons, Adrian and Nicholas.

Graduating in 1951, Michael Gill took a job as a sub-editor and arts reviewer on The Scotsman, and wrote short stories for literary magazines. In 1954, a colleague persuaded him to apply for a job at the BBC, and Gill began his career in radio, working on the North American service.

His assignment was the counterpart to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America, which gave Gill entrée to the worlds of arts and politics. He could, and did, interview anybody who mattered, developing his technique so that he could immediately find the point of any story and present it simply, but stylishly. As a result, he won the 1955 English-Speaking Union Award for his outstanding contribution to Anglo-American understanding.

He moved to television in 1958, as an arts producer in BBC Schools Programmes, and then went to Monitor, edited by Huw Wheldon. Monitor was the seed-bed that gave television and cinema the talents of Melvyn Bragg, Patrick Garland, Jonathan Miller, Ken Russell and John Schlesinger. Gill brought in John Berger, and during the next five years the pair made many programmes, riding around London together with Gill on the back of Berger's motor-bike, arguing in Soho restaurants, and creating films "out of a dialogue between writer and director; I could not imagine working in any other way".

In 1963 Gill got a British Film Institute grant to make a short cinema film, The Peaches, a fantasy written by his wife and starring Juliet Harmer. It was the British choice for the Cannes Film Festival the next year, won several awards, and made Gill think about Hollywood. Fortunately, he chose to remain at the BBC, and created the first adult educational arts series. In 1966 he and the great art critic David Sylvester made Giacometti.

The next year, the BBC was set to launch colour television on BBC2, and the Controller, David Attenborough, decided that a major series on art was the appropriate way to mark the event; so he approached Sir Kenneth Clark, the former Director of the National Gallery and author of several popular books on art. Humphrey Burton, Head of BBC Music and Arts, asked Gill to produce and direct the series.

At first, Gill was not enthusiastic about the commission. He found the proposed presenter "glittering, self-possessed, armed with precise certainties", epitomising "attitudes the opposite of those of my friends and myself". His idea of a good arts film was something much more risky, such as the one he was then working on, in which he got "three bright young foreign journalists - a Frenchman, an Australian and a Zulu" (Olivier Todd, Robert Hughes and Lewis Nkosi) to wander "through the swinging London scene, both participating and commenting". Gill found that, in the event, the three "had little to say to each other".

Gill was so convinced it would be a flop (it was) that, despite his misgivings about Clark, he responded to Burton's proposition with "energetic enthusiasm . . . something heads of departments responded to gratefully, in a world full of difficult, self-regarding geniuses". David Sylvester advised against working with "K": "When you are looking over a script together, he will make you aware that he has noticed that your fingernails are dirty." "A pipe-smoker, my fingernails were always dirty," Gill wrote.

Clark himself waspishly suggested that Gill might be happier with "a younger, more radical figure, like John Berger". Burton suggested that Gill show Clark a film he had made on Francis Bacon. Gill was surprised that it won over Clark, "with its staccato cutting and harsh slaughterhouse scenes", but it did. Burton later wrote that he felt as though he had brought about the mating of Chi Chi and An An (the giant pandas whose fruitless coupling that summer was followed breathlessly by the world's press).

The filming of Civilisation ran into every imaginable difficulty, such as the large fee, to be paid in cash, demanded by the Vatican, although they had agreed months earlier to the filming of the Sistine Chapel, or being gassed by riot police while filming in Paris in 1968; and some that could not have been imagined, such as the flooding of Florence in 1966, when the Arno burst its banks.

Clark turned out to be a quick and good scriptwriter, which went some way to make up for the almost day-long delay while Gill and the lighting cameraman Tubby Englander found a camera angle for filming Clark in front of Michelangelo's David that would not further exaggerate David's "already well-developed manhood" or Clark's "uneven top teeth and the beginning of middle-aged flab around his jowls" and his "unfortunate tendency to look down his nose".

The series began in February 1969 and, by the end of three months of weekly broadcasts, there were decent-sized audiences and The Times had praised it in a leader. Clark was soon afterwards awarded a peerage. But despite the fact that many critics said it was the best TV series ever made, there was difficulty in selling it to an American outlet. At a showing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there were seats for 300; on the first day 24,000 people were in the queue to see it, including Jackie Onassis and half of President Richard Nixon's cabinet.

Gill realised he had invented a new form of broadcasting. He followed up Civilisation with the popular Alistair Cooke's America (1972); a pair of films the next year which were the first to be made independently in China since the Cultural Revolution; and in 1976, for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, he made Royal Heritage, as a result of which Gill would sometimes come home with a brace of pheasants from Sandringham, and entertain Georgina (whom he married in 1978) with an account of the Queen's gift for mimicry.

Gill and Malone were by now the BBC's two top director/producers, and in 1977 they took the leap and left to form their own company, Malone Gill. To make his first independent series, The Commanding Sea (1981), Gill sailed with Clare Francis and the film unit on a replica of Sir Francis Drake's The Golden Hinde through the South China Sea, where the hazard was not weather but pirates.

He had also been working in 1981 on a series on Russia with Sir Fitzroy Maclean, whom he had met while working on Royal Heritage. They were in the Ferghana Valley on the borders of China, when Gill suddenly "felt an overwhelming urge to come home," wrote Georgina, who was nine months pregnant with their daughter, Chloe. He managed to get back in time for the birth, although he had no ticket and no Russian.

Gill's next major film was Paul Gauguin: the savage dream (1988), then came a 13-part series with Hugh Johnson, Vintage: a history of wine (1991), which Gill very much enjoyed making; about this time he, Georgina and I cooked up a 10-part history of food and, although it never got made, he was invaluable when Georgina and I made The Feast of Christmas for Channel 4 in 1992.

In April that year, Carlos Fuentes wrote and presented The Buried Mirror: reflections on Spain and the New World, on the Hispanic heritage, the first major international series to be conceived and made in two languages. Nature Perfected: the story of the garden followed in 1995. For the ITV network, Gill made Highlanders (1995), a docu-drama for the 250th anniversary of the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie, written by Fitzroy Maclean and narrated by Sean Connery; and, for Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show, to coincide with the great exhibition, Vermeer: light, love and silence (1997). In 1997, for the American Public Broadcasting Service, he directed Beyond Wall Street, about global finance; and for PBS the next year produced The Face of Russia.

In October 1998 Gill's younger son, Nicholas, a talented chef who at one time had a Michelin star at Hambledon Hall, disappeared and has never been seen again. Gill was now 75 - although he looked 20 years younger, and retained the warmth and physical grace that made him so lovable. Early in their relationship he had told Georgina that he would like to die like the documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings, who went over a cliff backwards while making a film, framing with his hands "a marvellous shot". Now, he said he was tired, and embarked upon his memoirs.

Soon, both he and Georgina realised it was not merely his increasing deafness that was making him distant from the life around him. To his daughter, Chloe, he described the growing difficulties of capturing the words to write down his memories. The marks on the paper, he said, "are like ants on snow".

Paul Levy