Michael Grigsby: Film-maker whose work gave a voice to the voiceless

 

Over half a century of film-making, the documentary director Michael Grigsby gave a voice to the voiceless, in their own environment. "I always believed that we don't listen enough to the ordinary people," he once said. "We don't give them enough time and space to be themselves."

His 1984 ITV documentary Too Long a Sacrifice followed Protestants and Catholics in rural Co Derry living their lives amid the Troubles. Alongside everyday examples of discrimination against Catholics, one of Grigsby's interviewees identified the common experience of poverty affecting working-class people on both sides of the community.

Three years later, poverty was again firmly at the centre of Living on the Edge, an eloquent denunciation of Thatcherism which cut between three families telling their stories of deprivation and archive footage of the "victories" of war and peace in the 1940s.

Like much of his other work, Living on the Edge drew on the "state of the nation" style of Humphrey Jennings, one of the pioneers of documentary film-making who depicted working-class life on screen

Michael Grigsby was born in Reading, Berkshire, and discovered the work of John Grierson, the founding father of British documentaries, while attending Abingdon School, Oxfordshire, where he ran the film society. He even persuaded the headmaster to fund his first short film, No Tumbled House (1955), about a fellow boarder. In 1955 he joined Granada Television as it was preparing for its launch. He was expecting to become a trainee assistant editor in the documentary unit run by Harry Watt – co-director of the 1936 classic Night Mail – but arrived to find it had been closed and he was appointed a trainee studio camera operator instead, working on programmes such as What the Papers Say.

Grigsby was shocked to find the conditions in which many people in the industrial north of England were living. In 1957, after buying a 16mm Bolex camera, he formed the film-making collective Unit Five Seven with other Granada technicians and directed the short documentary Enginemen (1959). Shot over 18 months on Saturday mornings, it follows the lives of those working in a locomotive shed in Newton Heath, during the last days of steam trains. "The film explores the enginemen's sense of loss, frustration and perplexity," Grigsby explained.

Enginemen was included in the British Film Institute's sixth and final Free Cinema season of documentaries made by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and others who believed that mainstream cinema failed to represent the lives of ordinary people.

Grigsby and Unit Five Seven followed up with Tomorrow's Saturday (1962), about cotton mill workers in the Lancashire mill town of Blackburn, while he started to direct regional documentaries for Granada, such as Unmarried Mothers (1963). After persuading Denis Forman, the company's managing director, to give him more freedom, Grigsby made what he regarded as his first "proper" television documentary, Deckie Learner (1965), following the daily lives of trawlermen. Later came If the Village Dies (1969), about the need for change in rural India, and I Was a Soldier (1970), one of the first documentaries about American veterans of Vietnam returning home, notable for its gentle images of small-town Texas and total lack of war footage.

Throughout these films, Grigsby developed his style of allowing the subjects to speak for themselves, without the use of a narrator. Soon, he began to give his documentaries a viewpoint, sympathising with those on the receiving end of decisions made by those in power. "Working the Land" (1972), about a Suffolk farm-worker's day and the financial problems suffered by agricultural labourers, was made for World in Action. He returned to the experiences of trawlermen in A Life Apart (1973) and featured miners in both A Life Underground (1974) and The Drift (1976). He would often spend months getting to know his subjects before filming.

When he switched to the documentary department at ATV, there was a return to India to chart the growth of democracy since independence in the three-part series Before the Monsoon (1979). Grigsby was in Ohio to get the reactions of workers at an atomic enrichment plant to the news that it was unsafe in For My Working Life (1981) and back in Ireland to record the concerns of parents about their children growing up there in The Silent War (1990).

He worked for independent production companies in the 1990s to make documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. His films included Thoi Noi (1993), which saw him back in Vietnam, Time of Our Lives (1994), about changing British society, Hidden Voices (1995), on working men's clubs, Living with the Enemy (1996), featuring Channel Islanders' recollections of wartime German occupation and collaboration, and Lockerbie: A Night Remembered (1998).

In 2003, as commercial pressures reduced the number of documentaries being commissioned, Grigsby returned to his old school to set up the Abingdon Film Unit, whose 100-plus productions have ranged from fiction to documentary, many shown at festivals. His own final film, We Went to War (2013), revisits the Vietnam veterans he met more than 40 years ago. It was released just two weeks after Grigsby's death and wasa described by one reviewer as "a poetic, affecting film underscored with a quiet indignation at the way the three ex-soldiers have been failed by the country they fought for".

Anthony Hayward

Michael Kenneth Christian Grigsby, director: born Reading, Berkshire 7 June 1936; married firstly Elizabeth Ashman (marriage dissolved; two sons), 1983 Karin Magid (marriage dissolved), 1993 Thu Nguyen (marriage dissolved); died London 12 March 2013.

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