Obituary: David Gill
Thursday 02 October 1997
I heard the news in Hollywood, halfway through a research trip. As I cancelled my appointments and headed for London, I wondered how we would cope without him. "We" being the staff of Photoplay Productions, the company he helped to found, devoted to that least commercial of all activities, the restoration and presentation of silent films.
For David Gill is irreplaceable. He was musical, and understood the complexities of composing and conducting, he knew the theatre and could stage "Live Cinema" presentations to a highly professional level, he had been a film editor and director and he knew how to restore films and to make documentaries. He didn't need us nearly so much as we needed him.
David Gill was born in New Guinea in 1928, where his father, Cecil Gill, brother of the artist Eric Gill, was a missionary doctor. The family left in 1933 when his mother contracted Blackwater Fever. He lived for years in Cardiff, where his father became a GP. He enrolled as a ballet student just after the war and performed at the re-opening of Covent Garden in 1946. He reached the rank of soloist in the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, and he married a young dancer, Pauline Wadsworth, who subsequently taught at White Lodge.
On tour with the Ballet to South Africa, he made a film on the long sea journey, in the style of a silent comedy, title cards and all; John Lanchbery, conductor for the Ballet, accompanied it on piano. (More than 40 years later, he composed the score for two of our silents.)
Gill left ballet in 1955 to go into films. He was one of the original employees of commercial television, working in the cutting rooms of Associated- Rediffusion. Among the documentaries he edited were two award-winning programmes, Famine, directed by Jack Gold, and Children of the Revolution, directed by Robert Kee.
In 1968 - somewhat out of character - he directed and edited The Dave Clark Five Special. That year he joined Thames Television as a director and made many documentaries for This Week in such risky places as Vietnam, South Africa and Northern Ireland. Jeremy Isaacs chose him to make a lyrical documentary on the Thames, Till I End My Song, which was nominated for Emmy and Bafta awards.
It was by a remarkable coincidence that I met him. My father was a commercial artist, specialising in the lettering for film posters in the 1940s. He admired no one so much as Eric Gill. As a child, I remember the name being invoked frequently, and I recall being taken by my parents to an exhibition of Gill sculpture. When, in 1975, Jeremy Isaacs asked me to work at Thames Television on a 13-part series abut silent-era Hollywood and teamed me with the nephew of Eric Gill, I realised his selection was inspired.
David Gill told me that during the Second World War he had been in charge of film presentations at school, at Belmont Abbey, Hereford - the headmaster could not afford a sound projector so the boys saw silent films, just as at my school. David was put in charge of choosing the records - and, the school being Roman Catholic, he had the task of lowering a discreet cardboard shutter when, for instance, the night-club dance in Metropolis became too racy. (He learned to change focus sharply, so at least he could enjoy it!)
Even though this was ideal training, he needed a refresher course, so for weeks Gill came to my flat in Gloucester Road to watch everything from America (D.W. Griffith) to Zaza (Gloria Swanson). I was startled at the lack of response. I remember telling my wife, "I've tried everything. But I don't think the films are getting through to him." I blamed the corroding effect of television, but I could not have been more wrong. Gill was so impressed by the artistic standard of these long-forgotten films that he devoted the rest of his life to reviving them.
The British film industry is full of writer-director teams - Powell and Pressburger, Launder and Gilliat - but in television such partnerships are regarded with suspicion. Because I was an established film historian, it was generally assumed that Gill was the sleeping partner. This was as ludicrous as it was unfair. He ran the show. He knew television, and could cope with the political as well as the aesthetic side. As a former editor, he had a formidable command of technique and the success of our first series - Hollywood (1980) - was due far more to him than to me.
I look back with embarrassment to the fact that I nearly turned the series down because I thought television people would have too little respect for the old pictures. David Gill was not just careful, he outdid me in a relentless search for accuracy. He had a mind like a lawyer and I used to wilt under his interrogations. But his line of questioning often revealed cracks in my research. He was also a powerful persuader. I defy anyone to have resisted once he had decided it was necessary to do something.
These powers of persuasion were responsible for a commercial television company staging my restoration of Napoleon (1927), a five-hour silent film with three-screen sequences and a score by Carl Davis. When people said, "Well, that was amazing, but you'll never get people into anything less spectacular", he and Carl Davis initiated regular public screenings of silent films with live orchestra - the Thames Silents, eventually to become the Channel Four Silents.
Gill and I worked on a number of documentaries for Thames - almost all devoted to silent films. Thames gave them what they needed - good publicity, slots at peak viewing time - and were rewarded with decent ratings and Emmys. Which company nowadays would subsidise three or four years' work on a series about silent films?
Take Unknown Chaplin, for instance. While working on Hollywood, we discovered films in the official Chaplin vault that had never been seen in public, and Lady Chaplin gave us permission to use them. It was Gill who turned this single discovery, momentous as it was, into a epic.
There was at that time a notorious Collector and Distributor whose methods had alienated almost everyone. He was a very peculiar person and an evening with him would have made a perfect ordeal in a Japanese television show. Every month without fail Gill would have dinner with this character for the sake of our work. The man would not even speak to me; I was tainted as a film collector; Gill on the other hand was "clean". One evening, Gill mentioned this Chaplin coup and the Collector asked how much had been found. About 30 cans, said Gill.
"Is that all?"
"What do you mean, `Is that all?' "
"I've got more than that."
"You've got more than that of what?"
"More than that of Chap- lin . . ."
And so he made the Great Discovery - it took 18 months of delicate negotiation, which he had to do entirely alone. He was rewarded by the arrival of a pantechnicon from France piled with rusty cans. Inside he found 300,000ft of original camera negative of Chaplin's Mutual comedies - the outtakes, in rushes form. He soon realised that Chaplin rehearsed on film, and the rushes, once put in numerical order, turned out to be the equivalent of an artist's sketchbook. If ever there was the cinematic Find of the Century, this was it. The result was our three-part series, Unknown Chaplin, which won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
Gill was also responsible for the restoration of two of the most important films ever made - The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Gold Rush (1925). The Gold Rush had been converted by Chaplin into a sound film with his own narration in 1942. The original material for the silent version had been discarded and no prints good enough for Live Cinema presentation survived. When a master-copy intended for Japan was discovered in the vaults, Gill undertook to put the film back as it had been in 1925, complete with intertitles made to match the original.
But he always felt the true act of restoration was returning the films to the theatre, and he laid great stress on the orchestral accompaniment, quoting King Vidor's comment that music was 50 per cent of the emotion. For The Gold Rush, Carl Davis adapted Chaplin's music for the 1942 reissue. For The Birth of a Nation, Jack Lanchbery adapted the 1915 Breil score. The hunt for the last surviving tinted print of the film was another epic quest, and the result will be shown at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival next month - in David Gill's honour.
Gill had a maddening habit; he was always 10 minutes late, unless it was an important event, when he was slightly later. And yet for rehearsals or recordings when orchestras were involved he was religiously punctual (although when he was a dancer he once missed his cue and a pas de deux became a pas d'un). He would not brook interruption, and the normal to and fro of conversation was unknown to him. But he was very witty, remarkably generous (especially where credit was concerned - he always insisted my name came first) and he had the kind of integrity that seems to have vanished from our post-war world.
His latest project was to secure the new Sadler's Wells as a home for silent film; he also planned to present archival dance films with live accompaniment, so bringing his career full circle.
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