Pat Jackson: Director who learnt his trade on 'Night Mail' and went on to make one of the finest wartime films

The death of the film director Pat Jackson breaks the last link with the pioneer British documentary movement of the 1930s, and with its masterpiece Night Mail (1936), on which he worked as a youthful apprentice.

By the end of an eccentric, unlucky career he had shown himself one of the most versatile and talented members of that celebrated group.

Born in Eltham in 1916, Jackson had his education severely disrupted by illness. On recovering, he drifted into films, first as a camera assistant at Welwyn, then, in 1934, as a junior member of John Grierson's documentary unit, which was attached to the General Post Office. He used to say that he got himself taken on only because his father, a London merchant, was acquainted with the Postmaster General, and pulled strings on his behalf; and at first he was overawed by the array of intellectuals who surrounded him at the unit, many of them, like Humphrey Jennings, with Firsts from Cambridge. But in film terms they were all in the same boat, learning by trial and error, and Jackson learned fast. As he later told a interviewer, "it was really the first film school – a wonderful way of learning a job."

Night Mail, which makes the journey of the postal express from London to Scotland into an epic of modern communications, was a crucial rite of passage. Jackson was an integral part of the small team who made it. It was he, for instance, who solved the problem of how to record the clickety-clack of the train, which sounded all wrong when a microphone was exposed to the real thing: he brought into the studio a section of model railway track, and a Bassett-Lowke engine to push back and forth on it, and that is what we hear. At the film's first public screening he listened to the audience responding with an enthusiasm that had attended none of the unit's earlier, more earnestly didactic efforts.

There was already a tension in the movement between the purists who saw documentary film as a separate kind of product, making no concession to the methods, and audiences, of commercial cinema, and those who wanted to reach and influence that audience. Jackson from this moment aligned himself with the second group, and never left it. Like his great friend Harry Watt, Night Mail's director, he remained loyal to the central ideals of documentary – realism, and social responsibility – while embracing dramatisation, narrative, and, where appropriate, professional actors.

His first film as director was a typically modest GPO assignment, The Horsey Mail (1938), set in rural Norfolk, but, like Watt and Jennings and others, he had his career transformed, or at least accelerated, by the war. With no TV service available, documentary film suddenly found itself with an urgent job to do of informing, explaining, and inspiring; to mark its new national role, the GPO Unit was rebranded as Crown. Jackson was one of the team that put together the celebrated short film of the Blitz, London Can Take It (1940), which had a dramatic effect on public opinion in neutral America. He went on to direct Health in War (1940), a lucid exposition of the emergency system that would, in effect, become the NHS, and then Ferry Pilot (1941), a half-hour dramatisation of the work of moving planes around, with pilots playing themselves, and stunning aerial photography.

It was like a trial run for his first full-length feature, Western Approaches (1944), one of the great films of the war. A U-boat spots a lifeboat drifting in the Atlantic, and lies in wait for the convoy ship that will surely come to pick up its crew. On the basis of this ultra-simple plot, the film builds up a strong Hitchcock-like suspense. Hitchcock himself was engaged at the same time in making Lifeboat, set likewise in the Atlantic, and the two films make a fascinating pair: while Hitchcock filmed his boatload of actors in a Hollywood studio tank, in black and white, Jackson took his non-actors out to sea in a real lifeboat for week after week, along with the bulky Technicolor equipment of the time. The images produced by his cameraman, the young Jack Cardiff, have a beauty that helped to gain the film an admiring new audience half a century later, through the Imperial War Museum's video release.

Western Approaches did respectably in the cinemas and brilliantly with the critics, and Jackson was signed to a Hollywood contract by MGM. He postponed this till after the war, developing for Crown an ambitious project about the Beveridge Report on social services; the Labour government aborted this, despite the fact that the film would have offered radical support for its reforming agenda. It turned out that the golden age of documentary cinema had ended with the war, and it was a good time to be moving on.

But Jackson's years in Hollywood were not happy, apart from giving him lots of time off to indulge his passion for fishing. Alexander Korda, to whom he owed his contract, had left the company, and no one, from Louis B Mayer downward, knew what to do with him and his realist agenda, other than offering him the latest Lassie film. In the event, all he achieved was one decent minor melodrama, Shadow on the Wall (1949), centred on child therapy, and giving a first role to an actress named Nancy Davis – later Nancy Reagan.

Jackson had thus missed out on the brief boom period of British cinema during which others like Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed, and the Ealing team built so impressively on their wartime achievements. By the time he returned, the boom was ending and the enlightened hands-off sponsorship of J Arthur Rank was giving way to the rule of the accountants. He had time to make one magnificent film, the hospital drama White Corridors (1951), which operates both as a drama-documentary about the workings of the new NHS and as an absorbing multi-character melodrama, hard-edged forerunner of the TV genre of hospital soap opera.

Jackson took a special pride in the seamless way he integrated several non-professionals into a cast of actors including Googie Withers and Petula Clark. Shot in five weeks, it was a popular and critical success. The young and hard-to-please Gavin Lambert, then editing Sight and Sound magazine, wrote: "White Corridors should set a new standard for popular entertainment in films of this country".

These hopes were not fulfilled. Made wary by his MGM experience, and by his distrust of Rank's executives, Jackson turned down the offer of a contract and picked up work here and there. A contribution to one of the Somerset Maugham anthology films, Encore (1952); a second hospital drama in The Feminine Touch (1956, for Ealing); a bleak drama about a middle-class professional jailed for thoughtless petty smuggling in The Birthday Present (1957) – films like these were honourable and craftsmanlike, but made little impact, while his bolder personal projects were turned down. In the 1960s he was further marginalised by the younger, flashier "new wave" of film-makers; suddenly he and his admirable generation of wartime achievers, from Michael Powell to Thorold Dickinson, had become sidelined as yesterday's men.

Still in his prime, Jackson divided his time between minor films, some of them for the Children's Film Foundation, and work on the filmed TV series that were now proliferating. Hisbest TV work was done with a young stage actor he had introduced tothe screen, Patrick McGoohan: episodes of Rendez-Vous, Danger Man, and McGoohan's brainchild The Prisoner (1967), whose cult status ensures that, unlike most of Jackson's work, it remains in circulation.

Like many reluctantly retired film-makers, he continued to nurse pet projects, notably a realist modern Western set in the Canadian wilderness which he had come close to making for Ealing in 1955. When he finally felt too old for it, the one younger film-maker whose work he admired enough to offer it to was Ken Loach, and it was a disappointment when his tentative approach met with no response. But there were compensations. A low-budget horror comedy he directed in 1962 – further evidence of his versatility – had its title appropriated for a dazzling 1994 novel by Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!, whose narrator is obsessed by that film and by its star, Shirley Eaton. When Coe gave an illustrated reading from the novel at the Festival Hall, Jackson turned up to hear him, and the result was a meeting of minds which delighted the audience as much as the two protagonists. In 1999 he published his own engaging memoir, A Retake Please! Night Mail to Western Approaches, whose timespan testifies to the enduring importance of his documentary roots.

Patrick Jackson, film director: born Eltham, south London 25 March 1916; married firstly (two daughters), secondly Lila Valmere; died 3 June 2011.

Life & Style
techHow a 'grey brick' took over the world of portable gaming
News
peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Coren Mitchell, who is the daughter of the late broadcaster Alan Coren and is married to comedian David Mitchell, produced a hand to make poker history at the 98th EPT main event.
peopleJournalist and TV presenter becomes first ever two-time winner of the European Poker Tour
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players