Obituaries: Frank Cvitanovich

Frank Cvitanovich was a documentary film maker of rare expressiveness; every frame of every film he ever shot bore the impression of his own personal vision and pervasive character. That vision was essentially a deeply humane and sympathetic one and was the inspiration behind a clutch of award-winning documentaries as diverse in subject matter as Bunny (1972), a moving account of the treatment given to his own brain-damaged son in a Philadelphia clinic; The Road to Wigan Pier (1973), a touching evocation of George Orwell's literary original; and Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton (1976), a lovingly made film about shire horses and the Yorkshire farmer who reared them.

Such was the beauty and insight with which Cvitanovich treated this multiple portrait of five mares and their master that it won the 1977 Prix Italia, sharing the prize that year with The Naked Civil Servant, the dramatisation of Quentin Crisp's autobiography. It was typical of Cvitanovich's approach that he should hold both man and beast in the same clear-eyed regard and he gave to his film such a powerful and unforced sense of the whole earthly cycle of creation that no one who saw it will ever forget its imagery and the way in which the ordinary stuff of rural existence was touched with wonder.

That sense of wonder was a quality Cvitanovich never lost. All through his career he followed his own star and, as a truly creative film-maker, he resolutely contrived to remain a one-man band - as writer, director, editor and producer. But he was also particularly lucky in finding Thames Television as a place of work during the Seventies where, under the enlightened sponsorship of Jeremy Isaacs, then Director of Programmes, he was allowed his head as a documentary maker. Those who lament the passing of ITV's golden age by citing the loss of the big cultural blockbusters should remember that it was programmes like these - virtually now impossible as projects for the ITV network - that contributed as much as anything to the texture of ITV's programming.

Cvitanovich possessed a remarkable appearance, huge, grizzled and bear- like, with dark-ringed eyes that seemed sadder than a panda's. But in fact he was gregarious, enjoyed social life and when encountered was like coming upon a figure out of a Jack London story, a prospector from the Klondike or a trapper from the northern snows. His background and his youthful career were as exotic and romantic as his appearance suggested. Born in Vancouver, he was one of five children of an immigrant Yugoslavian from the coast of Dalmatia. In Canada his father founded his own salmon- fishing fleet in which the young Cvitanovich first went to sea as an apprentice. His passionately devoted mother was also a powerful influence and had her work cut out reclaiming her errant son from any number of youthful escapades. These early adventures were of a kind to strike awe and envy when read on the inside flap of a book's dustjacket. He tried his hand as gambler, poker player, seaman, theatre hand, film runner and professional American footballer and nearly settled down to this last occupation having almost qualified to join the famous Los Angeles Rams. However, a severe knee injury put an end to the promise of a football career. His TV career effectively began when in California some time later he amiably conned his way into an assignment to direct an episode of Gene Autry's The Singing Cowboy and went on to direct a further 31 episodes. In the mid-Fifties Cvitanovich came to London to set up his own film company.

Bunny, his first film for Thames, the story of his own afflicted child told with understandable poignancy but a rare sensitivity and detachment was also his first prize-winning film, receiving the International Emmy. The Road To Wigan Pier followed soon after and three years later came Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton, which confirmed his reputation as one of the finest and most personal documentary makers of his time. Saturday's Heroes, a study of footballers observed at close range in the showers and locker rooms of White Hart Lane charted the emotional highs and lows of competitive sport. For Cvitanovich, sport was a passion and it was appropriate that his first film, The Switch Hitter, was the portrait of a baseball player past his best, combining the director's own fascination with sporting types and an understanding of their physical and human fallibility. Also in his gallery of sportsmen were film portraits of Frank and Bobby Charlton, The Charlton Brothers, and the motorcyclist Barry Sheene. Other films which showed his own very personal choice of subject were the day in the life of an East End park, The Kilnsey Show, about a Yorkshire wall-building competition, and a dramatised version of John Osborne's first volume of autobiography, A Better Class of Person, a difficult subject most effectively realised.

The quality, which marked Cvitanovich's films, was implicit in the character of the man himself, a character which drew not only admiration but invariably affection; he was someone who combined an exceptional measure of the gentle and the strong.

Derek Granger

Frank Cvitanovich came to Britain from Canada in 1957 for the weekend - and stayed, writes Brenda Reid.

To those of us who got to know him then, it seemed as though he had been part of the film and television world forever. In London, he would amble around Soho and the outer reaches of Bond Street disappearing into doorways and emerging with a film can, a script or occasionally, a little treasure from Sotheby's.

There was a deep, dark sadness at the heart of Frank's life. His only, adored son, Bunny, was born with brain damage and for the few short years of his life, Frank devoted himself to helping Bunny, always believing that if only he tried hard enough one day, somehow, Bunny would flourish. His film, Bunny, the most personal of all his films, was made both as a tribute to Bunny and to chronicle the ways in which Frank, his third wife Midge Mackenzie and a team of loving friends struggled to help him develop.

None of his friends had seen him happier than in the last years of his life with "the fifth Mrs Cvitanovich," as he called her, Valerie Wade, whom he had known and loved since she was a child. Although dogged by ill-health latterly, surviving a heart by-pass and a major leg operation, Frank always made everyone's future seem brighter.

Frank Cvitanovich, film-maker: born Vancouver 14 August 1927; married secondly Alison Seebohm (marriage dissolved), thirdly Midge Mackenzie (one son deceased; marriage dissolved); fourthly 1978 Janet Street-Porter (marriage dissolved 1988), fifthly Valerie Wade; died London 12 August 1995.

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