Obituary: Donald Alexander
Monday 26 July 1993
DONALD ALEXANDER was one of those documentary film makers whose achievements, both in the films he made and in the units he founded and developed, rank him with the great figures of the British documentary movement - John Grierson, Paul Rotha, Basil Wright, John Taylor, Edgar Anstey: men and women who established what was and still is perhaps the most significant achievement of the British film industry and whose influence is evident even today on television. Their belief that film should not just entertain but should also educate, inform and stimulate by portraying and interpreting the actual world and the lives of ordinary people, inspired their work, as did a strong social and political commitment.
Donald Alexander's career spanned the great years of the movement. After gaining a Double First in Classics at Cambridge he joined the Strand film unit where he made films on social and economic issues. Eastern Valley (1937) and Wealth of a Nation (1938) examined the social and industrial regeneration of Scotland after the Great Depression. During the Second World War, working with Paul Rotha, Alexander produced and directed films on health, education, local government and the reconstruction of industry which would become necessary for a post-war Britain. As a lifelong democratic socialist he was particularly concerned with the relationship between the subject and the people involved and affected by it.
By the end of the war he was well prepared to enter what was to become the most significant and important period of his working life. In 1944 he, together with close and like-minded friends and colleagues, founded and then produced much of the output of Data Film Productions, the first and certainly the most successful documentary film makers' co-operative in Britain. In the early Fifties Alexander established and then managed for more than 10 years the National Coal Board's own film unit. Feeding the voracious appetite of the then huge industry for training, safety, public relations and documentary films, the unit, in its more than 30-year-long life, became one of the largest and most productive film making centres in Britain, leaving behind a unique record of industrial, economic and social change in Britain during the post- war years and right up to the middle 1980s. Finally Alexander returned to his beloved Scotland to become director of audio-visual studies at Dundee University. He retired in 1979.
Important though his achievements as film maker and administrator were, the many who were fortunate enough to work in his units would remember him also for the care and commitment he invested in the films he produced, his concern for the people affected by the subjects dealt with, his clear and logical thinking and exposition and his constant questioning of the purpose and effect of each film. These lessons were not forgotten by the many working in today's film and television industries who can testify to the value of the start he gave them and the creative opportunities he made possible.
Alexander was wonderful company, a terrific host. I remember well the large and comfortable chairs, the Aga cooker, wholemeal bread and very good wine, the television banished to another room, and the conversation: whatever the subject, it was always illuminated by his deep knowledge of history and his love of the Greek classics. I remember too the walls of his study lined with Ordnance survey maps; no route for a journey, however short, was ever repeated or so it seemed. There could not have been an inch of a Roman road he hadn't travelled or walked.
Donald Alexander loved Scotland and possessed the best of Scottish virtues - determination, discipline, a clear logical mind and an almost religious commitment to public service. Donald loved Greece and its ancient language and translated many of the Greek classics. If it had not been for the untimely death of his second wife he might well have retired there. He loved industrial Britain, above all the coalmining industry and all who worked in it, with a romantic fervour that was akin to poetry. But above all he loved his family; his late wife Budge Cooper, a considerable film maker herself, his children Robin, Dion and Juno, and grandchildren.
All of the film units Donald Alexander founded and worked in have gone; as have many of the industries, skills, lives, dreams and aspirations of the men and women he filmed; their hardships and heroism and their will to build a better Britain. He and his colleagues in film were in the thick of things, consciously recording and interpreting the changes that have made us what we are today. Their work has left us a living visual memory. And without memory what are we? The example Donald Alexander set and the influence he wielded will long be with us.
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