Obituary: Douglas Gray

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The Independent Online
In the history of Scottish culture in the 20th century, Douglas Gray's name deserves more than just an honourable mention. Without him, many of the major figures - actors, musicians, poets, writers - would have remained unrecorded or at most sadly under-represented in the sound and vision archives. However, in truth, he would not have appreciated his efforts being celebrated; he was very modest and preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible - not easy for a large man, well over 6ft tall and frequently kilted.

Born into a successful timber business in Aberdeenshire in 1922, Gray was a high achiever academically both at Aberdeen Grammar School and at Aberdeen University, where he obtained a first class honours degree in Economics. Even before he took his degree, his intelligence and his technical ability had led him to an unspecified role (certainly he would not talk about it) in the development of radar in the latter years of the Second World War.

His lifelong passion, however, was for all forms of Scottish culture and from 1946 onwards he set about making recordings, initially on sound discs and later on film, of the great performers of the day. From very modest beginnings in his parents' house in Aberdeen, he set up Park Film Studios in Glasgow before moving to Solsgirth, near Kirkintilloch, which he ran as an arts venue, and eventually to Brig o' Turk in the Trossachs.

None of these moves seemed to simplify the apparent technical chaos in which he operated. It was the hallmark of Gray's operations that from circumstances that for anyone else would have been practically impossible he would produce extremely important work. What was even more remarkable was that the most distinguished performers would be willingly recorded, in conditions that they would normally take exception to, simply because of Gray's charm and utter commitment to the material and the performance.

Unusual and often amusing hazards, such as the interruption during a take by large dogs (two Great Danes), or not infrequent mechanical malfunctions, did not deter Scotland's celebrities from making memorable, historically priceless, recordings. Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Muir, George Bruce and Sidney Goodsir Smith were among the writers; Andrew Cruickshank, Duncan Macrae, Bryden Murdoch, Tom Fleming, Jean Taylor Smith, Iain Cuthbertson, Edith McArthur, Roddy McMillan and John Grieve among the actors; the singers included Jean Redpath, Bill McCue, Joan Alexander, Duncan Robertson and many others.

It was not only a matter of securing the voices for posterity. What they performed was as vital as who the performers were and Gray always had the highest regard for the original material. So, for example, the definitive version (many would argue) of "Tam o' Shanter" was Gray's 1947 recording of Harold Wightman. Similarly, in the first volume of his History of Scottish Music series, Later Middle Ages (1975), the marvellous works realised by Kenneth Elliott were performed by a new group called the King's Singers.

Although Gray was no businessman, and his attempts to promote his own work never seemed to be adequate, he did from time to time find his products in unexpected demand. In two instances the central figure was Duncan Macrae. A recording of Macrae's party piece "The Wee Cock Sparra" proved such a hit in the late Fifties that it discomforted the actor, who felt that it damaged his reputation as a serious stage performer. Macrae was also involved when Gray got hold of a Clyde puffer to recreate Neil Munro's "Para Handy" on film in 1959.

In the 1960s, Gray turned to film to become a producer of educational and promotional documentaries. Meeting the demands of committees proved rather trying for him, even though the results were usually worthwhile. He was at his most successful when left to his own devices. In over 50 years of continuous activity he held only two conventional appointments as Assistant Director at the Scottish Film Council during the 1950s, and as a part-time economics lecturer at Glasgow University (where he met his wife, Paula).

His love of Scottish culture was by no means confined to the high arts. In his adopted home at Brig o' Turk, where he lived for the past 17 years, he was established as one of the key local figures, running the village post office (which characteristically he doubled as an art gallery), chairing the Trossachs Highland Festival, producing the local newsletter, and being prominent on the local tourist board.

Latterly, one of his principal concerns was to transfer his unique sound archive to digital recordings. His films had already been placed in the safekeeping of the Scottish Film Archive. Gray has, in effect, left his country a treasury for which it ought to be extremely grateful.

Douglas Gray had a very strong sense of culture but also of the importance of his family which was as large, vigorous and good-humoured as himself. His wife was prominent in the Riding for the Disabled Movement, of which he himself was a supporter.

David Bruce

Douglas Gray, record and film producer: born Aberdeen 8 October 1922; married 1953 Paula Cook (died 1991; two sons, two daughters); died Stirling 7 August 1997.