Obituary: Margaret Johns

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Margaret Johns was described as "the most beautiful film producer in the world". She is best known for her award- winning collaborations with her second husband, Ian Dawson- Shepherd, the writer and founding father of the Spastics Society (now Scope).

Her early artistic life spanned the Ballet Rambert, theatre and television acting (she graduated a bronze medallist from RADA), even cabaret singing, before she found her true metier. But a brilliantly promising career as a producer could not survive the combined assault of international politics, illness, and a devastating car accident.

Johns was never conventional. She lied about her age to win a place at RADA. In those days, a 25-year-old mother would not even have been considered. She successfully posed as 18, abetted by her diminutive size, her extraordinarily youthful complexion which endured throughout her life and her (clearly) great acting talent. Her first husband, Peter Bartlett, and their daughter, Jennifer, stayed well away from the Academy.

After graduating, Margaret Johns (her stage name) tried her hand at theatre, television and radio, but later claimed to have hated every minute, mainly because of the nervous strain of appearing in front of audiences. It never showed but major occasions, such as her appearance under Lindsay Anderson's direction in The Sea-gull at the Royal Court, would make her physically sick.

She was offered small parts in various films, and could always be found talking to the technicians, eager to discover the world on the other side of the camera. The passion grew and, as a parting gift, her by then estranged husband financed her first film, a short documentary shot in Battersea in 1955.

Many other shorts followed, with Johns travelling all over the world - the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, China and America. In 1959, she formed her own company, Libertas, becoming the first female independent film producer in the UK.

She was both intuitively commercial, and self-confident. She believed women mostly chose the films they and their men went to see, and therefore she was more likely than a man to know what the public wanted. She directed some of her own films, but said she preferred producing, because it gave her overall control of the creative idea.

Her first success was Jessy, a moving film commissioned by the National Spastics Society about a child with cerebral palsy. It won four awards at the 1961 Boston Film Festival. Johns had the idea of making the whole film through the eyes of the child herself. She found it a battle, however, to secure any public showing for Jessy. "It was impossible to find a distributor," she observed. "They all said it wasn't entertainment."

Commissioning this film for the society was Ian Dawson-Shepherd, who became Johns's business partner and collaborator (as writer) on many of her films, and also her husband and the father of her other two daughters.

Together, they went on to make Every Eight Hours (1961), presented by Richard Dimbleby and shown repeatedly on national television. Perhaps this film more than any other helped to enlighten the British public about cerebral palsy. Then came Right for the Job (1963), which brought to public attention the fact that, with appropriate training, people with cerebral palsy can do many kinds of valuable industrial work.

Working with Janet Lacey on Every Eight Hours also led to a commission from the World Council of Churches to make The Tibetan Story (1962), about the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule. Johns was the first Western woman to meet the Dalai Lama, who had fled to India in 1959.

It was in 1962, only six years after the Suez crisis, that Johns began work on a series of three films, including her first major feature, for the Egyptian government. This was the beginning of the end of her company and her career as a producer. After five years of work, for little or no payment, relations between the UK and the Egyptian government had deteriorated so badly that the project was cancelled. None of the three films was completed, and in 1967 Libertas went into liquidation with huge debts.

Margaret Johns was competitive, even a daredevil. She enjoyed driving fast cars and gambling, and riding was her favourite sport. She flew many thousands of miles by helicopter with camera teams on location, sometimes filming in hazardous conditions. Once, while flying through a storm in Burma, the army transport plane in which she was travelling ran out of fuel, forcing the pilot to crash-land. It did not put her off flying in the slightest.

Films were her life. Only weeks before Judith, her second daughter, was born, she was out on location in India. Similarly, Andraea, her youngest daughter, was born in the middle of negotiations for the Egyptian project. The two babies went to Egypt with her on location.

Who knows, then, how soon Johns would have bounced back from bankruptcy if she had not developed osteomyelitis, a rare disease of the bone marrow (typically affecting male children), which put her into hospital for nine months. Refusing to be permanently confined to a wheelchair, with painful effort she taught herself to walk again over the next 10 years. Finally mobile enough to get about on her own, in 1980 she was struck so violently by a car on a pedestrian crossing that every major bone in her body was broken. There would be no more films.

Whenever she was asked in the Sixties how it felt to be one of only three female UK film producers, Johns would claim that men like working for women. "I've never found any prejudice against me as a woman, certainly not among the technicians. Once you've had a successful film, you can work on equal terms."

Andy Knott

Margaret Kathleen De Monte (Margaret Johns), film producer: born Murree, India 2 August 1922; married 1943 Peter Bartlett (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1960), 1972 Ian Dawson-Shepherd (died 1996; two daughters); died Teddington, Middlesex 28 February 1997.

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