OBITUARIES: Jill Craigie

Tom Vallance
Wednesday 15 December 1999 01:02

JILL CRAIGIE was not Britain's first woman film director - there had been several in the silent days, notably Dinah Shurey, while early talkies included films directed by Mary Field, later head of the Children's Film Foundation, and the authoress Elinor Glyn - but Craigie was the first to achieve a combination of critical acclaim, publicity and wide distribution.

She was also the first to bring a consciously political and feminist viewpoint to her work. The wife of the politician Michael Foot for the last 50 years, she continued throughout her life to be a champion of left- wing causes and was prominent in the world of politics. More recently she made headlines when a biography of the writer Arthur Koestler revealed that Craigie had been raped by Koestler in 1952, a fact Craigie concealed from her husband for 40 years.

Born in 1914 and, according to Michael Foot's biographer Mervyn Jones, raised in a home of "discord and division", she was educated in various boarding schools. In 1932 she obtained work as a journalist on a teenage magazine, after which she worked for the London branch of the Hearst newspaper syndicate.

A vivacious brunette, at the age of 19 she married a sculptor, Claude Begbie-Clench, mainly she said later to escape the harassment suffered by a young girl living in London; they had a daughter, but he was an alcoholic and the marriage did not last. She flirted briefly with acting, and in 1937 had a featured role in the film Make Up, a circus melodrama co-written by Jeffrey Dell, who became her second husband. From 1940 to 1942 she wrote propaganda shorts for the British Council, and in 1943 co-scripted with Dell a film about two heroic Belgian airmen, The Flemish Farm, which was directed by Dell and inspired in Craigie an ambition to direct.

"I developed a great urge to make a documentary for myself," she explained later. "I did decide, quite deliberately, why shouldn't a woman make a film? It was a male-dominated industry from top to bottom." She added, "I couldn't go to the cutting rooms or anything . . . Carol Reed cut his teeth on B pictures. David Lean started as a tea-boy and worked his way up. I had no experience whatsoever, and you need a lot of experience to master the technical side."

Filippo Del Giudice, head of Two Cities films, was a champion of Craigie, and signed her to direct Out of Chaos, a pioneering attempt to introduce people to modern art, featuring interviews with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. The film prompted Craigie to start a campaign to get wider showings for documentaries and for "non- entertainment films" to be distributed to mainstream cinemas.

Two Cities films were distributed by the Rank Organisation, headed by the conservative J. Arthur Rank, and it surprised some people when in 1945 he agreed to let Craigie make a full-length semi-documentary about post-war housing, with an emphasis on the effect town planning has on people and how they can affect the planning process. "I went to see Mr Rank . . . I said why can't we have, instead of the usual B pictures, which were awful, cheap American stuff that they got for nothing, why can't we have films that are about a serious purpose, as long as they are entertaining. Rank fell for this idea. He was rather pro it."

Craigie both wrote and directed The Way We Live, released in 1946, which told of post-war life and re- adjustment for an average British family in Plymouth, the most devastated town in England - and coincidentally the first town to send a woman (Lady Astor) to Parliament. Craigie said:

I set out to show that town planning must be integrated with everyday life. I went to people and asked them what they really wanted . . . not what I wanted. The whole content of the film came from the people, from the architects, from the town councillors, and I was just the interpreter.

During the film's making, Craigie received a lot of publicity, though she was not happy about most of it. "I had an enormous amount of publicity, just because I was a woman," she said: "all for the wrong reasons. `Although she's in charge of 40 men, she's very feminine' - that sort of terrible stuff."

The Way We Live was an early attempt at British neo-realism, a polemic piece of film-making as activism, rare indeed in the cinema of the time, and it did not find favour with Rank's chief accountant and head of distribution, John Davis. Davis was already known to dislike Del Giudice, whom he regarded as a rival for power within the organisation, and did what he could to sabotage Two Cities projects - he had earlier previewed Henry V in the East End, where eggs (though still rationed) were thrown at the screen. He did the same thing with The Way We Live.

First he tried to stop the film in mid-production, claiming that it was costing too much (the total cost was pounds 40,000), then after premiering the film in the East End, where it was booed, he gave it a trial run in Warrington during "wakes week", when he knew the city would be almost empty. But the critic C.A. Lejeune noticed a tiny review in the trade press which described the film as "intelligent, thoughtful and comprehensive" and she rallied her colleagues, who demanded to see the film then wrote about it at length, as a result of which Rank gave it proper distribution.

Starting with the on-screen declaration, "This film is made for the peoples of the blitz in the hope that their newly built cities will be worthy of their fortitude", the film showed the real-life efforts of the mayor and town planners to fulfil their vision of reconstruction, the city engineer stating, "A town should be for the townsfolk what a country estate is for the rich man."

It showed a typical family, the Copperwheats, a couple with three daughters and mother-in-law, living in cramped billets, the eldest daughter finding relief dancing with sailors on the Hoe, while the politicians argue about the cost of fulfilling the architects' dreams. The film ends with the townsfolk staging a march of protest with banners proclaiming, "Premises Not Promises". Though Craigie was unable to get convincing performances from some of her non-professional players, the film is a potent document of life and attitudes in the period just after the war and provides fascinating viewing.

It was an important project for Craigie for another reason - she met Michael Foot, who appears in the film making an impassioned plea for funds to be made available for reconstruction. Foot was then Labour candidate for Devonport, running against the sitting member Leslie Hore-Belisha in what many considered a hopeless fight since Hore- Belisha had held the seat since the early Twenties. Foot wrote later:

Jill Craigie was a raging beauty let loose on a susceptible wartime London. She had the colouring of an English rose but everything else was a romantic, mysterious addition. She was half Scottish and half Russian, not a tincture of English reserve in her make-up. She had Celtic and Russian fires and passions intermingled with what seemed an inborn gift for appreciating painting and music and, as it seemed to me, every other art.

Among Craigie's suitors of the time, he said, were such representatives of the arts as the sculptor Henry Moore, the architect Sir Charles Reilly, the composer Vaughan Williams and the artist Paul Nash. Her relationship with Moore, in particular, had been intense enough for her to say later, "It would have gone further if he hadn't been married. Once you received hospitality from the wife, and I liked her, I didn't want to give in to temptation. Some of us girls were rather more honourable in those days than they are now."

Craigie first met Foot in London, when she was preparing her film, and Foot wooed her at the Ivy, though at the time she was married to a second husband and had a young daughter. "I liked his mind," said Craigie, "and I liked his myopic look in his eyes and his smile, and he was rugged and unconventional."

Craigie's first two marriages were unhappy ones, and she knew that Foot had something of a reputation ("He had lots of pretty girls before me, you know") but the two soon embarked on an affair. "I remember saying to Michael when I very first met him," said Craigie, " `If you ever have any extra needs I don't want to know, and even more important I don't want anyone else to know. That's the price you have to pay.' And I think that's quite a decent attitude, isn't it? A fair one? And that's how it is. He's pretty secretive."

According to Foot, the couple made excellent use of Hampstead Heath's hedgerow shelters during the early days of their courtship, but during Parliament's summer recess he suggested a luxurious "honeymoon" in Nice, though the two were still unable to marry. Staying at the Negresco, they were among the first English post-war visitors to the French Riviera and had whole beaches to themselves for what Foot described as "10 delirious days and nights".

On their return, Craigie found a crowd of reporters outside her Hampstead home asking if it were true that she had been to the South of France with Michael Foot. She replied, "I'll ask him if you like", and rang Foot at his flat. "A little while later", related Foot, he devised this reply:

Michael Foot offers his fraternal greetings to his fellow journalists - and the reminder that, if anything appears in the newspapers about his visit to France, he will be happy to reveal his latest information about the love affairs of Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere and a select list of other newspaper proprietors.

The crowd of reporters, in Jill's own words, "just melted away". When Craigie became pregnant, Foot acquiesced in her having an abortion, though they were to regret the decision after their marriage when she was unable to conceive again.

Craigie's next film was a documentary short, Children of the Ruins (1947), about Unesco's work to rehabilitate war-traumatised children, after which she and William MacQuitty, who had produced The Way We Live, formed their own production company, Outlook Films, to make what was to prove Craigie's only fictional feature film as a director, Blue Scar (1949).

The story of a miner's daughter who, after winning a music scholarship, rejects her miner boyfriend and moves with a scathingly depicted "smart set", it was largely filmed in the mining valleys of South Wales, mixing professional actors with amateurs. With the British film industry facing a crisis, and Del Giudice ousted, financing was elusive. Craigie and MacQuitty raised the budget themselves with the help of friends, and converted a disused Welsh cinema into a studio.

The film, made with no guarantee of distribution, emerged as simplistic and uneven, displaying its director's inexperience in handling fictional drama. The major cinema circuits refused to take it, partly because they were wary of its blatant politics, though it had its champions. Kenneth Griffith, who had a featured role, recalled recently, "It was a very serious film, and Jill Craigie is a very intelligent, remarkable woman", while the critic Andy Medhurst described it as "startling and fascinating" in being "a British film that is consciously political, avowedly socialist". Craigie herself later called the film "amateurish".

After directing a documentary, To be a Woman (1951), which strongly argued the case for equal pay for women, Craigie became increasingly disheartened by the struggle to be both an independent film-maker and a woman. She returned to journalism, spent some time writing for the BBC, and wrote occasional film scripts. According to Norman Wisdom, Craigie wrote one of the most successful British comedies of all time, Trouble in Store (1953), though she is not credited. Wisdom told author Brian McFarlane, "Rank gave me a film written by Jill Craigie called Trouble in Store. When they told Jill I was doing the film, she didn't want her name on it. I don't know the full story but I do know she had written the original script."

Craigie was then asked by the producer John Bryan and the director Ronald Neame to adapt Mark Twain's short story "The Million Pound Note" into a feature-length film script. The 1953 film suffered from a bland, if genial, central performance by Gregory Peck, but Craigie's script provided scope for several lively supporting performances while preserving Twain's satirical undertones.

For the same producer-director team Craigie scripted Windom's Way (1957) from a novel by James Ramsey Ullman about an idealistic doctor (Peter Finch) in Malaysia who is constantly frustrated in his efforts to mediate in the conflicts between workers and authorities.

In 1958 Craigie suggested to Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, that she should make a film for him featuring fully realised female characters, which she considered a rarity in British films, but Ealing's glory was fading at the time and nothing came of it. It seemed as if Craigie's work behind the camera was over, then in 1992 she unexpectedly returned to direction with a television documentary, Two Hours From London, which featured Michael Foot as its on-screen presenter. A fiercely scathing indictment of the passivity of the Western powers in the face of Serbian aggression in former Yugoslavia, it demonstrated that Craigie had lost none of her fire and humanist passions. The film was withheld from transmission by the BBC for 18 months, and then shown only in a severely cut form.

Craigie was to make headline news once more when David Cesarani's biography of Arthur Koestler (Arthur Koestler: the homeless mind, 1998) revealed that she had been raped by Koestler on 4 May 1952.

Koestler was house-hunting in central London at the time and rang Craigie one morning saying he wanted to go to an English pub. Foot was away broadcasting, so Craigie agreed to give Koestler a tour of Hampstead and its pubs. He then cajoled her into taking him home for lunch, and it was while they were washing up afterwards that he grasped her hair, pulled her down, banged her head on the floor and tried to throttle her. "In the end," said Craigie, "I was overborne."

Craigie decided not to report the matter to the police, explaining,

Koestler was this extraordinary man, a hero who had taken on Stalin, and I was trying to make a reputation as a film-maker. I remember sitting on the front steps after he'd gone and thinking my life would fall to pieces if I went to the police. The story would be all over the front pages and it would look very bad. I'd gone on a pub crawl with him, though I'd only drunk ginger beer. Everyone would think I'd asked for it.

Craigie also decided not to tell Foot when a producer friend advised her, "On no account tell Michael - he'll have to retaliate." So she simply told her husband she had had a fight. "He thought it was perfectly normal," added Craigie. "He had this quaint idea that men were fighting for me every day."

Evidence emerged later that Koestler had raped before, and Cesarani reports that Dick Crossman later told Foot and Craigie that Koestler "was a hell of a raper", adding that his own wife Zita "had a terrible time with him". Forty years later, Craigie told her husband the whole story when "I got rather drunk at a dinner party and it suddenly came out".

Craigie's most cherished film project was a fictionalised drama about the suffragette movement, but it was never to be realised. Earlier this year when the Foots were interviewed by the journalist Alice Thompson, Foot teased his wife about her feminist stance, saying, "She makes me a cooked breakfast every day, and she calls herself a feminist." Commenting on their enduring marriage, Foot said, "I have my mother to thank for that. She met Jill and rang me up that night and said, `I've found the girl for you.' I said, `Fine, but she's married.' And suddenly she was free. And we've had a rather nice time ever since."Jill Craigie, film director, producer and screenwriter: born London 7 March 1914; married 1933 Claude Begbie-Clench (one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Jeffrey Dell (died 1985; marriage dissolved), thirdly 1949 Michael Foot; died London 13 December 1999.

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