Obituary: Michael Orrom

James Stevens
Friday 13 June 1997 23:02 BST

Michael Orrom belonged to that rare breed of practitioners, the documentary film director.

He became interested in film while at Cambridge, where he also met the young Mary Beales, a painter and sculptress of great talent, whom he later married. After graduating in physics in the middle of the Second World War, he spent the rest of the war years working on radar design at Hayes, Middlesex.

When he left, he got in touch with Paul Rotha, the pioneering British documentary maker, whom he had met while a student. Rotha gave him a job as production assistant. Orrom described it as "excellent training - you did a bit of editing, a bit of writing, a bit of cutting, in fact a bit of everything, from direction to sweeping the cutting-room floor." After two years he earned his first film credit, as associate director and editor of Rotha's film on world food problems, The World is Rich (1948). He also worked on No Resting Place (1950) and similar documentaries, before deciding to go freelance as a writer director.

Along with projects for the Shell film unit, many of Orrom's early jobs were half-hour films for BBC television for which he wrote the script and collaborated on production. One of them, The Waiting People (1954), made in collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, about the thousands of refugees still housed in camps across Europe, had a striking result, as Orrom explained: "At that time the British government had not been contributing for a year or more for some reason, but within a week of the programme going out the contributions were resumed and I was told that the film had provided the momentum for this."

Other early films were influential in drawing attention to social problems and people's response to them. Cry For Love focused on children abandoned by their parents, while No Title to Life was a dramatisation of what it was like to be illegitimate. He also scripted The Innocent Killer, a drama- documentary based on the true story of a rabid dog entering Britain, and Test Pilot, about Wing Commander Beamont, the test pilot of the Lightning, which won a Rome Festival Award in 1959.

Over the next few years his film work included Seven Years in Tibet - the story of Heinrich Harrier's escape into Tibet during the Second World War to become the confidante of the Dalai Lama, which he co-wrote and edited, and Ring Around the Earth (1964), made in the Pacific, for Cable and Wireless.

In 1966 he formed an independent film-making company, Film Drama Limited. His first project, also for Cable and Wireless, was Apollo in Ascension, a 30-minute film about building a satellite station on Ascension Island and its role in the Apollo moon landing. It ran at Expo '67 in the British Pavilion and represented Britain at the fifth Scientific Film Festival in Belgrade in 1968.

Orrom went on to make four more films for Cable and Wireless, including Arabia the Fortunate (1974) with its ravishing visuals, which was shot in Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Oman. He specialised in making sponsored industrial/educational documentaries for companies and organisations like Tube Investments, the Schools Council and the British Productivity Council. Occasionally he ventured into the realms of fiction - for example, with his television fantasy The Secret Pony (1970), and also worked on a script of the Strindberg play Lucky Peter, which sadly never came to fruition.

He was a man of great good humour and humanity. This was invariably reflected in his films. In Portrait of Queenie (1965), a documentary about the gifted blues singer Queenie Watts, who ran a pub on the Isle of Dogs, he made a quite specific statement with the anti- nuclear blues number "Didn't Want the Kissin' to Stop", accompanied by Stan Tracey; it was later issued on LP. He had been looking for a pianist to play for Queenie and discovered Tracey in Ronnie Scott's when Scott had the downstairs club in Gerrard Street. From this it can be seen that Orrom only used the best musicians on his music sessions.

Indeed he had an exceptionally discriminating musical ear. The Daily Mail said he gave a new voice to documentary film music, and music always featured prominently in his films. In fact the title number of one, East West Island (1966), is currently being used in the Radio 3 programme Hong Kong - The Last Days.

Michael Orrom was an immensely sociable man who was never happier than when giving a party at his rural retreat across the field from Chequers. Each year he and Mary would throw open the terrace gardens to an exhibition of her previous year's work. Although he was not a committed Christian his annual carol party was always a joyful occasion.

Only rarely, in a lifetime, one meets people like Michael Orrom: gentle, unaggressive, modest, committed as if by nature to the idea of a decent, democratic society, writes Richard Hoggart.

I knew him only from the early Seventies, during the last third of his life. But he let me see a draft autobiography of his early years. They were in some ways typical of many young intellectuals, especially in the latter half of the Thirties; in other ways they were out of the ordinary.

He went to Trinity College, Cambridge to read Physics, but film - cinema - more and more preoccupied him. As did left-wing politics; he became part of a very gifted group which included, to mention only those who come immediately to mind, the Marxist critic Arnold Kettle and the biologist John Maynard Smith.

One of the happier achievements of his later years was the making of a film for Channel 4, Fragments of Memory (1984) on the genesis and achievements of that group. It contained much of his own early film and still photography, and caught above all the group's comradely cheerfulness.

Immediately after Cambridge, Orrom entered war service as a scientist. After that, by good luck and determination, he went to work with Paul Rotha. Those pages in particular from the story of his early years deserve publishing; they throw inner light on an aspect of the development of English cinema.

Those of us who were, from the late Forties, beginning to work in what are now known as Cultural Studies sought out Orrom and Raymond Wil-liams's Preface to Film (1954). That must have been his and Williams's first book.

In the early Seventies, with the support of his friend Norman Swallow, he became involved in the making of social documentaries. We first met about that time. He was commissioned to make a film in the BBC Omnibus series. How we arrived at a subject I do not remember but one day we set off for Tunisia, to film a village wedding in the hinterland. Then back to Hunslet, my native district in Leeds, to record a wedding at the Woodhouse Hill Working Men's Club. An original diptych, at least.

Throughout - and filming, especially on location, is usually fraught - he gave an example of the quiet, unflappable professional who gets his way by example not bullying. The Quiet Man, incidentally, disappeared when he got behind the wheel of a fast car. His inevitable conviction for doing a ton was reported with a mixture of embarrassment and near- glee.

After Tunisia we met regularly in the creative chaos of his Soho office above Ronnie Scott's. We were planning a BIG film chronicle; which was never finished. To assist conception, he always took from a crammed cupboard a Lyon's Grannies Cake, to which we were both partial.

A major moment in each of his later years was the large birthday party at the hillside house near Great Missenden. Mary his wife - whose sculptures dotted the steep garden - made huge bowls of cassoulet and the like; and Michael Orrom, in his element with old Cambridge friends, neighbours and many another, moved around, unobtrusive as ever, refilling glasses. By then his hair had resolved itself into two white plumes, one on each side of his head, so that he looked rather like a very affectionate, amiable Professor Braynstawme. That will be the last, of many good memories, for most of his friends.

Michael David Orrom, documentary film scriptwriter, producer and director: born Wolverhampton 4 May 1920; married 1957 Mary Beales (three daughters, one stepdaughter); died Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire 6 June 1997.

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