Obituary: John Taylor

Denis Forman
Friday 18 September 1992 23:02

John Taylor, film producer and director, born London 5 October 1914, married Barbara Mullen (died 1979; two daughters), died London 15 September 1992.

JOHN TAYLOR, beneath a calm and genial exterior, concealed a will of iron. Likeable and well-liked, and always remaining one of the boys, he became a film producer of unquestioned authority and the much-respected head of the Crown Film Unit.

Shortly after leaving school at 16, Taylor joined the Empire Marketing Board under John Grierson and after an appropriate period of making tea and listening to the never-ending debates on the political philosophy, the social purpose and the aesthetic of the documentary movement he undertook more active work such as carrying the tripod and the camera and ultimately handling the latter himself.

He showed immediately that he had that quality essential to all film-makers, whether cameramen, directors or producers - an eye for a shot. He graduated through the nursery slopes as an assistant to Robert Flaherty and Basil Wright and in 1934 worked with Flaherty in the hazardous role of cameraman on his famous film Man of Aran. Not only did he shoot the storm scenes with an old Mitchell strapped to a plank projecting from a small boat but he set up his own lab on location and printed up sample rushes each night to save the long wait for rushes from London. In the next year and in warmer climes he worked with Basil Wright on his masterpiece, Song of Ceylon (1935), and through these two films he established his reputation.

In the years leading up to the war Taylor found himself in the centre of the British documentary group consisting amongst others of Grierson (who had by now married John's sister Margaret), Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, Edgar Anstey, Arthur Elton and Alberto Cavalcanti (with whom he worked most closely).

The Second World War offered the documentarians their great opportunity. The factual film became one of the main instruments of government propaganda and films like North Sea (made by Watt), Fires Were Started (Jennings), Target for Tonight (Watt) and Desert Victory (the Boulting brothers) were shown in cinemas all over the English-speaking world - but behind this more visible front the Government built up a network of non-theatrical film centres and mobile units which showed films geared to the domestic war effort - how to grow better vegetables, how to resuscitate the victim of a bomb-blast and the like. Taylor worked, mainly as a producer, on up to two dozen of these films, as invisible as yeast but working beneficially through many diverse social groups.

After the war the status of the Ministry of Information was reduced to that of Central Office and the documentary became becalmed in the slack water of peacetime politics. Government departments wanted films about saving electricity and Woolton pie. The stirring motivation for the more ambitious films seemed to have gone with the war, and many of the older documentarians with it. Grierson was with Unesco and unhappy; Watt was making feature films; Paul Rotha had gone bust, Jennings was exploring a poetic vein of national nostalgia. It was Taylor who pulled the body of documentary film-makers together (by now a new generation and very numerous) and set their sights on making films about Britain's future in a fairer and better society. From his commanding position as head of the Crown Film Unit at Beaconsfield he developed a group of young film makers who aspired to make documentaries as valuable for peacetime Britain as they had been in war. Children of The City (Budge Cooper), Learning by Experience (Margaret Thompson) and Benjamin Britten's Instruments of the Orchestra (now called The Young Person's Guide) were all products of his regime.

After the dissolution of the Crown Film Unit Taylor worked from the early Fifties mainly as a freelance. He had a major success when he produced the full-length film recording the conquest of Everest (1953) but mainly he made quiet films on subjects he held to be important, in particular on ecology, a cause he espoused long before it became fashionable. In later life he spent much time in Dublin, where he and his wife, the actress Barbara Mullen, had a house.

John Taylor was the quiet man of the British documentary movement. Whilst his colleagues were writing, lecturing, broadcasting with missionary zeal, he was at work making movies great and small, quietly, unassumingly, with serious purpose and with an inflexible determination to make them as good as they could be.

(Photograph omitted)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in