PETER FROST plays tribute to Communist documentary film maker Kay Mander.
Film maker Kay Mander who almost single handed invented the drama documentary has died aged 98.
She got interested in film-making while living in Germany. She worked as a translator the 1935 Berlin International Film Congress.
Back in Britain she found work at Alexander Korda’s London Films as an interpreter. Here she worked in publicity and continuity becoming one of the first women members of the film union ACC&T.
Her big break came during the Second World War when many experienced male colleagues joined the armed services.
She was offered a job as a production assistant at the Shell Film Unit. It was here she made her directing debut.
Her first short film, made in 1941, on the dry subject of how to file metal was made to instruct young unskilled women entering engineering and munitions factories. She produced a seven minute work of art and won its young director much acclaim in the industry.
By 1943 Mander was turning out home-front propaganda films on subjects like the fire service and civil defence. However mundane the subject her direction both bought humanity and got its message over.
In 1943 she was invited make a simple documentary about the government subsidised Highland and Islands Medical Service.
Instead she scripted, produced, directed and even acted in, one of the first ever drama documentaries. The film Highland Doctor used professional actors and local people to bring a dramatic story and the ideal alive.
The film was not only popular and successful but it was also one of the most powerful arguments in the battle to promote the socialist ideal of a National Health Service.
While shooting Highland Doctor in the Highlands and Western Isles she fell in love with Scotland, where she eventually chose to live.
Peace saw many male film makers back from the war and her work started to dry up.
Perhaps it didn’t help that she was a deeply-committed and outspoken member of the Communist Party and made no attempt to hide her political views in her work.
In the 1945 film Homes for the People, for instance, she had ordinary, working-class women speak bluntly about lousy housing.
At this time Mander and her husband, the documentary producer R.K. Neilson Baxter were shooting educational and promotional films for government and industrial sponsors.
In 1949 her French language films for the Ministry of Education La Famille Martin won a British Film Academy Award.
After the war she and her husband lived and worked briefly in Asia.
Back in Scotland in 1957 she wrote and directed one feature for the Children’s Film Foundation, The Kid from Canada (1957).
She didn’t want to make children’s, or indeed women’s, films and mainstream director’s roles were becoming harder to find.
So she started to work on big Hollywood films but in the less glamorous continuity department.
She worked on a huge range of movies including; From Russia with Love The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , Fahrenheit 451, Tommy and the Heroes of Telemark.
On the set of Telemark she met and had a brief affair with star Kirk Douglas.
She knew he had a terrible reputation “He flew his ladies in first-class, kept them for a long weekend, and sent them back economy.” She would wistfully remember much later.
Despite this, and despite the hurt it caused her husband, she took the initiative and instigated a brief affair with Douglas.
In 1978, she moved permanently north of the border to a chalet on a farm outside Dumfries.
Today critics and historians have recognised Kay Mander’s importance, both as a pioneering woman film maker and as a brilliant documentary maker. Her invention, the drama documentary has become a major weapon in the radical film maker’s arsenal.
A documentary – One films was Continuous Take – was made about her in 2001 and a boxed set of her work released in 2010. Both are available on DVD.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 23 January 2014