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Williams, Derek (1929-)

Director, Writer, Cinematograher

Main image of Williams, Derek (1929-)

Directing films from the 1950s through to the early 90s, Derek Williams exemplifies many of the paradoxes enfolding his generation of postwar directors making documentaries for the large screen. Williams' films were showered with awards (including Oscar nominations) but entirely escaped the critical attention that the previous generation had enjoyed. Working under sponsorship - particularly from BP and other industrial concerns - in his own words, he walked a 'tightrope', exemplified by his cycle of films on environmental themes funded by oil companies.

Williams was born in 1929 in Newcastle on Tyne. His calling card into the film industry was Hadrian's Wall (1951), an acclaimed amateur film (made during Cambridge University vacations) which presaged much of his later work: its careful attention both to stately pictorial composition and literate commentary, and its somewhat melancholy romanticism, proved to be characteristic. As a professional filmmaker, Williams enjoyed periods of direct employment by World Wide Pictures and (more happily) by Greenpark Productions, alternating with longer periods of freelancing at these and other companies.

While the commissions he received varied immensely, in the first half of his career, thanks to films like Foothold on Antarctica (1956), documenting the advance party of the Trans-Antarctic Commonwealth Expedition, Williams acquired a particular reputation for adventurous filmmaking in remote, inhospitable locations. This sequence of films culminated in the splendidly atmospheric North Slope - Alaska (1964), for which Williams accompanied a team of BP-contracted Canadian oil prospectors to the dark and bitterly cold Arctic region of the 49th US state.

As the director later admitted, North Slope's initial popularity died down as the 1960s wore on and its heroic view of man and industry struggling against the wilderness became untenable in the face of rapidly changing attitudes. All the more fascinating, then, that Williams' key films from 1970 onwards should reflect big industry's attempts both to renegotiate its relationship with the environment and to rethink its public relations. There may (and should) be heated debate over how these films ought, ultimately, to be judged. If they never entirely escape the spectre of self-contradiction, the skill and seriousness of their making, as well as their initial worldwide public impact, should also be recognised.

Williams' lugubrious and very memorable Greenpark film The Shadow of Progress (1970), BP's contribution to European Conservation Year, is arguably the last momentous work to emerge from the 'classic' documentary film (as opposed to television) tradition. Certainly, it proves that its strengths (cinematic assurance and epic sweep) and its weaknesses (caution when formulating its message) were often inextricably intertwined, both being products of relatively costly industrial sponsorship.

In the film's 'sequel', The Tide of Traffic (1972), Williams attempted to push harder. Its bitter edge reflects the writer-director's own disdain for the age of the motor vehicle, but exposes a mismatch between the logic of the film's argument and the logic of its funding. Amid lesser (and lesser-budgeted) later efforts, Williams' The Shetland Experience (1977) is perhaps his crowning achievement, partly because its sponsorship didn't come straight from the boardroom. This characteristically contemplative portrait of the Shetland Islands and its position in the North Sea oil rush was funded by the environmental advisory group of the Sullom Voe Association, in which several oil industry players joined with the local council to ensure developments were managed with maximum economic benefit, and minimum ecological cost, to Shetland life.

After this Oscar-nominated short, Williams' career went into prolonged decline, typical of a generation of filmmakers who fell prey to the downturn in documentary sponsorship and the shrinkage of its once-large audience base. While he continued directing until 1992, few of his later films approached the scope or impact of his best work. Happily, his last two films were a (somewhat muted) return to form. The Shell films A Stake in the Soil (1989) and Oman - Tracts of Time (1992) echo an earlier BP trilogy (Turkey - The Bridge, 1966; Alaska - The Great Land, 1971; Scotland, 1973) concerned with history and landscape. They also share environmental implications with the cycle of films initiated by The Shadow of Progress. But they were largely limited to educational viewing. The industry from which Williams now retired was but a shadow of the one he had entered. If his career ultimately reflects documentary's decline, it also proves that the decline set in slowly, even gracefully.

Patrick Russell

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alaska - The Great Land (1971)Alaska - The Great Land (1971)

The history of Alaska, and its future following the discovery of oil

Thumbnail image of Hunted in Holland (1960)Hunted in Holland (1960)

An English schoolboy stumbles on a diamond smuggling gang in Holland

Thumbnail image of Shadow of Progress, The (1970)Shadow of Progress, The (1970)

Sponsored documentary exploring the downside of technology: pollution

Thumbnail image of Shetland Experience, The (1977)Shetland Experience, The (1977)

A portrait of the remote Shetland Islands, on the eve of its oil boom

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