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McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)

Editor, Producer, Narrator

Main image of McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)

The director-editor partnership is often unusually close, and the one between Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister seems to have been particularly so. Despite very different backgrounds, they had much in common, having built similar reputations as unconventional and often temperamental outsiders within the generally more collegiate GPO Film Unit.

Although their major collaborative period spanned just five years, it produced many of Jennings' enduring masterpieces - while the fact that McAllister shared the director/editor credit for Listen to Britain (1942) offers clinching evidence of the value placed on his work. Despite little evidence that McAllister was present during shooting and none that he 'co-directed' in any literal sense, sound recordist Ken Cameron stressed that '"his contribution was at least 50%. I mean, certainly, without Mac it wouldn't have been the film it was. It's probably a trite thing to say that he made more contribution than Humphrey, but in a way he did."

Thanks to Dai Vaughan's exhaustive research ('Portrait of an Invisible Man', BFI, 1983), we now know much more about a shadowy backroom figure whose contribution was sometimes entirely unacknowledged, and whose name was often pruned to 'S McAllister' to cram it onto an already credit-packed screen. Born in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, on 27 December 1914, McAllister studied painting at the nearby Glasgow School of Art from 1931-36, where he met the future animator Norman McLaren. Their joint discovery of Eisenstein and Pudovkin at the Glasgow Film Society inspired them to make their own films. Following experiments with painting directly onto celluloid, they made Seven Till Five (1933), a look at a day in the life of Glasgow Art School that showed a clear Soviet influence on its rhythmic cutting. After a scholarship-funded European tour, McAllister followed McLaren into the GPO Film Unit in August 1937, where he initially worked on stills, posters and graphics.

His first onscreen credit was as 'assistant' on The Islanders (d. Maurice Harvey, 1939), for which he shot the lyrical Inner Farne sequence and liaised with the Eriskay islanders, though he was apparently not involved with the editing. However, he must have picked up some cutting-room experience, because the film bearing his first editing credit, Men of the Lightship (1940) is very accomplished, especially during a sequence in which a seagull's cry heralds a German attack on the East Dudgeon lightship, whose captain is then hit by bullets to the accompaniment of 'flashes' of his loved ones. These creative additions triggered blazing rows with the film's more conventionally-minded director, David MacDonald, who ultimately left the project before completion. McAllister's other outstanding non-Jennings credit in this period was Target for Tonight (1941), whose director Harry Watt would later comment: '"As an editor, Mac was a perfectionist. He'd work away on his own, night and day, to get what he wanted. And for a director, who has battled to shoot a sequence in difficult conditions, to see his somewhat shoddy efforts come to life and perhaps take on a new shape, is incredibly exciting.'"

McAllister and Jennings were colleagues for a considerable time, but their first direct collaboration is believed to be London Can Take It! (1940). By the time McAllister had cut Words for Battle and The Heart of Britain (both 1941), he and Jennings had become close enough friends to holiday together in McAllister's native Wishaw, during which time they hatched the idea that became Listen to Britain (1942). While overseeing what comes across from Crown Film Unit memos as an ambitious expansion of a similar concept, entitled Morning, Noon and Night ('"an impression of one day in the life of the British Commonwealth in wartime'"), McAllister remained Jennings' preferred editor, cutting Fires Were Started, The Silent Village (both 1943) and The Eighty Days (1944).

McAllister's career then stalled. Morning, Noon and Night, which should have made his individual reputation, was ultimately written off at a substantial loss. He edited the footage that the Allied forces had shot on liberating the Nazi concentration camps in 1945 for a project intended to be overseen by Alfred Hitchcock, but that too was abandoned after reaching the fine-cut stage. Most damagingly, a trip to East Africa in 1947 to make a documentary for the Colonial Office led to a row over the poor quality of its footage. This was blamed on McAllister's use of non-union technicians, leading to a permanent rift with the Crown Film Unit.

McAllister reunited with Jennings for Family Portrait (1950), but the prospect of a long-term revival of their partnership was scuppered by Jennings' untimely death. However, by then McAllister had already edited Berth 24 (1950), British Transport Films' first production, after which he was employed there full time as a senior editor and later as a producer and sometimes uncredited narrator: his Scots burr accompanies The Land of Robert Burns (1956) and the whimsical I Am A Litter Basket (1959). He would remain at BTF until his death from liver cancer on 27 November 1962.

Michael Brooke

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Eighty Days, The (1944)Eighty Days, The (1944)

Documentary survey of the 'doodlebug' attacks and Britain's defences

Thumbnail image of Family Portrait (1950)Family Portrait (1950)

Meditations on the 'English tradition' and achievements through the centuries

Thumbnail image of Fires Were Started (1943)Fires Were Started (1943)

Classic wartime documentary directed by Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of Islanders, The (1939)Islanders, The (1939)

The lives of Scottish islanders... with a little help from the GPO

Thumbnail image of Listen to Britain (1942)Listen to Britain (1942)

Humphrey Jennings captures the sounds of wartime Britain

Thumbnail image of London Can Take It (1940)London Can Take It (1940)

Classic propaganda documentary by about the London Blitz

Thumbnail image of Men of the Lightship (1940)Men of the Lightship (1940)

Documentary-drama about the sinking of the East Dudgeon lightship

Thumbnail image of Silent Village, The (1943)Silent Village, The (1943)

Powerful drama-doc reenacting a Czech village under Nazi occupation

Thumbnail image of Target for Tonight (1941)Target for Tonight (1941)

Classic war documentary following a bomber crew's mission over Germany

Thumbnail image of Words for Battle (1941)Words for Battle (1941)

A poetic call to arms from Humphrey Jennings

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)

Animator, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of British Transport FilmsBritish Transport Films

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Crown Film UnitCrown Film Unit

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)

Film Unit