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Grigsby, Michael (1936-)

Director, Producer

Main image of Grigsby, Michael (1936-)

Michael Grigsby was born in Reading, Berkshire, in 1936. His first job in television was as a Granada cameraman, but whilst there he bought his own movie camera and formed the independent film-making group Unit Five Seven. Encouraged by Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson and part-funded by the British Film Institute Experimental Film Fund he made two films with the group, Enginemen (1959) and Tomorrow's Saturday (1962), the former being shown in the last of Free Cinema's occasional programmes at London's National Film Theatre.

Even in these early films the quality which so distinguishes Grigsby's later works is already apparent, namely a concern for the lives of ordinary people. As he himself has put it: "my driving force for the last 20 or so years has been trying to find a way, through films, to give voice to the voiceless." Thus whether he's filming trawlermen (Deckie Learner, ITV, tx. 16/6/1965; A Life Apart, 1973), farm workers (Working the Land, ITV, 10/1/1972), Eskimos (The People's Land, ITV, 12/1/1976), the survivors on both sides of the Vietnam War (I Was a Soldier, ITV, 1970; The Search, BBC, tx. 18/9/1991; Thoi Noi, ITV, 19/1/1993), Indian railwaymen (Before the Monsoon, BBC, 1978), the inhabitants of rural Northern Ireland (Too Long a Sacrifice, 1984) or the generally dispossessed (Living on the Edge, 1987), Grigsby does his utmost to let people speak for themselves. As he has explained:

Television has a tendency to swamp many of its films with reporters' questions and with commentary, with the result that one is never allowed to feel, one is unable to breathe, and one is being led all the time as an audience. One is not being able to draw one's own conclusions from the material that is there in front of you because the commentator is there, between you and the subject, telling you what to think. But it is important that one really tries to let people be what they are, and to come across in the way they want to come across & People are perfectly capable of talking in their own terms and we should allow them to do so.

This concern for both his subjects and his audience helps to explain the distinctive look of Grigsby's films. The camera often lingers on people after they have finished speaking, and the action often seem to 'pause' for long landscape shots which, though often remarkable in themselves, seem to play no obvious narrative role - as most strikingly in Before the Monsoon, Too Long a Sacrifice, Hidden Voices (BBC, tx. 3/6/1995) and Lockerbie: a Night Remembered (Channel 4, tx. 29/11/1998). But as Grigsby explains:

We tend to be hung up on this whole mythology of long-shots, close-ups, mid shots, reverse shots, twitching hands, twitching faces, and what I try to do is to find the frame which will allow one just to watch and absorb what is going on in front of one without us having to interfere with the people, with the subject one is making the film about. I think it is very important to see the context in which people live and work, because without a context how can you understand how people function?

If the calmness of the resulting gaze puts one in mind of Flaherty, the other obvious influence on Grigsby is that of Jennings. This is clear in his intense feeling for landscape, both urban and rural, but it's also evident in the remarkable way in which he uses sound and image, often in highly effective counterpoint, in two of his finest works, Living on the Edge and The Time of Our Lives (BBC, tx. 21/5/1994). Impossible here not to think of Listen to Britain (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1942), but impossible, too, not to watch these images of the desolation and fragmentation of Thatcherised Britain and wonder if more apt titles might not have been Dim Little Island and A Defeated People.

Corner, John, The Art of Record, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996)
Grigsby, Mike and McLintock, Nicolas, 'The State We're In', Dox, Summer 1995, pp. 6-10
Petley, Julian, 'Mike Grigsby', Primetime, Autumn 1981, pp. 11-12
Petley, Julian, 'Out of the Perpetual Present' and 'After Free Cinema - Mike Grigsby', Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1987, pp. 168-169, 192

Julian Petley, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Enginemen (1959)Enginemen (1959)

Manchester railway workers discuss the end of the steam age.

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow's Saturday (1962)Tomorrow's Saturday (1962)

Documentary about a typical Saturday in Blackburn

Thumbnail image of I Was a Soldier (1970)I Was a Soldier (1970)

Moving documentary about a trio of Vietnam veterans in Texas

Thumbnail image of Life Apart, A (1973)Life Apart, A (1973)

Forceful doc about trawlermen fishing hazardous Icelandic waters

Thumbnail image of Silent War, The (1990)Silent War, The (1990)

Poignant doc giving voice to those caught up in the Troubles

Thumbnail image of World in Action (1963-98)World in Action (1963-98)

Granada's long-running and highly respected current affairs strand

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