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Brenton, Guy (1927-94)


Main image of Brenton, Guy (1927-94)

Guy Brenton's film career took place, in large measure, within the field of sponsored filmmaking, mostly at its margins. Brenton proclaimed himself "a deviant in this society" and his interest in how society deals with those who don't easily fit into conventional patterns is at the heart of his work.

His best-known film, Thursday's Children (1954), was co-directed with Lindsay Anderson, and Brenton's contribution is often overlooked. The film's interest in people on the margins of society, in this case young children attending the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate, may now be outdated in terms of the modern politics of deafness, but it remains undeniably affecting. It was Brenton who had the idea for the film and approached Lindsay Anderson to suggest that they make it together. They were unable to gain distribution until it won an Oscar for best short subject in 1954.

Brenton's next film, Birthday (1954), has a similar lightness of touch and was his first sponsored film, made for the National Fund for Polio Research. It is the story of four children spending the day looking for birthday presents for their little brother, who, as is revealed towards the end of the film, "is paralysed in the legs from polio" - still then one of the most feared childhood diseases.

People Apart (1957) was made for the British Epilepsy Association and consists largely of people who have epilepsy talking straight to camera (or rather to an off-camera interviewer). It is suggestive of a televisual interviewing technique, however the exaggerated lighting of the interiors is more reminiscent of film noir.

Brenton made two industrial-sponsored films - The Three Brothers and See For Yourself - respectively commissioned by an oil company and the British Productivity Council and both released in 1957. He returned to a more personal choice of subject the following year with The Vision of William Blake (1958), an experimental film which was funded by the BFI.

A few years later came Four People: A Ballad Film (1962). It tells the stories of four people with polio and its subtitle reflects the dominance of the music and words of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on the soundtrack.

In 1965 Brenton directed two programmes for the BBC series The Group, about different sections of society, before the ambitious one-off A Step Out of Time: The Story of Tristan da Cunha (tx 3.9.1966), which follows the tiny population of the South Atlantic island. The programme conveys a distinctive authorial voice which suggests that the subject was close to Brenton's heart.

Brenton doesn't fit neatly into film history - becoming neither an established sponsored documentary filmmaker nor associating with any alternative group, such as Anderson's loose Free Cinema collective. Though ultimately unfulfilled as a filmmaker in terms of achieving a longterm career, he made some remarkable vivid, life-affirming films that illuminate both the harshness and the wonder of life.

Ros Cranston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Four People (1962)Four People (1962)

'Ballad-film' about the lives of polio sufferers

Thumbnail image of People Apart (1957)People Apart (1957)

Guy Brenton's moving documentary about epileptics and their problems

Thumbnail image of Vision of William Blake, The (1958)Vision of William Blake, The (1958)

Short film illustrating Blake's spiritual journey via his books and pictures

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Postwar DocumentaryPostwar Documentary

A crucial and creatively fertile period long overlooked by historians

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