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Taylor, John (1914-1992)


Main image of Taylor, John (1914-1992)

Born in Kentish Town, London, in 1914, John Taylor was set for a career in carpentry when documentary filmmaker John Grierson became involved in his life. Grierson, who married Taylor's sister Margaret, employed the boy straight from school to work at the Empire Marketing Board as a film assistant-cum-dogsbody. For the first five or six years of his career, Taylor was intimately connected with Grierson's films and those of the talented filmmakers that Grierson either hired or supported. Besides Grierson (Drifters, 1929), Taylor worked with filmmakers like Basil Wright (Song of Ceylon, 1934) and Robert Flaherty (Man of Aran, 1934), graduating from assistant director and production assistant to camera operator.

The making of Man of Aran had a profound impact on Taylor, who seriously considered remaining on Aran and becoming a fisherman until Grierson pulled him back from his romantic daydream to the GPO Film Unit. Here, Taylor assisted Alberto Cavalcanti on several of his travel documentaries, such as Men of the Alps (1937). By the end of the 1930s, Taylor was directing films himself, including Smoke Menace (1937) and Londoners (1939).

In the 1940s, Taylor began producing films for the Realist Film Unit. He produced films by Grierson's sister Ruby (They Also Serve, 1940; Six Foods for Fitness, 1940) amongst others, but his greatest achievement in the decade was in producing the film Penicillin (d. Alexander Shaw/Kay Mander, 1945), a definitive documentary about the century's most important medical breakthrough. The ICI-financed film told the story through the experiences of an English soldier on the front line during World War II and the personalities of the scientists involved, such as Alexander Fleming.

Taylor was proudest of the documentary films that demonstrably made a difference. Margaret Thomson's Clean Milk (1943) helped improve the Scottish dairy industry; Alex Strasser's Your Children's Eyes (1945), made before the birth of the National Health Service, showed how a child's squint could easily be corrected with a minor operation; Daybreak in Udi (d. Terry Bishop, 1949), produced for the Crown Film Unit, followed the construction of a maternity hospital in a village in Eastern Nigeria.

In 1952, Taylor and Leon Clore set up Countryman Films, a company which made natural history documentaries. Their greatest achievement was probably Conquest of Everest (d. Thomas Stobbart, 1953), a record of the successful British Everest expedition of 1953 accomplished by John Hunt, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The stunningly beautiful photography was shot by New Zealander George Lowe and J. B. L. Noel.

Taylor was involved in a vast number of documentary films that became classics of the genre. He continued working up to the 1980s, producing quality documentaries on themes of social welfare and conservation.

Ann Ogidi

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From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Thumbnail image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1988) John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1988)

How 'Conquest of Everest', about the 1953 ascent, finally got made

Thumbnail image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1988) John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1988)

A newcomer's look at the 1930s documentary scene

Thumbnail image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988) John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

Highlights from his career at Realist Films and Crown Film Unit

Thumbnail image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1988) John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1988)

Evocative descriptions of making 'The Man from Aran' from the field hand

Thumbnail image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 5 (1988) John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 5 (1988)

Making 'The Song of Ceylon' and working with Basil Wright

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 1/1: Cutter Loader (1947)Mining Review 1/1: Cutter Loader (1947)

The making of a Meco-Moore cutter loader

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 1/1: Five Day Week? (1947)Mining Review 1/1: Five Day Week? (1947)

Miners debate the possibility of a five-day working week

Thumbnail image of Smoke Menace, The (1937)Smoke Menace, The (1937)

Warns of the harm done to the atmosphere by burning coal

Thumbnail image of They Also Serve (1940)They Also Serve (1940)

An average British housewife does her bit for the war effort

Thumbnail image of We Live in Two Worlds (1937)We Live in Two Worlds (1937)

J.B. Priestley discusses the 1930s communications revolution

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