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Mackenzie, John (1932-2011)

Director, Producer

Main image of Mackenzie, John (1932-2011)

John Mackenzie was born in Edinburgh in 1932. He studied history at Edinburgh University and worked as a teacher before joining the city's Gateway Theatre. In the early 1960s Mackenzie moved to London, where he worked at the BBC as an assistant floor manager. He was one of a group of young, socially conscious and generally left-wing men working at the Corporation including Ken Loach, Jim Allen, James MacTaggart, Kenith Trodd and Tony Garnett. Mackenzie worked as an assistant to Loach on Up the Junction (BBC, tx. 3/11/1965) and Cathy Come Home (BBC, tx. 16/11/1966), before making his directorial debut in 1967 with Voices in the Park (BBC, tx. 5/4/1967) a Wednesday Play produced by Tony Garnett.

Subsequently Mackenzie went freelance, making various one-off dramas for the BBC and ITV before embarking on his first cinema film, One Brief Summer (1969), one of many '60s films to explore a relationship between a middle-aged man and a young woman. More distinctive was his remake of the sinister 1965 BBC play Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971), a finely wrought psychological suspense drama with David Hemmings as a public school teacher menaced by three murderous pupils. After directing Carol White and the singer-songwriter Roy Harper in Made (1972), an interesting companion piece to Ken Loach's Poor Cow (1967), Mackenzie went back to television. His Plays for Today, such as Dennis Potter's excoriating Double Dare (BBC, tx. 6/4/1976), Alan Garner's Red Shift (BBC, 17/1/1978) and Peter McDougall's Scottish trilogy - Just Another Saturday (BBC, tx. 7/11/1975), The Elephant's Graveyard (BBC, tx. 12/10/1976) and Just a Boy's Game (BBC, tx. 8/11/1979) - represent some of the best television drama of the 70s.

Mackenzie made a triumphant return to the cinema with The Long Good Friday (1979), which combines East End gangsters, the American Mafia and the IRA in a revenge tragedy that brilliantly prefigured the zeitgeist of Thatcher's new enterprise culture. A further impressive television film followed - A Sense of Freedom (BBC, tx. 17/2/1981), again written by Peter McDougall - before Mackenzie's first American-backed project: an intermittently successful adaptation by Christopher Hampton of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul (UK/US, 1983). Richard Gere is miscast as the young doctor caught in a struggle between Latin American revolutionaries and the state, but Michael Caine gives a fine performance in the title role. Mackenzie returned to make The Innocent (1985), set in the Yorkshire dales in the 1930s, and since then has alternated regularly between film and television productions in the UK and the US. Caine also starred in an adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol (1987), reportedly an unhappy experience for Mackenzie that emerged as little more than an efficient reworking of Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal (filmed by Fred Zinnemann in 1973).

In the 1990s Mackenzie made a number of modest American films, including a solid cop drama, The Last of the Finest (1990), and a biopic of Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald. For the BBC he made The Deadly Voyage (tx. 12/10/1996), based on a grisly true story of African migrants stowing away on a Ukrainian ship; and the series Looking After Jo Jo (1998), set in 1980s Edinburgh and featuring a blistering performance by Robert Carlyle as a small-time drug-dealer.

More recently Mackenzie demonstrated his energy, seriousness and vigour with When the Sky Falls (UK/Ireland/US, 2000), a biography of the murdered Irish journalist Veronica Guerin. A third collaboration with Michael Caine, a thriller set on the Côte d'Azur entitled Quicksand, has yet to find a distributor.

Hill, John, 'Allegorising the nation: British gangster films on the 1980s' in Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy (eds) British Crime Cinema (London, Routledge, 2001)
Berry, Jo, 'Profiles', Empire, July 1992, pp. 41-42
Grundy, Gareth, 'East End Boys', Neon, July 1998, pp. 108-113

Sergio Angelini, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

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Graphic farm safety film that traumatised a generation of kids

Thumbnail image of Long Good Friday, The (1979)Long Good Friday, The (1979)

Bob Hoskins dazzles in the defining gangster film of the turn of the '80s

Thumbnail image of Double Dare (1976)Double Dare (1976)

Disturbing, apparently autobiographical play by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Just Another Saturday (1975)Just Another Saturday (1975)

A young man's experience of sectarian violence in Glasgow.

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Thumbnail image of McDougall, Peter (1947-)McDougall, Peter (1947-)

Writer, Director