Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Baxter, John (1896-1975)


Main image of Baxter, John (1896-1975)

John Baxter was born in Foot's Cray, Kent, in 1896. He joined the army on the outbreak of the First World War, initially entertaining the troops in concert parties, but eventually serving at Passchendaele. After the war he continued his career in provincial music hall as a performer and later a tour manager, gaining experience which he drew on extensively in his later films. In 1932 a chance meeting with Norman Loudon brought Baxter to Sound City studios at Shepperton.

Baxter's first film as sole director at Sound City, Doss House (1933), established many of the themes which were to recur throughout his directing career. Less than an hour long, and made on a minuscule budget, it was unlike anything which had emerged from a British studio before. The thin plot of a reporter spending a night in a doss house threatened with closure is merely a pretext to a series of encounters with sympathetically-drawn character types, whose bad-luck stories are teased out by natural-sounding dialogue and banter. Throughout the 1930s, Baxter worked on films similar in flavour to Doss House, maintaining something of a repertory of loyal players and technicians and always working to the low budgets and tight schedules typical of the 'quota quickie' section of the industry. He made films for Sound City, for Julius Hagen at Twickenham Studios, and later as an independent in partnership with John Barter.

The best of these films stress the dignified humanity of ordinary working people struggling to overcome the hardships of modern life through mutual co-operation. Their documentary aesthetic is slightly undercut by an overt sentimentality and touches of melodrama, and a recurring motif is the charity benefit concert, enabling the display of comic and musical acts from Baxter's beloved music hall. Say it with Flowers (1934) is undoubtedly the best in this mode, the long sequence introducing the various costermongers and their concerns is skilfully and unobtrusively directed, and the music hall turns of Charles Coborn, Marie Kendall and Florrie Forde in the finale are a joy to watch - more than can be said for the variety turns which tend to dominate some of Baxter's less successful efforts. Baxter's 1930s films were forgotten for many years, but in the late 1980s they enjoyed a revival, praised for a portrayal of working-class life deemed to be lamentably absent from mainstream British productions of the period. However, it should be noted that the films remain essentially conservative in nature - deference to authority and stolid acceptance of the status quo form a large part of their philosophy.

By the late 1930s, Baxter was back at Sound City, making vehicles for Hazel Ascot, a dancing child star who was being built up as Britain's answer to Shirley Temple. At the outbreak of war, however, he made the happy move to British National, a modest studio which, like Baxter himself, appeared to hit its stride in the heightened atmosphere of wartime Britain. Here, as director and producer, he worked regularly on vehicles for Flanagan and Allen, and for Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Riley. The anarchic comedy of these performers effectively tempers Baxter's tendency towards deferential sentimentalism. Such films remained firmly in the category of modest programme material, but at British National, Baxter was able to work on more personal projects as well. The Shipbuilders (1943), Let the People Sing (1941), and The Common Touch (1942; a re-make of Doss House) all bear the stamp of his personal preoccupations, and are made on a more ambitious scale. It was with Love on the Dole (1941), however, that Baxter achieved his greatest critical success, and the film remains an undoubted classic.

Walter Greenwood's 1933 novel of depression life seems perfectly tailored to Baxter's preoccupations and to the technique of filmmaking which he had developed through the 1930s. The modest budget, together with the essentially ensemble nature of the narrative - a portrait of the interlocking lives of characters in a community struggling against hardship - suited Baxter's directorial technique and repertory of players perfectly, leading to an adaptation which captured exactly the spirit and tone of the novel. The censors had resisted the idea of a film adaptation of Love on the Dole throughout the 1930s, but in 1941 the wartime context gave the film a new theme, expressed in the closing scenes - a determination that wartime hardships, unlike those of the depression, should lead to a 'New Britain'. It is a theme which is reiterated in Baxter's later wartime films.

In 1944 Baxter left British National, making his 'John Baxter Productions' entirely independently. Such a position, however, became increasingly difficult, given the diminishing protection of quota legislation. Baxter turned to producing and directing children's films intended to be shown at Rank's children's cinema clubs. In 1951 he helped set up Group 3 with John Grierson. This loose producers' co-operative was founded with the intention of attracting finance from the National Film Finance Corporation and to encourage independent and inexperienced filmmakers. Baxter's role was primarily as a producer, but he did direct a final re-make of Doss House, retitled Judgment Deferred (1952) and featuring a debut performance by Joan Collins. When Group 3 broke up, Baxter became an executive at Television Wales and the West (TWW), retiring in 1968.

John Baxter was remembered with immense affection by everyone who worked with him. A lifelong Christian Scientist, his sympathetic humanism shone through his work. While many of his films are undoubtedly second feature material, some of them are remarkably affective, displaying a unique filmmaking talent. He died in relative obscurity in 1975.

Brown, Geoff and Aldgate, Tony, The Common Touch: The Films of John Baxter (London: British Film Institute, 1989)
Napper, Lawrence, 'A Despicable Tradition? Quota Quickies in the 1930s', in Robert Murphy (ed.) The British Cinema Book, (London: BFI Publishing, 1997)
Richards, Jeffrey, 'A film-maker with the common touch', Daily Telegraph, 22 February 1989, p. 16.

Lawrence Napper, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)

Drama-documentary about a Scottish mining rescue team

Thumbnail image of Common Touch, The (1941)Common Touch, The (1941)

A suddenly-orphaned 18-year-old finds himself in charge of a large business

Thumbnail image of Heart Within, The (1957)Heart Within, The (1957)

An innocent black man accused of murder is befriended by a white boy

Thumbnail image of Love on the Dole (1941)Love on the Dole (1941)

Melodrama of unemployment and poverty in 1930s Salford

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Comfort, Lance (1908-1966)Comfort, Lance (1908-1966)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Stoll Picture ProductionsStoll Picture Productions

Production Company