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Thomson, Margaret (1910-2005)


Main image of Thomson, Margaret (1910-2005)

Margaret Thomson was born in 1910 in Australia, but spent most of her childhood in New Zealand. After completing a Masters degree in Zoology, she moved to London in 1934.

Inspired by an episode of Mary Field's Secrets of Nature series, Thomson contacted the production company, Gaumont-British Instructional, for work. She took a job in their film library and, due to her background in zoology, was later asked to make a series of six educational films about British ecosystems. Between 1936 and 1937 she directed Chalk Downlands, Meadowlands, Moorlands, Oakwoods, Salt Marshes and Heathlands. Unfortunately a slump in the film industry in 1938 found Thomson out of work.

For the next three years she did a variety of jobs in and out of the film industry, including editing at the Shell and Strand Film Units, making travelogues with Marion Grierson for the Trade and Industrial Development Association and teaching English in Spain. In 1940, she began retraining as an electrician, but returned to filmmaking when offered a regular job at the documentary unit Realist in 1941.

Thomson stayed with the Realist Film Unit until 1947. During the war she gained a reputation as an exceptional and prolific instructional filmmaker making horticultural, agricultural and medical films for wartime audiences. Films such as Making a Compost Heap (1942), Clamping Potatoes (1942), Hedging (1942), Clean Milk (1943) and The Signs and Stages of Anaesthesia (1944) are characterised by their visual simplicity and ability to relay complex information to the audience in a clear, unpatronising way.

After the war, Margaret made two recruitment films for the Ministry of Education, Children Learning By Experience (1946) and Children Growing Up With Other People (1947). She filmed children playing on London's bombsites and in parks, trying to avoid intruding on the children's environment and to obtain a truer picture of their behaviour by allowing shots to run longer than normal. She believed this to be an early example of the cinema verité style.

In 1948 she returned to New Zealand, where she directed several newsreels for the New Zealand Film Unit before coming back to Britain to work for the Crown Film Unit in 1950. Her only feature film, Child's Play (1954), was made for the government-backed feature unit Group 3, but Thomson did not enjoy the experience. After several years as a children's acting coach at Pinewood Studios, she returned to non-fiction filmmaking. In the late 1950s she established a production company with her husband Bob Ash, directing industrially-sponsored films until she retired in 1977. She died on 30 December 2005.

Sarah Easen

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Thumbnail image of Children Learning By Experience (1947)Children Learning By Experience (1947)

Observational doc offering a window into 1940s childhood

Thumbnail image of Making a Compost Heap (1941)Making a Compost Heap (1941)

Instructional film on how to make a compost heap in wartime

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