John Krish

Born: 4 December 1923, London
Died: 7 May 2016, London

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Introduction

John Krish is a filmmaker of considerable interest as both a ‘case study’ of aspects of the postwar British film industry, and as a unique talent in his own right.

Born in 1923 in London, he worked as a director, and often also a writer, in a huge variety of genres: fiction feature films (the science fiction film Unearthly Stranger (1963) was arguably the best); television programmes (he directed the famously stylish opening credits for The Avengers, ITV, 1961-69); and numerous advertisements and public safety ‘fillers’. However, much of his most distinctive work was in documentary, and his career yields fascinating insights into the process by which most film documentary of the time made its way to the screen: to convey a message for its sponsors, whether official, commercial or independent.

Krish’s roots in British documentary certainly ran deep: he was assistant editor at the Crown Film Unit – working with such talents as Humphrey Jennings and editor Stewart McAllister, for instance as uncredited assistant on Listen to Britain (1942) – and later worked with Richard Massingham. Then as a writer-director from 1948 to 1985, Krish directed shorts for a large number of the organisations involved in film sponsorship. Examples include British Transport Films (This Year – London, 1951); the National Coal Board (several Mining Review stories); the General Post Office (Counterpoint, 1959); the National Union of Teachers (Our School, 1962); various charities (They Took Us To The Sea, 1961, for the NSPCC); and the Central Office of Information, on behalf of several government departments (H.M.P., 1977).

Characteristic of Krish was his attitude to the ‘briefs’ given to him by sponsors. He frequently reinterpreted them – not to subvert their messages but to strengthen their impact on audiences. This sometimes brought him into conflict with his employers. Most famously, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), perhaps his best-loved film, was reputedly made in direct contravention of orders by Edgar Anstey, head of British Transport Films.

Krish’s period working under the sympathetic producer Leon Clore was particularly fruitful. Though Clore also provided opportunities for contemporaries such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, Krish’s style was largely at odds with the rhetoric of Free Cinema. Though a deep and sympathetic humanism was one of the threads running through the director’s diverse output, another was his compulsive desire to stretch the boundaries of the ‘message’ documentary, frequently by crossing arbitrary borders between fiction and non-fiction. In the case of films like Drive Carefully, Darling (1975) and The Finishing Line (1977), Krish conveyed a public safety message through bizarrely surreal narrative settings and shocking imagery.

At their best, Krish’s films transcended their highly specific origins, and remain fresh, moving and – all too often – socially relevant today.

Patrick Russell

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline

Highlighted works

  • Our School

    Our School

    This brilliantly made documentary looking at a secondary modern school was made for the National Union of Teachers by the talented John Krish.

  • Mr. Marsh Comes to School

    Mr. Marsh Comes to School

    Careers advice for schoolchildren is delivered with imagination and wit by director John Krish in this very effective sponsored documentary.

Filmography

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