In 1995, Jonathan Gili made a documentary for the BBC’s Timewatch strand about Pocahontas, the Native American ‘princess’ (more accurately a chief’s daughter). That year, Disney’s animated version of the character was everywhere, including on fast food packaging. Whether Gili purchased a Burger King kid’s meal for himself is unclear, but he got hold of one of the tie-in bags and, rather than throwing it away (as most would have done), he filed it carefully with the production documents for his own film, pressed like a dried flower.
Gili’s filing cabinets contained many items of this sort: French wine labels; signed Archers memorabilia. Working in a medium – television documentary – that was often treated as disposable, he made a point of preserving as many traces of each production as he could, including typed transcripts of many hours of interviews. The title of one of his BBC films, A Cabinet of Curiosities (made in collaboration with Lucinda Lambton in 1987), could just as easily apply to his own archive, and to his eclectic approach to documentary subjects.
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The voices of these subjects – ranging from GI brides and Second World War evacuees to salesmen, aristocrats and women swapped at birth – are there to be found, but so also are those of the viewers. Gili retained considerable quantities of viewer correspondence forwarded by the Radio Times, which can sometimes offer a glimpse of contemporary social attitudes. A 1984 film about the partnership of gay writer Angus Wilson (for the BBC series The Other Half) provoked indignant letters from religious viewers, but these, in turn, prompted many more in defence of a liberal attitude to sexuality.
In an era before digital television and streaming, programmes were generally shown once (maybe with a single repeat) before disappearing, which meant that keeping an eye on the schedule was essential. Although Gili did not even own a television himself, he was eager that others should be reminded of upcoming films, which led to the custom of sending out ‘announcement cards’ (often illustrated by his wife Phillida) to friends through the post. It was a way of creating a small amount of fanfare for a medium that lacked the publicity budgets of commercial cinema.
Gili was familiar with the fiction film industry, because he had started out in its ranks as an editor, working in the editing department for Tony Richardson’s Woodfall Films (including on the 1970 Mick Jagger flop, Ned Kelly) as well as on such British independent features as Bronco Bullfrog (1969) and Overlord (1975), and his own experimental short Incident (1971). He kept hold of the most ephemeral of publicity materials for these, including stickers and premiere tickets.
Even earlier, as a student cinephile, he had interviewed the likes of Joseph Losey, Delphine Seyrig, Glenda Jackson and Jean-Marie Straub. Typescripts for all of these interviews are to be found in the archive, along with opinionated undergraduate takes on ‘Britain’s Six Worst Directors’ (one of whom, ironically enough, was supposedly Tony Richardson).
Gili’s career, then, like his archive, had a miscellaneous quality. A self-effacing man, he was happy to let the interviewees do most of the talking. Averse to political polemic, he approached human stories with a sometimes whimsical air. His drive to preserve fleeting moments in the form of paper ephemera was no doubt heightened by a leukaemia diagnosis that he lived with for 20 years.
If most of his films are now difficult to see, that’s because they are locked away in the archival television vaults, though at the time of writing three of them are available to view on BBC iPlayer (and have been for some years): the 2001 Timewatch documentary on the construction of the Empire State Building; the 1985 Lucinda Lambton collaboration Animal Crackers for the BBC’s documentary strand 40 Minutes; and 1985’s To the World’s End, which follows the route of the No 31 London bus. BFI Player also hosts a slightly contentious 1978 item from ITV’s religious affairs series Credo about Muslims in Bradford.
Thanks to a fundraising project undertaken by the Gili family with the support of the Foyle Foundation, the paper archive has now been catalogued by BFI Special Collections. It’s likely to be of interest to those researching the history of television (particularly at the BBC) in the last days of the pre-digital era, as well as to anyone with specific interests in the subjects of individual documentaries, which cover a wide variety of topics in British, American and French history.