More than likely, you will have heard of director Michael Apted’s groundbreaking Up series, which began as the one-off World in Action documentary Seven Up (1964) and continues to follow the lives of the original 14 children at seven-year intervals throughout their lives. Yet there’s another, in many ways similar, TV documentary series that’s never got the same dues: Sid’s Trilogy – the three films made across the 1970s and 80s by director Nick Gifford that chart the lives of Jamaican-born, Bristol-based Sid Williams and his family.
In tandem with his career as an in-demand TV cameraman spanning the late 1960s to the 1990s, Gifford produced and directed many films independently, most of which focus in one way or another on the theme of displacement. Oh for the Wings of a Dove (1972), for example, charts the experiences of a widowed Pakistani mother as she acclimatises to her new life in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, with her daughter and deaf son, while the equally heart-warming Bitter Thorns (1993) describes a family of Eritrean refugees’ efforts to maintain a positive outlook when they find themselves inhabitants of the austere Wad Sharifi refugee camp in east Sudan, after fleeing war.
The slow-burning Sid’s Trilogy, comprising Sid’s Family (1972), The Good Father (1980) and Sid’s Children (1989), commissioned by the Rowntree Trust, is not only the cornerstone of Gifford’s career, it’s also an overlooked landmark in TV history. The films are made up of unassuming scenes of domestic life in and around the Williams’ home in the Montpelier neighbourhood of Bristol.
Eschewing the modish polemical approach encouraged by TV commissioning editors at the time, Gifford opts instead for a quiet, observational style. The camera is static, as opposed to the more common roving, in-your-face reportage style typically used to document socio-political issues – perhaps reflecting the director’s modest and considerate nature.
Artistically this paid off, but TV commissioners weren’t impressed and the films were shelved – that is until 1989 when Channel 4 picked up on them for their innovative True Stories slot.
In my capacity as a documentary curator at the BFI National Archive I had the good fortune to meet Gifford in person and can vouch for his affable manner and generosity of spirit. Not only was he willing to arrange the delivery of his collection to our door, he offered to digitise some of the collection at his own expense before donating it to the BFI. He understood the very limited resources available for archival acquisition work.
Discreet cinematography, languid pace and a sparse soundtrack, courtesy of folk musicians Carole Pegg and Humphrey Weightman, gradually draw the viewer into the world of the Williams family. While the trilogy wasn’t snapped up by TV commissioners, the first film, Sid’s Family, did enjoy a very short theatrical release. A contemporary Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer praised the film as “a simple, entirely unaffected portrait of a family which happens to be black”. In fact all three films exude a singular warmth and freshness of approach that hasn’t tarnished one bit with age.
So how did a white middle-class documentarist cross paths with the Williams family? Lynette Williams, who first appears as four-year-old Baby Lou in Sid’s Family, and kindly helped me with some background details for this piece, recounted that Gifford approached her older sister (then a young schoolgirl) on the street and simply asked her to ask her parents if he could film the family at home. They agreed, and Gifford, along with sound recordist Bruce White (Derek Williams worked as sound recordist on the latter two films), ensconced themselves in the corner of the family’s living-room for two to three hours a day over the course of two or three weeks for each of the three films.
The success of this kind of observational filmmaking is largely contingent on the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Members of the Williams family go about their daily business seemingly at ease with the presence of the filmmaking duo and all their equipment. As the trilogy progresses, the softly spoken father, Sid Williams, increasingly ‘opens up’ about his life. It transpires that he has been dealt a hard hand. He had a difficult upbringing in Jamaica, he endures ongoing financial hardship and suffers a tragic family bereavement – yet, despite all this, his positivity and gracious demeanour is unwavering.
Issues around immigration, loss and the importance of community simmer away, but it’s the theme of fatherhood that really surfaces. Whether quietly helping his son with his homework, watching cartoons on TV with his kids or preparing a simple family meal, Williams’ tenderness towards his children is as moving as it is admirable.
At times the filmmakers venture outdoors to capture the children playing or running errands. The tranquil street scenes betray nothing of the social unrest that was brewing in the local area at the time of filming, which would culminate in the St Paul’s riots of 1980. Neither do they foretell the rapid gentrification that has transformed the area in recent years – a modern newspaper article cites Montpelier as one of the “trendiest” places to live in the UK.
Although Gifford’s work has remained largely unknown, his talent didn’t the escape of the attention of the ICA, who hosted a well-received retrospective of his work in 1980. A Guardian reviewer wrote: “If Gifford were a German, it is extremely doubtful he’d be so little known, since his talent in observing others with sympathy but without patronage would be better recognised by television if not by the cinema. The West German cinema, however, would surely have demanded features from him.”
As it turned out, commissions dried up in the 1990s, leading Gifford and his partner Judith, also a filmmaker, to pack up and move to northern France where they bought a derelict farmhouse and established a jam-making business.