Gavin Millar obituary: distinguished film and TV director, presenter and critic

A regular contributor to Sight and Sound, Millar was the director of Dreamchild and Danny the Champion of the World and a learned arts journalist who interviewed many of the great directors on TV.

Dreamchild (1985)

Gavin Millar, the film director, critic and television presenter, at one time a frequent contributor to Sight and Sound, died in London from a brain tumour on 20 April 2022. He was a man of great intelligence, learning, wit and generosity of spirit, who came from a working-class Glaswegian background to achieve a respected position in London’s cultural world, but always preserved his democratic dislike of authority and fierce sympathy with the underdog. 

Gavin MillarCatherine Shakespeare Lane

He will be best remembered for his 1985 film Dreamchild, about Alice Liddell, the original inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but he was a distinguished critic for many years, and his career had an extraordinary range. On TV, he interviewed figures including Gene Kelly, Jacques Tati, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Howard Hawks, Federico Fellini, Powell and Pressburger, and François Truffaut. As a director he worked with writers like Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and Victoria Wood, and an extraordinary list of actors including Julie Walters, Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons, Glenda Jackson, Brian Cox, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Peter Capaldi, Peggy Ashcroft, Claire Bloom, Ian Holm, Jeanne Moreau, Dawn French and Stockard Channing. He got a startlingly brilliant performance from a young Christian Bale.

He was born on 11 January 1938 in Clydebank, Scotland, to Rita (née Osborne) and Tom Millar, workers at the local Singer sewing machine factory, who moved south to the Midlands when he was nine. He went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, did national service in the RAF, then read English at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1958 to 1961, where, notoriously, he was Stefano in what he called a “justly neglected” version of The Tempest alongside Melvyn Bragg. 

He then went to the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL where he studied film under Thorold Dickinson, director of Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949), the one other student on the course that year being Charles Barr, later a pioneer of film studies and a great Hitchcockian. (I first met Gavin when I co-edited a book on Dickinson, Thorold Dickinson: a world of film (2008), to which he contributed a touching reminiscence.) After the Slade he became a critic not just of film but also of books and general culture for, among other papers, The Listener, Sight and Sound and (later) the London Review of Books. In 1966 he married Sylvia Lane, whom he had met in 1962. She died in 2012. 

As a critic Gavin was entertaining, wry, questioning, sensitive, perceptive. Reviewing Lindsay Anderson’s If…. for Sight and Sound in 1968, despite his friendship with the director, he judged it fell short of being a masterpiece because it was uncertain about its targets: “If…. is a film concerned with revolution, but about anger.” He appreciated more François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses the following year, in a way which anticipates his own later strengths as a director: “By dozens of tiny clues the larger theme emerges: the circle of life involves death, just as the night’s tragedy can turn into farce by the morning.” 

Similarly, the same year in the Listener, he praised Claude Chabrol’s unobtrusive exactitude in La Femme infidèle: “These and a thousand similar details are exact and telling.” He liked the complexity of Chabrol’s double attitude to the bourgeoisie: “this sure-footed, finely acted and spellbinding film is not ruffled, but deepened, by that ambivalence.” Again in the Listener in 1973 he was moved by the way, in Minnie and Moskowitz, “Cassavetes finds a place for misfits, and he describes the nondescript.”

In 1965 he had been an assistant to Ken Russell on his TV film about Henri Rousseau; thereafter, while still reviewing, he made a daunting number of arts documentaries at the BBC, as writer, director and producer as well as presenter for strands like New Release and (subsequently) Release, Omnibus, Talking Pictures and Arena Cinema. Making documentaries was an extension, or a natural part, of his activity as a critic and cinephile; he was always interested in knowing and understanding practitioners. That now looks like a golden age of arts programming – though in February 1969 he was already writing about a seeming campaign to remove intelligent coverage of culture from the airwaves. His BBC work introduced him to another giant auteur, Federico Fellini, about whom he made a Release film for the BBC in 1969. 

Millar also wrote the final section of the revised edition of The Technique of Film Editing in 1968, which covered developments – chiefly widescreen and the nouvelle vague – since the first edition by Karel Reisz in 1953. It has been called “undoubtedly the most successful textbook on film ever published” – and was the brainchild of Thorold Dickinson, who assisted and supervised. Millar’s writing in it is subtle and nuanced, but far from dry: in his account of ‘Personal Cinema in the Sixties’ he relates the New Wave fascinatingly to existentialism. Truffaut’s films, he says, escape genre pigeonholes as they “flick from moods of despair to exhilaration and contain scenes of black comedy alternating with scenes of real tragedy or simply good-hearted unaffected joy.” Gavin’s own films would also be – quietly – ‘personal’. 

Danny the Champion of the World (1989)

In 1980, he directed a TV drama, Dennis Potter’s Cream in My Coffee, for LWT, which won the Prix Italia. Thereafter he only directed one more documentary, on Powell and Pressburger, to whom he made a witty and affectionate tribute in 1981, A Pretty British Affair. He kept afloat, even prolific, in the difficult world of 1980s British filmmaking, by working mostly in television. His achievements there are too numerous to list, but one can single out 1982’s Intensive Care by and with Alan Bennett; the much-loved Danny the Champion of the World with Jeremy Irons in 1989; the heartwarming Pat and Margaret by and with Victoria Wood, which got a BAFTA nomination in 1994; and the moving and humane turn-of-the-century French drama Belle Epoque (1995), from a script by Truffaut and Jean Gruault, with Kristin Scott Thomas in scintillating form. Iain Banks praised Millar’s 1996 adaptation of The Crow Road as better than his novel, while Housewife, 49, again with Victoria Wood, is a very warm and melancholy comedy about a plucky middle-aged wife and mother in wartime Barrow-in-Furness, which won a BAFTA in 2007.

In the cinema his unshowy talents didn’t exactly flourish. He followed The Crow Road with a fine film of Banks’s Complicity in 2000, but it did not reach the larger audiences it deserved; as Gavin once said, “the best film in the world doesn’t survive unless somebody’s prepared to put the money in – to sell it.” 

He overcame great odds to get Albert Schweitzer made in 2009, with Jeroen Krabbé and Barbara Hershey. It was engaging, honourable, intelligent and politically astute about Schweitzer’s anti-nuclear campaigning, but got no distribution to speak of. It was his final credit as director.

It seems apt to conclude by looking back to the spellbinding Dreamchild, his most conspicuous achievement. When I interviewed him about it in 2014, he recalled the 15 months of post-production (“a struggle’), in which producer Verity Lambert chipped away at many of the carefully layered elements and touches Millar loved. It made him painfully aware of intentions unfulfilled: “these things bruise your soul”, he said. (Since then producer Kenith Trodd has found the missing elements, so a restored edition should now be possible). 

Dreamchild (1985)

He was attracted to Dennis Potter’s script about the septuagenarian Alice Liddell by its “weird originality” and “because of its tenderness and its complex range of emotions and motives, its ambiguities”. He commented in the production notes: “I liked the idea of the fantasy and reality, and never quite knowing where one ended and the other began, which gives weight to the place of nightmare and dream in people’s lives.” In the aged Alice’s hallucinations, the Mad Hatter, March Hare et al, created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are harsh, sinister beings – “as fierce as we felt an old lady’s nightmares would have made them”. 

Millar treasured moments of poignancy and ambivalence. When I talked to him in 2004 for the Telegraph about Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), which he had chosen to discuss, he declared, “I admire him for making you laugh and want to cry all at the same time. Some sequences in this make me do both and I don’t know which way to go. I don’t know any other filmmaker – even Renoir – who can do it in that degree within a sequence, and to such extremes.” 

Ten years later, thinking of this, I asked him about the exquisitely moving ending of Dreamchild, where after Dodgson has been laughed at for his stutter, the young Alice goes over and kisses him: “Yes, that seems to affect people very strongly. I mean, partly because there are moments when things come together and you think, ‘Yeah, we got that right, and the light is right, the angle is right, the lens is right. They look right, the actors do the right thing, and you’ve found the right gesture for them, and they’ve followed it.‘ But these things happen very rarely, and you’re lucky when you get them. 147 things have to be right all at the same time.”

On this occasion they were – and justly earned the great critic Andrew Sarris’s moving praise in the Village Voice. Sarris came late to the film but atoned for his neglect by stirring emotion. He caught Millar’s spirit when he wrote that in its brave sincerity, “rising inexorably towards a rich epiphany”, Dreamchild did what cinema sometimes can: “What makes the film so rousing and inspiring is its invocation of love and art as redemptive forces pitted against the dark spirits.”

At Millar’s death he was surrounded by their five children (James, Tommy, Duncan, Kirstie and Isabel). He leaves six grandchildren (Florence, Martha, Louis, Iris, Arwen and Gavin).

  • Gavin Millar, 11 January 1938 to 20 April 2022
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