Jill Craigie: the woman who did

The British filmmaker’s long marriage to Michael Foot has overshadowed her courageous, pioneering career in documentary film.

Jill Craigie (right) on set

Out of Chaos and The Way We Live are available for free on BFI Player. Blue Scar is available to rent on BFI Player

Buried in the BFI National Archive is a letter written to the head of Ealing Studios, Michael Balcon, in 1958.

“Can you honestly say that any of our directors, even Sandy [Mackendrick], ever shot pictures that really get under the skin of their women characters? Has your wife or your daughter ever said to you about British films […] that is me, that is precisely how I would have felt under those circumstances?” To these questions, which were rhetorical, or at least designed to catch him out, Balcon only remarked that it was “all such good sense”.

The letter was by Jill Craigie, a figure perhaps better known even now for her marriage to the Labour MP and party leader Michael Foot than for her contributions to British cinema.

Blue Scar (1949)

Craigie was humble in her correspondence with Balcon – she cited her screenwriting credits for Rank productions The Million Pound Note (1953) and Windom’s Way (1957) but neglects to mention that she had also directed several documentaries and a feature, the Welsh mining drama Blue Scar (1949). Her modesty proved detrimental – Balcon knew Ealing was in danger of going out of business and he wasn’t taking risks with inexperienced directors.

Curiously, Craigie diagnosed the lack of appeal to women as a British problem. She claims in her letter that it wasn’t a problem for Hollywood, which had at least had Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino directing films. Nor in France, with Craigie encouraging Balcon in her letter to watch Mitsou (1956) by Jacqueline Audry, a director whose work had only just begun to be re-exhibited in Britain at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.

The fact that Craigie directed even a single feature has made her remarkable in the history of British cinema, alongside Muriel Box whose debut The Lost People (see ‘Lost and Found’, S&S, November 2019) was also released in 1949.

The Way We Live (1946)

While Craigie has been cited as one of the first female directors in Britain, little scholarly attention has been paid to her work itself. In addition to her fiction screenplays, Craigie wrote and directed radical socialist documentaries on war artists (Out of Chaos, 1944), public housing (The Way We Live, 1946), and children displaced by war (Children of the Ruins, 1948).

The response from the Rank Organisation in Britain was far from supportive – managing director John Davis tore up the negative of Out of Chaos and, at the request of Plymouth Tory MP Nancy Astor, attempted to stop production in her constituency of The Way We Live.

It’s little wonder that Craigie mostly stopped filmmaking after marrying Michael Foot in 1949. She made two short documentaries, one for ITV in 1955 on housing estates (Who Are the Vandals?) and another for the BBC in 1967, about long hair on men (Keep Your Hair On). Her time was devoted to supporting her husband’s campaigns and activism, with the additional burden of Foot’s extramarital affairs. Together, they made a television documentary called Two Hours from London in 1995 to show the British public the extent of the atrocities being committed in former Yugoslavia.

Craigie was also committed to a vast historiographical project on the women’s suffrage movement. Her manuscript was never completed; Craigie struggled to keep up with the boom of writing on women’s rights during the 70s, debilitated by self-doubt as a scholar who had not been to university. Nonetheless, Craigie’s collection of photographs and documents continues to aid historians at the Women’s Library, held at the London School of Economics.

To Be a Woman (1951)

Craigie’s most striking film from a modern perspective is To Be a Woman (1951), the final film made with her production company, Outlook Films. With a stunning percussive score by Elizabeth Lutyens, the film showcases a small sample of women in the arts, a counter to the predominantly male line-up of artists in Out of Chaos. It’s a fascinating document of feminism in the 50s, a decade often ignored in the history of women’s rights, with financial support from the Equal Pay Campaign Committee.

Craigie was too modest to include herself in this line-up of women artists. Thankfully, a team of women have been working to bring her back into the spotlight. The Jill Craigie Project has seen the release of a feature documentary, directed by Lizzie Thynne and narrated by Hayley Atwell, called Independent Miss Craigie which is now on the festival circuit. The film will also be included on a BFI DVD celebrating early women filmmakers, to be released in 2022.

The Project will also see the publication of a monograph, Jill Craigie: Film and Feminism in Post-War Britain, written by Yvonne Tasker and Sadie Wearing. These are steps toward greater recognition of one of Britain’s great documentarians, although one can only speculate what might have been had Michael Balcon offered her a project at Ealing.

Further reading

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