Philip Donnellan

Born: 9 February 1924
Died: 15 February 1999, Cork


Phillip Donnellan is often mentioned in the same breath as Denis Mitchell. Both were directors and producers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, became acclaimed for television documentary films of such style and quality as to attract favourable comparison with an earlier generation’s large-screen documentary output.

Favouring impressionism over journalism, these films stood apart from much contemporary factual television. But both filmmakers shared professional roots in BBC Radio rather than in cinema, roots which showed in their most noticeable shared trait: the creative ‘counterpointing’ of cinematography with separate audio recording. And both developed this style at regional outposts of the BBC (Manchester in Mitchell’s case, Birmingham in Donnellan’s), closer to provincial realities, and freer from the interference of centralised bureaucracy, than their London counterparts.

A huge difference between them was that Mitchell was largely apolitical, Donnellan emphatically not. Many of his films are passionately opinionated, sometimes uncomfortably polemical. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that while Mitchell soon moved to Granada, Donnellan stayed at the BBC for many years.

Sometimes described as an upper-middle-class ‘establishment rebel’ whose patrician manner belied an uncompromising commitment to dissent, his projects unsurprisingly attracted controversy within and outside the Corporation. Notably, The Irishmen (1965), a bitter account of the marginal status of the community of male Irish migrants responsible for rebuilding much of Britain’s post-war infrastructure, was never televised – instead enjoying limited circulation on the non-theatrical circuit. And his final magnum opus, Gone for a Soldier (tx. 9/3/1980), which was broadcast, attracted a torrent of media criticism as a result. It was a sweeping 105-minute evocation of over 150 years of army history, immensely sympathetic to the military’s ordinary recruits, but damning about the military as an institution and about British colonialism. Moreover, it didn’t safely confine these observations to the distant past, pointedly applying them to present-day Northern Ireland. It was never re-screened, and the BBC elected not to make it available for overseas sales. While Donnellan continued to involve himself in production for several years afterwards, it proved to be his last prestige project.

Both these films are among Donnellan’s most characteristic, not least because they reveal the faults as well as the merits of his partisanship. Like many of his works, they are incredibly powerful in places, but ultimately too relentless, or simply too long, to work completely. Other films on issues of topical concern were more consistent. Examples are The Colony (tx. 16/6/1964), one of the most intelligent documentary responses to West Indian immigration yet filmed; and Where Do We Go from Here? (tx. 1/4/1969), a still relevant indictment of the treatment of travelling communities. But Donnellan’s most lasting documentaries were often those in which the ideology was submerged in his treatment of a non-political subject, as in his debut Joe the Chainsmith (tx. 7/11/1958) and later studies of individuals, whether renowned figures or ordinary people; and several portraits of place (such as The White Country, tx. 10/6/1960; Coventry Kids, tx. 15/11/1960; Sunderland Oak, tx. 19/19/1961; and The Long Journey, 1963).

‘Pure Radio’ (tx. 3/11/1977), one of his very best, was also one of the least provocative. This edition of the long-running arts series Omnibus (1967-) was a celebration of the history of BBC Radio Features. It included an appearance by Charles Parker, pioneering producer of the ‘Radio Ballads’, and both an inspiration to Phillip Donnellan and regular collaborator on his soundtracks (Parker’s ‘balladeer’, Ewan MacColl, provided songs for many of Donnellan’s ‘musical documentary’ films, having earlier, incidentally, worked with Mitchell). Donnellan also posited a link to the British documentary film tradition, including extracts from films by Humphrey Jennings and Paul Rotha.

Had Donnellan been making his own films earlier, or in another country, they too would have been intended for the big screen (and some were subsequently available for non-theatrical booking for years after their broadcast). Television screenings ensured his work a large initial audience, but probably also denied Donnellan the posthumous reputation he deserved, even though his films are more frequently revived than many of those made, more slickly but less memorably, by more conformist BBC documentarists.

Patrick Russell


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