With the death of Margaret Tait last week aged 81, the British experimental film scene has lost its most senior figure, and one of its most individual voices.
Margaret Tait is less well known as a film-maker than she deserves to be, largely because she spent the greater part of her life living and working on the island of Orkney, as remote as it is possible to be from the “centre” of the film community in London. She was fiercely independent, quietly scornful of the avant-garde that was so keen to embrace her, but was never quite accepted by industry independents. She only reluctantly allowed the London Film-makers Co-op (now the LUX) to distribute a few of her films, preferring to organise her own film distribution from her tiny “studio”, a converted chapel on the island. But she was genuinely self-sufficient. She drew her artistic nourishment from her relationship with her partner, the writer Alex Pirie, the landscape and people immediately around her, from letters (she was a great letter writer) from books, and from occasional visits to “big films” at the cinema in Kirkwall.
Margaret described herself as a film poet. She gathered images with her camera – in Lorca’s phrase, which she often quoted, she “stalked the image” – and she assembled her films with an alertness to each shot’s inner rhythms, which she believed would speak directly to the viewer. In many ways she was Britain’s Marie Menken (though two lives couldn’t have been more different). Her 30-plus films share with Menken’s a clarity of vision and a simplicity – almost naiveté – of technique: shots held “too long”; hand-held camera not always perfectly still or level; frequent and abrupt in-camera edits, and a fondness for simple, intimate subject matter. But these characteristics make the work of any other film-maker shown alongside hers look over-worked and self-important. When a Channel 4 interviewer suggested that her films were “diaristic” because they all document people and places with which she was intimately familiar, she objected: “Some film-makers have a sort of diary approach, but that is not what I am intending, even if it may seem like that because of my daily excursions to collect material over a period of time… When I’ve got the material I need I stop the photographs, then all 24 of them in every second and the recorded sound (become) the equivalent of notes, or words, (or letters might be nearer it) or blobs of paint; and it’s a matter of composing them so that the effect is in a sense musical, or poetic, if that’s a better word for it.”
Margaret was born in 1918 on Orkney, but was sent away to school in Edinburgh when she was nine. Her impressions of the strangeness of that (to her) “new” urban world are echoed in Where I am is Here (1964) with its melancholic, repetitive structure, images of coal-blackened streets, and sad “crocodiles” of schoolgirls in rigid uniforms; a film that is none the less essentially about coming to terms with “the present”. She qualified in medicine at Edinburgh University then, in 1944, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served the remainder of the war in India. Demobbed, she returned to Scotland and began working as a doctor’s locum, but was soon pursuing a film idea which led her to Perugia in 1950, to study Italian and to develop a script on the life of St Francis. She enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome (there was no film school in Britain then) where she met many of the “big names” of Neorealism.
But the first film to show her authentic imprint was the product of a summer holiday back on Orkney, where she trapped images of her mother walking and skipping along a road, accompanied by a non-sync recording of her lilting Orcadian – Portrait of Ga (1952). “My mother seemed a good subject for a portrait (she was there) and I thought it offered a chance to do a sort of ‘abstract film’, in the sense that it didn’t have what you might call ‘the grammar of film’. It’s mostly discontinuous shots linked just by subject, in one case by colour, only rarely by movement”.
Orquil Burn (1955) traced a little stream on the island back to its source, and Happy Bees (also 1955) recreated childhood memories of the island. With Peter Hollander – a fellow student in Rome – she founded her film company Ancona films, and made her first hand-painted film Calypso (1955) – inspired by pre-War films made by fellow-Scot Norman McLaren. These set the pattern for many of the films which follow; portraits of people; films which document and meditate upon specific places, and their histories and associations; and hand-painted abstract films, accompanied by wild sound, music or poems (often her own).
Back in Scotland the pattern of her life oscillated between Edinburgh and Orkney; and between the professions of doctor and film-maker. There was no sustained film industry in Scotland in the ’50s & ’60s, so to be an independent of any sort was to defy the inevitable. She was briefly involved with the Films of Scotland Committee but: “I didn’t want to get involved in making promotional films.” Had she travelled south, she might have found kindred spirits in Free Cinema (particularly Michael Grigsby and Lorenza Mazetti), but her roots were set firmly in the North. As a consequence, she had very little state support and few commissions during her working life, and most of her films were self-funded. An exception was The Drift Back (1956) – on the return of expatriates to the island. This was assisted by the Orkney Education Committee and Rural Cinema.
Her identification with Scotland’s political struggles past and present was total – but she showed her passion through her choice of subjects rather than direct statement. Her portrait of nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmaid (1964) clearly identifies with his championship of the Scots dialect. She illustrates a verse from his poem Somersault (“I lo’e the stishie / O’ Erth in space / Breengin’ by / At a halikut pace”) with the image of MacDiarmaid performing a balancing act on a pavement kerb, deflecting the potential for ponderousness or self-importance.
Originally published in Vertigo, Vol. 1, Issue 9 (Summer 1999).