‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’ reviewed

❉ The life of one of British TV’s greatest directors.

“Michael Seely clearly admires his subject, diving into what records are available to give us the story of Douglas’ life. The same approach is taken for each part of his career, with Seely’s painstaking work giving us an unusually detailed picture of each production.”

I was very pleased to be able to review a book about Douglas Camfield, as he is perfect We Are Cult material. Not only was he a Production Assistant on the long-lost Doctor Who serial Marco Polo, graduating to direct The Dalek’s Master Plan, most of which is missing, he also cut his teeth on early television productions in the 1950s, which were often live because recording was in its infancy. As fans of Cult material will tell you, the absence of material can be an awful lot more exciting than the reality, regardless of how satisfying it is when long-forgotten copies surface. So who better than Douglas, a director I personally admire for his peerless work on The Sweeney; just a small part of his influence on an industry I adore.

Michael Seely clearly admires his subject even more deeply, diving into what records are available to give us the story of Douglas’ disadvantaged start in life, talking us through the effect of his adoptive family’s history in the armed forces on Douglas’ politics and view of the world around him. The same approach is taken for each part of his career, with Seely’s painstaking work giving us an unusually detailed picture of each production.

‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’ by Michael Seely – cover art by Steve Caldwell.

Despite being at the BBC at such an early stage, Douglas had a slow start in television, with 10 years working as a PA before being able to work as a director after taking the BBC course. The book gently suggests that class and rank distinctions may have played a role in his slow progress, and that Douglas certainly suspected as such, given his army experience. However, it could be said that his extensive experience of observing stage-like direction from old-fashioned colleagues, struggling with the limitations of 1950s technology, helped Douglas to use fresh ideas to develop techniques especially for the new medium, both reacting to the industry evolving and helping it to do so.

Whilst such material is fascinating, I feel the detail is showing the truth of the author’s admission that, given the number of years since Douglas’ death in 1984, it is a real challenge to write a biography of a TV director, given that members of TV production teams are rarely as feted as those in the film industry, and that is a real shame when you consider the work that Douglas left behind. Although there are many important contributions from friends and family, such as the irrespressible Katy Manning and Douglas’ son Joggs, there are inevitably some gaps in Douglas’ story.

Douglas attends’ Katy Manning’s twins’ christening. Play spot the celeb!

Seely has chosen to fill this gap with exhaustive production detail, which, although fascinating, I feel would be a little more suited to series guides (and indeed, these have been consulted) than an actual biography. The book can be a little heavy going if you don’t have as much interest in certain productions or stages of Douglas’ life as Seely clearly does, but the book is written in such a manner that the reader can skip parts without necessarily losing track of the main story. Seely also fills the gap with personal interpretation of Douglas’ comments to colleagues and friends, without actually having worked in TV, which, in my view, leads the author to make assumptions that are a little unwise.

Perhaps this is more about me than the author, as I actually work in what, in Douglas’ day, would have been (and is still occasionally) called Presentation. Unfortunately for Seely, what might have been overlooked by others as a stretched assumption based on a couple of understandable complaints from Douglas regarding his on-screen credit rather grated my professional pride. To stretch Douglas’ complaints as far as the author does assumes that Douglas was completely right, omits any mitigating circumstances and gives a rather unfavourable picture of an important, pressurised department with many different demands being placed on it.

I also have to confess that the foreword’s reference to directors being the ‘unsung heroes of television drama’ made me raise a quizzical eyebrow, when they do indeed get that said credit on screen. Presentation in the UK have traditionally got no on-screen acknowledgement, despite the fact that it’s their hard work that is responsible for the drama getting to the TV screen in the first place. Seely is right that writing a biography about a TV director is difficult, and he does an excellent job, but I can assure him that he’d find trying to pay tribute to those in Network Control a great deal harder.

Regardless, Seely has overcome several challenges to produce a thorough biography of an extraordinary television pioneer. That’s no mean feat, and the result should be essential reading for every Cult TV fan.

‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’ by Michael Seely is released by Miwk Publishing, May 2017, RRP £17.99. It is available to pre-order now.

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