British documentary filmmaker Michael Grigsby died last week at the age of 76. Grigsby's career spanned six decades, and in that time the director worked on almost 30 films, including We Went to War, Living on the Edge and Lockerbie: A Night Remembered. Here, another of the UK's most influential documentary-makers, Leslie Woodhead, pays tribute to the man he calls his "first mentor".
Mike Grigsby (pictured) was my first film mentor, the man who opened the door for me in the early 60s on the possibilities and pleasures of documentary making. As a very raw recruit at Granada, I was assigned to work alongside Grigsby criss-crossing the North West – claimed by the company as ‘Granadaland'- to track down down a series of little films. “Know your North” was a project to document local contrasts between old and new: a veteran clog maker and a teenage dress designer is one that comes to mind.
We toured around in my battered blue Mini, and along the way Mike enthused about filmmaking. I had seen ‘Enginemen’, a film he had made in the late 50s, a highly personal evocation of the ending of the steam age, and had been entranced by its montage of moody black and white images. He talked as we drove, and I was hooked.
We filmed with a clockwork Bolex camera, and I watched how Grigsby crafted his images; in the editing room he inculcated me into the mysteries of assembling pictures so that they gathered a special magic. In just a few weeks, I learned things that have stayed with me for over 50 years.
After our early adventures I always looked out for Mike’s unique films, from ‘Deckie Learner’ in 1964 about an apprentice trawlerman to documentaries with survivors of the Vietnam War, Indian villagers, Eskimo hunters and hard-pressed families in Thatcher’s Britain. Grigsby’s work was always illuminated by his feeling for the disadvantaged – “I try to give a voice to the voiceless” he said. His highly personal style was immediately recognisable – unhurried, with long meditative shots, with haunting soundtracks attentive to nuances of speech and atmosphere. It was a tradition of film making that recalled the passionate commitments of the founders of British documentary, and Grigsby maintained those commitments over more than half a century.
To read Screen Daily's obituary of Mike Grigsby, click here. For the BFI piece, click here.
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