Gavin Millar obituary: distinguished film and television director, presenter and critic
Gavin Millar, the director, critic and TV presenter, once a frequent contributor to Sight and Sound, died in London of a brain tumor on April 20, 2022. He was a man of great intelligence, d knowledge, spirit and generosity of spirit. , who came from a Glasgow working-class background to achieve a respected position in London’s cultural world, but always retained his democratic aversion to authority and fierce sympathy for the underdog.
He will be best remembered for his 1985 film Dreamchild, about Alice Liddell, the original inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice in Wonderland Adventures, but he was a distinguished critic for many years and his career had an extraordinary impact. On TV, he interviewed personalities such as Gene Kelly, Jacques Tati, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Howard Hawks, Federico Fellini, Powell and Pressburger, and François Truffaut. As a director he has worked with writers like Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and Victoria Wood, and an extraordinary list of actors including Julie Walters, Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons, Glenda Jackson, Brian Cox, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Peter Capaldi, Peggy Ashcroft, Claire Bloom, Ian Holm, Jeanne Moreau, Dawn French and Stockard Channing. He got a surprisingly brilliant performance from a young Christian Bale.
He was born on January 11, 1938 in Clydebank, Scotland, to Rita (née Osborne) and Tom Millar, workers at the local Singer sewing machine factory, who moved south to the Midlands at the age of nine years. He went to King Edward’s School in Birmingham, did his military service in the R.A.F.then read English at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1958 to 1961, where, notoriously, he was Stefano in what he called a “justly neglected” version of The Tempest alongside Melvyn Bragg.
He then entered the Slade School of Fine Art in UCL where he studied film with Thorold Dickinson, director of Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949), the only other student on the course that year being Charles Barr, later a pioneer in film studies and a great Hitchcockian . (I first met Gavin when I co-edited a book on Dickinson, Thorold Dickinson: a world of film (2008), to which he contributed a touching reminiscence.) After the Slade, he became a critic not only cinema but also books and general knowledge for, among others, The Listener, Sight and Sound and (later) the London Review of Books. In 1966, he married Sylvia Lane, whom he had met in 1962. She died in 2012.
As a critic, Gavin was entertaining, ironic, questioning, sensitive, insightful. Review of If…by Lindsay Anderson. for Sight and Sound in 1968, despite his friendship with the director, he judges that it is not a masterpiece because he is not sure of its objectives: “If…. is a film about revolution, but about anger. He enjoyed Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses more the following year, in a way that anticipated his own later strengths as a director: “Through dozens of tiny clues, the larger theme emerges: the circle of life involves the death, just as the tragedy of the night can turn into the farce of the morning.
Similarly, the same year in the Auditor, he praised the discreet accuracy of Claude Chabrol in La Femme infidèle: “These details and a thousand similar ones are exact and revealing. He liked the complexity of Chabrol’s double attitude towards the bourgeoisie: “this sure-footed, finely acted and bewitching film is not offended, but deepened, by this ambivalence. Also in The Listener in 1973, he was moved by the way, in Minnie and Moskowitz, “Cassavetes finds a place for the misfits, and he describes the indefinable”.
In 1965, he had been Ken Russell’s assistant on his TV film on Henri Rousseau; subsequently, while revising, he made an impressive number of art documentaries in BBC, as writer, director and producer as well as presenter for strands like New Release and (later) Release, Omnibus, Talking Pictures and Arena Cinema. The making of documentaries was an extension, or a natural part, of his activity as a critic and a cinephile; he was always interested in getting to know and understanding practitioners. It now looks like a golden age of arts programming – although in February 1969 he was already writing about an apparent campaign to remove smart cover culture from the airwaves. His BBC work introduced him to another giant auteur, Federico Fellini, whom he made a release film for the BBC in 1969.
Millar also wrote the last section of the revised edition of The Technique of Film Editing in 1968, which covered developments – mainly the big screen and new wave – since Karel Reisz’s first edition in 1953. He has been called “undoubtedly the most successful manual on film ever published” – and was the brainchild of Thorold Dickinson, who assisted and supervised. Millar’s writing in it is subtle and nuanced, but far from dry: in his account of “Personal Cinema in the Sixties,” he links the New Wave in fascinating ways to existentialism. Truffaut’s films, he says, elude genre bins because they “move from moods of despair to ‘elation and contain scenes of dark comedy alternating with scenes of real tragedy or simply unaffected joy’. Gavin’s own films would also be – quietly – ‘personal’.
In 1980, he made a TV drama, Dennis Potter’s cream in my coffee, for LWT, which won the Prix Italia. Thereafter, he made only one documentary, about Powell and Pressburger, to which he paid a witty and affectionate tribute in 1981, A Pretty British Affair. He kept himself afloat, even prolific, in the tough world of 1980s British cinema, working mainly in television. His achievements are too numerous to list, but include 1982’s Intensive Care by and with Alan Bennett; beloved Danny the world champion with Jeremy Irons in 1989; the heartwarming Pat and Margaret from and with Victoria Wood, who got a BAFTA candidacy in 1994; and the moving and human turn-of-the-century French drama Belle Epoque (1995), from a screenplay by Truffaut and Jean Gruault, starring Kristin Scott Thomas in scintillating form. Iain Banks hailed Millar’s 1996 adaptation of The Crow Road as better than his novel, while Housewife, 49, still starring Victoria Wood, is a very warm and melancholy comedy about a brave middle-aged wife and mother average wartime Barrow-in-Furness, which won a BAFTA in 2007.
In the cinema, his discreet talents did not really flourish. It followed The Crow Road with a fine film by Banks’s Complicity in 2000, but it didn’t reach the wider audience it deserved; as Gavin once said, “the best movie in the world only survives if someone is willing to put money into it – to sell it”.
He overcame great obstacles to direct Albert Schweitzer in 2009, with Jeroen Krabbé and Barbara Hershey. He was engaging, honorable, smart, and politically astute about Schweitzer’s anti-nuclear campaign, but had no cast to speak of. It was his last credit as a director.
It seems appropriate to conclude by returning to the bewitching Dreamchild, his most remarkable achievement. When I interviewed him about it in 2014, he recalled the 15 months of post-production (“a struggle”), during which producer Verity Lambert trimmed many of the carefully layered elements and touches that Millar loved. It made him painfully aware of unfulfilled intentions: “these things bruise your soul,” he said. (Producer Kenith Trodd has since found the missing items, so a restored edition should now be possible).
He was drawn to Dennis Potter’s screenplay about septuagenarian Alice Liddell by its “uncanny originality” and “by its tenderness and complex range of emotion and motive, its ambiguities”. He commented in the production notes: “I liked the idea of fantasy and reality, and never really knowing where one ended and the other began, which gives weight to the place of nightmares and dreams in people’s lives.” In Aged Alice’s Hallucinations, the Mad Hatter, March Hare et al, created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are tough, sinister beings – “as fierce as an old lady’s nightmares would have made them”.
Millar cherished poignant and ambivalent moments. When I spoke to him in 2004 for Fellini’s Telegraph de Amarcord (1973), which he had chosen to write about, he declared: “I admire him for making you laugh and cry at the same time. Some sequences make me do both and I don’t know which way to go. I don’t know of any other filmmaker – even Renoir – who can do it to this degree in a sequence, and to such extremes.
Ten years later, thinking about this, I asked her about the delightfully moving ending of Dreamchild, where after Dodgson is ridiculed for his stutter, young Alice walks up and kisses him: “Yes, that seems to affect people very strongly. I mean, partly because there are times when things come together and you think, ‘Yeah, we got it right, and the light is good, the angle is good, the lens is good. They look good, the actors do the right thing, and you found the right move for them, and they followed through. But these things happen very rarely, and you’re lucky when you get them. 147 things must all be good at the same time.
On this occasion they were – and deservedly earned the moving praise of acclaimed critic Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice. Sarris arrived late to the film but atoned for his negligence by stirring up emotion. He caught Millar’s mind when he wrote that in its courageous sincerity, “rising inexorably towards a rich epiphany”, Dreamchild did what cinema can sometimes do: “What makes film so thrilling and inspiring is his invocation of love and art as redemptive forces opposing dark spirits.
When Millar died, he was surrounded by their five children (James, Tommy, Duncan, Kirstie and Isabel). He leaves six grandchildren (Florence, Martha, Louis, Iris, Arwen and Gavin).
- Gavin Millar, from January 11, 1938 to April 20, 2022