The discovery of hundreds of forgotten film canisters led to the production of a new film spanning much of the last century, Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love & War.
Ahead of the film's BBC Scotland premiere, director Matt Pinder looks back at the process of bringing Harry's life to audiences.
How you were introduced to the life and films of Harry Birrell?
I’d been making a series for the BBC about the history of home movie making, the way people have recorded themselves over the last 100 years. During the research for that series I’d been speaking to a lot of old cine club enthusiasts who were all telling me that I had to find Harry Birrell. "His footage is amazing," they said, "he filmed his whole life starting in the 1920s!".
This sounded incredible, but unfortunately Harry had passed away many years previously, so tracking his films down proved to be pretty tricky. It was a good few months later, that I managed to get in touch with Harry’s granddaughter Carina, and we were able to start thinking about what we could do with this wonderful and unique legacy that Harry had left us with.
How much of the narrative was in place when you came to the project - had all the films been transferred to digital and the diaries transcribed?
A handful of Harry’s films had been (quite badly) transferred to VHS back in the 1980s. They offered a tantalising but poor-quality glimpse of what Harry had been able to achieve through his love of the cinema, but there were hundreds more film reels in his collection that had never been transferred and no one had ever seen. They were all being stored in a garden shed at Carinas parent’s house. As you can imagine, the first visit to the shed was quite a moment!
Around 400 reels of 16mm film covering the best part of the 20th Century were packed neatly into several large rusty trunks. Some of reels were intriguingly labelled with dates and titles like The Battle for Burma, Himalayan Heaven and The Long Journey Home. As to what was on the rest of them was a complete mystery. As exciting as this was, it was also quite daunting, because there were only two ways that we could get to see what was on them.
One was putting them through a projector which might cause damage, and the other was getting them transferred to a digital format, which would cost a fortune. At that stage, I didn’t know about the diaries. Finding them and learning about their contents was another really wonderful moment.
Can you describe the process of sifting through the films to try and find the right clips?
I actually started reading the diaries first. It was something I could do whilst we tried to get a budget together to transfer the films. Harry started writing his diaries in 1938 and stopped after he returned home from WWII.
Reading the diaries, despite the fact that many of them of them were hand written and quite difficult to decipher, was a complete joy and privilege. They offer a unique window into the thoughts and feelings of a man who was living through one of the most dynamic periods in modern history. My only hope was that Harry’s films would be able to show something of what he was writing about.
Fortunately, when we were finally able to start transferring the films, they surpassed all our expectations. The diaries gave our film its narrative and helped to put the context and emotion into what we were seeing on screen. It’s very rare to find a personal film collection like Harry’s but even rarer to have such a comprehensive record of what’s in there.
How long was the selection process?
From meeting Carina for the first time to the film’s premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2019, was about three years. It’s definitely a labour of love type project that sat really well around other things I was working on.
I spent a large part of those three years after we’d got most of Harry’s films transferred, we’ve still not been able to afford to get them all done, watching them and placing them alongside the diary entries on an edit suite in my attic at home. Once I had a rough assembly, we had eight weeks with our wonderful editor Colin Monie to finish the film.
Harry’s granddaughter can be seen in the film - how involved were his family in the editing process?
I think having Carina and the family involved in the film was critical to achieving the emotional layer that comes from their obvious connection to Harry. Carina hadn’t read all of Harry’s diaries so selfishly I read them first so I could record her reaction to reading certain sections for the first time.
There are plenty of moments described in the diaries when you can see that life could have been very different for Carina had Harry been shot in a gun battle in Burma or married his first crush in London before the war for example.
Were there any elements of his films you wanted to include that you had to cut out?
There were some really great bits from the diaries that we didn’t have any clips of film for, and likewise there were loads of clips from his films that we couldn’t include.
One of my favourite Harry Birrell films is about the fledgling Scottish ski scene in the 1950s. When skis were literally planks of wood strapped to people’s feet and the way to get up the mountains was in repurposed WWII army tanks! As hilarious as this, there was just way to shoehorn it into this film.
How much pressure did you feel to honour the life of Harry?
I think in general when you make documentaries and you’re dealing with real people, you feel a sense of responsibility to them. With Harry, the most important thing for me was to stay true to the way he saw the world and to his love of cinema.
There was the option to include more testimony from Harry’s family and friends, but I think his films and diaries speak for themselves and presenting them together in a compelling and coherent narrative was always going to be the best way of honouring his legacy.
Actor Richard Madden narrates the film, what was it like working with him?
I’d like to say that when Richard Madden came into the studio we spent quite a bit of time workshopping ideas and rehearsing etc, but in reality he came in and pretty much nailed it straight away. I’d worked with him a couple of times before as a narrator so I knew how great his voice would be for the film.
He’d read the edited diaries in advance, and seen some clips so was really excited about the film. Richard grew up in Paisley which is where Harry is from so there was a nice link there as well.
At lunch on the first day of recording we nipped out to get a sandwich and Richard got a call from his agent. He’d just found out that he’d been nominated for a Golden Globe for The Bodyguard and should be forgiven for his minor outburst outside Pret a Manger.
To be honest, although I was obviously very happy for him, I kind of thought that that would be the end of our recording session and he’d be off out to celebrate at the Ivy or some swanky Soho members club. But no, he continued on with the recording and came back (sober) the next day to deliver another great performance. He’s a pro.
You took the film on tour, what was that like?
It’s been lovely taking the film on tour. Seeing it on the big screen is the way Harry would have intended, so I’m delighted that we got that opportunity. I would have loved to make more of the screenings, but the ones I did get to were really well attended and the audience response and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Winning the audience award at the GFF infront of a packed out GFT1 was an obvious highlight at the start.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m working on the second series of Murder Case, which is a true crime series for the BBC following the Major Investigations Team at Police Scotland. We’ve got a couple of other projects in development and hopefully another ‘Harry Birrell Presents’ project looking at the films he made around Scotland in the 1950s and '60s like the wee ski film mentioned above.
Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love & War is on BBC Scotland at 10pm on Tuesday 17 March and will be on iPlayer following the screening - visit the website.