Recognising the extensive career of a
documentary filmmaker who just
happened to be a woman
by Sarah Easen
One of the many women working in the documentary sector in the 1940s and 1950s, Kay Mander, like most of her female contemporaries, has been little more than a footnote in documentary film histories despite her prolific contribution to the genre. By the end of her directing career she had made over thirty films including instructional, educational, propaganda, industrial, social documentary and children’s films. Unable to break into directing features, she turned to continuity for the remainder of her sixty-year career, retiring from the industry in the mid-1990s.
Born Kathleen M. Mander on 28 September 1915 in Hull, where her father worked as an accountant for an American radiator company, she grew up in France and Germany, attending boarding school in England. After failing her Oxford scholarship exam, she returned to Berlin where her parents were living, unsure of what profession to follow, but having already dismissed teaching and journalism. She briefly considered acting and joined an ex-pat amateur dramatics club. However, a temporary job at Joseph Goebbels’ International Film Congress in May 1935 would lead to a future in directing. Representatives to the Congress from Britain’s film industry encouraged her to look for work in London if she was interested in breaking into the business.
Four months later Mander was on a film set, interpreting for Hans Schneeberger, the German cameraman on The Blue Angel (1930), who was shooting Conquest of the Air (1936) for Alexander Korda’s London Films. She knew immediately that she wanted to be a director, spending as much time as she could on set. After several years in traditional female roles such as finance, publicity and administration, she found work as a ‘continuity girl’ – which ‘Korda had warned her was not a pleasant job’ – and noted that it was the closest women seemed to get to being behind a camera.
Mander was also maturing politically. She became a member of both the Communist Party and the industry union, the ACT (later ACTT and now BECTU), of which she was the first female member in 1937. Three years later she was the first woman to be elected to the ACT General Council. Known as an outspoken advocate on many union issues, Mander wrote about the need for equal pay and post-war job security in her column ‘For Women Technicians’ in the ACT journal, The Cine-Technician, for which she continued to write until the 1950s. She was also instrumental in designing an industry-wide accreditation and apprenticeship scheme; ultimately this fell through, due to a lack of support from studio producers.
Attracted to the ideals of the 1930s’ documentary movement, Mander socialised at their informal employment exchange, the Highlander pub in Soho, where, in 1940, she met producer Arthur Elton. He offered her a job making instructional films for the war effort at the Shell Film Unit. Well resourced with its own cameras, sound equipment, laboratories and post-production facilities, it was the perfect place for a fledgling director to learn her trade. Mander’s directorial debut was How to File (1941), a training film for the aircraft construction industry. Unusually for the genre, she used tracking shots to highlight the movement of the file, garnering wide praise for her inventiveness. Mander directed another four films at Shell, including two training films for the restructured Fire Service and one for the Ministry of Home Security. Made for specialised audiences featuring complex and technical subjects, these films are characterised by their clarity, simplicity and skilful technical exposition. She also served as ACT shop steward during her time at Shell.
Moving to Paul Rotha’s independent production company, Mander was able to further develop her filmmaking skills. In Highland Doctor (1943) she coached ordinary people to act, marrying documentary technique with a dramatic narrative to tell the story of the Highlands and Islands medical service. She even appears in a brief cameo as a district nurse riding a bicycle through windswept terrain. The film champions the idea of a state-run healthcare system, anticipating the establishment of the National Health Service. While with Rotha she shot several items for the militant newsreel Worker and Warfront, as well as directing the building trade recruitment film, New Builders (1944).
Towards the end of 1944 Mander established Basic Films with Rowan (Rod) Neilson Baxter, the producer she had married in 1940, to make scientific and industrial films. Their first commission, for the Labour Party election campaign, was Homes for the People (1945), which deserves as much recognition as its famous predecessor Housing Problems (1935, co-directed by Ruby Grierson). Mander acknowledged the debt she owed to the methods of the latter but her film takes a more radical approach and delivers a stronger message. Homes for the People examines the lives of five working-class housewives. They are interviewed doing household chores, which lends an intimacy to the film, reinforcing, rather than detracting, from their concerns. The subjects are not scripted; Mander preferred to sit beneath the camera prompting them with questions extracting honest responses about the difficulties they faced every day such as collecting water from the village pump, carrying a pram down five flights of stairs or having to empty a bucket lavatory. She shows that much of the nation’s rural and urban housing is sub-standard but allows ‘ordinary’ women to tell us how this can improve, giving them a more direct voice than had previously been heard in British documentary.
After the war, Mander continued making films promoting social change for both industrial and government sponsors. A Plan to Work On (1948) outlines the replanning of Dunfermline in Scotland, emphasising the importance of consultation and considering the needs of the townspeople in an egalitarian post-war Britain. She also made a series of French-language teaching films for the Ministry of Education. The first in the series, La Famille Martin (1949), won a British Film Academy (now BAFTA) award.
Attempting to break into the feature film industry, as many of her male counterparts had done, Mander was told by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios that a woman couldn’t control a male crew. She later said “there was a conception at this time that women could only direct films about diet, domestic problems, children and corsetry”. Of course, her film career already demonstrated the antithesis of this but she struggled to find work in any of the major studios. Disillusioned with the British film industry, she joined her husband in Indonesia and helped establish a film unit there for UNESCO. She wrote and directed two short narrative films: Mardi and the Monkey (1953) and The New Boat (1955). She returned to England in 1957 to direct her final film The Kid from Canada (1957) for the Children’s Film Foundation.
Unwilling to be pigeon-holed as a director of children’s or women’s films and frustrated by the lack of other directorial opportunities, the pragmatic Mander returned to continuity. She was happy enough to be behind the camera still, even if she wasn’t directing. Her thirty-year career in film and television continuity included the Terence Young Bond film, From Russia with Love (1963), Francois Truffaut’s Farenheit 451 (1966), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Fred Schepsi’s Plenty (1985), Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987), and television series The Professionals (1977) and Danger UXB (1979). She also worked on two films by Ken Russell, who, according to Mander, was as “an absolute pussycat” – Mahler (1974) and Tommy (1975).
Mander retired in 1994, aged 80, having worked consistently in the industry for sixty years and film remained her passion in life. Moving permanently to the Scottish countryside she had always loved, she focussed on her own projects, including a film script about the War Poet Rupert Brooke. She proved an enthusiastic and engaging, but occasionally controversial, participant in discussions about women in the industry and her own films, during seasons of her work screened at the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) and the Imperial War Museum. In 2001 she was the subject of a documentary, One Continuous Take: Kay Mander’s Life in Film (Adele Carroll), and a DVD of her wartime films was released in 2010. In her early 90s, now unable to drive, Mander reluctantly moved to a less remote village near Castle Douglas. She died on 29 December 2013, aged 98, in Palnackie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
Kay Mander was a talented, intelligent, charismatic, confident, generous and determined woman who regarded herself only as a film technician, and disliked being referred to as a feminist or woman filmmaker. For her, this missed the point – she wanted to be chosen for a directing job (or not chosen) “irrespective of sex”. It never occurred to her that being a woman was a disadvantage until she approached the big studios. Like the rest of the directors for hire in the 1940s and 1950s, she knew she had to do the job well and on-budget to get her next commission. She was a filmmaker who just happened to be a woman.
Sarah Easen completed an MA in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia in 1995, where she became interested in Kay Mander’s films. She has worked as film archivist at the ITN Archive, Imperial War Museum, British Film Institute and the British Universities Film and Video Council. Her research interests include British women non-fiction filmmakers of the 1930s to 1960s and the 1951 Festival of Britain on which she has presented conference papers, programmed film seasons and curated exhibitions.