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Kay Mander

Documentary film-maker

Documentary film-maker

Born: September 28, 1915; Died: December 29, 2013

Kay Mander, who has died aged 98, was a pioneering documentary-maker, who got her big break during the Second World War when many experienced male colleagues enlisted in the armed services.

She pioneered the notion of drama-documentary with Highland Doctor (1943), which was shot on location in the Highlands and Western Isles. It also marked the beginning of Mander's love affair with Scotland, which she eventually made her permanent home.

After the war however she found it difficult to get regular commissions as a director and took whatever work was going. While working as a so-called continuity girl on the Hollywood war film The Heroes of Telemark (1965) she embarked on a passionate affair with Kirk Douglas, which she recalled when I visited her at her home in Castle Douglas shortly before her 90th birthday.

An only child, she was born Kathleen Mander in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1915, and grew up partly in France and Germany. Her father worked for a company that made radiators. She had hoped to go to Oxford University, but her father lost his job and she was forced to look for work.

She was living in Berlin, which was about to host an international film festival, and offered her services as a translator and receptionist and made important contacts. Back in England she worked as a translator on Conquest of the Air (1936), which had a German cameraman and starred a young Laurence Olivier.

In those days, women were largely restricted to a few posts such as publicity, continuity, wardrobe and make-up, and Mander wound up with a job as a publicist with Alexander Korda's London Films. But the upheaval of the Second World War provided her with the opportunity to direct.

Her directorial debut was a seven-minute short instructing apprentices on how to file metal, but she was always looking for new ways in which to bring worthy but potentially dry subjects to life. When she made a short about malaria, she filmed a mosquito biting her and filling up with her blood.

Commissioned to make a film about a pilot health scheme in the Highlands and Islands, she decided against a straight-forward documentary approach, recording doctors and nurses going about their work, and instead wrote her own storyline about a medical emergency and recruited actors to play it out.

Highland Doctor was filmed on Lewis, Harris, North Uist and in the West Highlands and came out in 1943 as momentum was gathering behind the idea of a National Health Service.

The prevailing wisdom of the times was that documentary-makers should remain dispassionate and keep their distance from their subjects. But Mander was a deeply-committed and outspoken member of the Communist Party and made no attempt to hide it in her work.

In the 1945 film Homes for the People, she had ordinary, working-class women speak bluntly about housing as they went about their daily chores - kitchen-sink drama in the most literal sense. One woman complains her kitchen must have been designed by a man because it was so badly planned.

After the war she and her husband lived and worked in Asia for a while. She subsequently wrote and directed one feature, The Kid from Canada (1957), a film about a young Canadian boy in Scotland that was made for the Children's Film Foundation. She had no great ambition to go on making films for children and worked on a string of big Hollywood films in the continuity department, who are responsible with making sure, for instance, that cigarettes get shorter rather than longer over the course of a scene.

In this capacity, the films she worked on included the second James Bond movie From Russia with Love (1963), which continued her association with Scotland, and the Second World War adventure The Heroes of Telemark, which was when she got to know Kirk Douglas.

"Kirk Douglas was my passion," she told me when I visited her back in 2005. Her eyes moistened as she recalled the relationship. "He had this awful reputation," she said. "He flew his ladies in first-class, kept them there for a long weekend, and sent them back tourist."

But she thought he was wonderful and she took the initiative in their relationship. "I made approaches to Kirk that I wouldn't have done to another actor." Both were married and in their late forties at the time.

Her only regret about the affair was the hurt it caused her husband, the film-maker Rod Neilson Baxter, whom she married in 1940. "I never wanted to get involved with anybody except my husband," she said.

She moved to Scotland shortly after her husband's death in 1978, intending to make a film about barnacle geese. She never made the film, but stayed on, living in a chalet on a farm outside Dumfries, and then latterly a bungalow and nursing home in Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire.

One of her last jobs was as script supervisor on Timothy Neat's 1989 film Play Me Something, which took her back to the Hebrides.

It is only fairly recently that film ­critics and historians have ­acknowledged Mander's importance, both as a pioneering woman director and as an innovative documentary maker. She was the subject of a documentary One Continuous Take in 2001 and a boxed set of her films was released in 2010.

Russell Cowe, who runs Panamint Cinema, a company that specialises in old documentaries, said at the time: "She developed new techniques in film-making and led the way on social issues."

She never had children.

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