Derrick Knight obituary

Derrick Knight’s best-known film, Travelling for a Living (1966), was a vivid, insightful documentary about the folk group the Watersons, which both observed and spread the burgeoning English folk revival.

But his film-making had wider significance, including importing freshly emerging international documentary styles, often using lightweight mobile cameras, into Britain’s somewhat conservative short-films industry. Above all, Derrick, who has died aged 93, encouraged into or through film a remarkably diverse group of creatives, technicians and activists, including Lionel Ngakane, Bernice Rubens, David Gladwell and Roger Graef (all now better known than him).

In his 20s, Derrick took the characteristically gutsy decision to form his own company, Derrick Knight & Partners (DKP), which in the 1960s pursued multiple projects in film production, distribution and advocacy with unflagging energy. Unusually, DKP simultaneously embraced multiple short-form film traditions: agitprop; charity and health awareness-raising; educational and industrial training; TV documentaries; artistic experiments; and novelty shorts.

While drawn to social issues, the company willingly undertook corporate commissions for varied clients. A Time to Heal (1963), a study of rehabilitation for injured miners, co-sponsored by the National Coal Board and the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, was both innovative and influential in its field, fusing industrial with social documentary and refreshing both genres with its observational yet atmospheric shooting style, influenced by American “direct cinema”.

In the same year, Derrick directed the government production Smoking and You, one of the world’s first anti-smoking health education films, seen by thousands of UK school pupils, then distributed abroad. As a Labour party media adviser, Derrick rang the changes on the party political broadcast with the beguiling mini-documentary Education for the Future (1967). Faces of Harlow (1964), a lively new town promo, prompted a non-sponsored spin-off The Pied Pipers of Harlow (1965), a documentary about the vibrant musical life of the town. It was acquired by the BBC and this paved the way for the corporation supporting the Watersons film, broadcast on BBC Two in 1966. As a pioneer of independent production of television programmes, DKP was unluckily ahead of its time: most of the film industry looked down on TV, while TV kept most production in-house.

Among significant DKP work directed by others, with Derrick producing and encouraging, were Ngakane’s Jemima + Johnny (1966), a charming fiction evoking inter-racial childhood friendship; Rubens’ intensely sensitive documentaries for mental health and childhood disability NGOs; and Gladwell’s experimental Dance (1967). One of Them Is Brett (1965), internationally advancing the thalidomide campaign, also kickstarted Graef’s illustrious documentary career. The drug thalidomide was administered to pregnant women for morning sickness but was under-tested and caused serious disabilities in many children. The film was commissioned by the Society for the Aid of Thalidomide Children (now the Thalidomide Society) in response to the challenges faced by affected families and seeking compensation from pharmaceutical companies, which they received in 1968, in no small part due to the international cinema and TV distribution and impact of the film.

Though a long-time union activist, Derrick was sensitive to issues caused by the film industry’s closed-shop set-up. He helped younger film-makers get their ACTT cards, providing some (including Nick Broomfield) with after-hours access to technical facilities.

As a businessman Derrick’s entrepreneurial zeal perhaps exceeded his cost-control skills; meanwhile the once-thriving shorts sector entered an unstable economic period that saw many production companies close, including DKP in 1975. Derrick’s next move was to open a boardgames shop in Soho, Just Games, later Knight Games, inspired by working with the lateral-thinking proponent Edward de Bono.

In 1959 he had married Brenda Henderson, a constant collaborator in all his ventures. When Derrick went to work for Christian Aid in 1976 they became valued contributors to the charity’s worldwide activities. This often took them to formerly French-controlled parts of Africa (Derrick, who had a French mother, was fluent in the language). In 1978 he undertook a Latin American trip with the Magnum photographer Sebastião Salgado, and in 1981 was seconded to Burkina Faso for a year. He retired in 1994.

Born in Dorset, Derrick was the son of Ninette (nee Mollard) and Robert Knight, a boat-builder – and was brought up on a boat in Poole harbour. From Canford school he went to Oriel College, Oxford, to study modern history, and was an active member of the university film society. With typical brio he led it beyond mere cinephilia into actual production, making the celebrated amateur film Between Two Worlds (1952), a experimental ballet piece, followed by a sponsored semi-professional recruitment film for local hospitals. He entered the London industry as a trainee editor and director at Technical & Scientific Films, a “nuts-and-bolts” industrial films company that provided invaluable experience.

He became better known in the wider industry for producing and directing March to Aldermaston (1958), on behalf of a committee formed to record a peaceful Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest focused on the Ministry of Defence’s atomic weapons establishment in Berkshire. Under the auspices of ACCT, numerous film-makers and technicians were involved, with Derrick in charge at the shooting stage, and Lindsay Anderson and Mary Beales leading on the editing of the mountain of footage produced. Derrick was later instrumental in another collectively made “pro bono” political production, the anti-apartheid Let My People Go (1961) directed by John Krish.

These projects grew out of union activity, as did A Long Look at Short Films, a 1966 book (co-authored with Vincent Porter) launching a national campaign for better support for British short film. Arguing that film should deepen society’s self-awareness, Derrick echoed John Grierson’s 1930s rhetoric, while anticipating today’s landscape: “In a world where all media have fused into a giant global information system, the creative film-maker has been placed in a position of terrible responsibility as interpreter of the social scene”.

I got to know Derrick in connection with BFI research (the BFI preserves many DKP productions). An instantly impressive person, he displayed great confidence, untouched by ego or arrogance, but emanating instead from a highly stable personality driven by moral commitment leavened by friendly humour. The film editor Terry Twigg, his friend and sometime collaborator since Oxford days, said that his true gift was as an enabler, “using his experience, energy and tireless enthusiasm to create the circumstances in which other people can do their best work”.

Derrick is survived by Brenda, whom he married since 1959, and by their daughters, Rachel and Susan, and five grandchildren.

• Derrick Knight, film-maker and charity worker, born 3 February 1929; died 28 December 2022