When we were still students at the National Film and Television School, we got our first commission from John Willis at Channel 4 to make ‘Mr. Mike is on the Mountain’, a kind of anthropological/verité documentary about the Sherpas’ viewpoint of a British climbing expedition. Rather than ask a young, aspiring editor and fellow student to complete the job, we turned – with uncharacteristic humility – to Dai Vaughan.
Dai periodically lectured and taught at the NFTS, and we were card-carrying members of his filmmaking tribe: no commentary, subtitles for foreign language speakers, let the intrinsic drama of characters and story play out. Aesthetic principles aside, we really didn’t have much choice but to work with Dai. As a young married couple, Peter and I knew we needed an agreed-upon authority figure: Someone with Zen-like qualities, who would act as both the jury and the judge before our marital bouquet of competing visions and diverging plotlines. The prospect of wreaking havoc in Dai’s presence was simply unthinkable. With the hum of operatic passages spilling out over the words and images he sliced and spliced, our idealistic, epiphanic moments of inspiration took a back seat to his wise, worldly ways. After Mr. Mike, we brought him every film we could, despite commissioning editors’ feigned surprise when we announced that we wanted Dai to be our editor: ‘Is he still around?’ they’d say. ‘I haven’t heard his name in ages.’
Renowned for his work on The World at War and on Roger Graef’s ground-breaking verité series, Dai’s cutting room was his sanctuary. Too cold or too hot with little more than a kettle for comfort, he kept his re-winds on the wall behind him, a six-plate on the wall in front of him, and didn’t seem to notice the step-aerobics we all performed to keep from bumping into one another when we stood up to leave, or came in and reached for the chairs. Both walls converged trapezoidally on a window overlooking Wardour Street, perfectly cramped to keep visitors out; just the way he liked it. Some visitors Dai didn’t mind. When our four year old was recovering from chicken pox, Dai had no problem letting her come in with us and stretch out across two chairs. During our edit of ‘The New Rasputin’ – a film about a notorious sex guru in Russia, who claimed to bring roomfuls of women to orgasm using telepathy alone – our Executive Producer, Udi Eichler, made it to the cutting room every single day.
Enemy lines were conceptual but clear. Dai viewed our commissioning editors with a bit of suspicion, and they viewed him just the same. He called commentary a virus. ‘Once infected with a single line, the entire film succumbs,’ he said, when we grappled with the pros and cons of recording a few lines of voice-over for our Cutting Edge film, ‘Summerhill at Seventy’. In all the years we worked with him, from the late eighties to the mid-nineties, Dai’s fashion sense never strayed beyond one pea-green jumper and black jeans. He was quick to laugh, and even quicker to stroke his beard when a serious thought took hold. Every day, rain or shine, Dai took a walk during lunch. It was hard not to imagine he’d rather be at home, writing his book.
Though very private, during a few long afternoons of reordering scenes – of Sherpas threatening to burn down basecamp, or students debating whether or not to reinstate bed times – Dai would talk about his past; what went right and what went wrong both personally and historically, when he joined trainloads of children leaving London for the countryside during World War II. He had a kind of philosophical resignation; a shrug of both surrender and defiance. But he never lacked warmth.
The tribal roots we shared with Dai embraced the observational, verité, guerrilla-style of filmmaking, which Colin Young and Herb DiGioia at the NFTS championed. If we had a choice back then, we would have been making anthropological documentaries. Instead, we had to settle for bringing anthropological film techniques to television. Rebels in training, we always hoped Dai’s experience and integrity would protect us from the commercial clutches of prime-time’s downwardly mobile tastes and trends. Squeezing a commissioning editor into the cutting room for a screening sometimes felt like an invasive species coming to roost. We would present what all of us believed to be our best and most perfect cut, and the commissioning editor would rapidly inject some new, disfiguring form of DNA into it; the future stem cells – unbeknownst to any of us at the time – of what would become reality television.
‘I’ve never worked for the same commissioning editor twice,’ Dai said now and again. In retrospect at the time, neither did we. But we always returned to Dai. He had to be the most interesting, serious and skilled editor anyone could ever hope to find in the UK.
Here is a link to Dai’s life as a writer