Watching the North – Roy Spence and Terence McDonald

04th August 2020 6 Minute Read

For his latest travel across the heritage of NI filmmaking, Ruairi McCann focuses on Roy Spence and Terence McDonald, who realised their artistic visions outside the system.

For a web of economic, geographic and historical reasons, Northern Ireland has only recently been a site for large scale, commercial moving image making. And yet there is a Northern Irish film history, spanning decades far back into the 20th century, thanks to alternative modes of filmmaking.

One of these modes’ is the ‘amateur’ filmmaker. A tricky description, since amateur could be taken as a synonym of ‘hobbyist’, engendering the image of cinema as quaint pastime, like building model trains or stamp collecting.

Not that there's anything wrong this idea, but it misrepresents the large number of filmmakers who fit under this label yet treat filmmaking as a serious artistic practice. Regardless of the limited or lack of a financial reward or that their productions will be largely self-funded, with little or no access to commercial or institutional coffers.

The Northern Irish contingent of this type of cinema is a wide and disparate roster and is a field of much concerted study and so it cannot be summarized here, satisfactorily, in one fell swoop. For now, it is worth looking at just two figures in particular: Terence McDonald and Roy Spence.

Apart from their mutual independence and period of most fervent activity (roughly from the mid sixties to the mid eighties), it would initially seem like they are too incongruous for a single comparison. McDonald (1926-2001) was a full generation older than Spence (1944- ) and lived on the other end of the North, in urban Derry City. The subject of his first film, A City Solitary (1963), a social minded city portrait—written and narrated by future SDLP leader and Nobel laureate John Hume—that was the beginning of a body of work whose great multitude of styles, subjects and close collaborators suggests a filmmaker less interested in maintaining a single, consistent authorial vision, than in throwing his net as wide as possible.

Spence, on the other hand, grew up, and later intentionally remained, in the relatively rural isolation of Comber, Co. Down. While his films are not entirely solo efforts—twin brother Noel, a writer and fellow film enthusiast, would chip in behind and in front of the camera, along with other friends—Spence’s film work is somewhat solipsistic, in comparison to McDonald. Pursuing the ‘seventh art’ for him was not a specific political goal or in solidarity with a wider Northern Irish film community, but as a continuation and a deep dive into interests he has harboured since childhood; that being gothic and weird fiction, hammer horror and 50s sci-fi movies. They would all end up fuel for pastiche, as well as serious contributions to these storied traditions.

While plenty sets these two filmmakers apart, they are united by the tension, between the real and the fantastique, that sits at the heart of amateur filmmaking. This makes them both distinctive within an independent Northern Irish cinema which, in the main, is concerned with realism. For it is much written about quality of amateur filmmaking, that it has a covert documentary-like facet. Since filmmakers, regardless of their aims, cannot help but let reality seep in, when they are tethered by cost-effectiveness to non-actors and real spaces.

Spence though made the most concerted attempt, to break from reality, with his first cycle of films with a series of black and white films, all shorts, shot in 8mm and 16mm between 1965 and 1971. Cribbing plots and iconography from the writings of M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and with techniques directly inspired silent German expressionist cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), Spence sought to create for himself a less direct and more atmospheric type of horror.

The most successful of this crop is The Testament of Caleb Meeke (1969), which tells of a young man (Clive Wilson) who, after inheriting his late, eponymous uncle’s mansion, arrives at the property to discover his uncle’s mysterious fate. The film’s use of the diffuse quality of the 8mm image, with the young man obscured and overwhelmed by the texture of the grain, almost as much as the shadows or the sinisterly framed landscape, along with a curdled, minimal soundscape, Spence manages to conjure an unreal atmosphere. An intense eeriness, which culminates in perhaps the most disturbing, and certainly the most surreal, moment in Spence’s corpus; a black magic climax where bare sinewy flesh emerges in and out of an inky darkness.

There are less ‘closed circuits’, in Spence’s later works as snatches of an Ulster brogue breached the façade of transatlantic mugging. The dissonance though would become another fruitful source of creativity for Spence, leading to a film like The Attack of the Saucer People (1981). This semi-autobiographical and self-deprecating short, about an amateur filmmaker who records a glimpse of genuine extraterrestrial activity, much to the disbelief of everyone he shows it to, combines science fiction with a comedic but realistically detailed picture of middle class protestant life.

Eventually he would go a step further, into outright documentary, when in partnering with the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, he made a series of shorts (from 1978 to 85) about artisanal practices and customs that once defined, and then were fast fading, rural Ulster life. These films pack more than a hint of wistfulness—that is also present in similarly ethnographic films made by McDonald—though Spence combines this tone with close-up, scrupulous attention to the intricacies and textures of the work being immortalized.

For McDonald, unlike in some of Spence’s work, this relationship between realism and other fantastical or formal interests exists less within certain films than in a round robin exchange that stretched the length of his relationship with film. Socially conscious and expository documentaries would remain a staple of his, though also in the mid-sixties he made several slapstick shorts, to be used interludes for a local panto theatre. The experimentations in film form evident in these titles—from speeding up the film and running it backwards to dubbing in funny voices—would not only meet the disapproval of those filmmakers and theorists in pursuit of an objective reality on-screen. They are also precursors for later, more ambitious experiments. Such as Nebelung (1978) and Requiem for Sally (1979), where he attempts to portray intense, subjective states—of anxiety in the former and grief in the latter—using advanced editing techniques.

The film that is, perhaps, the most demonstrative of McDonald’s filmmaking skill, particularly in editing, is the fantastical, The Secret (1973).

Made with British-Irish actor Hilton Edwards—life partner of fellow actor and all-around impresario Micheál Mac Liammóir—this short film features mythic allegory, read and performed by Edwards. Against which we see the sight of a mysterious figure, cloaked in black clothing and shadows, along with images of flora and fauna which he cuts to and zooms in on at a quick and eruptive rhythm. Timed to the lyrical and punchy pace of Edwards’ classical diction, so that the impression given is that the tale’s otherworldly personages are emanating not just from the mouth of a storyteller but from nature itself.

From the very landscape which McDonald’s fellow poets of the northwest, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, also coded in similarly mythic terms. The difference is that McDonald’s form is not the written word and poetic meter but the shot and the cut, which he used with a surety of expression that was far from amateur.

Watch The Testament of Caleb Meeke

Watch The Secret

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