Jill Balcon's family ties to Birmingham
Jul 28 2009 By Roger Shannon
Roger Shannon offers a personal memoir of actress Jill Balcon, who dies earlier this month.
It was a delight and a privilege to welcome Jill Balcon to the city last October for the Into the Light event. The sad news of her death on July 18 came as I had begun to plan for her second visit to the city, which I had hoped would take place later this year.
She was in some pain and discomfort last year but agreed to make the trip up from her Hampshire home and entranced all those who met her at the Odeon Cinema on New Street.
I had sent a series 5 Mercedes to collect the 84-year-old actress from her home, thinking it would give her the roomy comfort she needed due to her ill health and lack of mobility.
She was tickled to discover that its last occupant had been the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, while he was travelling to and from the annual conference in Birmingham. Sharing Cameron’s car certainly raised her political hackles.
Jill Balcon was a guest of the city that evening at the first Into the Light event – the closing night of the Hello Digital Festival, which celebrated the life and career of her father, the Birmingham-born-and-bred film producer, Sir Michael Balcon.
She gave a barnstorming speech about her father and her actor son, the double Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, conjuring an insight into a genuine cinema dynasty.
Jill was keen to watch the film chosen to celebrate her father’s career – the Ealing classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets – although she did comment to me that “too often my father’s career is exemplified by Ealing comedies, when in fact the wartime films such as Went the Day Well, Dead of Night, The Foreman Went to France and San Demetrio London deserve just as much attention as the comedies.”
We agreed that a future Into the Light event would include a screening of one of these classic wartime movies, which she offered to introduce.
As the credits for Kind Hearts and Coronets, sourced from the British Film Institute’s Archive, rolled down the screen, Jill touched my arm and said sadly – “All gone, save for Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer. I knew them all at Ealing, and now they’re all gone.”
A generation of creative endeavour and talent had just scrolled past her eyes.
Jill Balcon was born in 1925 and was married to the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis. She carved out for herself an impressive acting career on the stage and on screen, taking in a number of Ealing movies in the 1940s – Nicholas Nickleby, Good Time Girl – and in more recent years in two films directed by Derek Jarman, Edward II and Wittgenstein.
Her children are the film actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tamasin Day-Lewis, the television chef and cookery writer. Daniel is widely considered to be the consummate professional of his generation, collecting two Oscars, three Baftas and one Golden Globe in a film career of glittering distinction that took off after his performance in the movie My Beautiful Laundrette. Yet, as Jill explained on that October evening – “The only award he keeps at home in Ireland is ‘Most Promising Newcomer, County Wicklow Running Club’”
The first time I contacted Jill about her father, her response was very welcoming, though tinged with some regret. She explained that her father held great fondness for his home city, however she had always wondered why the city and its public realm had found it difficult to acknowledge her father’s enormous contribution to the world of cinema.
In a small and modest way, Into the Light has helped to achieve this recognition.
She was in her element when chatting to the students from George Dixon School who filmed and interviewed her that evening. Helpful, patient and putting them at ease, she answered all their questions, offering nuggets of family information and advice about the world of film and acting even though, all the while, her back was jabbing her painfully.
The students are making a documentary on the life and career of school alumnus, Sir Michael Balcon. Jill told them how proud she was of her son, Daniel.
“He lost a toenail while making Last of the Mohicans, then carried on working with pneumonia while making Gangs of New York, and he hurt his ribs while shooting the fall scene in There Will be Blood.”
There are very close associations between the Balcon family and George Dixon School. Most notably, the fact that Michael Balcon had attended the school in the early part of the 20th century, and later on in the 1940s would visit the school with his new productions (for example, Whisky Galore) under his arm, and show them to the boys as a premiere in a makeshift cinema, even before the film was on general release.
Sir Michael also immortalised the school through the character of Sergeant George Dixon in the Ealing movie, The Blue Lamp, who later reappeared on the small screen in the long-running BBC series, Dixon of Dock Green (recently revived on BBC radio).
So, it was entirely appropriate that the George Dixon School should continue the long associations between the school and the Balcons by turning its own cameras on Jill and her film-making family.
The school also has a small Balcon archive which has begun to attract the attention of the UK Film Archive and the British Film Institute.
The second Into the Light event this autumn will now also be a tribute to Jill Balcon and will include a screening of the George Dixon school students’ documentary, a showing of one of Sir Michael Balcon’s wartime movies from the BFI Archive and an opportunity to see Jill Balcon, the actress, in one of her finest screen performances.
* Roger Shannon is an independent film producer and a professor at Liverpool’s Edge Hill University.