Spotlight: Kay Mander
The first time we heard Kay Mander’s voice, we fell in love. On a taped interview from 1988, a 72-year-old Kay can be heard talking to two male interviewers. Somewhat shambolic, slightly patronising, the men ask questions, but don’t seem to care for the answers. Muttering, umming and ahhing, they frequently interrupt, getting dates and film titles wrong. In one exchange Kay is talking about Highland Doctor, one of the first docu-dramas. What did she do? - the men want to know - did she direct it? Did she write it? Kay’s voice, plummy and indomitable, rings out: “I did everything”.
What Kay means is that documentary making was traditionally a one man show. The British docmaker was used to doing the bulk of their own research, writing, and directing, even during the war years and the boom of state-sponsored filmmaking. But the way Kay declares this, cutting past the two not-quite-listening men buzzing around her, it’s a statement that carries a different weight. This is the unavoidable freight of a woman in a male-dominated industry. The freight of not having your contribution properly acknowledged, of wrestling for your credit, of fighting to be seen and heard.
We fell in love with Kay Mander when we heard her voice. When we found her photograph, that love was sealed. For all that we should avoid reducing women to sharable stills, it is undeniably gratifying when we find an image of a filmmaker and she looks exactly how we imagined. An image of Kay in black and white, with a Jean Seberg crop and sunglasses, eye trained down a viewfinder, is a potent thing. Dig further and find photos of her on set in a striking jumpsuit, or hanging out with François Truffaut in the 1960s and she becomes even more irresistible. She looks, undeniably, like a badass. “Badass like Kay Mander”: a T-shirt waiting to happen.
Even without the filmmaking, Kay’s life would have been an unusual one. Born in Hull in 1915, Kay’s accountant father was frequently posted abroad for work. The family lived for a while in Paris, and then Berlin when Kay was a teenager. The 1930s was, to put it mildly, an interesting time to be in Berlin. Kay’s father had his hat knocked off at a Hitler rally when he refused to take it off, and her first job was at Goebbels’ Berlin Film Congress. It was here where Kay made her way into the industry, cornering the English delegation and networking like a maniac.
Kay’s career began in 1935 as a continuity girl at London Films. From there she worked her way up, like many estimable “girls” before and since, becoming a production assistant at Shell, then directing propaganda shorts at Paul Rotha Productions in the 1940s. Like many notable directors of the period, Kay was able to take advantage of the gaps left by absent men to climb the ranks at speed. In War-time the usual barriers did not apply. There was work to be done, a glut of state-sponsored instructional films to be produced, and that gap left room for a sparky “gal” to elbow her way in.
The going was tougher for women after the war, but Kay managed to keep directing for a while at least, forming a production company, Basic Films, with her husband Rod Baxter. The couple collaborated on Kay’s best known work, Homes for the People (1945), a passionate, empathetic Labour campaign film. Her approach here is bold and progressive. Like her peer Ruby Grierson, Kay takes a direct, un-glamourised approach, interviewing ordinary women as they continue with their domestic work, rather than having them recite a monologue in the usual style of the day. By filtering a socialist message through the words and lived experiences of real women, Kay offers an unapologetically female perspective on a political issue. The result is refreshingly open, direct and real.
Basic Films built a good reputation, even winning a BAFTA in 1949. This success prompted Kay to write to the major UK studios asking to be considered as “a technician regardless of her sex”. Here, the glass ceiling palpably descends. She was told a woman would be unable to lead male crews, despite ten years of experience of doing exactly that. Disenchanted, Kay moved with Rod to Indonesia and set up a film unit there, but her directing career was losing momentum, and she shot her final film, The Kid From Canada, in 1957. A switch back to continuity saw her working on several high profile international films, including with François Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Ken Russell on Tommy (1975), before retiring in 1995.
Kay was a success. She spent a life immersed in film, she built a career in the industry she loved, she lived all over the world. Yet despite this, it’s impossible to hear her story, or listen to that fascinating extended 1988 interview, without sensing her frustration. Unlike, for example, her contemporary Jill Craigie, Kay did not self define as a feminist, pushing back against the designation of “female filmmaker,” and stating: “I’ve got too much bother in my life, without having to bother about being a woman.” Today that stance feels uncomfortable, unsisterly, unwoke. This is the problem with viewing the women of the past through the lens of today. When you listen to Kay talk, there’s no doubt that this was a woman who chafed against the limitations of her time but nevertheless found her promising career prematurely curtailed. She fought against this sexism, but, like so many in the film industry, past and present, could never quite move past it.
In 1988, more than 40 years after Kay’s trailblazing filmmaking peak, we can feel her still wrestling with those limitations. At one point, the interviewer proudly presents her with a list of 17 films, her official director credits as recorded by the British Film Archive. “Well, I directed over 50!” Kay counters, exasperation palpable in her voice. Even now, with her films in an archive and historians recording her testimony, she is fighting for her due. We’re thankful then, that Kay is up to the task. Even in her 70s, there was still plenty of Badass in Kay Mander.
"Homes for the People", BFI.org.
"Interview with Kay Mander", The British Entertainment History Project.
"Kay Mander Obituary", Sarah Eason, The Guardian.
"Kay Mander", Sarah Eason, BFI Screen Online.