Born on Armistice Day in 1918 in Kirkwall, Orkney, Margaret Caroline Tait made her first film in 1951 and her last in 1998. During that time, she made thirty-two films ranging from short hand-painted animations to a feature-length narrative fiction film. All except the feature, Blue-Black Permanent (1992), were independently financed despite periodic attempts to interest sponsors in her work. The financing of her work while she was alive remains significant even today because the collection of film and sound elements donated by her husband Alex Pirie, to the SFTVA very much reflects the unusual circumstances under which she made films for almost forty years.
At the age of nine, she was sent to the Esdaile boarding-school in Edinburgh and remained in the city to study medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating with a MB, CH.B in 1941. In 1943, she joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to military hospitals overseas, first in central India and then in Ceylon. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, she was posted to Johore Bahru, Malaya and Singapore. Then, shortly after the war, she went to Perugia for a short time to study Italian. She returned to civilian life in 1946 and except for another spell in Italy, continued to engage in periodic spells of locum work in hospitals and general practices until 1960.
Her interest in film making began early on and while practicing medicine in the Army she wrote scripts for feature films. There is some evidence to suggest that she possessed a cine camera during this period, too. 1 Interest in her scripts was shown towards one or two but they weren’t taken: “I also tried a competition or two, without success. I was told that production companies preferred to receive scripts through an agency; but there was the snag that agencies didn’t want you unless you’d been accepted.” 2 On the basis of doing research for a script she hoped to sell about St. Francis of Assissi, she returned to Italy in the spring of 1950. By the summer, she had found out that Rossellini had just finished a film about St. Francis (Franceso, Guillare di Dio, 1950), and gave up trying to attract interest in her screenplays for the time being, turning her attention instead to the writing/directing course at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia which started in the autumn. Tuition was free for foreign students and she lived frugally though “without hardship” off her army gratuity and earnings from teaching English.
In this post-war period, Italian directors such as Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti were working during the height of Neo-Realism and these films were always accompanied in cinemas with a short documentario, or corto metraggio (‘short film’) described by Tait as sometimes “more of an essay or poetic evocation of something.”
The editing could be on a different principle, less to do with following action and more to do with creating a continuity… in some of these shorts the film consisted of this sort of shot to shot continuity based on pictorial composition or allusion from detail to detail… 3
While in Rome, impatient to be actually doing something, she and two other foreign students at the Centro began making short films on their own using the “available actuality” associated with neo-realist films. One of those students was Peter Hollander, an American with whom she would start a production company, Ancona Films Ltd (named after the Via Ancona road in Rome) and collaborate on film making projects while in Italy. 4 Hollander remembers the company as “limited indeed. Mainly in the area of operating capital.” 5 In fact, although always starved of capital, Ancona Films had offices in Rome, New York and Edinburgh, reflecting the cities where it’s partners would eventually reside and its Edinburgh office remained registered until 1973.
While tuition may have been free for foreign students at the Centro, film stock and laboratory costs were not. Tait and Hollander found themselves having to assist the Italian students if they were to gain experience making a 35mm black and white short by the end of the year. Frustrated by this, they decided to make their own films without any help from the school. Whereas the Italian students remained more conservative in their film making, preferring to use the sound-stage instead of locations, Tait, Hollander and an Argentinian called Fernando Birri, 6 took to the streets with their 16mm cameras, eager to express what they had learned from the neo-realist directors who taught at the Centro. Their first film was called, One is One (1951).
Margaret had devised an arcane system to indicate the opus numbers of our films in their titles. We named our first-born One is One. For those not in on Margaret’s code, the title was meant to suggest the line “One is one and ever more shall be so…” from the English folk song Green Grow the Rushes-O. We ran out of money well before the film was finished. We did edit what footage we had and used to run the print like a silent movie with Ottorino Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome as the musical accompaniment. 7
Tait and Hollander secured funding from Perugia University for their second film having convinced them that “they needed a film to promote their language classes for foreigners in the English speaking world. The American Commission for Cultural Exchange with Italy also saw use in such a film and between them they paid for a large part of the film stock, its developing and printing.” 8 The film cost almost half a million lire and was called The Lion, the Griffin and the Kangaroo. The title being contrived out of the official symbols of Perugia (the lion and the griffin) and the kangaroo representing all the foreigners studying at the University. The title also suggested that it was their second film referring to the song, ‘The animals are coming, two by two…’ The film was well received by the rectors of the University except for one reservation:
“Why did you make the town look so medieval and old,” they wanted to know, “it looks as though you have to go everywhere on foot. We also have many wide streets. Why, an American student could even bring his car to Perugia!” 9
With their partnership established, Tait and Hollander turned to their next project, a hand-painted film they called Calypso.