Documentary filmmaker

Born: May 15, 1936;

Died: January 12, 2018

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EDDIE McConnell, who has died aged 81, was one of Scotland's greatest documentary filmmakers, starting out at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s and influencing later generations of filmmakers in Scotland and beyond. He was ahead of his time and won many awards including a Bafta (British Academy) Scotland award for Special Contribution to Scottish film in 2007.

Mr McConnell also participated in an Oscar for the great 1961 film Seawards the Great Ships, directed by Hilary Harris, the first Scottish film to win a Hollywood Academy Award as Best Short Live Action Subject. He was a cameraman on the film and he was perfectly suited since it was filmed on his native Clydeside and the Govan shipyards he knew so well. These were the days when the shipyards were humming and Scotland was at the forefront of the global shipping industry. They were also the days before huge camera zoom lenses and Mr McConnell and his fellow cameramen had to get their long-range "tracking shots" from small planes.

Hilary Harris, the director, had intended to shoot real-time interviews with the shipyard workers but it turned out they swore too much, so he had to give them a script to try to stick to while Mr McConnell kept his camera on them. They didn't do too well in the non-swearing department but the editors did their best. The film was produced by the great Stirlingshire-born John Grierson, a mentor to Mr McConnell and globally-known for his TV series This Wonderful World. It was Mr Grierson who first coined the term "documentary" for film and became known as "the father of the documentary." His young protegé McConnell quickly got the message: write about real people in real situations.

Although he started with a "silent" film, The Glasgow School of Arts (1957), Mr McConnell became one of the first documentary makers to put music to his films, notably classical music and in particular his beloved Mahler. He told the stories of normal people like himself, initially his fellow Glaswegians but later folks in Europe, Australia, South America, New Zealand and India. He did not get materially rich but his lifetime work is held at the Scottish Screen Archive of the National Library of Scotland, a rich legacy.

Edward McConnell was born in Kelvindale, Glasgow, on May 15, 1936, to Edward McConnell, head teacher of a Glasgow primary school, and his wife Margaret (Quigley). He attended St Gerard’s Secondary School in Govan (as did Billy Connolly), followed by St. Aloysius College in Garnethill adjacent to the Glasgow School of Art where he went on to study from 1954-59. When Edward McConnell Sr gave young Eddie a cine projector as a present, it changed the boy's life. He spent all of his pocket money renting films from Lizars photo equipment shop on Sauchiehall Street to show to his school friends.

At the Glasgow School of Art, he studied sculpture under Benno Schotz, an Estonian-born Jewish sculptor who emigrated to Glasgow as a young man, worked all his life here and died in his adopted city. Mr McConnell went on to make a fine short film about his teacher and mentor titled Benno Schotz: Sculptor and Modeller (1973).

It was while at the GSA that Mr McConnell made his first film, The Glasgow School of Art (1957) on his 16mm camera. It lasted only 17 minutes but perfectly encapsulated the life of the GSA, its students and the art they created. It reflected the life of young would-be artists trying to rise beyond the war years their parents had endured and they themselves had survived as kids during the Glasgow Blitz. Their faces are alive with hope, something badly-needed in the Glasgow of the 1950s.

While at the GSA, Mr McDonnell founded a film society, showing avant-garde films from Europe which had strongly influenced him. Some were surreal and he himself viewed life as surreal. As soon as he left the GSA, Mr McConnell was snapped up as a freelance cameraman for the fledgling Scottish Television (STV). That gave him wider recognition and street cred and also brought him closer to his mentor John Grierson. But Mr McConnell wanted more.

In 1963, he formed a film company, International Film Associates (Scotland), with his friends Laurence Henson and Sydney Harrison. They produced many documentaries and cinema shorts for the Films of Scotland Committee, the Central Office of Information and the Children’s Film Foundation. One of these was Loch Lomond (1967), about the loch's people and wildlife. In the style of the times, the film was narrated exquisitely by a posh Englishman but Mr McConnell's camera work ensured it was a very Scottish film. His work also influenced Glaswegian filmmaker Bill Forsyth, director of Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, who, as a young man, had been an assistant and "gofer" to Mr McConnell on Loch Lomond.

Another of Mr McConnell's most-acclaimed documentaries was A Line for All Seasons (1981), documenting the history and beauty of the West Highland Railway Line which travelled from Queen Street station, Glasgow, to the Highlands and back. It was beautifully narrated by the actor John Shedden and followed the train during the year's changing seasons.

Mr McConnell's last broadcast works were again about his beloved steam trains, filmed for a Channel 4 TV series. They included The Emotive Locomotive and Steaming Passions, both of which won a cult following among steam train enthusiasts. ''To the uninformed, the fascination might seem an excuse for the 'boys' to play trains, get oily, and drink pints," Mr McConnell told an interviewer. "My theory is that it must be something in the water - or steam - that acts as an aphrodisiac.''

For the last 15 years, Mr McConnell, while still filming, spent a lot of time drawing and painting watercolours and portraits. One of his portraits hangs in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant on Ashton Lane, Glasgow. It shows his friend Ronnie Clydesdale, the Chip's founder, overlooking the restaurant and he donated it to Mr Clydesdale's son Colin after Ronnie passed away.

Eddie McConnell died in Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, while planning yet another film - about street musicians all over Europe. Typically, he had asked not for flowers or sympathy, "only, if desired, donations to the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building Restoration Fund or the National Library of Scotland/Moving Image Archive." He had loved the GSA building where he learned his craft and where he influenced so many. He is survived his son Michael, daughter Clare and three grandchildren.

PHIL DAVISON