That dreadful film?

Letter by Dai Vaughan, London 

The feature on Summerhill in your July/August edition contained a reference to “a scurrilous film” transmitted by Channel 4 in 1996. Actually it was 1992. It was called Summerhill at Seventy, and was shot and directed by a man-and-wife team whose six-year-old attended the school throughout the filming. I was the editor.

Was it a scurrilous film? Possibly. Certainly it provided the worst experience of my 40-year career in documentary: worst, that is, in terms of the imposition of a malign ideology by the broadcaster upon material shot with a different purpose in mind. The most blatant example concerned an episode, present in our first cut, where the children were required to adjudicate upon a situation where two of them had quarrelled and one had broken the other’s leg. They ruled that the former should act as full-time helper to the latter during the time he was on crutches; the two ended up good friends. But we were required to remove this and replace it with a more “dramatic” scene showing the children’s failure to resolve the problems caused by a boy who was clearly psychologically damaged and ought never to have been at Summerhill in the first place. (Unfortunately the commissioning editor had insisted upon viewing the rushes, and therefore knew what we’d got.)

When the film was finished, the three of us debated whether or not to remove our names from the credits. We arranged to run the final version for Zoë Redhead (AS Neill’s daughter) and another member of staff; they seemed reasonably happy with the result. We began to wonder whether perhaps we had been over-reacting to a purely personal sense of slight, and whether, in spite of everything, there wasn’t still enough in the film to do justice to Summerhill. So we hung on to our credits. I don’t know to this day whether that was the right decision.

As for killing the rabbit – not, incidentally, instigated by the film-makers – this would have kept its place in “our” version. What is so terrible about a boy dispatching a diseased animal? One wonders whether all the people who huffed and puffed about this in the media were themselves strict vegetarians or protestors against fox-hunting or badger-culling. I mention this only to stress that the factors which prompted the knee-jerk outrage of the tabloids were not those which led to our own dissatisfaction.

Topics: Education