The Arts – David Peat

David Peat – Multi Award-winning documentary film-maker and photographer

David Henderson Peat was born on 22 March 1947 in Glasgow, where his father ran a shipping agency, and was brought up in Bearsden and Killearn, Stirlingshire.

On leaving school David took a job in another shipping agency but had an overwhelming desire to become a cameraman and work in television, following the example of his maternal grandmother, who was a keen amateur photographer.

With the aim of creating a portfolio to help him gain access to the television industry, David started taking still pictures in the many areas of Glasgow, with a Pentax camera that he had been given for his 21st birthday. His earliest work, a portfolio from 1968, includes stark black and white images of the street life of children in Glasgow, taken against the background of crumbling tenement buildings and a city in transition.

A year later, in 1969, David landed a job as an apprentice camera operator and found himself in demand during the successful “work-in” at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971.

His break came when he teamed up with the director Murray Grigor to make sponsored travelogues, starting with Travelpass – It’s Just the Ticket (1972), about Scotland’s Highlands and islands. Their sixth film together was Clydescope (1974), which was presented by the folk singer-turned-comedian Billy Connolly, himself a former shipyard worker.

The following year, Peat and Grigor spent 48 hours following and filming Billy Connolly on a tour across the Ulster/Eire divide at the height of the troubles in the Seventies. The result was the seminal film, Big Banana Feet (1976). Just a few months earlier, three members of the Miami Showband had been killed in Northern Ireland, so other entertainers were boycotting the country.

In 1980, Peat worked for the BBC on a Man Alive programme covering soldiers wounded in the province and a World About Us documentary on the over-fishing of mackerel and herring stocks in British waters.

The launch of Channel Four in 1982 brought new opportunities. David cut his teeth as a director on Years Ahead, a magazine series for older viewers, between 1982 and 1985, before making his own documentaries.

After directing Six Little Sisters – The Waltons at Three (1986), following the world’s first surviving all-female sextuplets, his focus returned to Scotland, first directing programmes for Scottish Eye on Channel Four and Around Seventeen on ITV in Scotland.

Influenced by the fly-on-the-wall techniques of the director Roger Graef, Peat carved out an observational style that connected with audiences and earned him the trust of his subjects. In This Mine is Ours (1994), he entered another “secret world” of men in a hidden environment, chronicling the attempt by miners to establish their own pit at Monktonhall Colliery, outside Edinburgh, in the wake of plans to privatise it.

This was typical of many of Peat’s films, which lamented the impact of “progress” on communities, as did Please Leave the Light On (1997), focusing on the keepers working on the last staffed lighthouse before it underwent automation. Similarly Gutted focussed on the fishing industry in Peterhead as one of the boats was forced to be scuppered.

In 2006, David tackled the last taboo – dying. His documentary Life’s Too Short followed key staff at the Marie Curie Hospice in North Glasgow, a pioneering care at home for the dying.

In 2004, he produced the hugely successful first series of Scotland on Film, an anthology of clips representing a history of 20th century life in the country. The Man Who Cycled the World (2008) and The Man Who Cycled the Americas (2010), followed Mark Beaumont’s feats on a bicycle.

Big Noise in a Wee Country gave a touching view of primary school children in the deprived area of the Raploch, Stirling, as they learned to play a musical instrument using the same method as Venezuela’s El Sistema.

Throughout his career in documentaries, David continued with his stills photography.

For 40 years, David had been active with his camera and had amassed a vast collection of photographs from all over the world. He had thousands of contact sheets, but had never processed or catalogued them.

In 2009 he was diagnosed with myeloma, an incurable cancer, and as he himself said: “That was the motivation. I just thought, I am not prepared to fall off my perch and have all these thousands of negatives – my eye on the world – disappear.”

Exhibitions of David’s 1968 images of Glasgow children were held in Aberfeldy and Glasgow. His collection An Eye on the World was also exhibited in Aberfeldy at the Watermill Gallery in 2011, the year that he was presented with Scottish BAFTA’s Outstanding Contribution for Craft Award, and this was followed by a retrospective at Street Level Photoworks shortly after he died. The Exhibition moved to Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studio in 2013.

In his later years, David devoted much time to mentoring a new generation of film-makers, passing on the creative baton to the documentary producers and camera-people of the future, through training courses both within the BBC and on college courses.

David Peat died in Shandon, Argyll on 16 April 2012, leaving the world a wide legacy with his films, training and mentoring of talent, as well as leaving Glasgow with a remarkable visual archive.
This was recognised in early 2013, when the Scottish National Portrait Gallery commissioned 40 of David’s 1968 Glasgow Portfolio to be kept on archive for at least 500 years.

Just prior to his death, David changed roles, placing himself in front of the camera rather than the other side of the lens, as a BBC Scotland camera crew worked with him on a biography of his life’s work. The documentary was made by BBC producer Tony Nellany and director Lou Lockhead.
The result was A Life through the Lens: David Peat.

On his death the BBC stated: “David Peat’s passion was documenting humanity. It was an idea he returned to constantly and an ideal he held dearly – whether he was recording people’s lives on film or discreetly photographing them in the street. It was a passion which drove him to master his craft and gave him an insight and empathy which made his films stand out.”

David received over twenty major industry awards during his career including: Three BAFTA Scotland Best Documentary awards, Two Cine Golden Eagles for Documentary, A Royal Television Society Award, UK Outstanding Freelancer of the Year and two Celtic Film Festival Documentary awards.

David, who lived in Shandon for 27 years, had married Patricia MacLaurin in 1984 and had two children Duncan and Rosie.

A web site detailing David’s Life and Work can be found here: www.davidpeatphotography.com