|I learned this week that my friend Dick Neilsen of Toronto has died at the great age of 86. For almost 70 years, Dick was a film-maker, journalist and political activist. Retirement never came into it. You couldn't turn off a head and heart like his.
I met him in 1996 after moving to Toronto. I had given up on Britain. The Tories had been in since I was 12 and I was fast approaching 30... Despite all that I had done filmwise I was getting nowhere on Teesside. Toronto on the other hand was 'Hollywood North' with tons going on! I had a mate there so I'd chanced my luck and joined him. I was dropping off CVs at production companies around the city when I was pointed to Norflicks. There I met Dick who said he could only give me 5 minutes of his time. We were still talking 45 minutes later. We got on great. He was such an impressive affable character. He spoke with this calm yet utterly ssurred conviction. There wasn't a whiff of insincerity or pretence about him. To me he personified the best of what I liked about Canada: Optimistic and intelligent; and free of the cynicism and class snobbery that I so despised about Britain!
I gave him a VHS showreel of everything I had ever done. The next week he told me he had sat down at home with his wife and watched the tape. He liked it a lot, appreciated where I was coming from and told me how important it was to tell the stories of the working class. He had just finished a film called 'Defying The Law'. It was about an illegal strike that he took part in 1946 as an 18-year old working at a steelworks outside of Toronto. It turned out that in the 50s he had been a union organiser for the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers before starting in media. As a journalist in the late 50s, he had ruffled feathers and got himself fired for exposing dishonest mine inspectors in Ontario. He moved into television in the 60s becoming an executive producer at the CBC before leaving to set up his own production company in the early 70s. His list of screen credits was as long as the room and many of the prestigious awards he had won over the years adorned the walls. These included The Mitchener Award, four Gemini awards, several awards for Best Canadian Film and an Emmy nomination.
And here he was knocking on for 70, still keen and with lots in the pipeline; and he wanted me to work with him! It was massively encouraging. I worked on re-enactment scenes for his WW1 documentary "The Battle of Vimy Ridge" and was an extra pair of hands on the set of his TV comedy "Balls Up". In 1998, he paid for my emigration and I returned to the UK to sort it. Unfortunately Canadian Immigration kept me waiting over 2 years and then lost my paperwork! You could call it fate because I had in the mean time found myself with the project of a lifetime and a £75,000 funding award. Shooting the re-enactment scenes in "Vimy" were an undoubted inspiration. My film was a huge success and I gave Dick a copy when we met again in Toronto in 2006. I sent him copies of all my subsequent films including the WW1 project 'Redcar Remembers' which I completed in August this year. I got this last email from him soon after...
Great to hear from you. I enjoyed your film immensely. I don’t imagine I’m telling you anything you don’t know, but this latest film illustrates something marvellous about how you’ve used your talent to make films about a particular locality.
I think you should have a retrospective show at a theatre we have here in Toronto, The TIFF Bell Lightbox. One of the major failures of the movies is the lack of coverage of the lives of ordinary people in their communities and at their work. You have made a unique impact, my friend, and I would like to help you in any way I can. Keep in mind I’m 86, tired as hell, but I have to admit it, still working. Let’s you and me fool around with this idea of a screening at the Lightbox. Certainly what you had to say with 'REDCAR REMEMBERS THE FIRST WORLD WAR' was fresh and new, and because it was local, utterly believable.
Thank you for keeping contact. Best regards,