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James Hill (British director)

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James Hill

Film director

Lucienne Hill

1 August 1919 (
Eldwick, Yorkshire, England, UK

film and television director, screenwriter, producer

Known for
documentaries, children's, feature length and short films director of Born Free

October 7, 1994, London, United Kingdom

Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject

Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action)

Born Free, A Study in Terror, Captain Nemo and the Under, Black Beauty, Lunch Hour

Similar People
Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Joy Adamson, Donald Houston, Geoffrey Keen

James ("Jimmy") Hill (1 August 1919 – 7 October 1994) was a British film and television director, screenwriter and producer whose career spanned 52 years between 1937 and 1989, best remembered for his documentaries and short subjects such as Giuseppina and The Home Made Car, and as director of the internationally acclaimed Born Free.


Hill also directed, produced and/or wrote such diverse films as Black Beauty, A Study in Terror, Every Day's a Holiday, The Lion at World's End (a.k.a. Christian the lion), Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, The Man from O.R.G.Y., and the children's television series' Worzel Gummidge and Worzel Gummidge Down Under.

Early career

James H. Hill was born in Eldwick, Yorkshire, England on 1 August 1919, and attended Belle Vue Boys' School. He entered the GPO Film Unit in 1937 as an assistant, then served in the RAF Film Unit during World War II, receiving a DFC. He is said to have been the model for Donald Pleasence' character Flight Lt. Colin Blythe ("the Forger") in The Great Escape (1963).

After the war he became a documentary director, primarily of shorts, before graduating to feature length children's movies with The Stolen Plans in 1952.

In 1955 Hill entered a new phase with the documentary The New Explorers, sponsored by the BP oil company who (following Shell Oil's example) produced a number of industry-related, independently produced documentaries and shorts. Accompanying an oil exploration team around the world on its unsuccessful quest, Hill later wrote of his trek in the trade magazine Film User that he had "...travelled nearly 100,000 miles by car, jeep, train, liner, launch, dhow, canoe, catamaran, bicycle, aircraft, flying-boat, camel, helicopter, horseback and foot." Due to production costs and almost inaccessible locations the movie was shot on 16mm film, rather than 35mm film then in common use.


In the 1960s Hill expanded his scope and firmly established himself as a mainstream director. In the words of Richard Chatten of The Independent:

"The British cinema of the Sixties was littered with the bones of directors who showed promise in the field of documentaries and shorts but came to grief in features; but James Hill was one of the most conspicuous exceptions."

Beginning with The Kitchen (1961), based on Arnold Wesker's play, it was quickly followed by two John Mortimer play adaptations, Lunch Hour (1961), showing the dire consequences of a lunch hour romance, and the legal satire The Dock Brief (1962); both essentially two-hander plays. Every Day's a Holiday (1964), for which he also wrote the screenplay, was a teenage pop musical typical of the era.

At the same time Hill continued to make documentaries and children oriented shorts, including the immensely popular and Academy Award winning Giuseppina (1960), following young Giuseppina's interaction with the traffic that passes by and through her father's gas station in Italy. Another popular short, The Home-Made Car (1964), without dialogue, won two Berlin International Film Festival awards. Both films were regularly shown on BBC2 as Trade test colour films (a.k.a. fillers); in fact at 2:30 pm on 24 August 1973, Giuseppina was the last such film ever shown.

The year 1965 began with A Study in Terror, pitting an imaginary Sherlock Holmes against real life Jack the Ripper. Considered to be one of the best films of its genre, it boasted an impressive cast which included John Neville, Donald Houston, Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Barry Jones and Judi Dench.

Born Free and African wildlife

1965 was also the year of Born Free, an international hit starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, based on the autobiographical book by Joy Adamson about Elsa the Lioness. In an interview with Doris Martin, writer Sid Cole reminisced: “On Born Free I remember getting a card from Jimmy Hill saying he was in Kenya entirely surrounded by lions. (laughter).” Filmed on location in Kenya over a period of 9 months, with George Adamson as technical advisor, the shoot had a profound effect on the participants.

Closely associated with Travers, McKenna and Adamson, Hill followed up with three docu/dramas related to wildlife in Africa which he either directed, co-produced and/or wrote: The Lions Are Free (1967) on the fate of the Born Free lion-actors, An Elephant Called Slowly (1969), and The Lion at World's End (aka, Christian the Lion) (1971).

Later work and television

In following decades Hill is best remembered for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969), Black Beauty (1971), The Belstone Fox (1973), The young visitors (1984), and for the two children's television series Worzel Gummidge and Worzel Gummidge Down Under, almost all of which he either directed, wrote and/or produced.

Active in television throughout his career, his credits include episodes of The Human Jungle, Gideon's Way, The Saint, The Avengers, Journey to the Unknown, The Persuaders!, The New Avengers, and C.A.T.S. Eyes.

Marriage and death

James Hill was married to Lucienne Hill (?-?). He died in London on 7 October 1994, at the age of 75.

Selected filmography

Hill appeared as himself in:

  • The Lion at World's End (1971) a.k.a. Christian the Lion (US)
  • Without Walls Documentary (1992), episode “The Avengers”
  • Avenging the Avengers Documentary (archival footage) (2000)
  • References

    James Hill (British director) Wikipedia

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