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The son of the second Lord Swaythling, a well-known banker, Ivor Montagu was born on 24th April 1904. Educated at Westminster, the Royal College of Science, and Kings College, Cambridge, his special interest was zoology.
He joined both the British Socialist Party and the Fabian Society at the age of 14 but at Cambridge in 1921 joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party, to which he belonged all his life. Following an MA degree and taking up-work as a zoologist for the British Museum he also became an active member of the Labour Party.
Two events occurred that had decisive effect on his future political development. He visited the Soviet Union in 1925 as a zoologist on behalf of the British museum and began activity for British-Soviet friendship.
In 1925, he was one of the founders of the London Film Society, immediately bringing early Soviet cinema in to the public domain in the process. From the late 1920s, he played an active part in film-making as an editor, screenwriter director and producer. By 1928, he was associated with Adrian Brunel, H G Wells, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in the production of an experimental series of short comedies based on stories by Wells. Such films as `Bluebottles’, `The Daydream’, and `The Tonic’ were only critically successful in Britain, although they were very popular in Germany.
Montagu’s passion for film as an art form and his attraction to left-wing politics led him to make many visits to post-revolutionary Russia, where he met and became a devotee of Eisenstein and other noted and skilled Soviet cinematographers. Montagu and his wife, Eileen (known affectionately to friends as “Hell”!) accompanied a group of these significant figures from early Soviet cinema on a grand tour of western Europe and the US from 1929 to 1930. Amongst many celebrities who feted the group included Charlie Chaplin. Montagu later wrote a memoir of these days - “In Hollywood with Eisenstein”, published in 1968.
An early film critic for the Observer, and later the Daily Worker, Montagu would later be recalled as a “noted theorist of the cinema” by the Times. But he was also actively involved in the practice of the making of many films. He was co-director of “Wings over Everest” in 1932 and producer, or associate producer, for several of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British films, including “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Thirty-Nine Steps”.
The British Film Institute has the following about Montagu:
“In 1939, Ivor Montagu made Peace and Plenty for the British Communist Party. It opens with a series of statistics and charts showing that, despite the election promises the Tories made in 1935, Neville Chamberlain's government had made no improvements to nutrition, housing, education, agriculture or industry. It is almost like an item from Newsnight, but such reporting would not have been found in the newsreels of that time.
After highlighting the links between various ministers and big business, the film becomes an attack on Chamberlain and his colleagues, their indifference towards social services and their mistakes in foreign policy. It was considered "one of the most bitter and ironical documentary films ever produced in this country". Critics noted the "deplorable and revolting" scenes (rat runs in tenement blocks, slum-dwellers' insanitary domestic arrangements), which were contrasted with portraits of the cabinet ministers responsible for housing and health. A dancing puppet (pre-empting satirical programmes such as Spitting Image) is used to depict Chamberlain, implying that he was acting on behalf of vested interests. Meanwhile, Montague shows us children in playgrounds, their legs crippled by rickets (seven out of eight children of working-class parents had rickets) and their mouths containing only stumpy gums (20 out of 21 children had rotten teeth).
After a screening at the House of Commons, Montague recalled: "The place was absolutely packed . . . Afterwards, it was very entertaining to hear the MPs as they went away saying to one another, 'Now that's the thing we ought to have for our Party.' They didn't seem to realise that the content had something to do with the force of the film, and not every party could make such a bitter, acid film."
Montague was the accredited “Anti- war Activities Correspondent” for the Daily Worker at the League of Nations. He also represented the paper at Belsen and Nuremberg trials after the war. In all, he spent ten years on the Daily Worker as a journalist between 1937 and 1946, variously as reporter, foreign editor and assistant editor. After the Second World War he joined the Secretariat of the World Peace Council and was a Communist Party Executive Committee member from 1944 to 1947.
In the inter-war years he began a long professional association with the important producer of British movies, Michael Balcon. Montagu produced both “Behind the Spanish Lines” and “Spanish ABC” during the Spanish Civil War. From 1941 to 1945 he acted as an advisor to the Soviet Film Agency. In 1948, Montagu’s work with, now, Sir Michael Balcon led him to become associate producer at Ealing Studios. That year, he co-wrote “Scott of the Antarctic”. His considerable literary and language skills enabled him to become a translator of many plays and novels from the French, German and Russian. He skilfully translated what were then key texts for the aspiring film maker - Pudovkin’s “Film Technique” and “Film Acting”. His other works included “Traitor Class”, “Plot Against Peace”, “Germany’s New Nazis” and the Pelican book “Film World”.
Ivor Montagu was a founder and an executive committee member of what would become the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTAT), which in more recent times became part of today’s BECTU.
He was also a surprising but moving force in the early days of table tennis, making a considerable contribution to the establishment of the game as an international sport. Montagu was himself considerably skilled in the game, being a champion and representing Britain in games all over the world. He was the author of a 1924 book, “Table tennis today” and another in 1936, simply called “Table tennis”, both of which gave considerable impetus to the popularity of the game. Helping to establish and finance the first world championships in 1926, he became the first world chairman of the table tennis international federation and held this position for 40 years.
His wife predeceased him by a matter of weeks and he himself died on November 5th 1984.