JOHN SAMSON (1946-2004), a Scottish filmmaker, lived a life as broad as the subjects he devoted his documentaries to. He spent his teens working in the Clyde shipyards in Glasgow, became the spokesperson for the apprentices working there, was arrested at Holy Loch when participating in anti-nuclear protests, and worked as a social worker in Easterhouse (a down-at-heel suburb of Glasgow where gangs roamed freely at the time). In 1963, he began studying at the Glasgow School of Art, swapping the shipyard for the art world.  

A retrospective of his work is now underway at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. Though one of the films, “Britannia”, explores the sedate world of steam-train enthusiasts in the English countryside, and another, “Arrows”, looks at the life the of the so-called “Crafty Cockney”, Eric Bristow, a champion darts player, most of his oeuvre is not for the faint-hearted.

Prudes be warned: after entering through the vinyl-curtained doors to the gallery space, visitors to the show are met by a large screen showing one of Samson’s most risqué films, “Dressing for Pleasure”, on a loop. Its subject is fetishism in clothing and the film lyrically flits between chats with dowdy-looking men and women who speak with starry-eyed love about their feelings towards the texture of rubber in clothing, and dance-like sequences where the sadomasochistic function of these clothes is paraded without censure. The film has mythic status, hardly harmed and probably boosted by the fact that London Weekend Television, which was due to show it, dropped it at the last minute after its governors got word of its contents. The manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm Mclaren, makes a cameo in Vivienne Westwood’s infamous Sex Boutique on the King’s Road, and clips would later turn up, pirated, in seminal documentaries on the birth of punk.

Samson’s most successful documentary “The Skin Horse”, won a BAFTA in 1984, and was groundbreaking for the era.  It interrogated stereotypes about sex and disability, showing the happenings at the Outsiders Club, a dating group for disabled people, and exploring how they are categorised as “monsters or children", “abused or patronised”, “a fetish or sexless” and “never in between”. 

“We who exist at either end of the dimension are public property because of our curiosity value,” says Nabil Shaban, an actor (who uses a wheelchair) playing the role of presenter in “The Skin Horse”. Three decades later, when reality shows trot out outsiders as carnival freaks to be ridiculed for ratings, more films like Samson’s need to be on the cultural radar. Those who don’t fit into the categories of mainstream society deserve the attention of a compassionate and respectful eye like his. Samson’s films look towards outsiders and eccentrics with curiosity rather than judgment. Mr Shaban’s personal role in “The Skin Horse” notwithstanding, Samson usually eschewed narration, believing it to be domineering and dictatorial.

His work gives the viewer a window into the pubs, punks and perversions of Britain in the late 1970s. Samson was a “determined defender of the creative possibilities of the working man and woman”, says Mike Wallington, his producer and friend. “He knew about dry stone walling, about pie-making, about Warhol, and he boasted of an aunt who was an unreconstructed Stalinist.” All his films centre around class and the subcultural fringe. He “didn’t believe in just switching the camera on and letting it run.” Samson’s son Robin once said. “He thought that to look at something is to change it; why bother disguising that fact?”