MacQuitty, William Baird (1905–2004), traveller, film producer, photographer and polymath, was born in Belfast on 15 May 1905, elder of two sons of James Baird MacQuitty, managing director of the Belfast Telegraph (a cousin of the principal proprietors), and his wife Henrietta (née Little), originally from Co. Longford, who was 'steeped in Irish folklore'. At the age of six he attended the May 1911 launch of the liner Titanic, and recalled that it left him with a feeling of pride in being an Ulsterman.
He was a delicate child; his parents moved from Belfast to the nearby seaside resort of Bangor for the sake of his health, and he subsequently developed considerable skill and dexterity in physical exercise. After being given a book on nature observation, Eyes or no eyes, at the age of five he developed a fascination with natural phenomena – such as the naturally camouflaged frogs and inhabited birds' nests in the family garden and the detail of everyday life; these traits were intensified after his parents gave him his first camera when sending him as a boarder to Rockport preparatory school in 1914. MacQuitty consistently denounced his education at Rockport and at Campbell College as hidebound and conformist, though he benefited from the arrival of a more liberal headmaster in his later years at Campbell. Although he recalled his father with fondness and respect in later life, he found the older man's evangelical protestantism harsh and restrictive, and was disagreeably impressed by the many different competing brands of local Christianity and their theological disputes; the first world war and the subsequent troubles in Ireland appear to have sharpened his distaste for such conflict and division. A collection of trinkets brought from Asia by relatives seemed to him to symbolise the wider world.
MacQuitty's father wished him to join the Belfast Telegraph. MacQuitty, however, like many of his school contemporaries, sought to escape the province; with the assistance of his schoolteachers, he acquired a job at the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (later Standard Chartered Bank). After an apprenticeship at the Belfast Bank and in London (where he was a special constable during the 1926 general strike and took full advantage of the absence of parental supervision), he was assigned to Amritsar (capital of the Punjab, in India), where he became an amateur pilot as a member of the Lahore Flying Club and joined the Auxiliary Punjab Light Horse, a reserve unit given the task of escorting European women and children to safety in the fortress if there was any trouble. By the time of his death, he was conspicuous as one of the few with direct experience of Kipling's India. Less conventionally, over his five years' residence he learned Urdu, had an affair with a local Eurasian woman with whom he maintained a friendship for the remainder of her life, took up yoga, and studied Buddhism. For the rest of his life, MacQuitty spoke of himself as a Buddhist, though his Buddhism was a secular philosophy without supernatural elements, adaptable to different cultural heritages including the European; he believed in some great underlying life‑force but considered that the contrast between the vast complexities of the universe and the limitations of human understanding made it presumptuous to attribute to that force anything resembling human personality. He was particularly attracted by the Buddhist belief in the illusory nature of the self and its eventual re‑absorption into the One; this appealed to and intensified his preference for living in the moment, without nostalgia for the past and fear of the future, tying himself down as little as possible with contracts and institutions.
Although MacQuitty praised the abolition of the harsher forms of poverty he recalled from his Edwardian youth, and made a point of retaining trade union membership in his various professions so that when disputes arose with his subordinates he could address them on equal terms as a colleague and explain his point of view, his underlying worldview was libertarian. He held the lifelong opinion that those who shunned exploration and sought from state or other large institutions, such as churches or corporations, the economic and emotional shelter of the anthill, wasted their one and only lives and in so doing impoverished mankind as a whole. In 1969 MacQuitty published Buddha, a brief history and exposition of Buddhism, illustrated with his own photographs of Buddhist art from many countries, and with an introduction by the 14th Dalai Lama.
Although his behaviour raised some eyebrows at bank headquarters, no obstacles were raised to his promotion. He was successively posted to Colombo (Ceylon, latterly Sri Lanka), Bangkok (Thailand), Penang, and Shanghai, where he engaged in further explorations of countryside, cultures, travels and women, chronicled with tact and fascination in his 1991 memoir, A life to remember. He returned to Belfast on his occasional leaves, sometimes exploring rural western Ireland. These experiences gave him a lifelong contempt for racism and cultural chauvinism, and he always expressed gratitude to the Chartered Bank for making it possible for him to explore the world in his youth and for giving him an insight into the financial and economic practicalities on which so much of importance in the world rested. At the same time he was disturbed that many of his colleagues centred their life on the bank, directed their lives towards the attainment of a pension, and were left at a loose end when they finally received it.
In 1939 MacQuitty resigned from the bank four years short of a pension, after being refused compassionate leave to return to Belfast and care for his mother, who was dying of cancer of the oesophagus. (He thereby unintentionally saved himself from being interned by the Japanese during the second world war, as befell many of his friends; at one point in the conflict MacQuitty wrote to the bank proposing to take an Irish passport and return to Asia to inspect his friends' detention as a neutral observer, but was told such matters were best left to the Red Cross.)
After his mother's death, MacQuitty informally studied psychoanalysis in London with the dissident Freudian Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940), a refugee from Nazism. Stekel attributed neuroses to mental conflicts, rather than the Freudian emphasis on the libido, and believed in short courses of analysis with an emphasis on dream interpretation as opposed to the lengthy Freudian process. Both he and MacQuitty saw analogies with Buddhist meditation.
Wishing to back up this informal training with formal medical qualifications, he returned to Belfast and began to study medicine at QUB. The bank returned his pension contributions, with which he bought a farm at Dundonald on the outskirts of Belfast as a second string. He produced and financed an amateur film, Simple silage, with the author and singer Richard Hayward (qv), to instruct Northern Irish farmers in silage‑making techniques; this caught the attention of the British Ministry of Information, which recruited him as assistant director on Letters from Ulster, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst (1896–1986) and depicting the experiences of American GIs training in Northern Ireland. MacQuitty then chose to accompany Hurst to London to work with the producer Sydney Box; he was finding the vocational emphasis of his medical courses as restrictive as he had found his earlier school curriculum, and an alternative project of becoming a gentleman farmer in southern Ireland seemed to him to renounce the excitement of new challenges.
Under Box's tutelage MacQuitty discovered a talent for orchestrating others' skills and became a producer himself. He worked on wartime documentaries including Out of chaos, a recording of the artistic response to war of British artists including Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, and Paul Nash, and a 1946 documentary on the rebuilding of Plymouth after German air raids; his co‑workers included the director/screenwriter Jill Craigie (1911–99). In the post‑war period MacQuitty risked his own, and sometimes relatives', capital in producing such films as Craigie's Blue scar (1948), about a south Wales mining village's reaction to the nationalisation of the coal industry, and Hurst's The black tent (1956).
MacQuitty's shared knowledge of east Belfast sometimes found odd expression; watching MacQuitty decline the sexual advances of the photographer Cecil Beaton at a wartime party, Hurst teased him as a Belfast suburbanite: 'don't be so Dundonald' (MacQuitty, Life to remember, 283). On 15 September 1951 MacQuitty married the actress Betty Bastin; they had a son and two daughters.
Another significant production was the war film Above us the waves (dir. Ralph Thomas, 1955), but MacQuitty is best remembered as producer of A night to remember (1958; dir. Roy Ward Baker), which depicted the voyage and sinking of the Titanic. This film drew on the memories of several survivors of the disaster, employed as advisors and interviewed on MacQuitty's simultaneously produced 1957 documentary about the making of the film. Although there had been several previous films about the Titanic, A night to remember was intended as the definitive treatment; many admirers consider that it retains that status even in competition with James Cameron's big‑budget and melodramatically emotive Titanic (1997), which itself acknowledged a debt to the earlier film. (MacQuitty was partly motivated by his memories of Belfast's early pride in the Titanic, but Harland & Wolff not only refused to co‑operate with a film about the disaster but encouraged business partners to avoid it; the de‑industrialised Belfast of the 1990s treated Cameron's film as a major tourism asset.)
Although the film's themes of the breakup of an overconfident Edwardian social order, its emphasis on Irish steerage passengers counterposed with first‑and second‑class hierarchies, and its modernist‑technocratic emphasis on survival through technical skills and flexible thinking (embodied in Second Officer Lightoller, played by Kenneth More), are not attributable to MacQuitty alone, their affinities to his general worldview suggest that what may seem individual idiosyncracies reflected a wider generational mindset. Despite the success of A night to remember both in terms of awards and box‑office returns, MacQuitty's services were not retained by the Rank Organisation for whom he produced it. He produced only one more non‑documentary film, The informers (1964), a London police thriller.
In 1959 MacQuitty was a member of the consortium which established Ulster Television (UTV) (encouraged by Sydney Box, who founded the Tyne‑Tees franchise). His partners comprised prominent British televisual figures including Laurence Olivier, and Ulster businessmen such as his own brother James MacQuitty (1912–99), Lord Antrim, and the Henderson brothers (proprietors of the Belfast Newsletter). MacQuitty allayed local establishment fears about excessive English influence by agreeing to restrict English shareholding to one‑quarter; in view of his ambiguous position, he was classed as English in this context. As the only consortium member with direct experience of producing and directing for television, MacQuitty was recruited as the station's first managing director (1959–60), in which capacity he helped to steer the new station through some awkward negotiations with the Independent Television Authority over its ability to supply local content. He insisted that his second six months should be half‑time and on half‑pay, and turned down a contract extension, not wishing to allow his life to be circumscribed by the station. He remained on as assistant managing director (1960–75), then was succeeded by his wife. MacQuitty was particularly proud of originating (though its concrete development was left to others) Midnight oil, an adult education series developed in collaboration with QUB academics, which was the first programme of its kind in the United Kingdom and prefigured the development of the Open University in the later 1960s.
While in Egypt planning a film on General Gordon of Khartoum (he abandoned this project on discovering that the much better‑financed American producer Julian Blaustein, later responsible for Khartoum (1966, dir. Basil Dearden), was also interested in the story), MacQuitty rekindled his interest in ancient Egypt, which he had originally developed as he passed through the Suez canal as a young banker, by visiting the temples at Abu Simbel, constructed by Rameses the Great. These were about to be moved to keep them from being submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser (created by the new Aswan High Dam). MacQuitty produced a documentary on Rameses (1964) and proposed to the UNESCO committee set up for the preservation of the temples that they should remain in situ underwater, protected by a filter dam which would strain out waterborne pollutants and allow tourists to view the site from glass‑fronted viewing galleries. This rejected proposal led to his first book, Abu Simbel (1965), written with the assistance of an Egyptologist and illustrated with his own photographs. Much of the text was recycled in Ramesses the Great: master of the world (1979).
MacQuitty thus began a new career as writer and/or photographer (often in collaboration) of educational photographic books, several of which were on Asian or Egyptian themes. Irish gardens (1966; text by Edward Hyams) was more profitably succeeded by Great botanical gardens of the world (1969), after the painful discovery that the Irish were not necessarily great book buyers. In 1972 he wrote Tutankhamen: the last journey, illustrated with his own photographs, which accompanied a high‑profile exhibition of the pharaoh's treasures at the British Museum. MacQuitty's photograph of Tutankhamen's death mask became the basis for the wildly popular exhibition's advertising poster, and his book sold 500,000 copies after it (and the exhibition) cracked the American market. In 1971 he supplied the photographs for Persia: the immortal kingdom, a lavishly illustrated coffee‑table book commissioned in connection with the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian monarchy which was extravagantly commemorated by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, shah of Iran. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the book's title was seen as unintentionally ironic.
In 1974 MacQuitty compiled a book, The world in focus, containing many of his travel photographs. The foreword was written by the science‑fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, an old friend who shared many of his interests, including the combination of eastern spirituality with scientific atheism; MacQuitty significantly influenced Clarke's decision to settle in Sri Lanka. Clarke's 1990 novel, The ghost from the Grand Banks, depicting attempts to raise the Titanic for its 2012 centenary, is dedicated to MacQuitty and mentions A night to remember.
Clarke also provided a preface for MacQuitty's elegant and witty 1991 memoir, A life to remember. MacQuitty gave many interviews to print and broadcast media in connection with the book's appearance, and the sight of a man in his late eighties retaining such vigour of mind and body (though he had undergone a painful hip‑replacement operation over a decade previously) led many enquirers to write to him seeking advice about how to conduct their physical, emotional and cultural lives. He responded by outlining his worldview in Survival kit: how to reach ninety and make the most of it (1996), which incidentally contains some additional fragmentary reminiscences – as well as warnings about the evils of overpopulation, advice on the blessings of open‑minded travel, and the advantages of swimming as exercise, while referring to the renewed Northern Ireland troubles (among other things) as indicating the need for mankind to shake off outmoded religious and intellectual formulations and advance through scientific rationality and syncretic spirituality.
MacQuitty continued taking photographs till almost the end of his life, and amassed a personal photo archive of some 250,000 items, which he made available to researchers. He mounted many exhibitions; examples of his work are to be found in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Imperial War Museum and other leading British repositories. Recordings of interviews with him are held by various bodies, including the BFI Film Archive. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, which in 2002 gave him its celebrated Lumiere Award for services to photography. QUB had already made him an honorary MA, and he received an honorary doctorate from the Occidental University of St Louis, Missouri. William MacQuitty died in London on 5 February 2004.