Denis Scully

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Denis Scully (b. Portsmouth, Hampshire, 08/05/1925 – d. Johannesburg, 26/07/2008) was a filmmaker.


William Francis Scully, Denis Scully’s father, was born in Aldershot, but at the age of 19 he was serving with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps at Roberts Heights in Pretoria. In 1914 he married Ermoeda Wilhelmina Frederika Freeman, who was born in Standerton. Their first son, Patrick Francis, seems to have been born in Cape Town, though his birth was ultimately registered in Ireland. The second son, Laurence Vincent (the prominent artist Larry Scully) was born in Gibraltar in 1922 and the third son, Denis Louis, was born in Portsmouth in 1925. A sister, Maureen Theresa, was born in Portsmouth in 1931. With the exception of Patrick, in 1938 the whole family came out to South Africa.

Long before he became a filmmaker, Denis Scully’s name appeared in the local newspapers. In 1942, when he was 17 years old, he was a leading signalman on the HMSAS Nerine, a mine-sweeping trawler, when the cargo liner Dunedin Star ran aground on the Skeleton Coast. All of the passengers and some of the crew were taken ashore by lifeboat, but then the small boat was destroyed by the stormy seas. The rest of the crew were eventually taken on board by other ships that came to the rescue, but those stuck on the beach were only retrieved after Scully had swum to shore with a rope tied around his waist, thus establishing a physical link between the bedraggled survivors and the Nerine.

Film Career

He did some stage acting as a young man, playing Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Jewish Theatre Guild in December 1951 and also produced a number of plays in Pretoria, but eventually settled for filmmaking. He and Tim Spring both worked on the documentary Golden Reef (1956), directed by Julian Spiro for World Wide Pictures/South African Chamber of Mines. He then moved to NRS in Pretoria, where he made what may have been his first short as director, A Pipe for Christmas (1957). Shot by Tim Spring, it purports to tell the story of the origin of the “cloth” that sometimes covers Table Mountain. During that time they also worked for George Michael on the The Michaels in Africa television series. He directed a number of other sponsored documentaries, including Power for South Africa / Krag vir Suid-Afrika (1959) for Shell South Africa and a promotional short for the National Tuberculosis Association of South Africa.

His first feature film was the mining drama Tremor (1961), produced by Rand Film Productions in association with the British company, Avon Films. Written by Alastair Scobie, reviews were generally sympathetic, but their following co-production, Hands of Space (1961), a science fiction story written by Monte Doyle, disappeared without a trace and was apparently not even screened in South Africa. His next project was Journey into Nowhere (1962), made by Scully Productions and West Germany’s Corona Filmproduktion. The film starred three imported actors, but got caught up in circumstances beyond the producers’ control. Scully’s partner in the company was lawyer James Kantor and Kantor’s brother-in-law was Harold Wolpe, who was one of the accused in the Rivonia trial. As a result Kantor was also arrested, though the case against him was dismissed. The upheaval contributed to the fact that Scully Productions could not meet its debts and in April 1964 the firm was placed in provisional liquidation. It’s main assets were the screening rights of Journey into Nowhere. Kantor’s wife, Barbara Howard, had acted in Tremor and at one stage was Dennis Scully’s production secretary.

A number of features Scully is supposed to have made are impossible to trace, though Diamonds High / The Zambezi Kid (1988) was indisputably made. Others, like Counterpoint Kill (1975) and Afro-Dee-Zee-Ack /Horn of Plenty (1994) seem to exist in name only. Throughout his life he was struggling to get new films off the ground and one can only imagine what a 1977 project on black soccer called Blackball (1977), starring Lovelace Watkins, Ben Masinga, Mara Louw and Abigail Kubeka would have been like. Not to mention a script based on his own experiences at the time of the stranding of the Dunedin Star. Later in life he became somewhat disillusioned with the South African film industry and primarily acted as editor/consultant on the films of others.

Trivia: When, in 1953, his mother, Ermoeda, and his sister, Maureen, travelled to the United Kingdom, the ship’s manifesto identified them as “actress” and “artiste” respectively. In fact, there is a suggestion that Mrs. Scully may have toured with Brian Brooke, though presumably not under that name.


Sunday Times, 7 April 1964

Rand Daily Mail, 29 April 1964

Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm (1982)

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