By Dai Vaughan
The booklet to this BFI four-DVD collection of British Documentaries starts by quoting John Grierson’s description of their objective as ‘The creative treatment of actuality.’ This is a variant on the phrase, ‘The creative interpretation of reality,’ which used to appear on the masthead of Documentary News Letter. The trouble with this more familiar version – and I dare say Grierson used both at one time and another – is that it could apply to almost any work of art in almost any medium. ‘Reality’ is a notoriously slippery concept. ‘Actuality’, on the other hand, was the accepted term for a certain kind of early filmmaking: the relatively unsophisticated presentation of subjects of general interest – the Western Front, Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, a day in the life of a miner – which it was assumed the viewer would accept simply as a record of what had passed before the camera.