Land of Promise

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. Grierson’s insight was that such a mode of response might be harnessed, with the aid of techniques picked up from Flaherty and Eisenstein, so as to generate meanings: in particular, political and social meanings which could awaken society to its mutual responsibilities. Add to this his observation that there were more seats outside the cinema than in – in other words, that there was no need to be reliant upon the commercial system of distribution and exhibition – and you have the essential determinants of British Documentary. It is rare to be able to trace a major cultural phenomenon back to the vision of a single individual; but in this case we surely can.

The contradictions lurking within Grierson’s original formulations, as between ‘actuality’ and its ‘creative treatment’, were eventually to manifest themselves in the form of tensions between social purpose and aesthetic preoccupation, tensions leading sometimes to fissures if not quite to schisms (for the contradictions of the movement were also its strength). Such dichotomies persist to this day in the way we approach the films: as witness to past social developments or as artworks retaining their own appeal in the present context. They were not made for posterity; but, as we watch them, we encounter many shots and sequences familiar from their use in archival programmes on television; and it is clear how impoverished would be our visual history without this resource. The editors of the collection – 40 examples in all – have on the whole placed emphasis upon the social/historical aspect, even having the courage to include one outstandingly bad film, Basil Wright’s Children at School, a shoddily put-together piece with one of those we-know-better-than-you-do narrations which help us understand how documentary managed to get itself so disliked at times. People will of course quibble about the selection. My only serious concern is the omission of Drifters, which was where it all began: Grierson’s calling card, the film he showed the high-ups and the money-bags to explain to them what he had in mind. Yet even this omission has its advantage in allowing the story to come full circle from Industrial Britain to Family Portrait, where, nineteen years and a world war later, we find Jennings echoing Flaherty’s reassurance that there is still a place for individual skills and discernment in our high-tech world.

This collection does tell a story, and it is an interesting one. It has to do with the balance, in the political arena, between small-scale organisation – ‘grass-roots’ as we would now say – and the evident need for nation-wide change. During the 1930s an institution called the National Council of Social Services dispensed money to the unemployed to enable them to build community centres. Today We Live (1937), co-directed by Ralph Bond and Ruby Grierson, was sponsored by the NCSS to promote its schemes; and Bond, very much a man of the Left, was sill expressing satisfaction four decades later at having been able to end it with someone vehemently arguing that such local efforts were no substitute for properly paid work.* Once the war was under way, and social engineering from above - rationing, direction of labour and so forth - was all-encompassing, the government was happy to allow the gaps to be filled with quasi-anarchist initiatives, either under the umbrella of such organisations as the Women’s Institute (John Page’s The Countrywomen) or in countless spontaneous groupings such as fire-fighting rotas. Max Anderson’s Words and Actions in 1943 proposes such activities as the true essence of democracy. But no sooner had hostilities ended than the interests of Government and the people began again to be seen as antagonistic; and much effort was put into trying to persuade us that the challenges of re-building and the re-tooling industry required a continuance of wartime controls. Rotha’s Land of Promise, making the case for town planning, sweats desperation from every join.


We have difficulty today in ‘reading’ documentaries of the 1930s and ’40s. The performances of non-actors appear stilted, and we chafe at the fact that most scenes are clearly reconstructions. Yet it is arguable that to have people re-enact their own lives – perform themselves, as it were – introduces a different level of truthfulness, and perhaps one which accords them greater respect, than today’s vérité with its access to every unguarded twitch and utterance. Once we have re-attuned ourselves to the style, we may find considerable subtleties in it. Consider, for example, the curiously strained relationship between the two bombed-out women and the neighbour who offers them comfort in Ordinary People (Lee and Holmes, 1941). Indeed, it is sometimes possible to feel that what is being presented here is not the tawdry happenstance of actuality but rather the ideals towards which the people aspire, or at least something part-way between the everyday and the hoped-for. If documentary was good for the war effort, the war effort was certainly good for documentary, leading to great expansion of both its audiences and its methods. The oddest example of the re-fashioning of character occurs in The Undefeated (Paul Dickson, 1950), about the rehabilitation of severely wounded ex-servicemen. Here a fictional amputee is performed by a real amputee whose voice - in voice-over if not in his fleeting moments of synch - is supplied by actor Leo Genn.

This collection, however, is more than a history lesson. It offers a rich variety of productions among which everyone will have favourites. I’ll limit myself to two.


One, Farewell Topsails, is a hitherto unknown film made by Humphrey Jennings in 1937. It records a voyage of the last commercial sailing ship carrying china clay from Cornwall to London, and is shot on Dufaycolor, a process affording delicate pastel tints similar to those of Albert Khan’s Autochrome stills with which television has recently acquainted us. Music is supplied by an accordionist, who opens the film in a landscape setting. His tunes are played out in full, and the editing respects their rhythm. This simple device of showing the musician in picture suffices to invert the normal relation between music and commentary. Thus the latter, though histrionic in tone as was usual at the time, does not bear primary responsibility for determining the structure and is free to perform a... well, a purely commentative function; and we, in turn, are free to respond unhindered to the ship’s worn woodwork and its sails sewn and patched as a poor child’s trousers. Here, as in so many of his later films, we find Jennings approaching things from somewhere outside that network of assumptions which everyone else seemed to be taking for granted.


Finally Night Shift (J.D.Chambers, 1942), a seemingly routine 14-minute record of the night shift in an armaments factory. Its commentary is couched in the first person plural and is spoken by a female voice, preceded briefly by a more conventional male voice, which takes on a colouring of authenticity from proximity to frequent snatches of synch (or near-synch) dialogue. At their 1.00 am ‘dinner’ in the canteen, a singer and a pianist in factory overalls provide entertainment. Then, as the meal break ends and the canteen empties, the singer moves away from the mike and, still singing Some of These Days, begins clearing up the crockery. It is one of those unforgettable moments; and its magic resides largely in the fact that, as the mike is left behind, the sound level of the song does not change, so that the transition between public performance and private reverie has to be effected in our own minds. This film achieves an extraordinarily poignant atmosphere of comradeship and of dedication to the anti-fascist cause. It is hard to imagine anything of the kind being made today.

Dai Vaughan is a documentarist and writer.