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A New History of British Documentary is the first comprehensive overview of documentary production in Britain from early film to the present day. It covers both the film and television industries and demonstrates how documentary practice has adapted to changing institutional and ideological contexts.




Critical and Historical Perspectives on British Documentary
It has become commonplace to preface accounts of the British documentary film movement with a variation of the idea — most succinctly expressed in the 1947 Arts Enquiry survey The Factual Film — that ‘documentary is Britain’s outstanding contribution to the film’.2 Indeed, as Forsyth Hardy’s observation in the celebratory volume Twenty Years of British Film, also published in 1947, makes clear, the claim had by then already become something of a cliché. In his 1936 book Documentary Film, for example, the documentarist and critic Paul Rotha wrote that documentary was ‘this country’s most important contribution to the cinema as a whole’.3 Of course it is only to be expected that documentary film-makers themselves would make such claims, but this view was also shared by the first historians of British cinema who placed documentary at the forefront of a critical project to create a distinctively national film culture. Consider, for example, Roger Manvell, writing during British cinema’s ‘golden age’ of the Second World War: ‘The story of British cinema, apart from documentary, has been a tragic one of opportunities squandered and pioneers unrecognised.’4 Or Richard Griffith, who in his contribution to a new edition of Paul Rotha’s seminal The Film Till Now in 1949, claimed that ‘documentary was the most important, and almost the only, British contribution to world cinema until the war years.
James Chapman

1. Documentary Before Grierson

In most standard film histories the emergence of documentary is generally understood as an international process in the 1920s when a number of films across different national cinemas — including Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) in America, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que les Hueres (1926) in France,Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) in Germany, Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) in the Soviet Union and John Grierson’s Drifters (1929) in Britain — gave rise to a new type of film that eschewed the melodramatic antics of the fiction film in preference for social observation and authenticity in the representation of real people and locations.2 The films cited above all demonstrated, in different ways, Grierson’s notion of documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’. Hence documentary came to be seen as a progressive mode of film practice characterized by aesthetic innovation and social purpose. However, as early film historian Stephen Bottomore has pointed out, the association between documentary and progressive aesthetics has led to the eclipse of an older tradition of non-fiction film in Britain and elsewhere: by ‘implying that the documentary is art or it is nothing’ the standard historiography posits ‘that no “real” documentaries were made before 1920’.3 Since the late 1970s the critical ‘rediscovery’ of early cinema has seen the emergence of a revisionist historiography that has comprehensively redrawn the historical map of film production and exhibition during the medium’s formative decades.
James Chapman

2. Documentary in the 1930s

While there were important antecedents, such as the documentary reconstructions of British Instructional Films and the polar exploration epics, the emergence of British documentary as a distinct mode of film practice in its own right is generally held to have been in the 1930s when a combination of factors — including a growing awareness of the potential of film as a medium of mass communication, a progressive outlook by both the public and private sectors towards commissioning films for publicity purposes, a realist tendency in the arts in general, and the rise of an intellectual film culture that saw films as an art form rather than purely as a business — created the circumstances in which the documentary ‘movement’ took shape. All accounts of the origins and early history of the British documentary film movement privilege the role of John Grierson (1898—1972) who is widely referred to — including by himself — as its ‘founder’ or ‘leader’. In the standard historiography Grierson is seen as laying down both the sociological and the aesthetic principles of documentary film. This is despite the fact that he directed only one major film (Drifters, 1929) and that his career as a hands-on documentary producer was in fact quite short. Yet Grierson’s influence on documentary was so pervasive that the label ‘Griersonian’ is regularly attached to an entire tradition of film-making and even extends to include many productions in which he had no involvement at all.
James Chapman

3. Documentary at War

In most histories of British cinema the Second World War is regarded as a ‘golden age’ when the social practice of cinema-going was at its height (annual cinema admissions reached their peak at 1,632 million in 1945) and when British films, long dismissed as pale imitations of Hollywood, enjoyed a hitherto unprecedented level of both critical and popular acclaim.2 The war also marked a high watermark for the British documentary movement, whose skills and experience were now much in demand for the provision of ‘propaganda for democracy’. It was during the Second World War that documentary films reached their widest audiences and that documentary entered into the mainstream of British film culture. Documentary films such as Britain Can Take It!, Target for Tonight and Fires Were Started became synonymous with the ideological project of British wartime cinema to represent the ‘people’s war’, while critics at the time and since have identified a ‘wartime wedding’ between documentary and the fiction film in which the style and ethos of the former infused the latter.3
James Chapman

4. Post-War Documentary

The orthodox view of British documentary after the Second World War is that it was a period of stagnation and decline — a narrative summed up in the title of Elizabeth Sussex’s book The Rise and Fall of British Documentary.2 Basil Wright, for example, believed that ‘exhaustion set in’ after the war and ‘we were over the peak’.3 This was not merely a retrospective view. A contemporary report on documentary for the Central Office of Information was dismissive in the extreme of ‘the old Soho Square gang’: ‘They are stale. They have no new ideas. They are content to plough the same somewhat arid furrows that they have ploughed for these many years.’4 It would probably be fair to say that few if any post-war documentary films deserve a place in the canon alongside classics such as The Song of Ceylon, Night Mail, Fires Were Started or Desert Victory. In the standard historiography two events — the death of Humphrey Jennings in 1950 and the closure of the Crown Film Unit in 1952 — have come to represent, symbolically at least, the end point of the documentary movement of the 1930s.5
James Chapman

5. Television and Documentary

The emergence of television as a new mass medium that challenged and eventually surpassed the pre-eminence of cinema offered new opportunities and new challenges for documentary. Some documentarists responded enthusiastically to the promise of television. Duncan Ross, for example, who had been Paul Rotha’s assistant producer for Britain Can Make It before joining the BBC in the late 1940s, saw television documentary in the Griersonian tradition of ‘the creative treatment of actuality’. The public service ideology of British broadcasting — as mandated by royal charter for both the licence fee-funded British Broadcasting Corporation and its commercial rival Independent Television — chimed with the educative and socially purposeful ethos of the documentary project.2 And, for the documentarists, television offered a potential audience many times larger than they could hope to reach either in the cinema or through non-theatrical distribution: 90 per cent of British households owned a television set by the 1960s. The audiences for some of the landmark documentary television series such as The World at War dwarfed those for documentary in the cinema. For all these reasons there was much truth in the view that documentary was perfectly at home on television.
James Chapman

6. Alternative and Oppositional Documentary

While all documentary may be considered an alternative mode of film practice, in the sense that it asserts its difference — formally, institutionally, ideologically — from the fiction film, there also exists within documentary a ‘tradition of independence’ that runs alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, the mainstream of the movement.2 In Britain this alternative tradition has taken various forms, including the left-wing political film-makers of the 1930s for whom documentary was a means of promoting causes such as disarmament (People of Britain) and addressing topical subjects absent from the newsreels such as the Spanish Civil War (Behind the Spanish Lines, Spanish ABC), the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s with its polemical declaration of independence both from the British commercial cinema of the time and from the Griersonian orthodoxy of documentary, the work of the Cinema Action group in the 1970s with its agitprop ‘people’s films’ on behalf of marginalized groups such as council tenants (Not a Penny On the Rent), the homeless (Squatters), students (Hands Off Student Unions!) and strikers (Arise Ye Workers), and in the emergence of the film workshop and collective movement during the 1970s and 1980s exemplified by organizations such as Amber Films, the LondonWomen’s Film Group and the Black Audio Film Collective.
James Chapman


British Documentary in Context
The British documentary — both in film and in television — has undergone fluctuating critical fortunes. For many years documentary was claimed as ‘Britain’s outstanding contribution to the film’ and this became the critical orthodoxy. This view persisted even in the wake of the decline (or as Rotha would have it ‘erosion’) of British documentary film after the Second World War. Later critiques of documentary focused on the perceived formal and ideological shortcomings of the films and highlighted the fact that documentary was a marginal mode of film practice. And in the 1980s the intellectual ascendancy of the ‘documentary-realist tradition’ in British film and television culture was itself challenged by the emergence of a revisionist historiography that sought to excavate those genres and traditions marginalized by realist aesthetics. The most persistent metaphor of recent British film historiography has been that of the ‘lost continent’ — a term coined by Julian Petley to describe the ‘repressed side of British cinema, a dark, disdained thread weaving the length and breadth of that cinema, crossing authorial and generic boundaries, sometimes almost entirely invisible, sometimes erupting explosively, always received critically with fear and disapproval’.2 A consequence of this revisionist historiography was the reclamation of popular but critically despised genres such as the Gainsborough costume melodramas and the Hammer horror films, and individualistic auteurs such as Michael Powell and Ken Russell whose work did not fit conventional notions of quality cinema.
James Chapman


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