All entries for Wednesday 23 April 2008

April 23, 2008

John Grierson

John Grierson (1898-1972)

John Grierson

John Grierson from the Grierson Trust site

Return to the British Documentary Film-makers Hub 

Under Construction

John Grierson was the founder of the British documentary movement. He was born in Stirling Scotland 1998. He was going to go to Glasgow University on leaving school but with the outbreak of World War I he joined the Royal Navy serving on a minesweeper.

After the war he went to Glasgow University ending up with a Masters Degree in philosophy and literature. He took up a temporary appointment at Durham University. He didn't complete the research fellowship he was awarded. Instead he moved to the United States to examine immigration problems there in 1924. Grierson returned to Britain in 1927 in January. 

Whilst in the USA Grierson had become interested in issues of communications. Grierson developed a position that democracy and mass communications were highly compatible with democratic structures being able to work effectively providing there wre good public information systems.  This was when Grierson developed the idea that film was able to communicate a system of public education that was able to develop democratic structures themselves. This became the underlying theory of the documentary film movement.

In 1927 Grierson contacted the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) which was a large British government publicity organisation.  He was appointed to the post of Assistant Films Officer. After developing a production plan over the next couple of years Grierson emerged with his first film project Drifters (1929). This led to the establishing of the EMB film unit in 1930. 

The EMB Film Unit

Grierson soon started hiring apprentice film-makers after 1930.  His initial choices wer Basil Wright and John Taylor. A little later several other people were chosen including J. D. Davidson, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Paul Rotha, Marion Grierson John Grierson's younger sister, Margaret Taylor (John Taylor's sister), Evlyn Spice, Stuart Legg and Harry Watt. Aitken comments that very few of these people were old enough to have been directly affected by the significant events taking place in the first quarter of the century. Although Grierson grew up near a hard pressed area in Scotland he was relatively distanced from this, and even his service in the first World War was well away from the trenches. Aitken notes that there are few references in his writings to the General Strike even though he was 28 at the time and it was clearly a highly significant event within British politics and society at the time. 

There were quite significant differences in the approaches to life and culture amongst the membership of the EMB film unit. Grierson was on the whole anti-scholasticism at some point notes Aitken being scathing about 'bespectacled professors'. Grierson was also distinctly anti-gay whilst Wright and Cavalcanti and several others were gay. Grierson was also very masculinist despite the fact that he was prepared to employ women as directors. However none becoame significant figures within the documentary movement and few were employed after 1940.

The EMB was to prove an unstable organisation from which to build a documentary movement base.  After the introduction of major tariff legislation in 1932/33 its reason for existence disappeared and it was abolosihed in 1933. Fortunately Stephen Tallants the sectretary of the EMB who had originally taken on Grierson scured a post at the General Post Office (GPO). One of the conditions of his accepting the post was that the EMB film unit should be transferred to the GPO. 

Drifters (1929)

Drifters 1

Drifters (1929)

Drifters notes Aitken (1998, p 11)

"...remains one of the most important films in British cinema". 

The Empire Marketing Board wanted to produce a film on herring fishing however Drifters was very different from what was expected:

It was a poetic montage documentary , which drew heavily on the film-making styles of  Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty and on Grierson's understanding of avant-garde aesthetics. (Aitken, 1998 p 10)

The EMB film committee wanted some of the spectacular film montage sequences removed however Grierson sneaked them back in again. The film received its premier on Sunday 10th  November 1929 sharing the bill with no less a film than Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin at the London Film Society meeting and received favourable comparisons. 

Drifters is an impressionistic account and is rather more an evocative representation than one based upon descriptive detail examining the relationship between the herring fishers and nature. Nevertheless there is still a lot of information within the film on the working practices of the Fishermen. It tends to prioritise the working activity in its represntation rather than the institutions involved which depend upon that activity. The film focuses primarily upon working class activity which makes it an unusual one. The film:

...comments on the way that labour is commodified and degraded by market forces. (Aitken, 1998 p 14)

Drifters 2

Drifters (1929)

Drifters became the only film specifically credited to Grierson although his influence upon large numbers of films that followed was highly significant in contributing towards their final look and feel. Although the film wasn't in the slightest way Marxist it did mark a radical shift in the fact that the working class were represented at all. Aitken cites Montagu Slater writing in Left Review 1935 who argued that this was a revolutionary act in itself. (Aitken, 1998 p 34). 

This early documentary model was only used by Grierson in the EMB period and was gradualy superceded. Aitken puts this tendency down largely to the development of sound which reached the documentary movement in 1934. 

The GPO Film Unit  

Shortly after coming under the aegis of the GPO the unit gained larger premises and sound facilities. Quality was therefore improved and of course sound films were now produced. However Aitken (1998) comment that the overall quality of resources and quality of output remained relatively low over the 1930s. In 1935 Stephen Tallents left to take up an appointment with the BBC. Several other filmmakers shortly followed. Grierson himself followed in 1937 to establish Film Centre which was an organisation which had the objective of co-ordinating documentary.

Cavalcanti, Watt and Jennings remained with the GPO unit giving a more artistically based inflection to the work produced. Aitken comments that:

Cavalcanti had always disagreed with Grierson's conception of documentary, and had argued instead for a broader definition of realist cinema which could accommodate a variety of film-making styles. (Aitken, 1998 pp 21-22)

Grierson and the National Film Board of Canada

In 1939 Grierson took up the position of Film Commissioner at the National Film Board of Canada which he held until 1945. grierson had initially been approached by the Canadian High Commission in London with a request to create a report on developing government film-making in Canada. The report was submitted in June 1938 and became the basis of what was to become the National Film Board of Canada. Subsequently Grierson was offered the post of film commissioner at the new institution. Although it only started out with a personnel of 5 it expanded thoughout the war and by 1945 there were nearly 800 people employed there. It was the largest organisation Grierson had worked in and he also had far more autonomy than when he worked in Britain. He had deliberately ensured that the NFB wasn't subordinated to the Canadian Civil Service to avoid the constraints which had been faced at both the EMB and the GPO.

Sadly Grierson established a very instrumental regime himself which didn'y encourage creativity and imagination amongst his film-makers:

...on the contrary, to impose a tightly regulated regime based upon the mass production of  standardised, formulaic propaganda films. (Aitken, 1998 p 27)

In Canada Grierson created a model of film making which was drawn from the compilation film which had first been used in 1930 in the documentary movement in the film Conquest. The principle was that footage would be used that had been shot inside the organisation where possible. Grierson adopted this model in Canada to allow more control over the propaganda messages. furthermore this type of film could be made quickly and inexpensively. Grierson combined this approach with a "threshold specialisation" model of labour in which people learned about one area and then moveed onto another one rather than become highly specialised. This was a more collaborative model of film-making. As well as thecontent and the labour system involved Grierson was also influential in the exhibition model. Here he strongly encouraged non-theatrical distribution. The rural circuit scheme was very successful with screening in schools, halls and other public sites across the country. There were over 170 projectionists employed screening to over 250,000 per month by the end of 1941.

Aitken points out that that there was considerable resistance to Grierson's intrumentalist approach from both inside and outside the documentary movement. In 1941 Cavalcanti made Film and Reality which is an aesthetic study of the documentary film as a critique of this method. Also Jack Beddington who had become head of film propaganda at the Ministry of Information (UK) thought that they were ver propagandistic whilst some in Canada thought the approach too authoritative. 

Grierson from Central Office of Information (CoI) to Group 3

Early in 1948 Grierson returned to Britain to take up the position of Controller of Film at the Central Office of Information (CoI) which had replaced the Ministry of Information (MoI). In 1950 Grierson resigned and in 1951 he established Group 3. 

Group 3 was the production arm of the National Film Finance Corporation with a brief of producing good quality 'socially purposive films'. The purpose of the whole NFFC was to develop the British film industry as a whole and the mandate of Group 3 was to produce a number of high quality low budget films. Grierson was placed in charge of production but as there were concerns about his administrative capabilities John Baxter (Director of Love on the Dole, 1941) was placed in charge of administration. Out of 22 films produced only one was considered a success (The Brave Don't Cry,1952). The overall project lost about half a million pounds in 4 years.

Whilst Grierson can be held as partially responsible particularly because he was a hard person to get on with - he fell out with firstly Baxter and then Michael Balcon who was the Chief Executive of the project - he was also inexperienced in developing full length feature films. 

Aitken is also concerned to apportion a considerable amount of responsibility onto the commercial film industry blaming the lack of support in distribution and exhibition as the core reasons for the project being killed off. They disliked social-realist film-making because it lay outside of their control and also it was outside of their own commercial concerns:

The failure of Group 3 illustrates a continuing problem within the British cinema of finding adequate funding, distribution and exhibition for independent , innovative or experimental films. (Aitken, 1998 p 58)

By 1955 Group 3 had stopped production. Grierson left a little later in 1955.  

Grierson and the World Union of Documentary

Increasingly there was a crisis developing in the British documentary movement towards the end of the 1940s. Grierson was central to the failures to respond to change in two areas.

Firstly there was Grierson's branding of the World Documentary Movement as a Communist front which caused most British documentarists to leave. This hostility stems in part from Grierson being accussed of having Communist associations and being refused a US visa. The large numbers of Eastern european countries having members in the World Documentary Union furnished Grierson with a reason to attack it and to ensure it was noted he was suitably anti-communist. 

Grierson also failed to take on board the changing models of documentarism and realism particularly the Italian Neorealists. The neorealists had made a major impact upon the intellectual film cultures of Europe at the time - although it must be said that outside of Rome Open City most were box office failures in Italy. Grierson notes Aitken:

...rejected the model of independently produced realist films offered by neorealism, and insisted, instead, that documentary films must be made in close relationto the needs of governement departments, and to the imperatives of 'civic education'. (Aitken 1998, p 59)

Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema Movement which emerged during the 1950s were also very critical of Grierson. whilst they were keen on Humphrey Jennings the doumentarists in general were accused by Anderson of being largely protective of thier own position. For Anderson Grierson's post-war contribution was 'disastrous'. Certainly between the 1930s up until the 1950s Grierson was concerned to argue that documentaries should not be concerned with aesthetics. This led to the critical marginalisation of the Documentary Movement as the post-war cultural change followed the neorealists into post-neorealism in the work of Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini. 


Cavalcanti who had many differences with Grierson summarises his contribution like this:

Grierson's achievements can now only be analysed in perspective. He was basically a promoter. He had little impact as a director or producer, but his flair for finding collaborators, his ease in providing wonderful titles to our worst films, his capacity as a great publicist and above all, his curious background, half Presbyterian half Marxist made him one of the most influential personalities in the movement. (Cavalcanti 'The British Contribution' in Aitken 1998 p 205)

Getting the Work of the Documentarists

Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD

Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008 

Land of Promise DVD


Aitken,  Ian. 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: an Anthology.Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press

Aitken, Ian. 1990. Film and Reform. London: Routledge

Hardy, H. Forsyth (ed.). 1979. John Grierson: A Documentary Biography. London: Faber and Faber

Ellis, Jack, C. 1986. .John Grierson. a guide to references and resources. Boston: G. K. Hall

Pronay, Nicholas (ed.) 1989 'John Grierson: A Critical Retrospective',  Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 9/3


A useful podcast can be downloaded from this site on Grierson and the documentary movement featuring an interview with Ian Aitken a leading researcher on Grierson and the documentary movement.

The Grierson Trust

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