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June 06, 2008

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell: Review

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell British Film Institute 2007: Review

100 British Documentaries Cover

Cover of 100 British Documentaries. The cover image comes from Kötting's Gallivant 1996. It features his Grandmother and daughter who has Joubert syndrome. She speaks in yelps and some sign language. She isn't expected to live into adulthood. The film took 3 months to make as they travelled around the country it combines bringing out the everyday with much formal experimentation and is a film that Russell clearly thinks highly of.


I recently purchased a nice little book from the BFI Screen Guides series called 100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell who is Senior Curator for non-fiction film with the National Film Archive. The book doesn't set out to be about the very best of British documentaries, although very many of the ones covered are, rather it sets out to cover the scope of the documentary field since British documentaries started being made. The earliest one covered is from 1896 on the Yarmouth Fishing Fleet and covers 2 very recent documentaries Touching the Void 2003 and Supersocieties (Life in the Undergrowth) 2005. Many well known documentaries such as Night Mail (1936)are covered as well as many lesser known ones. In this sense it is a careful examination of the genre not a "Best of guide". One good thing about the book is its compact size and the way it has a range of fairly short entries which makes it an excellent book for reading in the bath or on train journeys which can easily be interrupted. One can pick out themes such as Second World War documentaries or documentaries of postwar politics: a Hugh Hudson party political documentary on Neil Kinnock (1987) is covered and a rather longer film Tracking Down Maggie (1994) on Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher is also included for example.

Russell makes it clear at the outset that he has chosen his selection: 

...because each illustrates something specific about the many forms British documentary has taken, and the numerous use to which it has been put, as it has developed historically

city ruins from Land of Promise Rotha

From Paul Rotha's Land of Promise (1946)

This seems to be an excellent academic criteria upon which to base a choice and gives the book an underlying committment to developing knowledge about the twists and turns of documentarism over the decades. Russell is clear that these films may not necessarily the best, neither are they necessarily his personal favourites. Russell makes it clear that there are many good  documentaries missing. However the tome isn't meant to be a complete history of the Britiish documentary. Hopefully this is a step towards that. However at over 270 pages there is plenty to get stuck into and in terms of signalling imprtant aspects of documentary development this is a 'must buy' book for British cinephile and film students alike. It was recently reviewed in the June issue of Sight & Sound. Mark Cooke the reviewer who also read it on a train ride suggests the book is flawed in that it doesn't represent architecture or issues about sexuality in the changing 20th century. I agree these are both important issues but in fairness the book squeezes an awful lot in and hopefully will contribute towards a greater academic interest in British documentarism, beyond the 'greats' of the 1930s.

What Counts as Documentary?

Russell spends a little time commenting on the documentary form itself at the beginning of the book. Rather than just being as truthful a representation of "actuality" which is what many consider to be the ideal documentary form there can be a considerable amount of experiment:

Hybrids are the rule not the exception (p3)

notes Russell. Many of the films discussed in the book are experimental + documentary, documentary + entertainment, documentary + politics, promotional and educational tools. Russell points out that narrative structures can be very different as well. In brief the documentary is an ever changing field of expression and this book through its use of examples elaborates upon this very effectively.

Well Known and Well Loved Documentaries

Some of the best known documentary film-makers are included such as Paul Rotha with two of his films covered: The Face of Britain (1935) and Land of Promise (1945) which is the name of an excellent multi-DVD collection of British documentaries which has been recently released by the BFI and will be covered on another occassion. The titles of these films cover a period when Britain was struggling with the aftermath of the Depression and was still a country of deference, compared with 1945 when the country had undergone something of a sea-change with the Labour Party gaining a landslide victory in the aftermath of the defeat of Hitler in Europe but before the Atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changing the nature of the world to come. The social democratic moment and a land of social unity was in the air and the successful prosecution of the war had put the building of a welfare state and a planned economy with nationalisation of the worst run industries firmly on the agenda.

Listen to Britain 1

From Listen to Britain (1942)

Another very different stylist of the documentary Humphrey Jennings is also represented with perhaps his best and most poetic work Listen to Britain (1942) with editor Stewart MacAllister also on the credits being one of his wartime films. For my money it is is easily the most powerful propaganda film I have ever seen and knocks the infamous,lamentable and much over-rated Triumph of the Will by Riefenstahl into the proverbial cocked hat. It is a film which through its very essence could not be made by an authoritarian regime. If effective propaganda is about creating foundational national myths then this one is unlikely to be surpassed.  Also by Jennings is his well known A Diary for Timothy (1946) following the birth of a baby boy made at a time - 1944/1945- when Britain was in a war weary mode and just looking forward to getting the job done and starting to rebuild Britain as a better place for all. Timothy was to become a teacher later in life signifying the hopes for the future that are inevitably bound up with education. The film was produced by Basil Wright and had a script from E. M. Forster with a voice over by Michael Redgrave.

Drifters (1929) by John Grierson was the foundational film of what was to become the British Documentary Movement Other films from this important grouping are also represented such as: The Song of Ceylon (1934) Housing Problems (1935), Night-Mail (1936) with the famous poem by Auden driving its rhythms and Today We Live : A Film of Life in Britain (1937) by Ruby Grierson (John Grierson's sister) and Ralph Bond.

Political Themes

March to aldermarston 1

March to Aldermarston (1958)

Many important political documentaries are also covered which signify very important moments in the social history of post-war Britain upuntil the present. March to Aldermarston (1958) was given a collective credit but is widely recognised to have had the guiding hand of  Lindsay Anderson behind it.  CND and the anti-nuclear Movement was to become a powerpul political force in the UK and as such represents a deep polarisation that was to exist in the country for decades until the Cold War collapsed. Nightcleaners (1975) Berwick Street Collective represents the shifting gender balance in Britain, for it was during the 1970s that Equal Pay Legislation came in that decade. It also signifies the battle to unionise marginalised areas of the labour force and to get recognised the importance of women in doing that work.

A Conservative Party election Broadcast of 1979 from the image campaign managed by Saatchi and Saatchi is included. This powerful campaign was undoubtedly important in providing some impetus to set Britain down the political path of Neo-liberalism as the way out of the recession triggered by oil crisis but which really marked an end to the long economic boom of the West since the end of the war. In that sense this marks a turning point in British post-war politics, economics and society. 

Handsworth songs 1

From Handsworth Songs (1986)

Handsworth Songs (1986) John Akromfrah represents the changing ethnic composition of Britain which had been going on since the 1950s and unlike two other documentaries covered in the collection was made by a radicalised person from one of those communities. The film covers the Handsworth rioting of the mid 1980s and used several different formal techniques. Russell suggests that it lacks a strong enough interior logic to make it more than the sum of its parts. On this basis he considers the film as being overrated seeing a sort of 'inverse racism' at work. I didn't get to see the film at the time and I'm not certain about its current availability. I certainly remember the riots and despite Russell's criticism that the the film is hiding behind an academic "jargon" in a BFI publicity handout of representing

"... the riots as a political field coloured by the trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis"

that is really what it was. The hand of Stuart Hall the then director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies defended the film against (predictably) Salman Rushdie who according to Russell thought it pretentious. Russell points out that the film in his mind has dated badly and that it is still praised because there is still an invidious situation of ethnic under-representation. This leaves us some food for thought.

Lockerbie a night Remembered

From Lockerbie:  A Night Remembered (1998)

Lockerbie: A Night Remembered (1998) can be read as signifying the continuous exposure to terrorist violence faced by Britian and the West in general since the 1960s whther from the Red Brigades, nationalist movements such as the IRA or religious fundamentalist inspired violence such as the London Tube bombings as as 9/11 of course. McLibel (1998/2005) signifies the growth of corporate power embodied in Macdonalds throughout the 1980s and 1990s and the fight back which individuals have made on a continuous basis.

Other Themes

Many other themes can be dug out of the book such as music documentaries from Let it Be (1970) to Johnny Cash in San Quentin (1969) -which is a British film perhaps surprisingly -. this marks the swinging sixties and the rowth of pop and rock music as an important cultural force.

Let it Be 1

Setting up the roof concert at the end of Let it Be

One obvious theme is coal mining. A Day in the Life of a Coalminer (1910)is the first of these, Cavalcanti's Coalface (1935) follows. Mining Review Fourth Year Number 12 (1951) is a report from the recently nationalised caolmining industry which under private ownership had become outrageously exploititative and also underininvested. Lastly there is The Coal Board's Butchery (1984), a Miner's Union campaigning video against the pit lcosures put into operation by the Thatcher government. As such it encompasses a key turning point in British society which has lead to the diempowering of the Trade Union movement. As was recognised by the Miner's leaders at the time it was a battle against neo-liberal politics and as such was much more than about coal miners jobs. Deindustrialised Britain has been the net outcome.


There are many other themes to be dug out of the book. It represents excellent value and is an enjoyable way of spending some time. It's breadth deals not just with the various forms of documentary film making themselves but provides a range of insights into British culture and society in a poignant way. One can only hope that the BFI put together a matching set of documentaries to accompany the book. That would make a truly excellent package.

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