The World According to Grierson

As part of 2014’s Glasgow Film Festival, Documenting Grierson, a film by Laurence Henson, was screened, allowing the audience an all too brief encounter with the ‘father of documentary’ John Grierson. Henson’s film highlights the importance and influence of Grierson’s philosophies and ideologies regarding cinema, social welfare and education during the interwar years in Britain.

John Grierson

John Grierson (ref. Grierson Archive, P 151)

In an excerpt from Henson’s film, Grierson talks passionately about the purpose of documentary as being, “A chance to say something, a chance to teach something, a chance to reveal something, a chance, possibly to inspire, certainly always an opportunity for influence of one kind or another.” Grierson wrote a lengthy manifesto outlining the principles of documentary, discussing the ethical issues and function of filmmaking (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.15.2). Today the artistic and pedagogical significance of documentary filmmaking continues, with The Grierson Trust awarding accolades each year to the most inspiring films. Academically, documentary techniques are rigorously theorised, crucially analysing the distinction between the ‘real’ or non-fiction aspect and the fictitious or ‘wish-fulfillment’ style, as pioneering documentary theorist Bill Nichols suggests.

Opening paragraph from one of Grierson's influential lectures (ref. Grierson Archive G2.16.3)

Opening paragraph from one of Grierson’s influential lectures (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.16.3)

Early on in his career John Grierson decided that producing films would be more advantageous to the cause, especially when negotiating for government funding. He employed like-minded people to execute technical duties such as, camera work and editing. The core production crew consisted of, Harry Watt, Edgar Anstey, Basil Wright and Stuart Legg, a mix of aspiring young filmmakers. Grierson’s tenacity and ability to get things done changed the way we viewed the world and through the Empire Marketing Board film unit, headed by chief commissioner Stephen Tallents, society was presented with information, education and choice – a testament to the power of cinema (ref. Grierson Archive, G4.31.3).

The Documentary Boys (ref. Grierson Archive GAA 13.3)

The Documentary Boys (ref. Grierson Archive, GAA 13.3)

Grierson encouraged others with his documentary making views through lectures and publications, sometimes subversively, but always expressing an over-arching importance. He is quoted in The Daily Herald (1935) saying, “I wish the B.B.C., instead of sterilizing its speeches in the cabins of Broadcasting House, would take its microphones out to the people” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.14.1). A method that Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey incorporated in their film Housing Problems (1935) – an idea attributed to John’s sister Ruby Grierson, also a filmmaker.

Grierson dealt his contemporaries with equal amounts of contempt and praise. In an article in Cinema Quarterly (1932), he pitted other disciplines against the prestige of documentary – “newsreel is just a speedy snip-snap of some utterly unimportant ceremony”, continuing to say, “[they] avoid…the consideration of any solid material” (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.15.2). However acerbic Grierson’s humor might have sounded, the importance of documentary and for those involved was paramount.

Still from Housing Problems (1935). (Ref. Grierson Photo 41)

Still from Housing Problems (1935) (ref. Grierson P 41)

The British Documentary Movement went into decline after the Second World War and as a consequence of those who had experienced ‘real’ war, the documentary style became more about technique than content. As the political restructuring of Britain began, Grierson’s production unit splintered and with the introduction of television to the mass audience in 1953, produced a new style of documentary. Grierson et al welcomed this shift and went on to produce a variety of documentaries for the new medium.

(Susannah Ramsay, M. Litt. in Film Studies)

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Leighton Library access April – May

Due to staff illness, it will not be possible to fetch books from the Leighton Library in Dunblane between 16th April and mid May. If you will require a Leighton Library book during that period, please request it by 9th April at the latest.

Note that many books in the Leighton Library are available online in Historic Books (available from the A-Z list of Online Resources).

Apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.

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When Grierson met Jason Singh

This year the wonderful Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema featured a stunning new soundtrack to John Grierson’s Drifters by Jason Singh. Accompanied by members of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Jason fused electronic effects, clattering beats and his own voice to create a striking contemporary response to Grierson’s 1929 documentary about North Sea fishermen. The energy and power of the film was heightened by Singh’s beat-boxing, the engines of the fishing trawlers fueled by his propulsive beats. His performance responded beautifully to the changes in tempo and tone in the film, voice and effects demonstrating the power of the waves crashing off the rocks, then quietening to reflect the underwater images of the shoals of herring sought by the trawlermen and the seagulls flying above the boats. The performance ended with a memorable recreation of the sounds of the bustling fishmarket where the trawlermen’s catch was bought and sold. After the elemental sounds of the sea and the mechanical hum of the trawlers the babble of voices brought us back to land.

An underwater scene from John Grierson's 1929 documentary Drifters.

An underwater scene from John Grierson’s 1929 documentary Drifters.

Drifters was made at a turning point in the history of cinema when silent films were beginning to be replaced by the ‘talkies’ and the use of sound in films was becoming more common. Grierson was quick to realise the potential of sound and his archive includes a printed document distributed to cinemas providing a scene-by-scene musical accompaniment to the film. The recommendations are divided into two sections. The first provides popular tunes to be played by a cinema orchestra, while the second lists gramophone recordings of classical music for cinemas without musicians. These were to be played using “non-synchronous tables” (gramophones set up to play likes today’s DJ turntables). As the fishermen prepared their nets before casting them into the sea Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Part 1 was to be played. Later in the film the threat of the gathering storm clouds was accompanied by Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture. Grierson was keen to utilise the technological advances of this time to enhance his pioneering documentary – Jason Singh uses 21st century techniques and equipment to breathe new life into the film for contemporary audiences.

Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)

Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)

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‘Drifters’ at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

As the Bo’ness silent film festival enters its fourth year, the five-day programme promises to deliver classics from the silent cinema era, including the unambiguously titled double bill, Before Grierson Met Cavalcanti on Sunday the 16th March. Showing first is Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti’s Nothing But Time/ Rien Que Les Heures (1926), an experimental film portraying a day in Parisian life. Following that is John Grierson’s groundbreaking documentary Drifters (1929), which depicts the epic journey of herring fishermen. It was first shown in London in the winter of 1929 to critical acclaim and mass audience approval.

Publicity advertisement for Drifters, Stoll Herald, 1929 (ref. Grierson Archive G2.1.5)

Publicity advertisement for Drifters, Stoll Herald, 1929 (ref. Grierson Archive G2.1.5)

Drifters, not only documents but also dramatises the struggle between man and nature, both poetically and cinematically. Much thought went into the musical score for its original screening and has been updated for the 21st century. The musical accompaniment to Drifters will be Jason Singh, a human beatbox.

Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)

Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)

At the time of release and for years after, the filmic technique of Drifters has been compared with the Russian school of filmmaking of the 1920s in particular Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘montage’ theory and practice. Eisenstein suggested that the purpose of film editing was to create drama and conflict within the narrative, while creating symbolic meaning through the relationship between shots by means of juxtaposition. In essence, editing consists of several individually filmed shots, that when put together produce a coherent story, thus creating a ‘montage’ or sequence. When the individual shots, such as action/reaction shots, POV (point of view) shots and cutaways (general views) are edited together, a dialectic or conflicting element can arise through these opposing images on screen. In the case of Eisenstein’s films such as, Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) this provoked an immediate reaction from the audience as they grappled to make sense of the visually generated narrative truth. By interpreting the film subjectively the viewing subject was offered a rich cinematic experience. Over time symbolist editing techniques were used by Eisenstein and other directors as a propaganda tool for Russia.

It was Battleship Potemkin that influenced Grierson’s own nascent editing techniques. Film critics and reviewers supported the use of Grierson’s editing style, articulating a new intelligence found in filmmaking and the way films were being read.

“It is really in it’s editing, it’s ‘montage’, that ‘Drifters’ begins to live,” wrote Henry Dobb from the Sunday Worker on 3rd November 1929. (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.24.1)

‘HT’ writes in The British Film Weekly,

“[…] His beautifully chosen angles, the cleverness of his cutting, the beauty of his editing, created a dramatic and thrilling picture.” (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.24.2)

Drifters, was a success for the socially conscious Grierson and in terms of film form and language he adapted to the new techniques, and to the introduction of sound to accommodate his didactic and creative nature. John Grierson went on to produce a plethora of innovative and artistic films, developing over the years to establish his own pedagogical approach to Britain’s social problems, through government-funded films.

Changing concepts - the introduction of sound to film (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.23.4)

Changing concepts – the introduction of sound to film (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.23.4)

(Susannah Ramsay, M Litt. in Film Studies)

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Parallel Worlds – an exhibition of material from the Iain Banks Archive

The University of Stirling Archives is delighted to announce a new exhibition presenting a selection of foreign editions of Iain Banks’ novels from his personal collection.  The exhibition highlights the international appeal of Banks’ fiction and shows the variety of ways his work was presented in different countries around the world.  The volumes on display are part of a larger collection of almost 200 editions of Banks’ work translated into a range of languages and designed to reflect the tastes of readers in a range of markets including France, Germany, Israel, Russia and South Korea.

Detail from a 1988 Japanese edition of The Player of Games.

Detail from a Japanese edition of The Player of Games.

The exhibition also features a book sculpture commemorating Iain Banks which was presented to the University by the Edinburgh International Book Festival last September.  The sculpture is part of a set produced by an anonymous artist celebrating literature and the love of words. It represents Banks’ 1992 novel The Crow Road and is accompanied by a tribute to the writer from author Ian Rankin. The exhibition is on display in the Archives & Special Collections area of the University Library and runs until Friday 4th April.

The book sculpture which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition.

The book sculpture which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition.

Iain Banks was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed Scottish novelists of his generation, and an alumnus of the University of Stirling. The University is delighted to be working with his estate to collect and preserve an archive of his working papers and make this material available to researchers with an interest in his work.

Interviewed by the University for an alumni profile Banks reflected on his time at Stirling:

“I did get in a lot of writing… as well as a fair amount of walking in the hills. What I remember most keenly is the wonderful feeling of freedom of being there, and the sheer intoxication of living and working in a place devoted to learning, to the pursuit of knowledge. I still smile when I think of the place, the time, and my years at Stirling were some of the happiest and most productive of my life. All that, plus I got to be an extra in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, How cool was that?”

Some examples of Banks’ student writing can be found amongst the University’s own archives in the pages of the creative writing journal Cairn. Launched in Spring 1973 Cairn featured poetry and prose written by students and staff of the University, including the poet Norman McCaig. The journal is one of several student titles which are held in the University Archives along with a full run of the student newspaper Brig, which was first published in 1969.

Cover of the first issue of Cairn, Spring 1973

Cover of the first issue of Cairn, Spring 1973.


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2013: End-of-year review

As we approach the end of the year it’s time to look back and discover what have been our most popular collections in 2013. As in previous years we’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room to create our end of year chart. It’s all change at the top with a new No. 1 pushing last year’s chart topper, the Musicians’ Union Archive, into second place.

In 2013 our most used collection was the NHS Forth Valley Archive. This collection, which was transferred to the University Archives in 2012, contains the historical records of two local hospitals, the Stirling District Asylum (Bellsdyke Hospital) and the Royal Scottish National Institution, Larbert. Over the past year a team of student volunteers has helped to make the archives of Stirling District Asylum accessible to researchers through a programme of cleaning and cataloguing. The material has been particularly heavily used by family historians, keen to explore this previously inaccessible material.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have proven very popular with family historians in 2013.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have been well-used by family historians in 2013.

The Royal Scottish National Institution Archives were recognised by UNESCO this year, being designated a collection of national importance and added to the UK Memory of the World Register. We have also recently received funding from the Wellcome Trust for the conservation and cataloguing of the RSNI Archive. We hope to start this work in the spring of 2014 and will post further information about the project on the blog in the new year.

The Musicians’ Union Archive continues to be heavily used by researchers, particularly Glasgow University’s History of the MU project. 2013 was the 120th anniversary of the union and the MU also made great use of their archive during the year. An exhibition featuring images from the collection was put together for the union’s conference in June in Manchester (where the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union was founded in 1893) and was also displayed at the TUC conference, while articles on the history of the union featured in The Musician magazine.

A new entry in our end-of-year review at No. 3 is the Norman McLaren Archive. McLaren’s presence in the Top 3 reflects the increased interest in the life and work of the Stirling-born filmmaker in the run-up to the centenary of his birth in 2014. Our McLaren Archive has continued to grow in recent years with letters to friends and family, artwork and family photographs being added to the collection. In April 2014 a major celebration of McLaren’s career will begin in Stirling with the unveiling of a heritage plaque on his childhood home and an exhibition of material from our collection at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. McLaren 2014 will present an exciting programme of events across Scotland including educational workshops, film screenings and public events culminating in a celebration of his ground-breaking, award-winning films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

Those results in full:


  1. NHS Forth Valley Archives
  2. Musicians’ Union
  3. Norman McLaren


  1. Musicians’ Union
  2. John Grierson
  3. Lindsay Anderson


  1. John Grierson
  2. Lindsay Anderson
  3. University of Stirling


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The Grierson Factor

The John Grierson Archive has been held at the University Archives since the early 1970s and continues to be one of our most popular collections. This reflects Grierson’s importance in cinema history, often being described as ‘the father of documentary film.’

A bust of John Grierson by the sculptor Kenny Munro at Stirling Train Station.

A bust of John Grierson by the sculptor Kenny Munro  at Stirling Train Station.

There seems to be a renewed interest in Grierson in the ether at the moment. His bust now stands proudly in Stirling Train Station, placed there as part of the great efforts of the Stirling Rotary Club to improve the building. The choice of the station is apt as one of Grierson’s best known films is Nightmail, the 1936 documentary tracing the journey of the post train from London to Scotland made by the GPO Film Unit. The film has also recently been the inspiration for a new track by Public Service Broadcasting, a musical project inspired by old public information films:

Nightmail – Public Service Broadcasting

Another musical response to Grierson’s work was recently created by the band Field Music who composed a new live score to accompany Drifters, Grierson’s 1929 documentary about North Sea fishermen. The band premiered this new soundtrack at the Berwick Film Festival and plan further performances in the coming months.


Scene from Drifters, 1929.

Drifters was originally a silent film, but Grierson was aware of the potential of music to heighten the dramatic intensity of the heroic struggles of the fishermen he recorded. He laid out very clear instructions for his suggested musical accompaniment to the film, choosing pieces of stirring classical music such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave to accompany the action.

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Et in Archiva Ego – artists in the archive

The Scottish Records Association and ARA Scotland are holding a conference on Friday 8 November on the fascinating topic of artists in the archives. Et in Archiva Ego will be held in the Norrie-Miller Studio, Perth Concert Hall, and feature a range of speakers including artists, researchers, curators and archivists who will look at how artists have been inspired by archives and also provide advice on how to carry out research into the life and works of artists.

Artists in the Archives poster lge

We’re always keen to see our collections used in new, interesting and innovative ways and in recent years we’ve been involved in a number of projects with artists. These collaborations have resulted in a range of exciting (and sometimes unexpected) outcomes including live musical performances, interactive websites, new artistic works and curated exhibitions of archive material. Further details of these artistic adventures can be found in an article written with the Glasgow School of Art Archives about our experiences working with artists and designers in the Journal of the Society of Archivists (Volume 32, Issue 2, 2011).

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Battleships and Drifters

On Sunday 10th November 1929 Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s rousing work of cinematic drama and revolutionary propaganda, received its first public screening in Britain at an event organised by the Film Society at the Tivoli Palace, London. Made in 1925 the film tells the story of the mutiny of the crew of the Russian naval ship Potemkin in 1905, an event celebrated as an inspirational precursor to revolution in the new Soviet Russia of the 1920s. The screening was part of a programme which also included the premiere of John Grierson’s first film Drifters, a documentary about the heroic lives of North Sea fishermen. Grierson’s film had a huge impact and created a template for documentary films which many others followed, its success contributing to his reputation as ‘the father of documentary.’

Grierson had seen Potemkin on a visit to the US and its style heavily influenced his editing of Drifters. Writing in The Clarion on the eve of the film’s first London screening Grierson noted:

“I saw Potemkin first, rather more than three years ago. It was running in New York and making a noise among silents, which it will hardly do now. All of us who scribbled made a job of it. We wrote about tempo, about images, about mass character (crowds as personalities, streets, towns, peoples as corporate personalities) and on all these things which cinema could do that the stage could not do. It appears in company with my own Drifters, but I am not in competition. Eisenstein is a very great director and the master of us all.”

Grierson’s gift for promotion and marketing can be seen in the arrangements he made for the premiere of Drifters. Keen to promote his film to maximum effect Grierson insisted that Drifters should be shown before Eisenstein’s work and it stole the Russian film’s thunder. Grierson’s film impressed both audience and critics with a style and energy that was greatly indebted to Eisenstein, the Daily News reporting that it had ‘more real art that the much-belauded Russian picture.’

Forsyth Hardy in his biography of Grierson notes that Eisenstein was present at the London premieres. He recalls a conversation between the two filmmakers after the screening. ‘Why,’ said Eisenstein to Grierson, ‘you must know all about Potemkin.’ ‘Foot by foot and cut by cut’, replied Grierson.

Review of Drifters in The Film Weekly (November 1929).

Review of Drifters in The Film Weekly (November 1929).

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Bee bibliography

There is a list of the books to be featured in the Nether hive at^bib10%2C1%2C0%2C29/mode=2

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