Norman McLaren: Umbrian angels and stereoscopic drawings

A highlight of this year’s McLaren 2014 celebrations was the screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival of Norman McLaren’s stunning 3-D films from the early 1950s, painstakingly digitally-restored by the National Film Board of Canada. The fascinating history of these ‘lost’ films was recently told on the Canadian Animation Blog, and the films will receive another screening at MoMa in New York in November.

McLaren’s interest in the creative possibilities of stereographic art is recorded in a set of papers which were recently donated to the University of Stirling Archives by Prof. Harold Layer of San Francisco State University. Prof. Layer corresponded with McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s about his 3-D film work, these letters forming part of the collection. It also includes copies of stereoscopic drawings and paintings created by McLaren in the 1940s which Prof. Layer has documented on a very useful online resource.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

The material also includes a set of reports and articles written by McLaren in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the new approaches offered by stereographic drawing and providing technical notes for the 3-D films he produced for the National Film Board of Canada. In 1946 McLaren wrote a proposal for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, seeking support for his research into the new field of sterographics which he defined as “the art of doing a separate drawing, painting, sculpture or mobile for each eye, which when viewed together, will synthesize a new additional dimension.”

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

McLaren argued that this method of drawing offered “Freedom from the physical laws of a three-dimensional world.” He went on to argue that:

“The laws of physics such as balance and gravity need not operate in this type of three-dimensional space created by stereoscopic synthesis. Apparently solid objects, heavy substances, complex structures and liquid matter may float in space, needing no support and existing by a sort of auto-suspension. The renaissance painter, with his growing awareness, gradually realized that he, on his flat surfaces, was released from such laws, and the first Umbrian angels who rose a few timid inches from the ground were soon to lead the imagination to a magnificent world of soaring form. Today’s stereographic drawings are like those Umbrian angels, for they point to a world where angels may ascend with a new magnificence into the very three-dimensional substance of space itself.” (Ref. GAA 31/F/7/2/2)

A later annotation to this document shows that many of McLaren’s plans remained unrealized. In the introduction of the paper he wrote that:

“It is my intention to go much further, and open up stereography as a creative medium. I am writing this paper on the basis of my past researches, my present conclusions, and my future plans.”

Beside the words “future plans” McLaren added an annotation in red pencil in 1980 which read “unfulfilled as yet.”

Posted in Our collections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Read All About It! Archives of the Scottish Newspaper Society come to Stirling

The University of Stirling Archives has received a new collection of material which provides a new resource for those interested in the history of the Scottish newspaper industry. The Scottish Newspaper Society is a trade organisation representing local, regional and national Scottish newspapers. Its role is to represent, protect and promote the industry. The collection includes the archives of the Society and a number of organisations it replaced / merged with over the years including the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society, the Scottish Newspapers Proprietors Association and the Scottish Newspapers Publishers Association.

Letterhead of the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society, c 1945.

Letterhead of the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society, 1940s.

The collection includes memorabilia dating back to 1915 but the earliest papers present come from the mid 1940s and detail the effect of the Second World War on the industry. The minutes of a meeting of the Scottish Newspaper Proprietors Association from 12th June 1943 begin with a statement from the Executive Committee noting that:

“For another year the meetings of the Association have been interrupted by the World War and it has been impossible to arrange for more than a one-day Conference. The improvement, however, in the Military situation raises the hope that the day when our meetings can be resumed in a fuller degree, may not be too far away.”

The war time minutes record the challenges faced by newspapers during the conflict which included loss of manpower, price and supply of newsprint, and censorship and reporting of events.

The next meeting of the Scottish Newspaper Proprietors Association, held in Edinburgh on 9th October 1943, was attended by Admiral Thomson, the Chief Censor. He reminded those present that newspapers should refrain from publishing anything that may be of value to the enemy and gave some examples of material to be avoided including:

  1. Those items which identified a unit or formation by number or which identified the location of a unit
  2. Matters relating to aircraft crashed in this country
  3. Reports of where and when an airman was missing

The extensive minutes and reports of these organisations provide information on a range of issues which concerned the newspaper industry including industrial relations, press regulation, delivery and distribution of local newspapers, advertising and circulation. The changing face of Scottish newspapers can be traced in a collection which stretches from war-time emergency to the challenges of a 21st century digital market.

Campaign against proposed rise in VAT on local and regional newspapers, 1987.

Campaign against proposed rise in VAT on local and regional newspapers, 1987.

Posted in News and events, Our collections | Leave a comment

The Royal Scottish National Hospital Project


This is the first of what will hopefully be a monthly series of blog posts on the progress of Continuity of Care – the project to catalogue and conserve the records of the Royal Scottish National Hospital. Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, this project started in the middle of August and will be completed by July 2015.

In 2013, the Royal Scottish National Hospital was given UNESCO status as a collection of international status (see our previous blog post). This reflects the importance of the Institution in the care of children with learning disabilities at a time when no distinction was made between mental disability and mental illness.

The Institution was founded in 1862 and the collection contains the earliest annual reports and minutes as well as a register of the first admissions.

RSNH first report USED

Title page of the first report, 1862

Amongst the items of interest catalogued so far is a volume of Superintendent’s Reports 1863-1872.

The Medical Superintendent was in charge of the day to day running of the Institution and answered to the Directors. He submitted a monthly report in which he detailed admissions and discharges; the progress of building; donations and finance; requests for information from the Commissioners in Lunacy; recruitment and salaries of staff; and the health of the children. Dr David Brodie was the medical superintendent from 1862 to 1867 and he had a troubled relationship with the Directors. He had run a school for imbecile children in Edinburgh under the auspices of the Society for Education of Imbecile Youth in Scotland. Once the Society had the funds to build its Institution at Larbert, Brodie was the obvious choice as resident physician.

In Brodie’s second report he wrote ‘Seven pupils have been admitted during the month – one full payment, one reduced payment and 5 election cases’. But by his third report he was reporting that ‘the proportion of the uneducable class is already embarrassing and entails too heavy a trial on the patience of attendants…’ He made frequent requests for more staff and better accommodation and in his letter of resignation he made his feelings clear:

IMG 2809 crop

Part of the entry of the Directors’ Meeting, 1st October 1867

There has been a very large surplus revenue which as derived chiefly from payment cases I had a right to expect would be devoted to the practical work in which I have been engaged yet this has…been absorbed in the payment of past liabilities while I have had to bear unaided all the discredit and discomfort attendant on the deficient staff and accommodation and have had to feel and acknowledge that the work that we were professing to do at the Institution was not being accomplished’ (from the minutes of a Special Meeting of Directors 1st October 1867).

This tension between the needs of the Institution and the financial reality in which it operated was to continue throughout its history as later posts will illustrate.

Posted in Our collections | Leave a comment

An iconic image? Commonwealth Games mascots

Our Hosts and Champions exhibition has returned from a successful run in Glasgow during the 2014 Games and is currently on display in our Pathfoot Building. In this article Ian Mackintosh, our Exhibition Assistant, writes about the curious tale of the Games mascots…

Copy of original Clyde design by Beth Gilmour

Copy of original Clyde design by Beth Gilmour

Clyde the mascot of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games has been hailed as a great commercial success. It was a unique selection in that the mascot was designed by Beth Gilmour a 12 year old Cumbernauld school pupil. Her design was selected from a Blue Peter completion. Her creation is also unique in that Clyde is the first non-animal/mammal mascot for the Commonwealth games.

If the Legal and Concessions Committee of the 1970 Edinburgh Games had been as bold as the 2014 Games Organisers it would all be so different. Dr. Fiona Skillen’s research into the 1970 Games brought a cute little guy called “Wee mannie” to my attention. The organisers had been bold enough to commission a mascot for the games because of the success of World Cup Willie in 1966. However whereas the World Cup mascot was a football playing lion, the mascot for the 1970 games was to be a kilted Haggis.

Wee Mannie

Wee Mannie, the unacceptable face of Commercialism and unloved mascot!

A high profile publicity launch in July 1969 was followed by a competition to name the mascot. Things soon turned sour however when the committee received 23 letters of complaint about the design. Yet despite over 400 entries to name the mascot from children from all over Britain “wee mannie” (above) was dropped. The committee claimed that the BCG Crest design (below) was more popular.

The acceptable face of Commercialism in 1970 this crest was used for badges that were sold at the games

The acceptable face of Commercialism in 1970 this crest was used for badges that were sold at the games

While the 1970 Games Committee claimed the idea of a mascot was not a popular one, on Saturday 18th July 1970 they must have regretted that decision. The Scottish Athletics team for the 1970 games had created a mascot for themselves. It was a huge teddy bear dressed in a navy blue Scottish Athletic team vest and white shorts named “Dunky Dick”.

Lachie Stewart won the 10,000 metres comfortably beating the great Australian runner Ron Clarke into second place.  What happed next was one of the most iconic sporting moments in Scottish sporting history. Scottish 800 metre hopeful Rosemary Stirling ran to the victorious Lachie Stewart and presented him with the mascot. The image of Lachie Stewart and the mascot became a global success. The mascot was to gain world-wide fame as the television and newspaper images were flashed around the world.

Lachie with Dunky Dick the unofficial mascot of the 1970 Edinburgh British Commonwealth Games

Lachie with Dunky Dick the unofficial mascot of the 1970 Edinburgh British Commonwealth Games

Now we should ponder, had the Committee forged ahead with the mascot would Lachie have been presented with a giant haggis instead? How about that for an iconic image? Imagine how many haggis mascots would have been sold? Is it a matter of regret about a missed opportunity? Ironically the 1978 Edmonton games became the first to have an official mascot. So Canada who gave us the Commonwealth Games also gave us the mascot. A golden opportunity for a Scottish first missed.

Posted in Our collections | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lindsay Anderson Revisited, An International Symposium

Last week a major international symposium was held at Lund University to celebrate the work of one of British cinema’s greatest talents. Lindsay Anderson Revisited brought together academics, writers, film critics, filmmakers (and archivists!) to discuss the director’s long and colourful career. The many possibilities for research offered by Anderson’s work were reflected in the packed programme with speakers exploring various aspects of Anderson’s career as a filmmaker, theatre director, author and critic. The symposium highlighted the research value of Anderson’s archive of personal and working papers and also its links and connections with other collections both at Stirling and other institutions.

In his paper on Anderson’s friendship with John Ford Charles Barr presented the early correspondence between the two men, reassembled through archival research.  Anderson’s early letters to Ford are part of the extensive John Ford Archive held at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, with Ford’s replies forming part of the collection of Anderson’s papers at Stirling University. Barr’s detailed examination of these letters brought to light the historical significance of a seemingly innocuous passage in Ford’s first letter to Anderson. Writing to Anderson in March 1947 Ford thanks Anderson for his letter and invites him to write with his views of his new film The Fugitive. Ford apologises for typing the letter, explaining that “I am as yet unable to write long hand, due to a bathing accident at Omaha Beach.” This was Ford’s typically understated way of describing the injuries he received when shooting footage of the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944.

John Ford's letter to Lindsay Anderson in which he mentions his 'bathing accident at Omaha Beach.' (Ref. LA 5/1/2/13/1)

John Ford’s letter to Lindsay Anderson in which he mentions his ‘bathing accident at Omaha Beach.’
(Ref. LA 5/1/2/13/1)

The discussions which took place during the symposium around subjects including Anderson’s ‘Scottishness’ and his work as a documentary filmmaker brought out the links and relationships that existed across the British and international filmmaking community that Anderson operated in. Some of these relationships are reflected in the film-related collections held at Stirling. Anderson’s Archive now sits on the shelves beside the papers of John Grierson, the ‘father of documentary.’ When Anderson emerged as a young filmmaker with his Free Cinema documentaries in the 1950s he challenged the established British documentary tradition started by Grierson in the 1930s. Grierson’s less than enthusiastic response to this new generation of documentary filmmakers and Anderson’s challenges to his Griersonian predecessors are preserved in their papers, a search across both collections highlighting the critical and theoretical distance between the two men.

A selection of Polish films were presented in the Free Cinema Four programme at the NFT in September 1958 (ref. LA 1/2/5/13)

A selection of Polish films were presented in the Free Cinema Four programme at the NFT in September 1958
(ref. LA 1/2/5/13)

Anderson’s connections with his European filmmaking contemporaries were examined in papers relating to his correspondence with the French actor Serge Regianni and his connections with Poland. In 1966 Anderson visited Warsaw to direct a production of John Osborne’s play Inadmissible Evidence which led to an invitation to make a film (The Singing Lesson). Anderson had already visited the USSR in 1957 with the Royal Court Theatre and Czechoslovakia on a number of occasions in the 1960s. The archive includes an extensive photographic collection which includes many images of these trips across the Iron Curtain.

Personal reminiscences, academic investigation and archival research all contributed to an event which opened up many new avenues of research into the life and career of one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers. Thanks must go to the organisers Erik Hedling, Christophe Dupin and Elisabet Björklund for putting together such a stimulating and entertaining programme!

Posted in Conferences, Our collections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Edinburgh International Film Festival—the Beginning

Cover of the Documentary 47 programme (ref. H3.P3)

Cover of the Documentary 47 programme of films screened in Edinburgh from 31 August – 7 September 1947 (ref. H3.P3)

As the Edinburgh International Film Festival gets ready to commence on 18 June, it’s interesting to reflect on how one the oldest and indeed the longest continually run film festival came to be.  Its roots date back to the postwar cultural revitalization of Scotland. In 1947 the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama was established, and Norman Wilson realized that the medium of film was not going to be represented. Recognizing that this was a perfect venue to showcase film–as film historian Thomas Elsaesser later termed it, a ‘cultural clustering,’ a mixture of different art forms coming together for a rich community experience–Wilson, along with the Edinburgh Film Guild, went into action and took on the challenge of bringing a film festival together with limited financial backing.

“The aim of the founders, the Edinburgh Film Guild, was to have the cinema worthily represented at the first international Festival of the arts to be held in Britain” (ref. Grierson Archive, G7:44:61).The world was watching and they did not want to fail this challenge. In determining what their focus would be, they decided to showcase Scotland’s strongest contribution to film—documentaries.

“The first international Film Festival to be held in Britain will be devoted entirely to Documentary. This is no accident; for not only does Britain lead the world in documentary production, but the documentary approach—an innate feeling for reality—is now the distinguishing characteristic of British feature films” (ref. Hardy 3:9:8)

With the focus on documentaries, who better to invite to give the opening address and set the tone for the festival than Scottish-born John Grierson, the father of the British documentary movement?

A Time For Enquiry, John Grierson (ref. H3 P3)

A Time For Enquiry, John Grierson (ref. H3 P3)

The first film festival was modest, with only about seventy-five films shown during the eight day festival, but with the critically acclaimed films they did showcase, including Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan and Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique, they set the standard for what to expect at the festival.

Front of leaflet listing films shown at the first Edinburgh Film Festival

Front of leaflet listing films shown at the First International Festival of Documentary Films, Edinburgh, 1947 (ref. H3.P3)

Norman Wilson, serving as Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Festival in 1950 , explained what kind of films the festival looks for and the power of documentaries:

“It is the film of reality that the Edinburgh Festival is especially concerned with, and many people believe it is in this sphere that film-makers come nearest to the basic qualities of the cinema as a medium of creative arts. The great virtue of the film is that it can capture reality through the lens of the camera. By getting art into the country, and into the city streets among real people—into the world of everyday, which has within itself all the drama and romance of life without fabrication—the film can interpret and synthesis realities in its own creative terms. That is its unique quality as an art form, and that is what we look for in the films selected for showing at the Edinburgh Festival.” (ref. Hardy 3:8:1)

(Kelly Kloser, M.Litt. in Film Studies)

Reverse of leaflet listing films shown at first Edinburgh Film Festival

Reverse of leaflet listing films shown at the First International Festival of Documentary Films, Edinburgh, 1947 (ref. H3.P3)

 

Posted in News and events, Our collections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Continuity of Care: new project to open up the archives of the Royal Scottish National Hospital

The University of Stirling Archives has received funding from the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources grant scheme for a project to conserve and catalogue the archives of the Royal Scottish National Hospital, Larbert. Established in 1862 the RSNH (originally known as the Royal Scottish National Institution) was the foremost hospital providing custodial care for mentally impaired children in Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries. The extensive archives of the institution that survive provide a comprehensive record of the management and operation of the hospital, and the treatment and care of its patients. The historical importance of the collection was recognised last year when it was added to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

Staff and patients in the grounds of the RSNH, Larbert.

Staff and patients in the grounds of the RSNH, Larbert.

The generous support of the Wellcome Trust will enable us to carry out a comprehensive programme of repair and rebinding of damaged material, along with the organization, arrangement and detailed cataloguing of the collection. We are currently advertising for a Project Archivist and Project Conservator (closing date for applications 15 June 2014). When the project is completed an online catalogue will provide a detailed record of the contents of the collection which can be accessed by researchers in our archives reading room. The archives of the RSN will provide new insights into the history of the treatment and care of children in Scotland and the wider society in which the hospital operated.

Many of the records of the RSNH require conservation and repair.

The project will include a programme of conservation, repair and rebinding.

Posted in News and events, Our collections | Leave a comment

Affectionately Yours

Trisha Anderson is a dancer and choreographer, and relative of the filmmaker Norman McLaren. 2014 is the centenary of McLaren’s birth and Trisha has curated a personal tribute to Norman which is currently on display in the University Archives. Here she writes about her research into McLaren’s work.

The exhibition ‘Affectionately Yours’ is based on the research for my film of the same name. In 2003 I saw an interview with the film maker Norman McLaren in which he said that movement was his art form, but had he been a dancer he would have created movement in a very different way. I was struck by this statement for a number of reasons. I am a dancer and choreographer and I was curious to know what kind of dance McLaren might have choreographed himself. This led me to research him through his personal letters.

My aim was to respond to the life and work of Norman McLaren, and to examine the link between dance and animation. This has allowed me to experience first-hand some of those common threads between my art form and McLaren’s and to begin to draw conclusions for my own practice, which eventually combined dance film and animation. I have looked at the context within which McLaren’s work took place. I am fascinated by the opinions of other artists and film makers who knew McLaren or worked with him.

Norman McLaren dancing in the garden of the family home, 21 Albert Place, Stirling, c 1936.

Norman McLaren dancing in the garden of the family home, 21 Albert Place, Stirling, c 1936.

Norman McLaren’s place in the history of animation and experimental film making is that of a pioneer who brought an amazing range of skills to his art form. He was an artist, director, scientist, inventor, keen observer of humanity and accomplished musician. Transcripts of interviews with him bring the reader in touch with a shy, sensitive, multi-sensory man who saw the world in a very unique way. His sensitivity and acute awareness of stillness and movement, music, line, form, space and rhythmic structure are all qualities which he brought to his films. As a choreographer I feel that I am intensely aware of these elements and I find myself looking at his work again and again from the choreographer’s viewpoint. I found myself asking how Norman McLaren might have used these qualities himself if he HAD been a choreographer. There are many common threads between dance, animation and film. There are also many common ‘threads’ between this film maker and me.

I am related to McLaren.  My grandfather and Norman McLaren’s mother were siblings. In my search for McLaren the film maker I realised I could not separate him from McLaren, my father’s cousin. I realised that the qualities I mentioned before may be shared between film maker and dancer, but may also reflect a shared genetic inheritance. I felt I needed to explore how strong the link was and this brought me to the archive stored at The University of Stirling.

Norman McLaren's father in the showroom of his decorating business, Maxwell Place, Stirling, c 1910.

Norman McLaren’s father in the showroom of his decorating business, Maxwell Place, Stirling, c 1910.

McLaren had an enquiring mind, and was endlessly questing to “work things out”, a quality which in part was inherited, I believe, from a very practical, down to earth lineage. His mother grew up on a farm and there are a number of relatives who were involved in some way with engineering. His artistic ability was in part inherited from his father, a painter and decorator. Musical ability was present on both sides of the family.

McLaren felt Art was one thing he was really good at which led him to Art College…. where he discovered film. By the time I found the material stored in the archive I had realised that many people still did not know who McLaren was. I began to feel that I wanted to do something to draw attention to his work. I made a decision that one day I would make a dance and film based on him. I eventually made this film, Affectionately Yours, in 2012.

Still from the film Affectionately Yours, Tricia Anderson, 2012.

Still from the film Affectionately Yours, Tricia Anderson, 2012.

Posted in News and events, Our collections | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Musicians Union – what did the branches do?

The vast majority of the Musicians Union collection has now been catalogued and added to our online catalogue. The collection includes material from Central and District offices and also material from over 65 branches of the Musicians Union spread across the whole of the United Kingdom from Aberdeen in the north, to Bournemouth in the south. As you might expect the records tell us much about the administration of the MU, its structure and operation. The campaigns around the use of recorded music, promoting live music as well as defending the terms and conditions of working musicians and supporting them in times of hardship are well documented throughout the branch records.

Minutes from Liverpool branch meeting
Minutes for Liverpool branch meeting 

For some branches we have a large number and a wide range of records. For example for Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool we have records that reflect the size of the union in terms of individual members in those areas and the range of employment opportunities for musicians.

The minutes of committee meetings and correspondence record the concerns of the Union, for example in protecting terms and conditions of employment for musicians employed in local orchestras and in local theatres.  Liverpool minutes  MU/4/5/1/5

We have membership records that provide not only evidence of the size of the branches in terms of recorded members but also provide information which may be of interest to family historians. Membership registers include names, address, date of joining the union, instruments played and if the person had transferred from another branch or moved to another branch.  The membership records cover more than a century of MU membership from 1893 onwards.

MU Membership Register

Blackpool branch membership register

It is perhaps not surprising that the MU branches in these large cities produce many records; however some small towns also had very active branches. For example we have records from the Blackpool branch which reflect its history as a popular seaside resort with several theatres and attractions including the Tower Ballroom. The minutes of the Blackpool branch meetings and correspondence record negotiations with the Blackpool Tower Company over the terms and conditions of musicians. MU4/15/3/1

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

The impact of historical events is also present in branch records for example the Blackburn branch was involved in negotiations with the local council for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and the use of recorded music. MU/4/11/3/1

Letter from Blackburn branch correspondence file.

The BBC looms large in many branches especially in those branches where members are employed in the BBC orchestras. Much of the correspondence of the Glasgow branch covers negotiations with the BBC over cuts to orchestras and the resulting strikes during the 1980’s.

MU P010

MU Confr026

Photographs taken during the 1980 BBC strike.

 The strike in Bournemouth in 1950 is well documented in a Strike Day by Day Scrap book MU4/18/5/1

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Lasting Appeal of Night Mail

Nearly eighty years after its release, Night Mail (Wright & Watt, 1936), produced by the General Post Office Film Unit, is still relevant to documentary filmmaking – its style, content and representation being key to the fundamentals of the non-fiction film. Night Mail follows the journey of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway postal service from London to Scotland, as it collects and delivers Britain’s mail.

A scene from Night Mail (ref. Grierson Archive, G Photo 55)

A scene from Night Mail (ref. Grierson Archive, G Photo 55)

Forsyth Hardy, film critic and John Grierson’s biographer, wrote in 1979 about the lasting appeal of the film in his book Grierson on Documentary – “Of all the hundreds of films which emerged from the documentary movement in the 1930s it has most surely stood the test of time.” Perhaps this is because the nostalgia evoked, was of a time in British culture that seemed untouched by modernity. Paradoxically however, the film proved to be stylistically and socially progressive. Modernist concepts such as commercial rebranding and details like expressionistic images – the beveled, clean lines of the titles, the specially commissioned music and poetic verse suggested a cultural shift.

Founded by Grierson in 1933, the G. P. O. Film Unit made documentaries to promote British industry to the British public. Films such as Granton Trawler (Grierson, 1934), about the fishing industry reminded the nation that respect and gratitude should be given to everyday workers. Referring to this concept Night Mail director Basil Wright said that the film was, “commissioned by the post office […] to explain to the Post Office workers how this particular aspect of the vast organization happened” (ref. Grierson Archive, GA.10.55). Grierson went on to say, “It was some satisfaction to take those letters G.P.O and make them stand for what was most progressive in the cinema” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.14.5).

Night Mail’s appeal was partly due to the collaboration of modern disciplines and experimentation in sound and visual style. The combination of Grierson’s production, Cavalcanti’s sound direction, W.H.Auden’s poetic verse and music by composer Benjamin Britten constructed an almost avant-garde aesthetic. The juxtaposition between man and machine – the close-up shots of the moving pistons, the point of view shots from the engine drawing the audience in and the precise timing of the mail bag pick-up as postal workers listen to the beats of the wheels on the track – evokes a poetic artistry. Talking to the B.B.C about the pre-production, Grierson recounts the emotional connotations, “The train had become the living embodiment of a whole slice of British life” (ref. Grierson Archive, G7.23.3).

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

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

On its release, Night Mail was successful, in part due to transportable projection units. In Sight and Sound in 1937, J.B. Holmes, director of productions at the G.P.O discussed their method of distribution, “With machines, operators, screens and films, they were capable of showing in almost any sort of premises” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.P4). Aside from the influential use of the cinematic device and the modernist propaganda ascribed to the film; far beyond the filmmaking world, railway enthusiasts have sustained the appeal of Night Mail and as a result, in 2013 a sculpted bust of Grierson was introduced to Stirling railway station.

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

Posted in Our collections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment