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The Documentary Film Mob

It’s always nice to see material from your collections featured on TV and radio and in the press. On Tuesday 19th July BBC 4 is screening Britain Through the Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, a programme about the pioneering British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s. One of the key figures in this group was John Grierson and a number of images from our Grierson Archive feature in the programme.

Often described as ‘the father of documentary film’ Grierson began his filmmaking career in 1927 when he persuaded the Empire Marketing Board that it needed to set up a film unit. Grierson’s unit set about making a string of promotional films extolling the virtues of various products made in the British Empire. It was while he was at the Board that Grierson made the film Drifters, a documentary about herring fishing. The film had a huge impact and created a template for documentary films which many others followed.

Drifters

Scene from Drifters, 1929.

On the back of the success of Drifters Grierson moved to the General Post Office in 1933 where he ran their film unit and produced a string of documentary and public information films. Probably the best known of these films is Night Mail which followed the post train from London to Scotland. It featured music from Benjamin Britten and poetry from W H Auden (the final lines of which, when the train reaches Scotland, are read by Grierson). He was responsible for launching the careers of a generation of young British filmmakers who flourished under his watchful eye. The Stirling-born, Oscar-winning animator Norman McLaren was one of those who benefited from Grierson’s support and encouragement. He is fondly remembered in Canada where in 1939 he took on the huge challenge of setting up the country’s National Film Board. For many Scots however Grierson is perhaps best known as the presenter of This Wonderful World, a television programme which brought the best of the world’s documentary films into Scottish sitting rooms in the 1950s and 1960s.

This Wonderful World

John Grierson on the set of This Wonderful World, 1958.