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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

 

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)