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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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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)
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
(Susannah Ramsay, M Litt. in Film Studies)
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.’
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:
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.
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.
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.
This week we were delighted to receive a fantastic new addition to our Norman McLaren Archive. The material consists of a set of 64 letters, letter-cards and postcards sent by McLaren to his friend (and fellow filmmaker) Helen Biggar in 1936 and 1937. McLaren met Biggar when studying at the Glasgow School of Art and in 1936 they made the anti-war film Hell Unltd (which had a recent screening at the GFT). McLaren’s letters to Biggar detail the film’s planning, editing, promotion and distribution. A letter written on 21 April 1936 captures McLaren’s excitement at a moment of creative inspiration:
“Oh Helen – it happened at 7 o’clock tonight – it burst forth like a torrent – a perfect welter and wealth of hot ideas and arrangement and everything – in fact the complete film just gushed from my subconscious mind in great detail – gee its marvelous – our new film…”
The film McLaren and Helen Biggar made was a stinging attack on the re-armament of Europe and consequent rush towards conflict. The film was as experimental as it was political mixing various styles and techniques – animation, archive footage, graphs and titles, and acted scenes – culminating in a rallying call for the audience to take direct action and demonstrate against the war. The film made a great impact in the febrile political climate of the time and was widely screened (McLaren’s letters detailing their arrangements with Kino Films, a left-wing film distributor).
The letters cover a key point in the development of McLaren’s filmmaking career. In the autumn of 1936 McLaren took up his first post as a professional filmmaker joining the team of young talent that John Grierson assembled at the GPO Film Unit. McLaren writes about his work at the GPO, comparing the methods and techniques to those he had previously employed in his amateur work. He still however had ambitions to make his own films outside the GPO Film Unit and discusses various planned project with Helen Biggar. McLaren also writes about his visit to Spain in November 1936 to shoot footage for the film The Defense of Madrid, which documented the resistance of the Republican forces fighting Franco’s Nationalist army.
Following their collaboration on Hell Unltd McLaren and Biggar’s career paths diverged. In 1939 McLaren moved to New York and in 1941 he took up an invitation from John Grierson to join the newly established National Film Board of Canada. Helen Biggar became a stage designer for the Glasgow Worker’s Theatre Group and the Glasgow Unity Theatre, while continuing her work as a sculptor. In 1945 she moved to London, later becoming wardrobe mistress and costume designer for Ballet Rambert.
As we head towards xmas it’s time to collect and collate the statistics for the use of our collections in 2012 to create our end of year chart. We’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room and have a new No. 1 this year, knocking the ever-popular John Grierson Archive into the No. 2 spot.
In 2012 our most used collection was the Musicians’ Union Archive. The collection provides a comprehensive record of the work of the union and its responses to the various challenges (both political and technological) which have faced musicians over the last 130 years. There are a number of factors that contributed to the collection’s popularity in 2012:
- The increased accessibility of the collection due to cataloguing, making previously unaccessible material available to researchers
- The heavy use of the collection by an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Glasgow which is researching the history of the Musicians’ Union
- The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic which led to many enquiries from the media and researchers relating to the musicians on board the ship
The collection also received many genealogical enquiries from people tracing the careers of family members, the membership records providing a wealth of useful information, and a range of enquiries from researchers investigating various aspects of political, social and musical history.
Cataloguing of the Musicians’ Union Archive will continue in 2013 as the records of the local branches located across the UK are added to the catalogue, providing a comprehensive record of union activity from Aberdeen to Exeter.
Further down the chart our Lindsay Anderson Archive made the top 3 for the second year running, the final fruits of the work of our ARHC research project being published in November. It was also encouraging to see the university’s own institutional records being well used (at No. 4) and featured in an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the macrobert in September and on television in a report on the Howietoun Fishery on BBC 2 Scotland’s Landward in November.
The statistics for our flickr pages highlight the success of our Going Wild In the Archives exhibition which took place across the campus in the spring of 2012. The top 10 most-viewed flickr images all hail from the natural history collections which were photographed for the exhibition and include beautiful Victorian illustrations of birds of paradise, sea anemones, butterflies and Himalayan plants. With plans in place to open-up some interesting new accessions to researchers in the new year we’re looking forward to a busy and stimulating 2013!
As we head towards the end of the year it’s the time to collect and collate the statistics for the use of our collections in 2011. By combining the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room the most popular collections this year were… in third place the university’s own institutional records; in second the papers of the filmmaker Lindsay Anderson; and comfortably ahead in first place the John Grierson Archive.
Often described as ‘the father of documentary filmmaking’ John Grierson had a long and colourful career directing and producing documentaries, and making an important contribution to the development of filmmaking in Britain and the Commonwealth. Grierson’s archive provides a comprehensive record of his working life, from his work as a pioneering documentary filmmaker in the 1920s, the establishment of the GPO Film Unit in the 1930s, and National Film Board of Canada in the 1940s, through to his later years when he brought the best of the world’s documentary films into the living rooms of Scottish viewers in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the television programme This Wonderful World.
The wide variety of subjects related to Grierson for which we received enquiries in the past 12 months reflects his long and varied career. And their geographical spread highlight his international importance and influence with enquiries received, and researchers visiting the archive, from across Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Deposited with the university in the early 1970s the Grierson Archive has been a major resource for those interested in the history of documentary and the development of cinema for many years. Our statistics for this year show quite clearly that the collection’s research possibilities have yet to be exhausted!