Chapter One - Grierson and Anstey in the 1930s: Influences.
The aim of this chapter is to give contextual background to the early work of Edgar Anstey in the 1930s. As part of this examination, the prevailing social class system is taken into account along with the state of British cinema and the influence of American (Hollywood) cinema on British audiences. It is hoped that by including the above contextualisation ion that the remainder of the chapter dealing with the British Documentary movement under John Grierson will be given extra depth. Ansteys work is established, as is the work of the movement as a whole. As part of this examination the work of the documentarist is not seen on its own, but as part of a thriving sponsored film sector, with the hope of a part to play in British mainstream cinema. The link to the remainder of the piece is Ansteys career, which is examined up until the outbreak of World War Two.
One of the prevailing factors of the 1930s was the Great Depression. This meant an absence of work for the working classes and with this came the further problems of housing and supply of nutritional food. The argument can also be made that even in employment the working class exist rather than enjoy a comfortable standard of living. Urban working class poverty characterises this era. Francois Bedarida cites the revaluing of Sterling as one of the reasons leading to the Great Depression and the decline of traditional industries which were large working class employers, as he points out here: -
A further case for anxiety was the decline of Britains traditional bases of prosperity. The activities which had been the most flourishing all through the nineteenth century were now the most menaced The three giants of Victorian industry-coal, textiles and shipbuilding-were now in jeopardy. Coal production fell from 287 million tons in 1913 to 227 million in 1938, at which date there were 400,000 fewer miners than in 1923. In 1913 the shipyards produced a million tons of shipping, in 1938 only half a million. Cotton was the worst hit part of the textile industry. In 1913 yarn output was around 2,000 million pounds of thread; in 1930 it had fallen to 1,000 million, though by 1937 it was 1,400 million. Those regions which had formerly been the most productive - Lancashire, the North East, South Wales and Central Scotland-became distressed areas later to be Euphemistically re christened special areas. Enforced idleness and poverty were widespread.
Bedarida makes this point regarding the despair of those unemployed: -
Everywhere one found shops closed and houses shut with their windows boarded up. Long queues formed alternately outside the labour exchanges and cinemas.
The above sentiments regarding the working classes has to be counterbalanced with the role of the middle class in Britain, who were in the ascendancy from 1921 to 1931 from 23% to 26%. Also they tended not to live in the special areas. Here Francois Bedarida makes this point regarding the attitude of the British middle class:-
'They flattered themselves that they were the brainpower of the nation, that the qualities of leadership and enterprise were theirs alone. To their class they ascribed the moral and religious qualities that had made their nation great. In short they were inclined to be prejudiced and self-satisfled'.
Bedarida goes further in making this observation with regard to a shift in the above attitude as the working class are seen to suffer from the economic conditions that were prevalent:-
In a spirit of peevish conservatism they talked of putting the working class in its place and breaking the unions. They changed their tone during the economic crisis of the 1930s, but without entirely losing their suspicions. Many of them felt profound disquiet at the sufferings of the unemployed.
After the Second World War in Britain, both the Labour and later Conservative administrations did not return to the above notion of the middle class as illustrated later. It is worth noting here that since both John Grierson, Edgar Anstey and the other practitioners of British documentary were drawn from the middle classes, they may have been amongst those who felt disquiet at the suffering caused by the economic crises.
A brief mention has been made earlier of the role that cinema played as an alternative to the labour exchange. It is interesting to note the pre-eminence of the Hollywood film, as Peter Stead points out:-
Hollywood had captured the British market and was very effectively securing financial control of much of British production and distribution but it had also by 1938 more or less completely won over British critical opinion. Apart from the out and out adherents of socialist, soviet and documentary films, the leading critics and moulders of opinion had come to believe that it was the Hollywood feature film that was pointing the way forward.
A reason for the above point of view might be the absence of any competing product from within the British film industry.
The argument could be put forward that both the British documentary movement and so called realist films from Hollywood began a shift away from the conventions of the West End stage that were observed in the British entertainment film of the 1930s. Jane Moran wrote these observations of actors within the British film industry in the Daily Worker in 1938:-
Actors who have not had every spark of humanity ironed out of them by the strange conventions of the West End stage and reminded producers that absurd caricatures would not be accepted by audiences that had never been to a west end play.
An example of this genre might be Blithe Spirit written by Noel Coward. Basically the play is a drawing room comedy/farce designed for middle class theatre audiences transposed onto film. The film starred Rex Harrison and was set in a middle to upper class household; although made in 1945 it is indicative of the strange conventions West End. Whilst the film is an amusing comedy it bears little resemblance to the lives of people suffering the plague of poverty (or recovery from the war). The reliance of British films and actors on the conventions of the stage may have put the working classes off products offered by British studios in favour of productions from Hollywood although films like Top Hat (1935) were pure upper class escapism and, in that, little better than the British product. Another factor might be representation of the working class in the British entertainment film as Stuart Hood makes in this point:-
As Ralph Bond, a communist member of the movement (British documentary) has explained, when workers did appear... they were always the comedy relief, the buffoons, the idiots or the servants'.
However, this does not mean that there were not provincial actors/actresses with whom it might be argued the working class could identify, i.e. Gracie Fields, George Formby and Will Hay to name but three. What was the purpose of the cinema in the 1930s - a device to confront the real or a place to escape?
An answer might be provided here in the address by Alderman F. Till, The Lord Mayor of Hull at the opening of the newly rebuilt Dorchester Theatre in 1935:-
'I hope that the many thousands of people who, from time to time, will come here just to rest and change and perhaps to escape into a more cheerful and lovelier world, will feel that all your efforts have been worthwhile. It will take them away from the drab world and send them out again, refreshed and strengthened for their tasks'.
The Dorchester Theatre was rebuilt in the Art Deco style that would have complemented the style of contemporary Hollywood musicals like Top Hat.
There appears to have been the perception that British films were being left behind largely because they were less real and less vital. J.B. Priestley perhaps sums up the situation with this proposed solution to the problems of realism within British film and in so doing he makes a direct connection with the subject matter of the remainder of this chapter:-
If the Arabian nights caliphs (British studio heads) could have left the Savoy grill and these earnest young experimenters could have marched out of Soho square and both parties could have met, somewhere near Haymarket then British films might have entered a new and glorious life.
As the earnest experimenters referred to by Priestly were the British documentary practitioners under John Grierson it seems appropriate to explore the work of John Grierson and the movement he set up.
Stuart Hood includes this statement from Grierson regarding the British Documentary Movement:-
It is worth recalling that the British documentary group began not so much in affection for film per se as in affection for national education. If I am to be counted as the founder and leader of the movement, its origins certainly lay in sociological rather than aesthetic ideas.
Edgar Anstey, who joined Grierson in 1931, gives an illustration into the term known as documentary, which Grierson is credited with using for the particular type of film genre that takes actuality or the real as its subject.
The creative interpretation of reality - the word itself had its origin in the French description of the travelogue, documentaire'.
Grierson used the term whilst reviewing Robert Flaherty s Moana in 1926. Grierson was greatly influenced by the work of both Flaherty and the Russian director Eisenstein. Grierson helped prepare an English version of Battleship Potemkin. Traces of this influence can be seen in Griersons Drifters. This film along with Griersons version of Potemkin had its premier at the London Film Society on the l0th November 1929.
The London Film Society as a private organisation was allowed to screen films like Potemkin that might otherwise been barred to the commercial cinema circuits either for commercial or political reasons. In fact, this type of society, along with film or other general interest groups in Britain or abroad, was the principle audience of the British documentary movement's production output. This is supported by Eric Barnouw who gives this insight into the purpose and politics of the London Film Society.
The programme of November 10, 1929, was representative of a shift. The main attraction was the Grierson version of The Battleship Potemkin, with Drifters as an added item. The Battleship Potemkin was, by British censorship decision, forbidden to theatres but not to the London Film Society, a private group. As films grew more issue orientated, this private status tended to make the society a place where forbidden films could be seen: usually leftist, sometimes Russian. The London Film Society, already leftward in its membership, became more so during the depression years.
Returning to Drifters Richard Barsam makes these points:-
Drifters was important for several reasons. First, in Griersons understanding of montage and his emphasis on the working man, it reflected the influence of the soviet filmmakers, particularly Eisenstein, on the foundation of the British documentary film. Second, it presents a real-time activity - herring fishing which is nevertheless brought alive, not only in terms of physical process, but, more importantly, in terms of the human drama invoked in this essential part of the British economy.
The influence of Drifters had far reaching consequences, one of which was the formation of the British Documentary movement.
This movement would be encompassed within the Empire Marketing Board from 1927 to 1933 and then continue at the General Post Office from 1933 to 1939 when, with the outbreak of war, a different kind of information or propaganda was required. These units drew their talent from both Oxford and Cambridge and were middle class in practice but with a socialist outlook, although Grierson insisted that the units members were politically neutral.
An important factor to be considered is that both of the above units were sponsored; that is the expenses of the unit were paid for by either state or private industry. This raises questions over the extent to which films and their directors were independent of the sponsors control. This is a key theme that will dominate our discussion of BTF. As a matter of fact Drifters, a film about the herring industry, was partially selected to win over a government minister - Arthur Samuel, Financial Secretary to the Treasury - who had written a book The Herring: its effect on the history of Britain, to the work of the EMB unit.
Therefore, at the outset, Grierson (and later Anstey) had to remonstrate with the notions of service to the sponsor and his ideas regarding the use of film, and those people who were represented or portrayed on film. Erick Barnouw illustrates with this quote by Grierson:-
'When it came to making industry not ugly for people, but a matter of beauty, so that people would accept their industrial selves, so that they would not revolt against their industrial selves, as they did in the late 19th century, who initiated the finding of beauty in industry? The British government, as a matter of policy'.
An illustration of the Beauty in Industry might be provided by Night Mail. Anstey says of Night Mail directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright in 1936:-
'In the period before Night Mail was made, his colleagues were exploring the film which Grierson called documentary. The G.P.O unit had just acquired its own sound equipment and Grierson brought Cavacanti from France to do research in the use of sound... The actual sounds of day-to-day life were given their true importance, not only to create atmosphere but as a means of evoking what I can only describe as an extra dimension of emotion'.
The quality of sound reproduction or the invented noises that occur in Night Mail may appear crude by todays standards. However, modern technology assisted the makers of Night Mail, as it does for the contemporary documentary film maker today, making the notion of natural sound commonplace and expected as part of the documentary experience. This, like many innovations it may be argued started with Grierson and his inspiration of the G.P.O. unit.
One of the other remarkable things about Night Mail is the representation of the workers; they are seen as competent people doing a job, the important job of either facilitating or actually sorting the mail on board the Travelling Post Office (postal special) from Euston to Glasgow.
This is emphasised by the sequence where an experienced postman from a sorting office is learning the new task of securing pouches to the out-swinging apparatus. This scene shows the audience that there is lot more to this particular task than meets the eye, and also it emphasises the amount of infrastructure, training and effort required in posting and delivering a letter.
The purpose of Night Mail, it may be argued, is not so much educational or sociological, but merely a promotional film for the services of the Post Office. It can be further argued that the representation of workers of both the London Midland and Scottish railway and the Post Office is a way of illustrating to an audience the efficiency of the sponsoring organisation. The contemporary documentary critic Arthur Calder-Marshall who wrote of Grierson makes this point:-
'When a film is financed by interests other than the entertainment industry, the financiers are out to get results, either in sales or in state of mind. Mr. Grierson is not paid to tell the truth but to make more people use the parcel post. Mr. Grierson may like to talk about social education surpliced in self-importance and social benignity. Other people may like hearing him. But even if it sounds like a sermon, a sales talk is a sales talk'.
This did not stop members of the group experimenting with other forms, including Len Lye, who experimented with the technique of scraping or painting directly onto film as he did with A Colour Box. The film is a collision of colour images set to music which bursts onto the screen and excites the audiences visual senses. However, this innovative film, or the art of the film, is subjected to the coldness of commercial realism, as in latter parts of the film adverts appear for the parcel post!
Another film, The Fairy of the Phone, takes the audience on a musical journey through the instructions on page five of telephone directories. Here William Coldstream uses devices better known to the musical comedy film including a well-known soubrette and a chorus of telephone operators. These films must also be taken into account when assessing the work of the G.P.O. film unit. Grierson may have envisaged the film as an educational hammer, but one is left wondering if he would have envisaged using this hammer to educate people in the services of the Post Office?
Paul Rotha gives this account of the selection of staff for the new EMB film unit; it is here, as Rotha leaves, that Anstey begins his career as a film maker:-
During 1930 and 1931, there was no problem in finding staff for the new unit. Some came from the field of amateur film making, some from those who were frustrated by the state of the commercial studios, while others had no film experience at all. An advertisement in The Times brought a spate of replies... For the record, the majority of them had a public school and university (Oxbridge) education and stemmed from what are called middle class families.
Edgar Anstey (Watford Grammar School and did not attend university) had along with Basil Wright, Arthur Elton and Paul Rotha seen the first performance of Drifters. Anstey, before joining the EMB unit had been a junior scientific assistant in the building research station at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
One of Ansteys first tasks was to edit Industrial Britain under Griersons supervision. This had been mainly shot by Flaherty. Also Anstey joined an admiralty expedition to Labrador and made Uncharted Waters and Eskimo Village in 1932.
Whilst directing BBC Droitwich, Anstey was offered an opportunity to set up a sponsored film unit for Shell. Forsyth Hardy gives this view of the formation of the Shell unit and why Anstey left at such an early stage:-
This in turn led Shell International to commission a report by Grierson on the use of films generally. His report was accepted, the main proposal being for the setting up of a central production unit. Asked to recommend who should run it, Grierson suggested Edgar Anstey, who planned the first programme with Alexander Wolcouch, selected and equipped premises, recruited staff and made the Shell film unit's first film, Airport (released 1935). Dissatisfied with the slow progress being made, Anstey resigned and was succeeded by Arthur Elton.
The above serves to illustrate two points; first, that Grierson had a tremendous amount of faith in the abilities of Anstey to entrust him with this important project and secondly, that at the age of 26, Anstey was able to undertake such a task; a similar task to that which he undertook in 1949 with the formation of British Transport Films.
It is possible that Anstey did not want to settle down at this point in time and therefore returned to Grierson.
On returning to the G.P.O. unit Anstey edited Granton Trawler which was photographed by Grierson. He also directed Harry Watts 6.30 Collection, about which Paul Rotha makes these observations:-
6.30 Collection is a step forward in that it employs a partial musical background, commentary, natural sound and a small amount of directly recorded scraps of conversation giving colour to the whole'.
Some of the techniques employed in 6.30 Collection are used to great effect in BTF productions. Paul Rotha goes onto to make this point about the above and two other films made by the G.P.O. unit, in that they are not the work of a single director but are more of a collective effort; a group film. This was a departure from mainstream cinema practice:-
The series that included Weather Forecast, Cable Ship and Six Thirty Collection, were essentially the product of group working although they were credited respectively to Evelyn Spice, Stuart Legg and Edgar Anstey. None of them had any individual characteristics of direction. Any of these three directors could have made any of the three films.
Anstey was to make his mark as a director, and this started with On the Road to Work, which included some direct dialogue recorded on location.
The use of direct dialogue recording might be seen as the preface to one of Ansteys best-remembered works, Housing Problems, co-directed by Arthur Elton in 1936. Sound is used to great effect in Housing Problems; not in the way illustrated earlier in Night Mail, but by its use to record, and therefore, allow the people who are part of the subject of the film, (the tenants of slums and of the better housing that they could look forward to), to speak for themselves, via the camera to the audience, in order to make their own case. This use of sound is revolutionary and Anstey makes his case for it here:-
We narrowed ourselves down in Housing Problems to a very, very simple technique, which was open, at the time nobody had done it, and we gave slum dwellers a chance to make their own films.
The notion that slum dwellers could make their own film is an interesting and exciting one. However, the argument could be made that in 1936 all Anstey and Elton were doing was to use slum dwellers to advance the cause of slum clearance. This, in itself was a noble cause, but with the new building comes the need to heat and provide cooking facilities to the new dwellings. This could be supplied by the Gas Company, who in turn sponsored the film. Is this film then no more than a film of persuasion, with the slum dwellers making the gas companys point to the local authorities about rebuilding their cities to not only clear slums but also use gas for appliances? Is this just another example of the sales talk? In spite of the constraints of sponsorship it could be argued that Anstey and Elton pointed the way forward in documentary, although it was to be some years later that a different medium that would run with the idea of people speaking for themselves, and would develop into docudrama or docusoap.
However, a further opportunity awaited Anstey, and this was again on the advice of John Grierson. The 26th August 1936 edition of Cinema announces that:-
Mr. Edgar Anstey, one of the best-known documentary film directors, has joined The March of Time, limited, and will commence work as assistant producer under Mr. Richard de Rochemont, in a few weeks... currently completing a topical film on national nutrition for the gas and coke company.
The above quote is included as it indicates two important things in Ansteys career; joining the March of Time and completing his second most important film as director Enough to Eat' (1936) follows a more traditional documentary form of commentary interspersed with an official address to camera.
However, this did not mean the subject matter was not controversial; here a slight confusion has to be confronted, as the British section of the March of Time no 7 included a section on national nutrition in 1937. Are these one and the same? The reaction to March of Time no7, which received wide press coverage and caused some cinema owners to delete this section from exhibition at certain cinemas, is illustrated by this unaccredited source from the Anstey collection:-
'We consider that the film in question, which was made in the United States by an American company, is in many respects anti-British and presents a very misleading picture of conditions in this country as a whole'.
The argument could be made that, as for entertainment films, the misleading was acceptable, although this subject is beyond the remit of this piece. As there are quite a number of press cuttings regarding this work it might be assumed that Anstey had a part to play in March of Time No. 7 and further illustrates that he was prepared to make controversial films. Ansteys period at March of Time must have left an impression that may have affected his subsequent work, including his time at BTF. It is therefore worth looking at the methods and ethos of the March of Time. Here Rachel Low makes these observations:-
The March of Time made a virtue of opening up controversy. The British films had social rather than topical significance and aimed to provoke thought rather than to coast in on a wave of argument. What were the characteristics of the March of Time? Synchronised interviews predated it in this country, even direct recording of non-celebrities, apart from newsreel items like our exasperated little puddin maker, having been used in Eltons Workers and Jobs and Anstey and Elton Housing Problems before the arrival of the March of Time. The use of newsreel film and the re-enactment of newsworthy events were two March of Time specialities not favoured by the British documentarist's films of comment.
Whilst at The March of Time Anstey would appear to have assimilated the above MOT specialities, as stated here in an unaccredited report on the future of British documentary after World War Two:-
To reach a final effect of reality is clearly a creative process; you may prove your sociological arguments better with a studio set and actors than you can with real people in their real surroundings. Documentary making in the future will become more flexible, less rigid in its conventions and more ready to sacrifice means to ends.
The above statement is of great interest, in that Anstey seems to be distancing himself from his own invention where the real was not only seen, but also heard, as in Housing Problems. It would now appear that he favoured the studio set and actors to make sociological arguments. This is the view of an established and respected documentary maker in 1946, who may not only have been influenced by The March of Time but also by people such as Humphrey Jennings, with whom Anstey would have come into contact before and during the war.
Anstey appears to be advocating the unreal as opposed to the real; possibly acknowledging the extent to which successful documentary relies heavily on skilful construction and is not as unproblematic as simply recording actuality. Therefore, the argument regarding the probity of documentary in recent years would appear to go back a long time.
Edgar Anstey went from being one of the pioneers of British documentary in the post war period to becoming head of British Transport Films; it is this period that the next two chapters will examine.
© Paul Smith - text must not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.
© Paul Smith - text must not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.