British Transport Films - The First Decade : 1949-1959
by Paul Smith

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. Anstey’s 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 Anstey’s 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: -

Bedarida makes this point regarding the despair of those unemployed: -

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:-

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:-

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:-

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:-

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:-

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:-

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:-

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:-

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.

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 Grierson’s ‘Drifters’. This film along with Grierson’s 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.

Returning to ‘Drifters’ Richard Barsam makes these points:-

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 unit’s 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 sponsor’s 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:-

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:-

The quality of sound reproduction or the invented noises that occur in ‘Night Mail’ may appear crude by today’s 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:-

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 audience’s 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:-

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 Anstey’s first tasks was to edit ‘Industrial Britain’ under Grierson’s 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:-

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 Watt’s ‘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:-

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 Anstey’s 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:-

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 company’s 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:-

The above quote is included as it indicates two important things in Anstey’s 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:-

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. Anstey’s 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:-

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:-

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.

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

© Paul Smith - text must not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.