Key filmmakers: John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, Basil Wright
Key dates: 1929-1950
What is it? If the Empire Marketing Board (no relation) was still around, it’d probably be turning out lovingly-crafted documentaries charting a day in the life of Honey Monster or following Mr Muscle into action against another nasty spillage. Back then, the EMB, an official cheerleader for Britain’s still-powerful empire, focused a filmmaking arm run by pioneering documentarian John Grierson on the graft of herring fishermen in the North Sea, tea pickers in Sri Lanka and the overnight caboose carrying mail around Blighty. It was a time when upper lips were stiff and pride in imperial commerce was everywhere, but while these were often fairly uncritical looks at Britain’s ‘commonwealth of nations’, Grierson and his acolytes, men like Harry Watt, Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings, pushed filmmaking in all sorts of interesting new directions.
When the EMB ditched the Don of the documentary and his team from its balance sheet in 1933, the Post Office’s GPO Film Unit stepped in. This posse of mostly middle-class men (Grierson was a philosophy grad) went on to turn in new types of narrative films, like the Night Mail, a kind of Brylcreemed Unstoppable, that combined Benjamin Britten’s music, W. H. Auden’s lyricism and future Ealing director Alberto Cavalcanti’s sound into a dreamlike marvel of steam and stoicism on the railways. The latter was tested by the war, when the GPO Film Unit, with Grierson, Watt and surrealist painter Humphrey Jennings, brought their skills to bear as propagandists.
What to watch: Drifters (1929), The Song Of Ceylon (1934) (pictured top), Weather Forecast (1934), Night Mail (1936), Target For Tonight (1941), Fires Were Started (1943)
What did it influence? While Grierson’s rep has somewhat faded (“When people ask if my influence was John Grierson,” Errol Morris told Empire, “the answer is no”), Jennings’ legacy has been acknowledged by directors from Lindsay Anderson to Kevin Macdonald.
Trivia: Grierson helped foster female directors, including his own sisters, Marion and Ruby.
What to say: “These films are more British than a police constable with a Victoria sponge on his head.”
What not to say: “Is there a Night E-mail too?”