PhD Dissertation: The Non-Fiction Film in Britain, 1945-51

Richard Winnington Rank Cartoon

From the News Chronicle, 27 July 1946.  This cartoon, by the well-known leftist film critic Richard Winnington, accuses J. Arthur Rank of squeezing independent and “highbrow” films out of British cinemas, by prioritising mainstream movies made in his own studios and imported from Hollywood for screen time in his Odeon and Gaumont-British chains.  The cartoon was inspired by a controversy that had broken out in the summer of 1946.  Rank’s critics accused him of trying to suppress the release of The Way We Live, a feature documentary that promoted centralised town planning (and, by extension, the welfare state).  Because it was the work of a high-profile socialist filmmaker, Jill Craigie, Rank’s opponents, of whom Winnington was among the most prominent, also accused him of promoting a right-wing political agenda.  The controversy over the distribution and release of The Way We Live was but one episode in a decade-long campaign against Rank by the political left, and is discussed in chapter 4 of my dissertation.

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Abstract

Introduction
Chapter 1 – British Cinema and the Ideology of Realism
Chapter 2 – The Newsreel
Chapter 3 – The Magazine Film
Chapter 4 – The Feature Documentary
Chapter 5 – Non-Fiction Film and the Government
Conclusion
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Introduction

My PhD dissertation, The Non-Fiction Film in Britain, 1945-51, was researched in the School of English at the University of Exeter, between September 1996 and April 1999.  It examines the production, distribution and exhibition of non-fiction films in the United Kingdom during the immediate aftermath of World War II.  The research traces the process of cultural and institutional change before, during and after the war which resulted in the films under discussion.  A number of sources and methods are used, including evidential research into the production and reception of post-war non-fiction films using primary sources, a discussion of the prevaling political and industrial climate and content analysis of seleted actual films.

The phrase “non-fiction film” was used in the title deliberately and for a specific reason.  The noun “documentary” is frequently used today as a colloquial synonym to mean almost any non-fictional movie or TV show that isn’t simply a factual news report.  In the context of, and more broadly in the period covered by this dissertation, however, it referred specifically to the “Documentary Movement,” a group of leftist political filmmakers who coalesced around John Grierson and the organizations he led.  In the 1940s, “documentary” was understood to mean a film that called for social or political change, or had an educational or a public service agenda (and to the movement’s detractors on the right, was also a euphemism for propaganda).  The Documentary Movement’s leading figures tended to oppose any cinema that was intended to be mainstream, commercial entertainment, newsreels and some non-fictional feature films included.  Therefore, “non-fiction” is used in the title and elsewhere in the text to prevent confusion between “documentary” in the Griersonian sense of the word and its commonly understood meaning today.

Chapter 1 – British Cinema and the Ideology of Realism

The opening chapter discusses the various cultural and institutional factors that influenced the production and reception of non-fiction films during the period under discussion, principally censorship, the Documentary Movement, specialized exhibition and the emergence the so-called “intellectual film culture” during and after the war, through the work of Roger Manvell and publications such as Penguin Film Review.  It argues that the intellectual film culture of 1940s Britain tended to align the ideas of realism and quality, in effect promoting the idea that films which dealt with the real world were essentially “better” than those which told fictional stories.  The intellectual film culture was also influenced by anti-American xenophobia dating back to the moral panics of the 1920s, when Hollywood films started to be imported into the UK on a significant scale.

Chapter 2 – The Newsreel and its Audience

Chapter 2 examines the newsreel, and argues that the “supplementary contract” system of newsreel distribution, which operated between 1943 and 1950, enabled political and ideological issues to be covered by British cinema newsreels in a way that was impossible before and during the early part of the war.  The supplementary contract was introduced as a wartime austerity measure to save film stock, and its main effect was to force cinemas to show a given newsreel whether they wanted to or not.  As a result of this, newsreel producers felt able to cover “hard news” stories without the fear of offending cinema owners, who were historically resistant to newsreel coverage of contentious political issues.  This chapter also argues that the newsreels’ coverage of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in April 1945 set an important precedent for the post-war period, in which events such as the economic crises in the late 1940s and the emergence of the Cold War were covered to a depth and extent that would have been unheard of in the 1930s.

Chapter 3 – The Magazine Film

This chapter is primarily concerned with This Modern Age (TMA), a monthly series of 20-minute films produced by the Rank Organisation between 1946 and 1951.  It argues that the British series of its better known American predecessor The March of Time had a significant influence on the British film industry and public, but that many of the comparisons between the two projects made both by critics at the time of TMA’s emergence and by historians since fail to reveal its overall significance.  At the time the series was commissioned, Rank was under fire from the political left (as illustrated by the cartoon at the top of this page).  The format of TMA, of presenting an even-handed, BBC-style impartial debate of contentious issues, was suspected by some of being Rank’s “sop to the socialists” (as Jill Craigie put it), i.e. an attempt to defuse criticism of his media empire.  The films themselves, however, show a surprising level of detail and candour in their coverage of events, ranging from the King David Hotel bombing in 1946 to the changes to the British education system that took place during the reconstruction period.  The TMA series has virtually been forgotten today (to my knowledge, none of the films has ever been broadcast in their entirety or published on DVD), a victim partly of copyright issues, but also, I argue, as a side-effect of the emphasis British film historians have tended to place on Grierson and the Documentary Movement, to the exclusion of their commercial competitors.

Chapter 4 – The Feature Documentary

This chapter discusses commercially produced feature documentaries in the late 1940s, based around case studies of The Way We Live (1946, Jill Craigie), Theirs is the Glory (1946, Brian Desmond Hurst) and XIV Olympiad: The Glory of Sport (1948, L. Castleton Knight).  It argues that the private sector generated a signficant body of again, largely forgotten cinema (of these three, only Theirs is the Glory has ever been broadcast or published), which incorporates elements of Griersonian realism and popular entertainment.

Chapter 5 – Non-Fiction Film and the Government

The final chapter considers the effects of the transition from the Ministry of Information (MOI) to the Central Office of Information (COI) in April 1946 on the Government’s film production programme.  It contains sections on Children on Trial (1946, Jack Lee), the feature documentaries of Paul Rotha and John Grierson’s return to the COI in 1948.  It discusses how the Documentary Movement’s activist filmmakers, who enjoyed unprecedented resources and prominence under the MOI’s patronage during the war, fought tooth and nail to consolidate and enlarge that position into what they tried to rebrand as the “information” (as distinct from propaganda) film in peacetime.  Pitted against them was the commercial film industry, led by their trade body, the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), which argued that government interference in their business activities was tolerable in wartime but should now be wound down.

Charley’s March of Time, a UK government “information” film made to promote the National Assistance Act of 1948.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this research proposes that the influence of the Documentary Movement and of a “realist” film culture in British post-war cinema has been overstated.  Commercial non-fiction film makers were making important advances as the Documentary Movement went into decline.  The cinemagazine became, in effect, a blueprint for the nascent television industry and the commercially produced non-fiction features appealed to a mainstream audience in ways that a hard core of the Documentary Movement refused to, on ideological grounds.  While a public sector model of broadcasting (the BBC) had become a consensually embedded part of Britain’s national media culture, the public simply refused to accept the same thing happening to its film industry, no matter how desparately and dogmatically Grierson and his ilk wanted to do for the cinema what Reith had done for radio and television.  The politically turbulent years of the immediate post-war period provided the canvas against which these debates were played out, and which influened Britain’s film culture and politics for decades to come.

Women, Know Your Limits! – a satirical parody of Grierson’s vision of the public information film made by the comedian Harry Enfield in 1996. The animated diagrams appear to be a spoof of Otto Neurath’s Isotype system, which was used extensively by Paul Rotha in his feature documentaries of the late 1940s, starting with Land of Promise.


Please feel free to comment on this page below, or to contact me if you have any comments or queries.  This main text of this page was initially written on January 31, 2014, and last updated on February 14, 2014.

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