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Response to Review of Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain

As a central aim of our book was to cast light into a hitherto shadowed corner, all reviews are welcome. It is particularly gratifying, however, to read one that recognises something of the context of the book’s creation and takes the time to offer a seriously engaged close commentary.

Approaching, effectively, a new area of cinema history, we were acutely aware both of the scale of what was unwritten on our subject and of the range of approaches that might be taken in writing it. Dafydd Sills-Jones correctly identifies a very important line of enquiry that we did not pursue systematically – namely, reception studies. The voice of the viewer is indeed largely missing from our book, other than anecdotally (one anecdotal assertion that we didn’t cite, that skill in post-war cinema going could be displayed by the knack of entering the auditorium just as Mining Review’s end title appeared, is cautionary counterpoint to the viewing figures so often quoted by producers and distributors). Further research in this area might do much to increase further our understanding of the films, and to open up yet larger questions about the communications strategies of government and corporations, by integrating our and others’ accounts of filmmaking more thoroughly into wider histories of public relations (perhaps building on the work of such writers as Jacquie L’Etang), internal communications, corporate branding, and the use of sponsorship (of various media) as a tool of image management. Worthwhile examples of the last might be found by exploring more deeply the agendas and aesthetics of companies such as Shell and BP whose sponsorship has extended far beyond film to cover everything from museums to sporting events, portrait prizes, wildlife guides and ‘Better Britain’ campaigns.

Remaining within the field of film study, future research to which we eagerly look forward includes: further outline histories of sponsors (we picked those we deemed most important, but there is scope for dozens more); more penetrating analysis than we managed of the business workings of Arthur Elton’s production consultancy Film Centre (a ubiquitous, yet still somewhat mysterious, presence in the period); closer study specifically of the classroom teaching film and its relationship to contemporary educational theory; more international comparison; more detailed accounts of ‘non-Movement’ factual film in the 1930s, and its post-war legacy; writings about many more of the innumerable films and filmmakers of the post-war period than our 400 pages could accommodate; and parallel histories of the first decades of television documentary. Finally, many of the films, and the institutions and individuals who created them, discussed in our book typically sit somewhere in a wide field bordered by independent documentary on one side and commercial advertising on the other. The relationship with advertising film, indeed the whole field of advertising film itself, is another largely unwritten history.

Many such topics might be considered, as Daffydd Sills-Jones suggests for the post-war documentary, with reference to theorisations of the effect of the creative industries on the ideas circulating in society. Here again we are more than happy to defer to others, as the authors prefer to leave Adorno to the academics…

(In final parenthesis, this is as good a place as any to correct some errors in our book. Page 246 – the Crown Film Unit was in Denham at the time, not Beaconsfield. Page 123 – in the picture, Peter Bradford is second from right, not, as the caption has it, second from left!)