A New History of British Documentary
London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, ISBN: 9780230392861; 344pp.; Price: £60.00
Date accessed: 31 May, 2023
For much of the last century the literature on the history of documentary film was small and virtually every book-length contribution intimately familiar to its committed but specialist readership. Books with an international (in practice heavily ‘Anglo-Saxon’) scope by authors such as Erik Barnouw, Richard Barsam and Jack Ellis would be found on these shelves, alongside overtly UK-centred works by authors like Rachael Low and Elizabeth Sussex. Enjoying a prominent place in both literatures was Britain’s ‘Griersonian’ documentary film movement of the 1930 and early 1940s, which a later generation of writers, with a greater interest in ideology, would debate fiercely.
In recent years, writing on the documentary corpus has both grown substantially and somewhat fragmented. Whether its readership has expanded proportionately is a moot point but what unquestionably has expanded, partially beyond recognition, is the perceived corpus itself. Very many more of the documentary holdings of moving image archives are now easily available. Recent authors have come not only to reappraise the canon considered by their forerunners but also to draw attention to large swathes of documentary history – better put, the many documentary histories – those predecessors had barely acknowledged.
The existence, title and contents of James Chapman’s A New History of British Documentary voluminously attest to the scale and significance of these developments. Chapman has identified a significant gap in the market for a book not dissimilar in purpose, approach and ‘feel’ to some of the classic accounts cited above – but massively updating them in light of what’s since been seen and discussed. Chapman describes this volume as both ‘a partially researched textbook’ and ‘an attempt to map the field’. It’s an ambitious double task – so how do the results measure up?
Chapman not only pursues two related tasks but also two readerships: on one hand, docu-history novices, particularly undergraduates, on the other seasoned scholars and connoisseurs. It’s no small achievement that both will find much to enjoy and learn from here. Many of the author’s big calls are (in this reviewer’s judgement) the right ones: that a ‘balanced account’ of British documentary ‘neither overstates its achievements or underplays its importance’; that a parallel argument applies to the hallowed place of the Griersonian movement within that larger story; and that television documentary is ‘if not a descendant then at least a sort of cousin of film documentary’, deservedly occupying a shared narrative. Above all, Chapman is broad-minded and fair, avoiding the judgementalism, verging on sectarian partisanship, inflecting much of the literature with respect to John Grierson in particular. All the players here – from ‘actualities’ to state propaganda, journalistic TV to oppositional agitprop – earn their moment on the stage. Each has its exits and entrances, its merits and corresponding limitations and above all its specific explanatory context. Stylistically, Chapman is adept at cutting from long-shot summary to telling close-up details, and at blending information and insights harvested from previous writers with his own research and arguments so fluently that the joins are almost invisible. His steady, readable prose gives the resulting package an intricate, rather than uncomfortably dense, feel.
This all said, it’s worth drawing attention to editorial criteria that carry risks of skewing the cartography of the ‘map’ and, consequently, the syllabus of the ‘textbook’. Chapman is (here as elsewhere) a fully-paid-up member of the empirical-historical – as opposed to the theoretical-critical – school of film studies, noting in his dedication to the late Stuart Hall that Hall might have regarded this volume as ‘under-theorised’. Chapman is quite right to believe that angels-on-a-pinhead debates spinning round the notoriously slippery definition of ‘documentary’ have often been unproductive, obstructing the necessary slog of understanding what happened by studying the sources. However, by largely sidestepping the most basic theoretical question of all, namely whether and how ‘documentary’ should be distinguished from a broader category of ‘non-fiction’, he begs questions as to what is included and what left out. He hints at this when noting that earlier facets of his history are ‘better understood not as prototypical examples of documentary film but rather as part of a longer and broader history of non-fiction ... that encompasses but is not solely defined by the documentary idea’. Chapman for instance devotes several pages to the rediscovered Edwardian films of Mitchell and Kenyon (M&K): almost all non-fiction, yes, but arguably not documentaries. More broadly, where the boundaries fall between documentary and such forms as news, industrial, science and educational film are questions, ontological as much as methodological, recurrently hovering round the edges of Chapman’s narrative.
Semantics aside, Chapman’s inclusion of particular bodies of work (M&K being an example) often results from their meeting one or more of three criteria. Either, one: they are well-represented on DVD (Chapman’s infrequent reference to larger growing bodies of content available online, which many students will prefer to access, gives the book a slightly old-fashioned feel). Or two: previous writers have tackled them (these include Chapman himself, in the case of wartime official documentary; other examples include Luke McKernan on Charles Urban, both Patricia Holland and Goddard, Corner and Richardson on current affairs TV, and Margaret Dickinson on political filmmaking). Or three: there are well-catalogued accessible written primary sources available, notably at The National Archives and BBC Written Archives, for purposes of enriching those existing accounts. All three criteria make pragmatic sense for ‘partially researched textbook’ purposes, especially with a view to lecturers and students combining a primer in documentary history with an accompanying programme of viewing. On the other hand, Chapman could arguably be more explicit about the extent to which contingent factors in preservation, access, distribution and publication have shaped the ‘map’, potentially distorting its relationship to the territory it charts.
These factors play out variously across the six chapters (framed by an introduction and conclusion) into which Chapman divides his history. The first, tellingly titled ‘Documentary before Grierson’, swiftly traverses the silent film era: three-and-a-half decades of production from the dawn of filmmaking to the coming of sound. Chapman’s core argument is undoubtedly on the money: the ‘still largely prevalent view’, seeing Grierson’s arrival at the very end of this period as the start of documentary history proper, is unsustainable. He further points out that accounts of documentary practice before then are fruitfully related to film history’s rediscovery, from the late 1970s, of early cinema in general – recognising its practices less as primitive than pioneering, its patterns complex rather than simple.
It’s an important fact, then, that this is the book’s sketchiest chapter: a valuable reminder that even now there is far from enough published research, relative to that complexity and the length of the period, available for integrating into a bigger story. The chapter feels less like a full territorial ‘map’ than, quoting Chapman, ‘a much-truncated survey’ comprising an indicative collection of topographical outlines of five currently visible land masses: the earliest non-fiction productions, with particular emphasis on Urban; M&K; the landmark 1916 film Battle of the Somme; the early work of British Instructional Films; and the handful of major expedition films produced in the latter part of the era.
The section on pioneer filmmaking rehearses important overarching points: that early film was a cottage industry peopled by entrepreneurs and engineers more than by artists, presiding over a mixed economy in which fiction/non-fiction distinctions were limited, with the diversity of exhibition practices as important to analyse as production forms. Chapman demonstrates that Tom Gunning’s famous formulation, ‘the cinema of attractions’, is still a helpful concept for delineating early forms with limited ‘documentary’ purposes. The passage on Urban is the strongest, convincingly depicting the Anglo-American as not merely a prolific producer of non-fiction but also the one most self-consciously committed to it, in ways genuinely resonating with later documentary culture (a belief in the utility of non-fiction and its superiority, from that perspective, to fiction cinema, and a related interest in organisational sponsorship). Following its M&K detour, the narrative gains pace as it hits the First World War and its aftermath. It was ‘during the war that – arguably, perhaps – the first true documentary films appeared’ as the needs of state propaganda actualised Urban’s thinking on an industrial scale; moreover there is ‘as strong a case for Battle of the Somme as marking the origin of documentary film-making ... [as for the] usual suspects such as [Robert Flaherty’s 1922 American film] Nanook of the North or [Grierson’s 1929 landmark] Drifters’. Whether Battle should be considered an origin or a symbolic milestone is a moot point, its box office success and audience impact being more salient here than its feature length (as amply demonstrated elsewhere in the book, short film plays a far bigger part in documentary’s story). A concentration on the prestigious at the expense of the typical continues through the post-war sections. The expeditionary epics of Frank Hurley, Herbert Ponting and JBL Noel – all restored in recent years – get a section to themselves but Chapman accepts that a wealth of humbler travelogues and other ‘interest’ films from across the period await serious attention (and many are popping up online). Similarly the welcome section on the important company British Instructional Films concentrates on its feature length dramatic reconstructions of events of the recent war, lightly brushing past its Secrets of Nature series, of arguably greater long-term importance of which more anon.
22 pages having covered the silent period, moving into the sound era the first decade alone gets a whopping 48. Chapman is sure-footed in tackling the first phase of the ‘movement’, reflecting his close familiarity with the films and their prodigious associated primary and secondary literature. Yet his account feels fresh and would work well as a stand-alone essay fluently delineating various manifestations and changes and their multiple cultural, ideological and industrial contexts. Artistically and politically, Chapman argues, the ‘movement’ was a ‘broad umbrella’, cautioning against the reductionism into which both champions and critics often fall. Chapman’s assumption of Grierson’s ‘preference for state funding over the commercial sector’, meaning the mainstream film industry, is debatable: arguably Grierson’s bigger ambition, but only partly achieved on his own watch by setting up the Shell Film Unit, was in developing private industry as a third source of funding. On a broader point, given the rightly stressed importance to the movement of industrial subject-matter and imagery of the working class, an opportunity is arguably missed to place and compare its treatment of these with the rich history of ‘industrial process’ films traceable to at least the Edwardian era (mentioned, but not treated in depth, in the preceding chapter).
Of greater concern is that Chapman doesn’t bring 1930s filmmaking beyond the movement sufficiently into view. He importantly notes the significance of the Conservative Party in pioneering film’s use in mass communication and mentions ‘the sponsorship of advertising films by commercial concerns’ but both references are brief. Above all, the characterisation of production company Gaumont-British Instructional as ‘something of an anomaly’ feels wide of the mark. GBI, British Instructional Films’ successor and part of the commercial film industry, was responsible both for Secrets of Life, follow-on from the aforementioned natural history series Secrets of Nature, and a swathe of educational films on various subjects. Demonstrably, its work was produced in bigger volumes, for more extensive distribution, than anything connected to Grierson and colleagues (in 1936, GBI cranked out at least 90 films – compared to the GPO Film Unit’s mere 70 in seven years). Positioning the former as an incongruity relative to the latter feels lopsided.
(Senior GBI senior staffer Mary Field, pioneer film educationalist and arguably Britain’s most successful ever female filmmaker, is a notable absence from Chapman’s index and the female presence in documentary – always somewhat greater than in feature film, certainly where number of active directors was concerned – is in general a bit of a blind spot. Notable filmmakers like Margaret Thomson and Kay Mander aren’t mentioned either. Nor, more surprisingly, are contemporary documentarists Molly Dineen and Kim Longinotto, though in fairness their nearest male equivalent Nick Broomfield is himself only briefly cited.)
Chapman is on yet surer ground in his third chapter, ‘Documentary at war’. Documentary as a vehicle for propaganda and public information formed a major part of his 1998 book on the wartime film industry, The British at War. Here, his account of the expansion and development of the movement, under the Ministry of Information’s direct management (the Crown Film Unit) or in receipt of its sponsorship (independent companies including Paul Rotha Productions), is lucid and authoritative. Grounded in the story of the MOI itself, it skillfully relates production practices to policy and the sometimes uneasy relationship of the documentary industry to the film industry at large (a recurring strength of the book). Though they may seem overly familiar, there can be few complaints about Chapman’s close attention to Crown and its most famous individual filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. But there is also a better sense here than in the 1930s chapter that there was much documentary making outside the movement, at both the forces film units and through new or growing commercial companies like Greenpark Productions and Verity Films.
This said, much more work needs to be done by film historians on this ‘non-movement’ sector of wartime (government) sponsored documentary, not least because it was poised to play a big part in post-war (corporate) sponsored documentary. Chapman’s next chapter takes up this story: a welcome sign of the extent to which traditional accounts are being revised. The short shrift they gave post-war documentary film is out of kilter not only with the scale of production but also with the modern digital popularity of these films (if more on the public’s than academics’ part). Once again, though, reasonable reservations about the balance of coverage may apply. Chapman devotes a substantial section to British Transport Films (heavily represented on DVD) and the films of the National Coal Board (also partially available on DVD and subject too of TNA paper records). It’s a great pleasure to see these public-sector units, virtually ignored by most earlier writers, prominently integrated into a general history. However the extensive coverage sits slightly oddly alongside scantier attention to, for example, the continuing work of Shell’s Unit (whose films and records may be less easily accessible but which lasted longer than either of these contemporaries and produced films at least as well-regarded) or to the Film Producers Guild (a major presence in the independent sector to which Greenpark, Verity and others belonged).
Contemporary with this continuing tradition of large-screen documentary was the rise of documentary television, subject of Chapman’s next chapter, in some ways comparable to the silent film chapter, both sitting at the foothills of a massive topic about which not enough history is written. It’s also yielded to date a less accessible corpus than the film tradition, mainly for rights reasons (the BFI’s recent anthology of early BBC documentaries came after the publication of this book). This said, there’s much material for Chapman to chew on: compared to his first chapter his fifth is much thicker with examples and especially quotation from written sources. He’s once again good on organisational contexts, first of the BBC then of various parts of the ITV network and later Channel 4, and their complex interplay with technology and aesthetics. He usefully stresses the importance of scheduling and formatting to shaping TV product. Chapman’s topics include such landmark shows as The Great War (1964) and Royal Family (1969) and long-running current affairs series Panorama, This Week and World in Action as well as broader observational and drama-documentary strands of TV output. Along the way come numerous interesting details, for instance the indications, in BBC paperwork, of the Beeb’s awareness of the relevance of overseas developments in ‘Direct Cinema’ and cinema verité to emerging TV aesthetics here. It’s welcome that Chapman again pays such attention to documentary as an institutional proposition, as a sounder starting point than the traditional cinephile obsession with singling out auteurs. However, given the willingness in earlier chapters to explore how individual creatives’ filmmaking, such as Jennings’ and Rotha’s, played out in institutional settings, it’s a shame that such major TV filmmakers as Denis Mitchell, Philip Donnellan and Michael Grigsby (to name just three relatively well-known ones) receive little or no coverage.
Chapman finally covers ‘alternative and oppositional documentary’, in his one chapter to have more of a thematic than a chronological focus, tracing across several decades the off-the-beaten-track ‘tradition of independence’ beyond more established schools of documentary already covered. This independence was often predominantly political: the main narrative line here extends from the workers’ film movement of the 1930s to the late 1960s and 1970s campaigning film collectives (Cinema Action the preeminent example, with the more self-reflexive, formally experimental Berwick Street Collective an interesting contrast) and the film and video workshops of the 1980s. Interspersed are accounts of two brief moments of artistically unorthodox documentary-making – the 1950s’ short-lived Free Cinema and Peter Watkins’ celebrated 1960s BBC films Culloden and The War Game. While Free Cinema is characteristically contextualised with nuance and respect, it’s historiographically interesting that it’s relegated to something of a footnote to the New History of Documentary, having in older histories formed more-or-less the only coherent story within accounts of post-war British documentary.
Chapman usefully ends this final chapter by noting its ‘necessarily selective’ nature, listing topics meriting further research: a welcome transparency about the contingency of the ‘map’. That the methodology and contents of this book raise numerous questions is inevitable and it’s partly for this very reason that it’s warmly recommended. To compare Chapman’s New History to the old histories of Barnouw and Barsam, Low, Sussex and others is to say two complementary and complimentary things. First, as a convenient one-stop-shop source of reliable information and thoughtful comment on a huge subject it will prove useful for some years to come. Secondly, in the longer run it will endure further as an equally handy summary of the state of received knowledge at the time of its writing.