Helen Hughes, University of Surrey
17 December 2019
For the past two years I have been working on a project about documentary and nuclear energy. My intention in looking at nuclear energy films has been to uannderstand how radioactivity is represented in contemporary non-fiction media, particularly in the context of environmental concern.
In order to widen the scope of my study of contemporary films to include the history of non-fiction filmmaking about nuclear energy I applied for a British Academy grant and happily received some funding to study a large number of films held in the British National Film and Television Archive. I have become a regular visitor to the viewing rooms in the basement of the BFI building in Stephen Street, helped out by Kathleen Dickson, and also by Steve Tollervey who has taught me how to thread a 16 mm and a 35 mm film on a Steenbeck (and reminded me of the details from time to time). I have also watched films on VHS and some on DVD.
The films I have been watching are a wide variety of non-fiction genres. There are instructional films such as Beta Gamma (1950) about how to work with radioactive materials without touching them or even looking at them. There is a surprising number of films such as Hinkley Point Part 1 (1960) that document the building of the first generation of nuclear power stations, including an observational film Nuclear Cathedral (1967) recorded in Wales that follows a variety of characters from a welder to the project manager. It has been quite absorbing to follow the developing public opinions about nuclear energy through the earnest television studio debates of the 1970s and 80s and then represented on increasingly ironic “hard hitting” chat shows in the 1990s right up to the present focus on decommissioning and the search for a location for a high level nuclear waste repository.
Along the way I have been reflecting on the process which seems as though I am composing an extremely long documentary for myself in the form of research viewing. At a certain point there is a shift and the earlier films are historicized in new programmes and incorporated into arguments about what happened and why, and it is fun to spot what archival material comes from where. The subject of radioactivity runs as a thread through it all with explanations about what it is varying in detail, in scope, and in tone.
I have put together a table which shows a relationship between the changing forms of non-fiction and the coverage of nuclear energy. The two are linked by parallel shifts in the relationship between people and authority, and participants and the camera. The most kindly example of this is a film called simply Nuclear Issues (1986) by the Edinburgh Film Workshop Trust in which Jim Hall, an organic farmer, says: ‘I would hate to think that any government would be so unfeeling that they would not like to take into consideration the wishes of the local people.’
There are of course many stories within my larger story which merit more attention than my survey will give. I have gathered that historians tend to collect more information than they can ever process in their own lifetimes. The question concerns which stories to pursue and in this the archive itself is the major player along with the people who have formed it in the past as they thought about posterity.
A central text for the history of British atomic energy is the official history Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-1952 (1974) published in two volumes by the first historian of science Margaret Gowing assisted by Lorna Arnold. It is really because of her work that archival documents about the beginning of the nuclear project in Britain have survived along with the films. Gowing wrote at length about Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s desire to keep the atomic project out of the public gaze and mentioned the difficulties the Central Office of Information had in gaining permission to issue any kind of information to journalists. She mentioned that the Crown Film Unit made a film about the Atomic Energy Research Establishment and its work in Harwell, Springfields and Windscale, which was not released.
Margaret Gowing’s book led me to the National Archives in Kew where I began to look for files about the films I was watching. Putting together the films with the files in the National Archives I came to understand that Gowing was referring to the work of a filmmaker called Diana Pine who started out as a researcher and then took over as a director to organise the filming of the beginnings of the civil atomic project ‘for posterity.’ The process of understanding the context of the documents in a large file of letters, memos and production materials, selected and preserved by Gowing herself, became my introduction to the beginnings of British atomic history. After many trips to the National Archives, and endless amounts of reading, looking at newspapers, and film watching, I set out the chronology of the story in a research report for Screen called ‘The Story of Atoms at Work’. This is the first time I have tried to set out what happened in the making of a film rather than analysing what was meant.
It is sometimes said that the scholarship on British Documentary focuses too much on the war period and on the work of a few producer/directors such as John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings. I don’t think that this is surprising. World War II is well understood as a period and it is not difficult to understand the information the films provide even today. The period that followed is less well defined and even public facing films such as Atoms at Work take some investigation to see what they are. Diary for Timothy, a film made at the end of the war, is accessible to everyone as it is clearly about hoping for a better life which everyone can understand.
Nevertheless both of these films reward investigation, and the process of connecting them with the historical contexts in which they were made is positively addictive. It has led me from Stephen Street to the special file on Humphrey Jennings at the BFI Reuben library, to two taped interviews with Diana Pine, to a documentary by Robert Vos, to the Royal Institute of Science, and even up to Wick in Scotland, to see the new archive named Nucleus, dedicated to holding records about the British civil nuclear industry.
The comparison between Diary for Timothy and Atoms at Work has revived for me that old vexing question about authorship. Diary for Timothy is a Crown Film Unit production made by a team including Diana Pine who worked on it as a Unit Manager. It is known as Humphrey Jennings’ Diary for Timothy as he directed it, while it was produced by Basil Wright. Atoms at Work was directed by Diana Pine and produced by Stuart Legg, but as Stuart Legg wrote the treatment and the commentary I discussed the structure of the film in relation to his practice which has been described by Timothy Boon as dialectical. In the process I realized I have no sense of what Diana Pine’s authorship might involve even though it is clear from her letters that she had a clear idea of the shots she wished to compose.
One of the things that is very noticeable in tracing the theme of radioactivity over a long period is that with a few exceptions documentary films of the 1950s generally hide the makers more than they reveal them. Noticing the conference at the LSE on British Women Documentary Filmmakers was a spur to think further about the motivations of a film worker like Diana Pine. By a strange process of archival and internet serendipity I have now communicated with one of her nieces and have been thinking about how the personal and archival information we are piecing together can be related to the films and indeed to my project more generally.
What has come out of this new archival venture for me has been a greater awareness of the audio-visual archive as a resource to project a kind of social correlate of technological development. The story of Diana Pine that I looked for in relation to work on Atoms of Work is a way of thinking about the list of credits as a form of evidence in its own right. Contemporary independent documentary has brought the life of the filmmaker, particularly the director, more explicitly into the film but this is not to say that the lives of filmmakers were previously separate from their filmmaking. Rather it clarifies and perhaps choreographs the connections that are there already.
Perhaps it is characteristic of wartime that life and filmmaking become particularly interlinked. The life of Diana Pine, Unit Production Manager, turns out to be linked very closely to her work. The electoral register is a way to find out where people lived at different points in their lives. Like birth, death, marriage and probate, in pre-war Britain it also provides information about occupation. In 1939 she listed herself as Gubbins Diana P, (Pine, Diana professionally), and gave her employment as “Assistant Art Director in Films (unemployed)”. In 1940 her brother joined the RAF and in January 1941 her parents and sister were in occupied Jersey. Her brother was killed in March that year in one of the campaigns in East Africa. The films that Pine worked on as unit manager thus have a personal significance, particularly The Channel Islands 1940 – 1945 (1945).
Two other films make a family link that is a little more distant but which paints a broader picture of the different people who became involved with documentary filmmaking in Britain during the war. The Silent Village (1943) and Two Fathers (1944) were the first two films Pine worked on having at this point changed her occupation from unemployed art director in films to assistant director and film unit production manager. The films both present stories involving the subversive resistance work of the Special Operations Executive in occupied countries.
My first clue towards an understanding of who Pine was and how it connected to her filmmaking career turned up through her Gubbins family connections which trace a journey through British colonial history from her great great grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gubbins’s New Brunswick Journals written in Canada in the early nineteenth century to her great grandfather Martin Richard Gubbins, financial commissioner in Oudh and author of An Account of the Mutinies in Oudh (1858), to her grandfather Charles Edgworth Gubbins of the 3rd Hydrabad Cavalry, and her father who managed to have a peacetime occupation in being a Barrister at Law but even so had fought in World War I. A cousin (once removed) was General Colin McVean Gubbins of the SOE.
The shift that Pine makes from unemployed art director to documentary takes her closer to the traditional male world of colonial administration, war, aviation, and technology from which she is descended. In the immediate post war years it is also a secret world made increasingly public as military technologies are adapted to peacetime. Her film credits for the Crown Film Unit—Dollars and Sense (1949, about the devaluation of the pound), Faster than Sound (1949, about the secret development of a missile during the war), Spotlight on the Colonies (1950, about the British approach to independence), Into the Blue (1950, about the development of civil aviation), The Magic Touch (1950, about the adaptation of materials to new purposes), and Atoms at Work (1952, about the productivity of radioactive isotopes)—represent an unusual female incursion which she sustained for only a short period once the Crown Film Unit was closed.
Non-fiction films in wartime and post war Britain film sponsored by the Ministry of Supply do not generally provoke the search for an author unless there is a particularly striking creative voice such as that of Humphrey Jennings. However, the status of Atoms at Work as the first film released by the government about its enormously expensive and risky atomic research programme, for me provoked curiosity about the secret conditions of production and the people who had been vetted and had signed the Official Secrets Act to be there with the cameras observing and recording it.
Coming back to Stephen Street and the list of films that represent the history of nuclear energy in moving images, the representation of radioactivity in Atoms at Work, with its references to alchemy and its question about good and evil, has turned out to be characteristic for representations right up to today. The most recent film I have watched in the archive was the BBC’s Inside Sellafield (2015) in which my colleague Jim Al-Khalili gives his view that there is a future for nuclear energy. For contemporary films I have largely moved from the celluloid, video and DVD archive to online sources such as the BUFVCs Box of Broadcasts. The dialectic between military and civilian uses has become one part of the debate around what is increasingly seen as an ongoing global mass experiment with nuclear fission. For me, the detour around the story of Diana Pine, as well as the aging character of media forms, makes the war generation situated at the beginning of the experiment more palpable and more connected to us as we work through the physical and psychological consequences now. Down in the basement and emerging online the archive of non-fiction films is both an outcome and an ongoing resource for many more projects like mine.
Helen Hughes is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Surrey. She has published a number of articles and chapters on German and Austrian cinema. She is also the author of a book Green Documentary (2014) about contemporary environmental non-fiction film. She is currently working on a new book Radioactive Documentary about non-fiction feature films made on the subject of nuclear energy since the end of the Cold War.
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