A Day at the Archives… Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter

Amelia Seely, University of Exeter

28 January 2020


Bill Douglas had a unique scriptwriting style of poetic prose and a filmmaking style that has been compared to European Art filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Luis Buñuel. Douglas’s influence is discernible in the works of filmmakers such as Lenny Abrahamson, Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay. His films – The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972, 1973, 1978) and Comrades (1987) – have repeatedly been praised by critics and have regularly made appearances in top British Films lists. For example, in the Time Out poll of industry figures The Trilogy was number 27 in a poll of the best 100 British films of all time. In 2019, My Childhood was included in Little White Lies 100 list of Best British films. As well as being a filmmaker, writer and actor, Douglas was also an ardent and devoted collector of cinema ephemera. He and his friend Peter Jewell amassed one of the largest collections of moving image memorabilia in Europe. Over several decades the pair collected anything relating to film culture and history, and it is this which forms the heart of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s collection.

The museum is both an accredited public museum and an academic research facility, the rich resources of which are used not only by researchers, but also in the classroom. The extraordinary collection is used for a diverse range of subjects, including Film Studies, English, History, Theology, Geography and even a number of Science disciplines. The collection holds over 80,000 items dating from the seventeenth century to the present day, covering all aspects of cinema, pre-cinema and the history of the moving image. In short, the collection is incredibly diverse and provides a totally unique and varied experience of the moving image.

My own research project is concerned with the British film industry in the 1970s and 1980s and looks closely at the production of Bill Douglas’s films as a case study of an artist filmmaker working during this time. Along with the large assembly of cinema memorabilia, the museum houses Douglas’s Working Papers which were donated by Peter Jewell 2014-2016. These are an incredibly rich and valuable collection of materials that also include production materials from Douglas’s colleagues such as Script Supervisor, Penny Eyles; Editor Mick Audsley and Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad.

Along with Bill Douglas’s working papers, the museum holds several other archival collections which have been generously donated by key figures in British cinema. These archives have a strong emphasis upon modern British independent filmmaking and include the collections of: Don Boyd, Bob (Robert) Dunbar, Ossie Morris, James Mackay, Gavrik Losey, Anthony Attard and Peter Cotes.

The museum is located in the Old Library building on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The museum shares resources with the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, including some staffing, as well as spaces such as the Reading Room. The online catalogue lists the items that are held in the museum and you can create a collection of items online that can be retrieved for consultation in the reading room when you visit. In some cases, there are images to accompany the description of the item, however, to see most items they will need to be consulted in the Reading Room.

The reading room is comfortable and well-lit and working there has often provided me with many great opportunities to meet visiting international researchers. There are lockers available just outside the reading room where you can store your personal belongings. Items allowed inside the reading room are laptops, phones, notebooks and pencils and although the archive does allow photographs for personal use, usual guidelines of up to 5% of published works are followed. Permission from donors are required to take pictures of archive material.

The museum has two Galleries which provide a great way to spend your lunchtime or a break from research. The Upper Gallery looks more at the experience of going to the cinema and includes all sorts of objects and ephemera such as beautiful issues of Picturegoer, a lovely display of Chaplin materials (Chaplin was a special favourite of Bill’s), to Harry Potter lunchboxes and an R2-D2 shaped soap. The Lower Gallery, on the ground floor, displays an incredible collection of early and pre-cinema machinery and objects, such as one of two hundred Lumiere Cinematographe machines ever made or the camera on which we believe Battle of the Somme (1916) was filmed. It is an absolute treasure trove and a delight to explore. The museum galleries are free and open to the public between 10am-5pm seven days a week (except between Christmas and New Year). The curatorial team are available Monday to Friday and research facilities are open 10am – 5pm by prior appointment, except for bank holidays. You are asked to give at least one working days’ notice of your visit.

There is ramp access to the museum, a lift between the two gallery spaces and a disabled parking space outside of the museum. A great resource is that if you are arriving by train into Exeter St David’s train station then you can catch the University’s free minibus service. The collection point is at the right-hand side of the exit as you leave the train station. There is no signage, but you will probably see a small queue forming just beyond the taxi rank. These buses run throughout the year except from bank holidays and closure days and there is an early morning and evening shuttle service.

I am very fortunate that I am based at the University of Exeter so I am able to visit this fantastic resource regularly as well as use materials from the collection for my own teaching. It is an invaluable resource for academic research as well as wonderful place to visit.

For further details about the shuttle service: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/campushelp/minibus/

To search the collection and to find out more about the museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

A map to find the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum:


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr Phil Wickham, Mike Rickard, and Gemma Poulton for their assistance.


Amelia Seely is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter. Her thesis – ‘Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry’ – draws on the work of the Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas, and utilises his Working Papers held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. She is also the Founder of F | Screens – a monthly film event that celebrates women filmmakers and screenwriters. Follow her on Twitter @amelia_seely.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Views on Colour: finding the filmmakers, technicians and archivists

Sarah Street (University of Bristol), Liz Watkins (University of Leeds), Paul Frith (University of East Anglia), and Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol)

14 January 2020


Professor Sarah Street:

Since the 1970s oral history has become increasingly accepted as a valuable, even essential methodology in understanding the recent past. Interviewing people who remember events, represent particular communities or who were experts in their particular fields can offer unique insights rarely found in conventional historical documentation. When devising two AHRC-funded research projects on the history of colour filmmaking – The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain, 1900-55 and The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-85 – interviewing practitioners was incorporated into their methodologies as an integral element of the research process. The first project (conducted 2007-2010) covered a period following the arrival of sound cinema in which colour films were the exception to the rule, consisting of a relatively small but highly respected corpus of Technicolor films. The second project (conducted 2016-19) dealt with the mass adoption of colour in British filmmaking by the end of the 1960s, made possible by cheaper Eastmancolor stocks that did not require the special cameras that had been essential to maintaining Technicolor’s monopoly over colour production in previous decades. Both projects provided opportunities to expand the available record of information about colour filmmaking, investigating and interrogating notions of expertise as it pertained to the many people involved, from cinematographers to costume designers and lab technicians, in producing colour films.

The idea to interview surviving practitioners was in part influenced by the availability of an existing archive of interviews conducted for the BECTU Oral History Project (now absorbed and available via the British Entertainment History Project website: https://historyproject.org.uk). For the Technicolor years we found interviews had been conducted with cinematographers such as Oswald Morris and Chris Challis. Jack Cardiff, perhaps the most famous British Technicolor cinematographer, had been interviewed numerous times, while Duncan Petrie interviewed a number of key figures for his book The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Yet we knew that a greater range of opinion could be recovered, in addition to creating a comparative set of interviews in which recollections obtained nearer the events in question could be compared with longer-term memories as practitioners became older, sometimes offering different, even conflicting reflections on the films they helped to create. While technical manuals describe how colour processes work they did not always record practical problems or how inventive practitioners often had to improvise during a shoot in order to deliver a desired effect or look. The interviews were transcribed and published as offering a unique focus on ‘the creative decision-making which goes into the life cycle of a colour film’ (Brown, Street and Watkins, British Colour Cinema: Practices and Theories, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 2). We aimed to provide an informed sense of the collaborative contexts of colour filmmaking, recording the ingenuity behind working with now obsolete technologies while accessing memories that often ranged beyond technological issues such as studio cultures, gender and class.

Figures 1 – 3: Stills taken from interviews conducted as part of the Eastmancolor Revolution project (Peter Suschitzky, Evangeline Harrison, Alan Masson)

Since The Eastmancolor Revolution project covered later years of colour filmmaking the potential list of participants was more extensive. The issues were however familiar: tracking down individuals who had not previously been interviewed, but also those who were used to repeating well-honed recollections about particular films and technologies. The preparation for each interview had to take into account previous documentation so that as much new information could be gleaned as possible. Being responsive to interviewees’ interests was also important to allow for ‘off-script’ impressions which might not have been anticipated by the interviewer. Awareness of ethical issues involved in conducting interviews was also of paramount importance in setting up the structures and obtaining the necessary documentation. We also sought to make the record more inclusive, when possible interviewing those with expertise in skills less documented than cinematography such as costume, production design and laboratory work.


Dr Liz Watkins:

The interviews discussed in this section were carried out by Liz Watkins with Sarah Street as Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project: ‘The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain 1900-55’ at the University of Bristol.

Identifying the interviewees (questions, research, context): behind the film images and texts lay a history of materials, technologies and practices: Technicolor’s dye imbibition process (c.1935-55) combined technical innovation with western aesthetics to produce the first full-length feature films in ‘natural colour’. The Technicolor Colour Advisory Service advocated the use of colour design to highlight aspects of the image (costume, make-up), establish a network of connections between characters and locations, and to emphasise the dramatic tone of a scene: the concept of a ‘natural colour’ image was embedded in the ideologically complicit narrative form of classic cinema. Published accounts of the dye imbibition process – from Natalie Kalmus’ ‘Color Consciousness’ to press book essays by Technicolor cinematographers such as Guy Green – attest to the commercial imperative of Technicolor design in the promotion of their colour process through marketing tie-ins (lip-color, dress patterns) and as integral to film narratives, interests which coalesced in the star image.[1] Technical handbooks and industry publications can tell us how the dye imbibition process was intended to work. However, the project interviews with industry personnel were to offer another perspective. The interviews addressed the practicalities and quirks of the process, its materials and technologies, alongside the stylistic and pragmatic interpretation of Advisory Service directives as made by the filmmakers that they worked with. This reminds us that there is of course another dimension to film production behind the spectacle of new technologies. For example, the work of the film laboratory was vital to grading, printing and maintaining control over the Technicolor dye imbibition process. The Technicolor system used a specialist camera to record three ‘colour’ records on reels of black and white filmstock from which matrices were produced and combined – printed in layers – to form a ‘natural colour’ image. The rushes seen by the director and cinematographer were screened in black and white prior to the printing of the colour image in Technicolor’s film laboratory. This history of labour in film production has too often been sublimated in the study of film image and text.[2]

What emerged as we researched and scheduled the interviews was the material history particular to each film, from production to laboratory, cinema screening and archive. The research methodology was to identify connections and overlaps in the production notes, trade papers, scripts, essays and reviews specific to British films that had been made using Technicolor’s three-strip process. This approach allowed us to cross reference information and to understand the theories, technologies and practices that formed a Technicolor movie.

Resources: research for the interviews included working through several decades of Kinematograph Weekly, the British Journal of Photography and American Cinematographer for the international circulation of British films and on Technicolor as a US company. This approach identified essays published in trade papers, such as the Journal of the Association of Cine-Technicians (1935-1956) and the British Guild of Camera Technicians’ Eyepiece Magazine, including some written by the people we were to interview. [3] Publications such as the Monthly Film Bulletin, Picturegoer and newspapers offered reviews contemporary to the initial release of the films. The National Film Theatre Programmes and Journal of Film Preservation indicated information on the conservation and restoration of the three-strip Technicolor productions. The list of potential resources was extensive, thus important to maintain focus on colour films made in Britain between 1900-1955.

The archive of BECTU History Project interviews, were (c.2007-10) accessed via audiotape cassettes and transcribed at the BFI Library when it was still based at Stephen Street. It was a time consuming, yet worthwhile process.[4] Interviews with union members – Syd Wilson, Jack Houshold, Bernard Happé who had worked with black-and-white film, Technicolor and Eastmancolor – detailed the nuances of processing dye-imbibition prints, from the use of registration keys to align the three colour matrices with a grey record to increase contrast to the practicalities of maintaining and cleaning the machines to ensure that a clear image would be projected on screen. The BECTU archive interviews with Directors of Photography, although broad in their scope, assisted in shaping the interviews that Sarah Street and I conducted with Oswald Morris OBE, BSC and Christopher Challis OBE, FRPS: interviews that were dedicated to the question of colour. Oswald Morris was Director of Photography on Technicolor films including Moby Dick (John Huston, 1956) and Moulin Rouge (Huston, 1952) as well as Eastmancolor – The Man Who Never Was (Roger Neame, 1955) and The Odessa File (Sidney Lumet, 1974). Christopher Challis was DoP on Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell, 1952), Footsteps in the Fog (Arthur Lubin, 1955), Raising a Riot (Wendy Toye, 1955), and worked as an assistant on Technicolor’s World Windows travelogues (1937-40) and as DoP for Eastmancolor films including The Boy Who Turned Yellow (Michael Powell, 1972).

Interviews and transcription: The interviews offered a sense of each film as it was in its making, from the connections and negotiations between the Studios, film directors and the Technicolor company and lab that occurred at every stage through to the unexpected and experimental aspects of working with new technologies. Morris, for example, recalled his encounters with Eliot Elisofon, who was stills photographer and Special Colour Consultant on Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952) and as a second photographer on set with a stated interest in colour and light. Elisofon’s practice was directed toward publicity outside of the film, yet he assisted in ‘securing the filters’ that Morris needed ‘to capture Toulouse Lautrec’s colours on screen’.[5] Both Morris and Challis emphasised the environments they had worked in – such as the management of fog and smoke as it responded to the movement of workers on set, the effects of extreme temperatures on the filmstock used for the World Windows travelogues, and the interpretation of Advisory Service recommendations regarding the reflection of light from mirrors and white textiles – ‘Tech dipped 1, Tech dipped 2’ – adapted to the making and promotion of a colour image using the dye imbibition process. The interviews included the occasional anecdote – tales of filmmaking 50 years ago – and it was in watching a section of film with Morris that new details of technique or happenstance in photographic practice were recalled. The Directors of Photography themselves were brilliant, astute, humorous and as it turned out knew each other.

The transcription of our project interviews was an intriguing process: finding a balance between perhaps too close an attention to the details of the audio recordings – laughter, hesitations and intonation that nuance conversation – and the process of evolving in to a text for publication. The information is sound – the names, film titles and dates have been cross-referenced with trade and technical papers, but peripheral noises mattered too – Challis’ dog “Swinger” barking and hunting for biscuits in the background and the church bells ringing near Morris’ house and that I could recall from the BECTU tape recording that I’d listened to in the BFI Reading Room.[6] Our aim was to record their notes on film production, which we did, yet there’s a substantial amount of information that remains outside the transcript. Permissions were sought and agreed with each person – with very few amendments requested – for the printed publication of the interviews.

Toward the later stages of the project we found that the interviews with film curators and conservationists took us back to the laboratories and the programming of the Technicolor and Eastmancolor films that now formed part of the BFI National Archive. The insights offered by Paul de Burgh[7], Keiron Webb (BFI), Giovanna Fossati (EYE Filmmuseum) and Paolo Cherchi Usai (at Haghefilm Conservation BV in 2010) on materials and methods, described film conservation and restoration as the continual work of the archive in which the specific characteristics of each process – the nuance of colour in materials images and texts made using Kinemacolor, Dufaycolour, three strip Technicolor, Eastmancolor – affect the ways that analogue and digital forms intersect.

Practicalities: Some questions recurred in each interview (e.g. how would you describe the role of DoP/ Archivist/ curator etc) offering a framework for those lines of enquiry that were tailored to that interviewee (specific films, techniques): a practice that assisted in structuring the meeting. I would recommend sending the questions in advance. It was useful, I found, that the interview scenario was familiar to some of the people that we spoke to. The transcripts were, with the agreement of the interviewees, included in the project publication British Colour Cinema: Theories and Practices (BFI/ Palgrave Macmillan: London 2013) https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/british-colour-cinema-9781844574131/ .

Figure 4: Autobiographies by Challis and Morris with British Colour Cinemas


Dr Paul Frith and Dr Carolyn Rickards:

This section refers to interviews undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council- funded project ‘The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-8’ which was led by Professor Sarah Street with co-investigator Professor Keith Johnston (University of East Anglia).

Interview questions and publication: To begin the task of formulating interview questions, we initially decided to refer back to the main aims and objectives of our project. In tracking the introduction and development of Eastmancolor across a thirty-year period, what could – or should – the interviews reveal about the issues, challenges and outcomes generated by this colour process during this time? What insights could our interviewees bring to pre-established histories of British cinema? And how could we formulate questions that would evoke memories and invite responses that would resonate with our project themes?

Figures 5-7: Stills taken from interviews conducted as part of the Eastmancolor Revolution project (Brian Pritchard, Chris Menges, Colin Flight)

It required extensive preparation and organisation. We decided to send the interview structure and questions in advance to enable interviewees time to think about their answers beforehand. This also meant that some people were able to prepare collected materials and documents which proved an added bonus when discussing their work. However, what we found was that our well-planned structures did not always follow through on the day! The interviews often drifted on to other topics which although interesting were not always relevant and occasionally films we thought provided exciting examples of colour filmmaking were either skipped over or mentioned in passing. This was no fault of either the interviewee or interviewer, but rather down to the natural process of conversation and our role was to maintain a congenial environment in which to elicit good responses. Adopting a more semi-structured approach encouraged some great insights however, although we factored in plenty of time, it would have been fascinating to ask the interviewees what films they considered to be exemplary in terms of colour production, and particularly within a British cinema context.

In addition to more standard methods of research dissemination such as print or online publication we also considered alternative approaches which included the creation of several video essays. One of these essays takes the form of a short documentary focusing on key issues relating to the history and legacy of Eastmancolor in British cinema, combining new interview footage with stills and clips of relevant films. Given that the total duration of our recorded interviews runs at over fourteen hours, the documentary format presented the opportunity to focus on the most significant themes concurrent throughout the responses from our interviewees. While excerpts from each of the interviews have contributed significantly to other project outputs, the documentary format provided a concise narrative from the perspective of the industry personnel themselves. With the understanding that the project interviews would be incorporated into a number of audio-visual outputs, it therefore became essential to maintain broadcast quality recording throughout; a factor not typically a pre-requisite of interviews conducted as part of a larger research project. This decision was also significant in determining the legacy of these interviews beyond the lifetime of our project. The relationship established between the Eastmancolor Revolution project and the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP) ensured that each of these in-depth interviews would remain available to future researchers via the BEHP website (historyproject.org.uk). As a record of key personnel discussing one of the most significant developments within the British film industry, these interviews provide unique insights into a technology previously neglected within accounts of British cinema.


[1] Natalie Kalmus, ‘Color Consciousness’, Journal of the Society for Motion Picture Engineers 25:2 (August 1935) pp.139-147. Guy Green, ‘Colour heightens splendours of Blanche Fury’, Blanche Fury (Marc Allegret, 1948) press book, 1948.

[2] Peter Wollen, ‘Cinema and Technology: A Historical Overview’, eds. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, The Cinematic Apparatus (Macmillan: New York, 1980), pp.18-19.

[3] For context see Bernard Knowles, ‘COLOUR- The New Technique’ Cine-Technician Nov-Dec 1938, vol.4, no.18, pp.110-111. For interviewees see Paul de Burgh ‘Optical Printing: a talk given by Paul de Burgh of Denlabs on A.C.T’s own Lecture Course’ in A.E. Jenkins (ed.) Cine-Technician vol.18, no. 96 (1952), pp.66-68.

[4] Many of the BECTU interviews have been transcribed by other people and are now available online. See BECTU History Project https://www.uea.ac.uk/film-television-media/research/research-themes/british-film-and-tv-studies/british-cinema/oral-history-project and the British Entertainment History Project https://historyproject.org.uk/content/about-collection both accessed 22nd November 2019.

[5] Oswald Morris, Huston, We Have a Problem, A Kaleidoscope of Filmmaking Memories (The Scarecrow Press, Inc: Oxford 2006), p.69. Elisofon ‘Reflections on Color’, The New York Times, 17 November 1957, p.x7. Elisofon’s photographs were published in LIFE Magazine. The connection between Morris and Elisofon and the concepts of colour harmony and control inform my research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

[6] Oswald Morris, interviewed by Alan Lawson, BECTU Tape 9 recorded 1987. Oswald Morris, interviewed by Liz Watkins and Sarah Street recorded 6th August 2008. Both interviews were at the same address. The tenure and duration of Morris’ career can be read from his filmography and autobiography, but that sense of time past – born in 1915 working in the film industry for 55 years – is something that I realised most acutely in the peripheral sound of the church bells ringing 20 years apart.

[7] Paul de Burgh worked on the BFI National Film Archive conservation and restoration of three-strip Technicolor films in the 1980s-90s. This interview (18th February 2009) was conducted by Liz Watkins and Dr Simon Brown (Kingston University). I also interviewed de Burgh for the BECTU History Project with Kieron Webb (BFI).


Biographies:

Sarah Street is Professor of Film at the University of Bristol. Her publications on colour films include Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation, 1900-55 (2012) and two co-edited (with Simon Brown and Liz Watkins) collections, Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive (2012) and British Colour Cinema: Practices and Theories (2013). Her latest books are Deborah Kerr (2018) and Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s (2019, co-authored with Joshua Yumibe). Her latest project is as Principal Investigator on STUDIOTEC: Film Studios: Infrastructure, Culture, Innovation in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, 1930-60, a European Research Council-funded Advanced Grant.

Dr Liz Watkins, University of Leeds. Her research interests include colour – its theories, technologies, and materiality – in cinema; the history and ethics of colourisation; gender and representation; the imbrication of fiction/nonfiction in early 1900s polar expedition films, photography and their exhibition. Liz has published essays on Eastmancolor, Technicolor, early colour photography, film and archives in Screen, Journal for Cultural Research and Parallax. Her co-edited collections include Gesture and Film (2017) with Nicholas Chare and British Colour Cinema (2013) and Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive (2013) with Simon Brown and Sarah Street. Her book project, with Routledge, is on colour and cinema, analysing the converse effects and counterpoints of colour design that track the gendered and social structures of narrative cinemas (gothic, melodrama, horror and experimental film forms).

Dr Paul Frith is an Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia. His research specialism is in British cinema with an emphasis upon colour, censorship and horror. His work on these subjects has appeared in a number of publications including the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the Journal of British Cinema and Television and he is also the co-author of Colour Films in Britain: The Eastmancolor Revolution to be published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

Dr Carolyn Rickards is a researcher based at the University of Bristol. She has published in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, Screen, Fantasy / Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018) and is also the co-author of Colour Films in Britain: The Eastmancolor Revolution to be published by Bloomsbury in 2021.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Looking for Diana Pine

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.

How to remember how to thread a film on a Steenbeck. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

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.

A collection of books. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

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.

TNA AB 8/215 ‘Scientific film production’ file cover. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

Shot list for proposed film Springfields Factory. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

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.

Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

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.

Christmas card by Diana Pine 1999. (Courtesy of Esther O’Callaghan)


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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