Report: British Women Documentary Filmmakers, 1930 – 1955 Symposium, 5 April 2019, London School of Economics (LSE)

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

7 May 2019


I attended this event with great anticipation, and I was most definitely not disappointed. The symposium was organised by Sadie Wearing (London School of Economics), who is part of the team working on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project ‘Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer’, alongside Yvonne Tasker (University of Leeds), Lizzie Thynne (University of Sussex) and Adele Tulli (University of Sussex).

The three-year project, which began in October 2018, is researching the documentary filmmaker Jill Craigie as an entry point to ‘interrogate the historical frameworks and the canon of the British Documentary Film Movement which have undervalued women’s contribution to the genre.’ As part of this, the project makes use of primary sources held by archives, predominantly Craigie’s papers held by the Women’s Library at the LSE, as well as holdings available in the British Film Institute (BFI), the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP, formally BECTU), The Arts Institute (Plymouth), The Forum (Norwich) and the Stanley Spencer Gallery. The main aim of the project is to question ‘what we can learn from a pioneering woman’s career about the inequalities which persist in the creative industries today.’ You can visit here for more information.

Most pleasing on attending the symposium was discovering that not only were there a range of papers and methodological approaches offered toward the researching of women documentary filmmakers during this period, but most importantly, the research was being conducted by a range of scholars and archivists at different levels, from PhD students to professors. All of the papers were of a consistently high quality. Alongside this, it quickly became evident that everyone attending the symposium was fully engaged with one another’s scholarship, and the symposium provided a very supportive environment in which to provide further platforms for future collaboration and research.

Fiona Kelly, Film Curator at the Imperial War Museums (IWM), began the day by introducing films by and about women during World War II held by the archive, including documentaries, informational and instructional films made by Joy Batchelor, Louise Birt, Jill Craigie, Mary Field, Ruby Grierson, Kay Mander and Margaret Thomson. In her paper, Kelly considered three main strands: firstly, the role of women behind the camera; secondly, how women were represented on screen; finally, the target audience, where Kelly noted that before female conscription, film shorts were aimed at women in their ‘traditional’ roles and domestic issues, however as the war progressed, the documentaries and dramas adapted to inform women about the different types of work and war service available to them. Kelly informed the audience of the films held by the IWM, and two Ruby Grierson films are available to view on its website: Choose Cheese (1940) and They Also Serve (1942). Another film shown was Dustbin Parade (1940), an animation short by John Halas and Joy Batchelor for the Ministry of Information (MoI):

Dustbin Parade (Halas and Batchelor, 1942)

Following Kelly’s excellent introduction, the first panel of the day continued with Toby Haggith (IWM) explaining that the majority of documentary and instructional films made by women were often concerned with ‘traditional’ issues such as welfare, health, children and the domestic sphere. Haggith went on to focus his paper on the women filmmakers’ contribution to debates on slum clearance and town planning, including Field’s Development of the English Town (1943), Mander’s New Builders (1944) and Homes for the People (1945), Budge Cooper’s Children of the City (1945), and Craigie’s The Way We Live (1946).

This was followed by Charlotte Hallahan’s (University of East Anglia) compelling research conducted into Rosie Newman, a British socialite and amateur filmmaker, and provided an insight into how Newman recorded daily civilian and military life during World War II. The focus of Hallahan’s paper was on Newman’s colour film Britain at War (1946):

Excerpt from Britain at War (Rosie Newman, 1946), courtesy of IWM

Hallahan argued that the theory of the flâneur (Walter Benjamin, developed by Lauren Elkin) can be adopted and used to analyse Newman’s film in relation to her ability to traverse the landscape of a blitzed-London at will, and personal freedom with which to document the events. It became clear during Hallahan’s excellent paper that Newman’s ability to achieve this was in part due to her socio-economic class, where Newman had a ‘little black book’ of people with which to acquire colour film stock, etc.

The final paper in this panel was delivered by Hollie Price (Queen Mary, University of London), who drew upon her extensive and fascinating archival research in to the MoI’s Film Division and its work in film distribution to present on the MoI’s non-theatrical film scheme, launched in 1940, where a fleet of mobile film units were used to screen films for free in a variety of locations including village halls, social clubs, libraries and factory canteens. Price also discussed the informal collaborations between the MoI and the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Institute. Price is working as a post-doctoral researcher on the AHRC-funded MoI Digital project, which you can read more about here.

After lunch, the second panel began with Sarah Easen (independent film historian) discussing how film historians often conflate John Grierson’s British Documentary Film Movement with documentary filmmakers generally, leading to the marginalisation of those operating outside the movement. Therefore, Easen sought to address this in her engrossing paper by focussing on the work of Mander and Thomson, including showing Thomson’s informational film Making of a Compost Heap (1941):

Making of a Compost Heap (Margaret Thomson, 1941), courtesy of BFI

Easen explained that while both Mander and Thomson achieved success in directing documentary films, neither were able to break into directing fictional feature films, with Mander returning to continuity work after being told by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios that a woman ‘couldn’t control a male crew,’ and Thomson retiring from filmmaking in 1977 after setting up a production company in the 1950s with her husband Bill Ash. Easen provides further information on Mander’s and Thomson’s careers here and here.

Next, Helen Hughes (University of Surrey) presented on her research completed to date on ‘tracking down’ Diana Pine, a member of the Crown Film Unit between 1943 – 1951, who worked on the science films Faster than Sound (1949) and Atoms at Work (1952). Explaining that Pine was another women filmmaker whose work has been ‘hidden from view’ (in part due to Pine having to sign the Official Secrets Act), Hughes explained that Pine is an important inclusion in the work being conducted into British women documentary filmmakers due to her directing of science-based films as opposed to ‘traditional’ women-based subjects. Hughes has published her research on Pine to date in her research note ‘The story of Atoms at Work’ in Screen (Vol. 60, Issue: 1, Spring 2019, pp. 172-180).

Charles Drazin (Queen Mary, University of London) completed the panel by providing further insight into Craigie’s work through discussing his interview with Craigie as part of his research for his book The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (revised edition, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007). Drazin provided delegates with ‘impressions’ he obtained of Craigie from his interview, and specifically focussed on her directing of Out of Chaos (1944) and The Way We Live. Drazin also provided the context behind Craigie’s professional relationship with Filippo Del Giudice. You can listen to one of Craigie’s interviews published on the BEHP website here.

In the final panel of the day, Ros Cranston (BFI) started by examining the career of Marion Grierson in order to question modify the story of the ‘documentary boys’ in British film history, explaining that this was in part because of academic scholarship overlooking Marion’s work, and can also be attributed to the lack of credits at the time, leading to later mistakes through mis-crediting or omitting Marion in contemporary film reviews: a specific example being The Heart of an Empire (1935). Focussing on Beside the Seaside (1935), Cranston analysed this film in terms of its wittiness, lyricism and inventiveness, and explained that Marion believed: “There was of course prejudice against women in practically every activity,” in relation to the difference it made being a woman making a documentary, neatly linking back to Easen’s paper on Mander and Thomson in the previous panel.

Gillian Murphy (Curator, LSE Women’s Library) followed by building on from Drazin’s paper through an excellent analysis of Craigie and the rich resource of papers available which are held by the LSE Women’s Library. Murphy’s paper offered an illuminating insight into Craigie’s feminist politics, and her inspiration behind wanting make a film about the suffragette movement based on her reading of The Suffragette Movement (Sylvia Pankhurst, 1931):

Before reading the book it had not occurred to me to question the situation between the sexes, least of all had I thought that it might be changed, though it was evident that men on he whole lived a far more agreeable and interesting life. (Jill Craigie, quoted by Gillian Murphy)

In the event, the film sadly remained unrealised, in part due to not being able to satisfy the needs of those involved in the movement. Following this, Murphy analysed the making of To Be A Woman (1952), and how Craigie was commissioned to make the film by women’s organisations actively campaigning in achieving equal pay. A crowd-funding campaign was launched by the Equal Pay Campaign Committee (EPCC) to provide the £5,000 necessary for Craigie to make the film was eventually successful, the realised film did not return the investment.

To Be A Woman (Jill Craigie, 1952)

Tashi Petter (Queen Mary, University of London) offered a riveting paper on the work of Lotte Reiniger, and explained that while Reiniger is credited for the silhouette animation technique and as the director of the earliest-surviving animated feature-length film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926), therefore holding an important position in the history of animation, Reiniger’s work in the area of ‘useful’ cinema has received less attention, something which Petter aims to address in her research.

Tashi Petter on ‘Sponsored Silhouettes: the fairy tale information films of Lotte Reiniger in Britain’, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Making extensive use of archive sources, Petter explored questions of gender and nationality, and focussed on the commissioning of Reiniger’s work produced for the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit and Crown Film Unit. Petter explained that Reiniger’s work was heavily influenced by folklore narratives and fairy tales, leading to a ‘highly decorative, pretty and “feminine” aesthetic’. In her paper, Petter argued that these films demonstrate how Reiniger’s silhouettes are ‘inherently connected to her identity as a German émegré, and for her recognition in the production of ‘useful’ cinema, and analysed The Tocher (1938) as part of this:

The Tocher (Lotte Reiniger, 1938), courtesy of Thomas Sheppard

Finally, Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia) provided a very welcome introduction to amateur women filmmakers in the interwar and post-war period, particularly on non-fiction films, a term which encompasses different modes, including documentary, actuality, home movies and travelogues, building upon Hallahan’s analysis of Newman’s amateur filmmaking practices. Williams’ offered a close analysis of the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Stuart and Laurie Day who were based in Stoke on Trent, and together produced non-fiction films between the 1930s and 1960s, where their prize-winning films form part of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) film collection held by the East Anglian Film Archive. Williams’ paper investigated how amateur filmmaking tended to be much more collaborative, which were strongly embedded within marital and familial leisure-cultures, as exemplified by the Day’s film, 1938 – The Last Year of Peace (1948), compiled from fragments of film shot before the outbreak of WWII, which only received ‘highly commended’ in the IAC Awards much to Laurie Day’s displeasure. As part of this analysis, Williams also pointed out the Day’s somewhat amusing, apparently subconscious, almost Freudian obsession with fruit throughout the film, which was used by the Day’s to reflect the changing of the seasons in the film.  Williams’ explained that this example highlights that this type of amateur film can offer reflection and commentary on social change and offers ‘a richly suggestive point of comparison for the contemporaneous work of professional female documentarists.’

Melanie Williams on ‘Women working in amateur non-fiction film: family, history, home, abroad’, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Following the final panel, the project team working on ‘Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer’ explained their planned outputs for the project, namely a book-length study co-authored by Tasker and Wearing, and a experimental documentary biopic about Craigie, produced by Thynne and Tulli. Delegates were then offered a treat, where the team introduced us to an 8-minute trailer for the documentary on Craigie.

In the plenary-round table to finish off the day, Isabel Seguí (University of St Andrews) introduced delegates to her website which Seguí designed based on a Scottish University University Research Collections Associate Scheme Grant, where she researched the project ‘The Grierson Sisters at the Grierson Collection’ (University of Stirling, 2018). This website will prove to be an invaluable teaching and research resource for those working in the area of documentary filmmaking.

Isabella Seguí, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Pat Holland (University of Bournemouth) and Sue Harper (University of Portsmouth) then offered their individual summaries on the variety of papers presented throughout the day, and their thoughts on going forward to research the history of women documentary filmmakers. Harper offered the following points for further thought beyond the symposium:

  1. Agency and autonomy. To what extent did companies inhibit or encourage female creativity, and why?
  2. Kinship networks. There are obviously familial or marriage connections to take into account, but we also need to ask ourselves whether, and when, there were “old girls’ networks”
  3. Do female documentarists operate as boundary walkers, policing the ground between the old and the new? Do they function best from the margins?
  4. We need to think about discourse. What cultural resources do female documentarists deploy, and how does their intellectual capital differ from that of male workers in the field?

Final round table: Isabel Suigí, Pat Holland and Sue Harper, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

This event was free to attend, thanks to the sponsorship provided by the AHRC, and provided an abundance of the riches (or should that be cheese and fruit?) to enjoy from the research conducted by those presenting papers on women documentary filmmakers. Watch out John: Diana, Joy, Kay, Lisa, Lotte, Margaret, Marion, Mary, Rosie and Ruby are coming, and their voices are now finally being heard.


Dr Llewella Chapman is a film historian and an Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests include British cinema, gender, heritage and costume design.


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.

‘Does it have Hitler in the title?’: Broadcasting History on Television

Michael Cove, Head Writer, WildBear Entertainment

14 November 2017


With the diversification – or, perhaps, fragmentation – of the broadcast television market, factual programming has found itself corralled into specialised outlets.  The fate of history-themed programs is typical, more hours are being produced, but the great majority of them are finding homes either on dedicated channels (“Yesterday”. “History”) or on subscription outlets which, equally, create and appeal to niche markets (Amazon Prime).  For the writer/producer in the history space this focusing of the market carries both opportunities and liabilities.

The opportunity, of course, is that there is a larger market for output, though this is moderated slightly by the limited budgets such outlets typically make available.  The liability is to offer material to an audience that has an established interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter.  Mistakes are sure to generate emails from unexpected corners of the globe.

That all of this exists within a commercial reality confronts the program maker with a further fact – not all history is equally saleable.  Which, without too much exaggeration, could be characterised by the question: Does it have Hitler in the title?

Everywhere, Hitler, the Third Reich, more broadly the Second World War are seen as the most bankable of the history stories – which explains the existence of Uncle Hitler, Hitler the Junkie, Supernatural Nazis and many more (these are real titles).

This appetite is cheerfully fed by program makers because the content exists – in the form of archive material (pre-1900 and even pre-1920 life gets hard).  Of course, archive is not a limitless resource, there is only so much footage of Munich or Nuremberg, D-Day or Hiroshima.  Strangely, the dedicated core audience does not seem to mind this unduly and viewer feedback not infrequently includes a slightly surprised “even contains some footage I had not seen before!”

This limited amount of archive material – and each individual production further restricts its archive because of licensing costs – encourages reversioning.  Upscaling the material to HD perhaps, or “colourising” the B&W footage.

Where the program is being produced out of a market that is almost self-supporting, the use of on-camera talent – particularly of a name that helps to boost ratings – is a common practice in history programming.  But for an independent production company away from the main centres, like the one for which I work in Australia, international success across broad markets is an economic necessity.  And this speaks against the use of the onscreen presenter – regrettably, for such a device makes narrative structure and the filling of screentime a fairly straightforward business.  But onscreen presenters are not appreciated in the international market where foreign language versions that replace the so-called “voice of God” narrator are much easier to organise and to sell on to the viewer.

These, then, are some of the parameters that influence the choice of topic, its development and decisions concerning creative execution that someone like me needs to address.  They are not – or should not be – the only issues.  The greater the requirement on an individual to take carriage of the production, the more important it is that the subject matter encourages a personal investment.  My work practice, necessarily, means coming up with an idea, conducting the research, writing the script, finding the participants, conducting the interviews, creating the integrated script and overseeing all of the steps of production.  I cannot imagine being able to do that effectively with a topic in which I had no interest.

Having offered a topic – and been approved for development – I imagine that the next question is one with which academics are very familiar: what can I say about this that has not been said before?  The answer, to return to the point I made above, may partly be answered by a technical/creative initiative – first time in HD, first time in colour and so on.  Titles like World War Two from Space are in the same category and adding 3-D animation is a variant.  Another production novelty – not using the word in a pejorative way – could be the contributors, whether expert or eyewitness.

In my view, these features add marketing benefits to a program – they can be the USP that the agents and others whose responsibility it is to sell productions are so keen to identify.  But they are not a substitute for a perspective or point of view that validates the program.

The last four history-based productions for which I have been responsible were all traversing familiar territory and in a basically familiar way: each was substantially clip-based – that is, each drew heavily on the footage archives to which the production company had access – and each incorporated original interviews.  One of the two two-part series that I have made in collaboration with CCTV10 (China Central Television) had new, original footage of locations relevant to the story, the original material in the other three series was limited to interviews.  Other productions with which I have been involved as writer have additionally used historically informed re-enactment (particularly World War 1 narratives).

The longest of the series for which I have been responsible, The Price of Empire, was thirteen episodes attempting to tell the global story of the Second World War.  It was decided that a “USP” would be scaling all of the archive to HD.  I was not entirely persuaded of the benefits, but when I began to see the material in this form, and observe details in the image not previously clear, I was converted.  My own creative decision for the series was that the contributory interviews would be limited to eyewitnesses and I interviewed fifty people from fourteen countries, mostly veterans of the fighting, but also Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.

My most recent program, in eight episodes, tells a complicated story of the years 1919-1939 under the title Impossible Peace.  All of the interviews for this program were with academics (38 of them) covering the spectrum of content.  There are limitations in terms of the archive and we settled on a strong, visual style of multiple screens which in part helps to accommodate the limitation and in part to refresh familiar images; more importantly, it was a visual way of reinforcing the thematic foundation of the program, the idea of many things happening, simultaneously, sometimes with connections, sometimes not, but always with some degree of effect.  To achieve such visual effects when I entered the industry, as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC in 1966, would have been prohibitively expensive and have taken weeks in a film laboratory.  For program makers it is by exploring new ways of telling familiar stories that we can hope to hold, and add to, our audience.



Michael Cove was born in London, attended the London Film School and joined the BBC in film editing.  He worked in film editing following migration to Australia before becoming a full-time writer in 1974.  In a freelance career spanning 25 years, he wrote for every medium and every genre – feature film, theatre, radio drama and every type of television program.  In 1998 he joined a small production company in Canberra.  It is now a large production company outputting multiple hours of factual programming for international broadcast.  The company’s particular areas of interest are history, natural history, and science and technology.  Cove’s main contribution has been to the history slate.


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.

 

 

Cinema City: A Medieval Movie House

Anna Blagrove, University of East Anglia

19 September 2017


How can a cinema be medieval when moving pictures weren’t introduced until the 1890s? My place of work is in one-such venue however: Cinema City in Norwich, where parts of the building date back to the fourteenth century.  Its main use since its earliest days in the 1300s was as a merchant’s residence and dining hall, and so perhaps it is appropriate that the great hall is now used as the Cinema City café bar. Admittedly, it wasn’t converted to a full-time cinema until 1978, but before that (from 1925) it was a public hall that housed a projector and screen and was dedicated to ‘the advancement of education in its widest and most comprehensive sense’ [i]. Honouring this objective, since 1978, Cinema City has had an education programme as part of its offer. The cinema today is operated by Picturehouse and so screens a specialised film programme.  In 2017 it also has three digitally equipped cinema auditoria, a box office, a courtyard, a restaurant, the café bar, a kitchen, offices, and an education facility.

I am part of a team of film educators based in this special building, operating separately to the main cinema and known as Cinema City Education.  Recently we devised a project that would not only allow us to research the history of our own cinema, but more widely collect and preserve memories of cinema-going in our county – we called the project Norfolk at the Pictures.   We were awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund Part, which allowed us to refurbish our first-floor education rooms. In the autumn of 2016 we launched the John Hurt Centre (named after our now sadly deceased patron, Sir John Hurt).  This state-of-the-art and fully-accessible education and exhibition venue is now entered via a new foyer with a lift in our courtyard.  It is used for regular film clubs for all ages (from U3A to young programmers), evening courses and day schools for adults, scriptwriting and filmmaking groups, school holiday animation workshops, training, conferences, and private functions.

As for the activities part of the project: What do you unleash if you invite the public to reminisce about their trips to the cinema with you?  As it turns out you receive a mini avalanche of fascinating anecdotes, photographs, histories, artefacts (ranging from cinema programmes to pieces of projectors); and as a result, a palpable connection with the social history of cinema-going.

We heard from audience members from the 1930s onwards and really got a feel for the changing fortunes of picture houses, not just in Norfolk but nationally.  We heard about the impact of World War Two, the rise of the picture palace, the coming of colour, the weird and wonderful promotional stunts that cinema managers would employ, the popularity of children’s cinema clubs, and the unrest that 1950s teenagers flocking to ‘rock and roll pictures’ caused with older audience members.

One particularly rewarding part of the project was cinema-themed reminiscence work with the elderly, we called this Moving Memories.  A team of staff and volunteers visited residential homes and luncheon clubs, where we held sessions with groups of over sixties.  This usually involved us presenting a show with photographs of cinemas, films stars and film posters, and film clips of archive footage.  A popular clip was that of the National Anthem with images of Queen Elizabeth – which would always be played at the end of the film programme – some recalled patriotically standing to attention whereas others remembered it as a cue to make a mad dash to the door so as not to endure the song.  We asked prompt questions of the groups such as, ‘do you remember doing anything naughty at the cinema – such as sneaking in without paying?’ and we took props such as tubs of popcorn, ticket stubs and cinema programmes for people to handle and help them to recall their cinema-going memories.  Some of the participants were suffering from dementia and we took advice and training from experts to enable us to illicit responses from these particular folks.

Personally speaking however, the part of the Norfolk at the Pictures that I am most proud of is The Final Reel; the documentary film that we made in connection with the project.  With a micro-budget and a small team of dedicated and talented crew, we made a feature-length documentary charting the development of film exhibition in Norfolk, but again, reflecting national trends too.  We were fortunate enough to secure the talents of our patron, Sir John Hurt, who recorded the narration in his familiar gravelly voice.  We interviewed film historians such as Stephen Peart and Tim Snelson (UEA), film lovers that had attended the different Norfolk cinemas through the years, and cinema managers and projectionists.  It charts the decline of cinema from the heyday of the 1930s and 40s to the sad closure of many venues from the 1950s onwards, but we also reflect positive recent developments such as the rise of event cinema (live theatre and opera performances and outdoor screenings), community film clubs, and the continued appeal of much-loved art-house cinemas like Cinema City.

I feel very fortunate to work in such a beautiful, old building with such a thriving cultural offer and through The Final Reel film and the Norfolk at the Pictures project as a whole, we were able to share and celebrate this enthusiasm with a much wider audience.


[i] Ethel and Mary Colman, owners in 1925, bequeathed the building to Norwich City Council with this stipulation for the building’s use.


Anna Blagrove is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia in the school of Film, TV and Media Studies.  Her thesis is an ethnographic study of teenagers and their relationship with cinema-going.  Other teaching and research interests are Australian cinema, film locations, and the work of Studio Ghibli. She also works as Education Officer for Cinema City, a specialised cinema in Norwich.


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.

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