As a schoolboy PETER FROST avidly watched This Wonderful World on telly – its presenter John Grierson helped open young Peter’s eyes to life, politics and the world at large.
Ninety years ago a left-wing reviewer, who would go on to become a key figure in the world of factual film, coined a new word in his appraisal of Robert Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana.
The review carried the byline Moviegoer but the author was a Scot, John Grierson. Grierson defined a new cinematic art form for which he coined the new name — the documentary.
Curiously Grierson would never be really comfortable with the word he coined. He described it as a clumsy expression, “a swell word for a simple thing.” For him the documentary was the art of giving film sequence to natural material. “Not a mirror, but a hammer for forging new contours in the perception of the world around us.”
John Grierson would himself become a pioneering factual film-maker, often considered the father of British and Canadian documentary film.
Born in Scotland, his father was a schoolmaster, his mother a suffragette and Labour Party activist. Both parents introduced their son to liberal, humanistic and left-wing ideas and ideals.
Grierson entered the University of Glasgow in 1916, but left off his studies to serve aboard minesweepers during WWI. He returned to the university in 1919 where he spent a good part of his studies active in left-wing politics. Later he studied the psychology of propaganda at various US universities.
Grierson was profoundly concerned about the threats to democracy he witnessed in the US. He read Lenin about film as a weapon for both education and political propaganda and returned to Britain in 1927 convinced that film could help deal with huge social problems like unemployment. “I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist,” he said.
Grierson got his start as an assistant films officer of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB). In late 1929 he and his cameraman Basil Emmott completed his first EMB film Drifters, which he wrote, produced and directed. The gritty but beautifully photographed silent film showed real working people, like North Sea herring fishermen battling with the elements.
Drifters premiered in London in November 1929 on a double-bill with Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin that would be officially banned from general release in Britain until 1954.
Drifters received critical acclaim and the director began to build a reputation in the new documentary movement. In various positions first with the EMB and later in 1933 with the General Post Office (GPO) film unit he started to bring together a stable of mainly left-wing, often communist young film-makers.
Heading up the unit, Grierson produced a series of ground-breaking films, including Coal Face, directed by Brazilian communist Alberto Cavalcanti, and the award-winning The Song of Ceylon directed by Basil Wright.
In 1936 it was Wright who, along with Grierson, produced and wrote what many believe is still the best documentary ever made: Night Mail.
Produced by the GPO unit it follows the postal mail train from London to Scotland. It has a verse commentary by communist WH Auden. Benjamin Britten, also close to the Communist Party at that time, wrote the music. The film was directed by Harry Watt and Wright and narrated by Grierson and Stuart Legg and Cavalcanti was the sound engineer.
Night Mail is still well worth watching and easily available on DVD or online. It represents one of the highest points in the vast history of documentary film.
In 1938, Grierson was invited to help found National Film Board of Canada and became the first commissioner of the board but in 1945 — as the anti-communist hysteria that would lead to McCarthyism and blacklisting in the US spread to Canada — he was dismissed after allegations of communist sympathies and returned to Scotland.
From 1946 to 1948 he was the director of mass communications at Unesco and from 1948 to 1950 the controller of films at Britain’s Central Office of Information until again cold war anti-communism drove him from that job too.
From 1957 to 1967 he hosted a television program called This Wonderful World. In my own early teenage years this programme and the film extracts it contained did much to open my eyes not just to the power of the documentary but in a wider sense to life, politics, and the in the words of the title this wonderful world.
Grierson died in 1972 aged 73 but his many fine documentaries, especially Night Mail, still frequently screened, ensure his reputation will not just live on but also inspire future factual film-makers for generations to come.
This article first appeared in the MOrning Star 16 September 2016.