The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary
Grierson and the old boys

by William Guynn

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 28-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

Elizabeth Sussex. The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1976). 219 Pgs. $11.95.

Elizabeth Sussex has, in certain respects, made a valuable contribution to the reassessment of the British documentary film. Her work is particularly important since she offers film scholars what will probably be the last major direct testimony given by the documentarists on their movement. Utilizing an exhaustive series of taped interviews with all the central figures of British documentary, Sussex has selected and edited her material to create a montage of documentary voices. She compares her approach to John Grierson’s description of the documentary genre—the creative treatment of actuality. Her book follows a narrative format, as she asked each interviewee “to tell his story from beginning to end.” She has grouped the texts of the interviews around the major events which shaped British documentary from 1930 through the postwar decline. This unusual format produces some illuminating results. We are given several, often conflicting perceptions of the movement’s history, which reveal the organizational problems, the work methods, the personal and bureaucratic clashes within the organization, and the relationship of the covenant to its sponsors in government and industry. Moreover, Sussex has provided her readers with some new material, in particular, commentaries on the impact of sound on the British documentary and the documentarists’ post-mortem analyses of the reasons for their movement’s demise.

There are, however, a number of weaknesses in Sussex’s work. Since she has chosen a narrative format, conditioned by the autobiographical frame she imposes on the interviews, she collected commentaries largely anecdotal in character. These reflections are regularly colored by the individual filmmakers’ often sentimentalized or embittered memories. Despite the author’s stated purpose of demythologizing the movement, the filmmakers often relate the sort of inconsequential reminiscences, which, one supposes, are only tolerable coming from aging geniuses. Consequently, she and they address few important questions, particularly political ones, directly. Sussex has chosen to intervene very little, except to inform her readers about the historical setting for the filmmakers’ remarks and occasionally to give a judgment based on her recent viewing of the films in question. As Sussex relates in the book’s epilogue, the movement’s founder, John Grierson, after giving Sussex what was probably the last interview before his death, asked her to write “a very different kind of book” from the one she had projected. He urged her to “explore the whole economic and political background out of which documentary had sprung.” Sussex declined Grierson’s suggestion that she study the economic and political forces which had formed British documentary, intimating that such a book would not be about filmmaking at all. But, in a sense, Grierson was absolutely right. British documentary was political filmmaking and demands political analysis.

Despite Grierson’s exhortation, the British documentary does not stand up well under close political scrutiny, if one judges the movement from the perspective of the interest of the British working class. The political study Grierson had in mind would doubtless have portrayed the documentarists as highly moral social servants, who, in response to the depression years’ massive unrest and economic turmoil, brought the heroic working class to the screen for the first time. Doubtless such a work would have extolled the documentary’s attempts to achieve distribution outside the commercial film trade and to undertake mass “education” in the interest of “democracy.” The documentarists themselves have in fact, already written this kind of political analysis, in particular Grierson and Paul Rotha. Such analyses are attempts to whitewash the movement. For, despite its supposed anti-capitalist stance, it participated in the historic betrayal of the British working class during a period of potentially revolutionary upsurge of the masses.

As I indicated in an article in JUMP CUT, no. 6,   and as the documentarists themselves affirm,   British documentary tied itself politically to social democracy. Engels laid the basis for a Marxist understanding of British social democracy, and Lenin subsequently analyzed and denounced social democracy’s betrayals. Social democracy is a historically developed political movement—a product of imperialism—which acts in capitalism’s interest to stifle working class militancy. In Britain, the major agency of social democracy is the British Labour Party. In the following passage, Lenin shows how capitalism makes its political transaction with social democracy and its ideologues:

”... the political institutions of modern capitalism—press, parliament, associations,   congresses, etc.—have created political   privileges and sops for the respectful, meek, reformist and patriotic ... Lucrative and soft jobs in the government or on the war industries committees, in parliament and on diverse committees, on the editorial staffs of ‘respectable’ legally published newspapers or on the management councils of no less respectable and ‘bourgeois law abiding’ trade unions—this is the bait by which the imperialist bourgeoisie attracts and rewards the representatives and supporters of the ‘bourgeois’ labor parties ...” (1)

Thus, paid off in petty privileges, social democracy places itself in the service of capitalism. In times of economic crisis and social unrest, it sows illusions about the capitalist system’s reformability, and, during imperialist war, it promotes social chauvinism and pleads the cause of national ‘unity.’ As exponents of social democracy, the documentarists assumed the task of pleading the case for capitalism and the capitalist state before the working class public. Thus British documentary was fed by capitalism run amok. Documentarist Stuart Legg, reflecting on the death of the documentary movement, puts his finger on the problem:

“Now it’s possible, I think, that the governmental role of it night return to some kind of meaningful role, if things began to go wrong ... it does thrive on unrest, on difficulties, where governments feel they've got to communicate” (Sussex, p 203).

It is necessary, therefore, to judge British documentary in the context of British class struggle in order to see where this avowedly political film movement placed its class loyalties and to understand how British documentary was marked in all its aspects by its subservience to capitalism, Only as Marxists can we explain what Elizabeth Sussex calls the peculiar “establishment” quality to be found in these films about the working class, or the lack of a rebellious spirit among the filmmakers, or even the artistic mediocrity which characterizes the “bloody dreary” films they produced. A Marxist analysis cuts through the social democratic documentarists’ shabby theorizing to show how the capitalist state and industry manipulated and shaped British documentary by wielding its most powerful weapon—money. It is only in the light of a Marxist analysis that the British documentary movement’s ups and downs—so frustrating and confusing for the filmmakers who participated in it—make any sense at all. To Marxists it is clear that British documentary was caught in the class forces of Britain in crisis. The need to maintain capitalist rule called British documentary into being during the depression’s turmoil, and it was capitalism’s propagandistic needs which made British documentary flourish during the war.

After the war, the capitalist state consigned British documentary to the bureaucratic trash heap, along with the other vestiges of social democratic reformism, and persecuted the movement’s leader, John Grierson, in a McCarthy-like witch hunt—the same Grierson who had showed himself a loyal supporter of the capitalist system. Not surprisingly, the documentarists felt the bitter sting of ingratitude. In particular, the short-lived postwar social democratic government, in their eyes, should have assured the triumph of their kind of socialism but instead spurned the documentarists’ mild-mannered social exposures as an embarrassment to the state.

Elizabeth Sussex’s work does not contribute to a political assessment of the British documentary film. It does, however, offer Marxist readers a revealing narrative on that film movement. For those who read the documentarists’ commentaries in the context of the class struggle, The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary eloquently describes the plight of filmmakers who made themselves, unwittingly or cynically, tools of the capitalist class, and, in so doing, degraded themselves both politically and artistically. It is difficult for filmmakers, who need capital in order to function as artists, to resist domination by bourgeois ideology. It is only surprising that the British documentarists sold themselves for so little.


1. V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916), in Against Revisionism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), p. 330.