By Bob Light
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 352

Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-77

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
This sumptuous four-DVD box set produced by the British Film Institute (BFI) contains 34 rare documentary films from the post-war period.
Issue 352

The 100-page accompanying booklet makes grandiose claims for the significance of these films but the reality is quite different: this box set is not worth buying and only a handful of these films are worth watching even once.

In fact this set is only worth reviewing because it throws an interesting sidelight on the relationship between socialist politics and film, culture and art.

You can see the issue played out clearly enough in the recently released feature Made in Dagenham.

Made in Dagenham claims to be the story of the strike by 187 women machinists at Ford Dagenham in 1968. Yet as a product of US-financed commercial cinema it uses all the familiar techniques of mainstream entertainment: star performers, glamour, sexual spectacle, humour, music, a clear narrative arc and a feel-good ending.

An epic moment in the class struggle is offered up as mainstream entertainment. The upside here is that people will go to see the film. The downside is the liberties it takes with the facts.

For example, Barbara Castle is portrayed as the trade union heroine who intervenes to bring about the punch the air feel-good ending. In fact the reptilian Castle aided and abetted Ford in cheating the strikers – and at the same time she was already preparing vicious laws to limit trade union organisation.

In British film culture the polar opposite to this fiction has always been seen as the realism of the documentary tradition – but the 34 films in this collection highlight some of the problems inherent in documentary film making.

Crucially, almost all these films were bought and paid for by big business. The roll call includes ICI, Roche, Ford (irony), BP, Shell and the National Coal Board.

While there are moments in a few of these capitalist propaganda exercises where the filmmakers have clearly tried to impose some outbreak of truth or formal experimentation, as a whole these films have the status of cultural toxic waste and the BFI should be ashamed of itself for giving a spurious significance to this detritus.

I resented having to watch this shit in cinemas in the 1960s – 50 years later I resent even more being told that they are “inspired, ground-breaking and indispensable”.

What is left is a patchy gaggle of a dozen or so movies that were sponsored by charities (like the Family Planning Association and the British Epilepsy Society). These are essentially “problem movies” and they are usually painfully well-intentioned. But, sadly, they are also painfully unwatchable. The pervading hammy middle class commentaries coupled with the excruciatingly wooden “drama documentary” amateur acting left me thinking they might actually be Armstrong and Miller parodies.

But what’s worse is the near contempt for the victims who are allowed sympathy but never any voice or authority. There Was a Door (produced by the Manchester Hospital Board) is an earnest attempt to evoke sympathy for “Johnnie”, a young man with Down’s Syndrome. However, “Johnnie” never speaks himself, to share his feelings or even tell us his real name. He is, as we are reminded repeatedly, simply a nice “mental defective”.

Fortunately British film culture does have some alternatives to both the vacuity of Carry On in Dagenham and the cringing pomposity of the Shadows of Progress farrago. In the years before and during the Second World War, the British documentary movement around John Grierson produced an astonishing collection of brilliant and socially radical films. Many critics (including me) regard these as one of the high water points of British cinema.

All these pre-war documentary makers were left wingers (some were actual Communists) and they saw the act of making films as a contribution to the fight for a better, less unequal society. These were not just films made by socialists; they were the product of a committed socialist film culture. Fortunately the BFI is releasing a collection of these movies later in the year, and that will be a collection worth watching and buying.

Shadows of Progress is available from BFI, £34.99

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