Born in 1914: nine great documentary filmmakers

Curator Patrick Russell shines a light on nine filmmakers born 100 years ago who became major figures in British documentary of the 20th century.

Patrick Russell

Hazard (1959)

Hazard (1959)

Having several weeks ago listed several well known 1914-born creatives who briefly graced the documentary scene, this article chronicles nine documentary ‘lifers’ likewise born the same year.

Stewart McAllister

Brilliant, mercurial editor Stewart McAllister remains best-known as Humphrey Jennings’ closest collaborator, even co-credited for directing Listen to Britain (1942). Less often noted, ‘Mac’ also worked for other GPO and Crown Film Unit directors, then enjoyed a postwar career at British Transport Films (BTF) under documentary movement veteran Edgar Anstey. He edited early BTF successes like Berth 24 (1950) and Train Time (1952) then produced films by several directors, usually edited by protégé John Legard. You can hear his slightly lugubrious voice narrating some of them.

A notorious night owl (known for clocking in as others were leaving, then working furiously ’til dawn), Mac died of liver cancer in 1962. Expect his stock to rise again this year via the Imperial War Museum’s restoration of Memories of the Camps. I saw this as a work in progress last year and can confirm it’s unforgettable (and harrowing) viewing, McAllister’s subtle shaping of horrific raw material being frequently evident. Portrait of an Invisible Man, Dai Vaughan’s McAllister monograph, is (if you can find it) one of the most insightful, beautifully written books on filmmaking you’ll ever read.

Ron Craigen

Cameraman Ron Craigen’s career is wholly associated with BTF, where he was based from its inception to his retirement. He came to Anstey’s attention thanks to photographing Bernard Miles on Gun Dogs (1947), a now forgotten but in its day very successful Basil Wright short at the Realist Film Unit. At BTF his camerawork graced such minor masterworks as Train Time (1952), Elizabethan Express (1953), This Is York (1953) and Between the Tides (1958), alongside numerous lesser-known titles.

Between the Tides (1958)

Between the Tides (1958)

Craigen was an unassuming, talented, versatile craftsman, perfectly attuned to BTF’s range: adept with colour and black and white, comfortable filming nuts and bolts with close precision or imbuing picturesque travelogues with long-shot lustre. The top-notch title film on our new DVD compilation British Transport Films Volume 12, The Driving Force (1961) is a rare example of Craigen receiving a direction credit (shared with John Shearman).

Ralph Elton

Ralph Elton was overshadowed by older brother Arthur, a major presence in both pre- and postwar documentary, particularly at Shell (where Ralph occasionally directed). Both were scions of an aristocratic Somerset family, but while Arthur was an influential producer, strategic figure and public intellectual, Ralph was more jobbing director and jovial eccentric. Having performed GPO production and direction duties, he was a staff director at wartime Crown.

Voices of Malaya (1948)

Voices of Malaya (1948)

Immediately after the Second World War he directed Voices of Malaya (1948), one of Crown’s biggest colonial productions, and became involved in training local filmmakers who would staff the Malayan Film Unit. Back in postwar Blighty, Elton worked under Donald Alexander at the National Coal Board, on ‘internal’ NCB training for miners, engineers and administrators. For the industrial historian, his coalmining films make engrossing (if dry) viewing, particularly those, like Shaft Survey (1957), concerning the contentious practice of colliery work study. Elton died in 1968.

John Taylor

John Taylor was the youngest major member of the 1930s-era movement: cameraman on the groundbreaking Song of Ceylon (1934), Housing Problems (1935), and Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934). He became a director at Realist and the Strand Film Company, his best-known works being The Smoke Menace and The Londoners (1939). Both were relatively hard-hitting, while Goodbye Yesterday (1941) was even banned and destroyed, reputedly for leaning too far left.

Well-liked by colleagues, Taylor became supervising producer first at Realist then, from 1947, at Crown. In the 1950s he ran Countryman Films with Grahame Tharp and Leon Clore (more on Countryman in our list of five forgotten filmmakers born in 1912) while simultaneously freelancing – not least for BTF making fine films such as The Heart Is Highland (1952).

Extract from The Heart Is Highland (1952)

Holiday (1957), credited to Taylor, is one of BTF’s best-loved titles, though I confess it’s always left me cold (perhaps perversely I prefer his other 1957 BTF film, The England of Elizabeth, classically formal where Holiday is jazzily relaxed). In any case it isn’t really Taylor’s film: a for-fun edit of footage he’d directed for Lancashire Coast (1957).

Natural history and environmental themes would dominate Taylor’s subsequent filmmaking, lasting until 1981.

Max Anderson

Daybreak in Udi (1949)

Daybreak in Udi (1949)

Max Anderson started at the GPO then achieved wartime prominence directing slightly unusual films at Realist: ICI-sponsored The Harvest Shall Come (1942), a dramatised history of agricultural labourers’ conditions, and the more broadly themed Words and Actions (1943) (available on our Land of Promise DVD). Both follow the leftward direction of travel of Taylor’s suppressed Goodbye Yesterday, perhaps more cautiously. Anderson personally was a communist and leading ACT activist. In this light, it may seem curious that his major project after following Taylor to Crown was producing Daybreak in Udi (1949). Another screen manifestation of British colonialism, it’s frankly one of its more offensive ones.

Anderson likewise freelanced in the 1950s, most frequently at Wallace Productions: mainly directing industrial documentaries but also Children’s Film Foundation dramas. He died in 1959. The film industry’s respect was marked by a National Film Theatre memorial, convened by ACT president Anthony Asquith.

Ray Elton

Though McAllister and Taylor are much better known than the others, everyone mentioned so far had his roots in the self-styled ‘documentary movement’. But there was far more to short film than that, as our remaining centenarians prove…

Ray Elton had one of those incredibly varied, hyperactive careers that so enliven the study of the industry. He was variously a cameraman, director, producer and executive. No relation to Ralph or Arthur, as far as I know, Elton was in the business since at least the mid-1930s, leaving credits on a handful of shorts and minor features. He then spent some time on the UK edition of famed American newsreel series The March of Time, and much of the 1940s photographing documentaries by Merton Park-based producers.

He was later director of photography on sundry Rank and Gainsborough features (and Jill Craigie’s unusual Rank documentary Out of Chaos, 1944). Elton spent part of the 1950s in the Gold Coast, parachuted in to assist its local Film Unit. Back home, he rejoined the Rank empire.

Elton  played a leading role in Rank’s advertising division as it grew in size and importance, and in the running of the Rank Short Films Group. There he produced both popular novelty shorts like Revolutions for All (1967) and Cantagallo (1969) and entries in Rank’s innovative cycle of generic business training films (bearing titles like Getting the Decision (1967) and Controlling the Interview (1969). Following the Group’s demise, he set up Ray Elton and Partners, which made sponsored films throughout the 1970s, like Granny Gets the Point (1971).

Extract from Granny Gets the Point (1971)

Tom Stobart

The intriguing Tom Stobart was a polymath whose many interests extended well beyond film but who left behind an engagingly fragmented filmography. Stobart was known primarily as an adventurer-photographer, and his major break into movies (having formerly been active in the film unit of the progressive private school Dartington Hall) was photographing the Crown Film Unit’s Antarctic expedition film The White Continent (1951).

His most famous part in cinema – and expedition – history was played as cameraman on Hillary’s Everest climb and the resulting feature The Conquest of Everest (1953). He then took a fascinating detour into production company Interfilm, part of the gargantuan Film Producers Guild (FPG) that had evolved out of the wartime Merton Park units. There he directed several productions through to the late 1960s (many of which seem not to have survived).

Tom Stobart (right) in Men of Consett (1959)

Tom Stobart (right) in Men of Consett (1959)

Notably, in 1959 he made two memorably idiosyncratic films for the steel industry. Hazard is a safety drama set on an Alpine climbing trip. Men of Consett is a blend of travelogue, reportage, drama and industrial propaganda in which Stobart plays himself (sporting a walking stick, having been shot on an earlier film project, in Ethopia). Extremely peculiar and sporadically wonderful, it’s available on the DVD This Working Life: Steel.

G. Buckland Smith

Tom Stobart’s producer on Men of Consett was G. Buckland Smith (the G standing for Gregory), an important behind-the-scenes figure at the Film Producers Guild. He often directed or wrote (for example his script for Derek Williams’ There Was a Door (1957), available on the DVD Shadows of Progress, though dated, is a model of writing structure). But he was primarily a producer, first at the FPG’s most prestigious company, Greenpark, then as the head of Interfilm.

As the name suggests, Interfilm was intended particularly to deal with international subjects and sponsors, but also undertook domestic commissions, notably for the nuclear industry. Buckland-Smith’s career there seems partly to overlap with running his own GBS Productions and heading the production programme at the generally low-budget producers British Films – work which continued until his death in 1980.

Harold Baim

The presence of Harold Baim on this list would have dismayed almost all the other centenarians, but the fact is that, of any of them associated with documentaries and short films, he was the most successful, at least economically. As owner, producer and sometimes director, at the Federated Film Corporation then Harold Baim Productions, from the 1940s to the 1980s he oversaw a production line whose stock in trade was pedestrian (not to say naff) colour travelogues and ‘interest films’ which other producers felt gave short film a bad name. Moreover, they deeply resented his (to them) mystifying success with block-releasing them into cinemas, via canny deals for co-release with studio feature films.

Baim has the last laugh, however. Lovingly promoted by their rights holders, Baim Films, his films were the subject of a BBC4 programme in 2011 and many have been broadcast uncut on Sky Arts and streamed online. Part of the furniture of postwar cinema programming in their day, with the passage of time they’ve gained nostalgia, kitsch and curiosity value.

Who, for instance, can resist 1981’s Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham?

Extract from Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham (1981)

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Available to buy

  • British Transport Films Volume 12: The Driving Force

    British Transport Films Volume 12: The Driving Force

    Improvements and new services in the post-war period are the focus of the 12th volume of British Transport Commission films.

  • This Working Life: Steel

    This Working Life: Steel

    Rare documentaries, animations and short films focusing on the nation’s steel industry.

  • Land of Promise

    Land of Promise

    This extensive collection is a major retrospective of the British documentary film movement during its period of greatest influence. 

  • Shadows of Progress

    Shadows of Progress

    Landmark collection telling the previously untold story of British documentary filmmaking through the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

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