Crown Film Unit

Introduction

A few months into World War Two, the GPO Film Unit was transferred to the Films Division of the Ministry of Information. Its new name – the Crown Film Unit – reflected its special status as film producer for the state itself.

The MOI continued to commission wartime propaganda and information films from a range of outside units such as Verity Films, Greenpark and Paul Rotha Productions. But Crown’s output occupies a special place in the history of wartime film. This is partly because it was central to continuation of the pre-war ‘documentary movement’ into the era of war. The ‘movement’ had been relatively marginalised from initial government propaganda plans, but the creation of Crown cemented the central place of its filmmakers thereafter. Initial producer Ian Dalrymple seems to have successfully steered its course so as to avoid damaging entanglements with civil service politics.

The Unit’s continuing acclaim is also partly due to a few particularly well-remembered individual films – notably Humphrey Jennings pieces such as Words for Battle (1941) and Listen to Britain (1942). These have rather overshadowed the output as a whole: over a dozen years, Crown was responsible for some 130 films for cinemas and non-theatrical venues. During the war, the Unit undertook a range of productions. These included increasingly ambitious refinements of the ‘story documentary’ format that had come to the fore of in the GPO’s later output: films in which non-actors played themselves in exciting but realistic narratives typical of their own experiences. Men of the Lightship (1940) was a tentative start. But the main cycle of WWII story documentaries was bookended by Target For Tonight (1941) and the expensive, full-colour Western Approaches (1944), both directed by former GPO staff (Harry Watt and Pat Jackson, respectively).

Alongside such famous films, the Unit also turned out crisply effective, strictly utilitarian information shorts – as well as many fascinating, largely forgotten films well worth revisiting. Ordinary People (1941), directed by Jack Lee and J.B. Holmes, is an intriguing recreation of an average day in London, where the Blitz affects all social classes. Jackson’s Builders (1942) belongs to the strain of wartime documentaries that begin looking ahead to a postwar Britain in which wartime collective effort could be turned to transforming society.

In 1946, the MOI was closed, replaced by the Central Office of Information, for which Crown continued to work. Crucially, the COI was not itself a government department, but rather a central agency sponsored by numerous departments to deliver information to the public. Crown’s COI period – representing half the unit’s lifetime – is much the least appreciated phase of its history. The only productions that remain well known are such late Jennings films as the interesting A Defeated People (1946) and the unimpressive The Cumberland Story (1947).

Yet the other work of the time deserves to be better appreciated. Even if lacking wartime urgency, much of it was of continuing high quality. As during the war, the Unit made short, relatively inexpensive films fulfilling specific purposes alongside more prestigious productions. Some longer pieces applied the story documentary approach to the social issues to which the community was beginning to turn its attention. Lee’s Children on Trial (1946) is a surprisingly gripping, very well shot, and relatively liberal study of state-sanctioned solutions to juvenile delinquency. Philip Leacock’s Life In Her Hands (1951) delivers – with surprising effectiveness – a documentary on nurses’ training in the form of a somewhat noirish melodrama. The same director’s Out of True (1951) is a very flawed but nonetheless brave and interesting attempt to improve viewers’ understanding of mental illness.

A significant proportion of the postwar productions reflect Britain’s evolving relationship with its colonies. 1949’s Daybreak in Udi even won an Oscar for best documentary. This skilful drama-documentary’s representation of Nigeria would now be considered deeply politically incorrect (though director Terry Bishop and producer Max Anderson were two of the most committed left-wingers in the film industry). Caribbean (1951) was a blander, but more likeable impressionistic travelogue of the West Indies.

Other work focussed on the postwar era’s own ‘home front’, with many films like From The Ground Up (1950) capturing the progress of reconstruction or promoting new public services. The Unit’s films of the time also presage the documentary industry’s own future development. For instance, in 1947 Crown produced the first six issues of Mining Review for the recently created National Coal Board, before the series was outsourced to the independent unit Data. Talented (though mostly overlooked) new filmmakers also emerged in Crown’s later output. Margaret Thomson made some of her best films at this time. Cyril Frankel, later a feature film director, made several issues of the COI’s This Is Britain series as well as one-off documentaries.

The Conservative Government’s decision to close the Crown Film Unit in 1952 attracted its share of controversy. It was opposed by the Labour Party, and was the subject of a letter-writing campaign by some of the film industry’s ‘great and the good’. But it isn’t difficult to understand the political reasoning: that in a time of austerity a directly government-funded film unit was an expensive luxury. Independent companies could just as easily take on the COI’s commissions (it has been argued that the Unit was deliberately left idle to justify its closure). Many critics and filmmakers would, for years to come, blame this decision for Britain’s failure to develop an artistically respectable tradition of public filmmaking, and would use Crown’s demise to mark the death of Britain’s hitherto vibrant documentary culture. In fact, documentary did not die in 1952: the documentary films of this and later decades are of far greater interest than they have generally been given credit for. But it is certainly true that the closure of the Unit brought an important phase in film history – stretching back to 1929 and the Empire Marketing Board’s first dabblings in film production – to an end.

Patrick Russell

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline

Highlighted works

  • The Railwaymen

    The Railwaymen

    This government–sponsored film promoted recruitment to the postwar railways, at a time when young boys still dreamed of driving a train.

  • Festival in London

    Festival in London

    This film documents the Festival of Britain, held in 1951 to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition.

  • The Eighty Days

    The Eighty Days

    This public information film details the bombardment of London and the Southeast by the terrifying V-1 flying bomb, known as the ‘doodlebug’, and outlines Britain’s defences.

  • Children on Trial

    Children on Trial

    This effective drama-documentary was sponsored by the Home Office as a study of the growing problem of juvenile delinquency.

  • Defeat Tuberculosis

    Defeat Tuberculosis

    This public information film sponsored by the Ministry of Health was a part of offical efforts to prevent and contain the spread of a killer disease.

Filmography

Latest from the BFI

  • Latest from the BFI

    Latest news, features and opinion.

More information

Films, TV and people

  • Films, TV and people

    Film lists and highlights from BFI Player.

More information

Sight & Sound magazine

  • Sight & Sound magazine

    Reviews, interviews and features from the international film magazine.

More information

Back to the top