Donald Alexander

Born: 26 August 1913, London
Died: 20 July 1993, Inverness

Introduction

Donald Alexander enjoyed a rich career over several decades working exclusively in cinema and non-theatrical documentary film as a producer, director, writer and editor, among other roles.

After shooting an amateur film on social conditions in the Rhondda Valley, Alexander was taken on by Paul Rotha at Strand Films in 1936. At the time, Strand was the leading independent documentary unit, undertaking films (for various sponsors) occasionally more explicit in their social consciousness than those being made under John Grierson at the GPO. Alexander’s Eastern Valley (1937) exemplifies this. He also directed two noted shorts for the Films of Scotland Committee.

For most of World War Two, during which the British documentary movement was co-opted to the war effort, Alexander made films for the Ministry of Information at Paul Rotha Productions, before setting up (with other former Rotha employees) the co-operative film unit DATA (Documentary And Technicians Alliance). Several sponsors commissioned films from DATA after the war, most frequently the National Coal Board. Alexander was later employed directly by the NCB, setting up its in-house Film Unit in 1953 and directing or writing many of its productions both before and after his stint running the unit ended in 1963.

As with many documentarists of his generation, Alexander’s career offers its own distinct perspective on the evolving relationship between film and society. Like Edgar Anstey, he grew from prewar apprentice filmmaking to a major postwar public service role running an indirectly state sponsored film unit. Like Anstey he employed there both experienced contemporaries (such as Ralph Elton, and his own wife Budge Cooper) and younger filmmakers new to the industry (such as Rodney Giesler and Euan Pearson).

It should be no surprise that ideological shifts are also evident in Alexander’s films over time, a perhaps more critical political stance in some prewar work evolving into direct spokesmanship for official policy. This shift does not simply reflect the dependence of Alexander’s generation of documentarists on sponsors for films that inevitably reflected the sponsors’ viewpoints. It also reflects the shift in public policy from Depression-era capitalism to mixed economy consensus, a consensus incorporating many broadly progressive thinkers (filmmakers included) who would have held more oppositional views in their youth. In Alexander’s case, the contrast between his 1930s films made in Welsh mining areas and his later career conveying the official views of the NCB (albeit with some subtlety) is partly explained by coal nationalisation having changed the ideological basis on which the coal industry was run.

Issues of class and even nationality are also raised by Alexander’s biography and output. An interesting distant parallel might be drawn with a younger filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson. Both were of Scottish origins and bearing distinctively Scottish names, but of English upbringing and Oxbridge education. Alexander’s voice can be heard as a commentator on several films, particularly internal films for the NCB by definition aimed at a working-class – and disproportionately Scottish and Welsh – audience, and it is unmistakeably that of the British upper-middle class from which many of the 1930s documentarists originated. Yet while his filmmaking traversed the UK, some of his most apparently personal work was undertaken in Scotland. He is an interesting case study in the largely implicit relationships between Scottishness, Englishness and Britishness – often entangled with class issues – expressed in some socially purposeful film making of his period.

Some viewers may find traces of a distinctly Scottish sensibility in all Alexander’s work (as they have with John Grierson, with whom, incidentally, Alexander apparently shared a mutual antagonism). Perhaps this can be seen in his highly practical, even self-effacing, approach to making films nonetheless strongly informed by an underlying social ethic. In terms of Grierson’s famous definition of documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’, Alexander’s creativity seems largely to have lain in finding effective filmic solutions to the challenges posed by sponsor requirements, rather than in self-expression. His films, though often visually strong and cleverly structured, generally avoid stylistic flourish. Whether or not this apparent selflessness in pursuit of public service is a distinctively Scottish trait, it certainly reflects the ideals of a key strain in the British documentary tradition, that drawn more towards film as a tool for shaping civic values than towards documentary subject matter as fodder for artistic statements. It is unsurprising that filmmakers like Alexander remain generally uncelebrated compared to, say, the much less prolific Anderson.

From this perspective, Alexander’s final professional engagement as the head of a university Audio Visual department (at the University of Dundee, for ten years from 1969) may be judged a fitting rather than disappointing coda to his career.

Patrick Russell

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline

Highlighted works

  • Here's Health

    Here's Health

    This dramatised film promoting the birth of the NHS weaves a family and community story around the cases of a hard-working local doctor.

  • Land Girl

    Land Girl

    This government-sponsored documentary shows how one intrepid Land Girl overcomes male prejudice and is eventually accepted on a Scottish farm.

  • To-day We Live  A Film of Life in Britain

    To-day We Live A Film of Life in Britain

    Britain – rural and industrial – is captured by the British documentary movement in a film that includes some very famous shots epitomising the Depression years.

Filmography

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