10 great but forgotten TV documentaries of the 1950s and 60s

Millions watched them on TV at the time, but these pioneering documentaries have hardly been seen since. Now’s the time for their rediscovery.

Lisa Kerrigan , Steve Bryant , Katy McGahan , Simon McCallum
Updated:

The Colony (1964)

The Colony (1964)

As British TV audiences boomed in the 1950s, new formats and genres of programming developed to bring arts, science, natural history, current affairs and personal documentaries into the nation’s living rooms. Influenced by film documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s, including those made by Documentary Film Movement pioneers such as John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, and by stylistic advances in radio documentary, these TV documentaries pushed the non-fiction form in new and sometimes radical ways – synthesising striking images with wild track audio commentaries and using memorable presenters to engage millions of viewers. In Visions of Change: The evolution of the British TV documentary we are celebrating these pioneering programmes with a season at BFI Southbank, DVD releases and an extensive Mediatheque collection of over 50 rare titles.

This exciting period created some of the most well-known non-fiction series in British television: Panorama (BBC 1953-present), Horizon (BBC 1964-present) and World in Action (ITV 1963-98), all of which drew from these developments in TV programme style, finding new ways to explore their subjects and inform audiences. Sir David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest (BBC 1954-67) was among the first series to film animals in the wild for television. In arts programming, Monitor (BBC 1958-65) led the way and caught the creative mood of Britain at the time, and by 1969 Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation was not only a landmark in colour TV but also set the standard for long-form documentary series.

But though the programmes above might be well-remembered, there were many other landmark TV documentaries made in the 1950s and 1960s that were avidly watched by millions of BBC and ITV viewers but which have been little seen since they were originally broadcast. Visions of Change collects together some of the most fascinating of them. In these films we find a Britain that is finally emerging from the postwar shadow, and a society that was changing rapidly – for instance, some offer portraits of working-class lives and immigrant communities, with extraordinary accounts of and glimpses into personal experience of tense race relations and economic deprivation. Most of all, these programmes give us the opportunity to see people talk openly about their lives in a way which seems ordinary now with the proliferation of reality television, but which was revolutionary then. Beautiful, funny and frank, these documentaries show life as it was lived with all the possibilities to come.

Here are 10 lesser-spotted greats…

Henry Moore (1951)

Director John Read

Henry Moore (1951)

The earliest title in the BFI’s Visions of Change project is also one of the most significant. The first filmed portrait of a living British artist, it is also a landmark moment in the development of the arts documentary in particular, the television documentary generally, and the use of film in programme-making at the BBC.

John Read’s portrait of sculptor Henry Moore at work on a major piece for the 1951 Festival of Britain was the first of six collaborations between the filmmaker and the artist and pointed the way for the presentation of visual arts on the television screen. Beautifully shot on 35mm stock, Read’s film demonstrates an artist’s grasp of how to use the moving image to convey the power of static objects. Henry Moore will be included in the DVD set of BBC documentaries released by the BFI in December.

Steve Bryant

Eye to Eye: The Man at Dover (1957)

Directors Richard Cawston and Pamela Wilcox Bower

Eye to Eye: The Man at Dover (1957)

Looking at life in Britain as it strikes a refugee, this brilliant film is by turns dramatic, comic and devastatingly sad. The ‘man at Dover’ waits for the arrival of his nephew and recollects his own journey and struggles to adjust to the ways of the British, with their strange habits and social awkwardness.

This dramatised documentary deftly captures the loneliness, alienation and simultaneous relief of being a refugee in a foreign country. Martin Esslin, who wrote the outline, fled Nazism in Austria and undoubtedly drew on his own experiences in creating the story. The direction is assured, with faultless pacing, as the comedy vignettes give way to deep sympathy and sorrow for the subject at hand. The Man at Dover was part of an excellent series called Eye to Eye that presented short single documentaries on different subjects every week.

Lisa Kerrigan

Song of the Valley (1957)

Director John Schlesinger

Song of the Valley (1957)

A short film made for the BBC’s topical magazine Tonight, Song of the Valley is not strictly a documentary. Showing a man’s reminiscences of home as he is escorted to prison, it is set to Dorothy Squires’ ‘Song of the Valley’ and though it is dramatised, it portrays a working-class Yorkshire community in much the same style as documentaries being produced by directors like Denis Mitchell in this period.

The use of the streets and landscapes of Yorkshire certainly correspond to John Grierson’s oft-used definition of documentary as a “creative treatment of actuality” and in this pioneering period experimental formats were regularly used with little attention to distinctions between genres. What Song of the Valley best shows is the kind of short, beautifully made film that was regularly being produced for magazine style programmes. Schlesinger of course would later make the transition from television to film, where he would become one of Britain’s most well-known directors.

Lisa Kerrigan

The Cradocks (1959)

Director Rollo Gamble

The Cradocks (1959)

One of several short series made by Daniel Farson for Associated-Rediffusion, this episode of Success Story shows early ITV at its brash and inquisitive best. Daniel Farson had begun to specialise in profiles of people in all walks of life, with a vast array including unmarried mothers, witches, meths addicts and public schoolboys. Success Story sees him interviewing well-known personalities and this particular edition takes on the formidable TV chef Fanny Cradock and her husband Johnny. 

Supremely awkward and unappetising, the show features many close-ups of the immense seafood platter the Cradocks have prepared for Farson. The whole thing is a delightfully surreal insight into aspirational living in the late 1950s, and a reminder that TV chefs have been with us for over half a century. Farson, as always, is unafraid to ask his interviewees the important questions, including in this case whether or not his hosts realise that the winkles are still moving.

Lisa Kerrigan

Borrowed Pasture (1960)

Director John Ormond

Borrowed Pasture (1960)

Richard Burton narrates this stunning portrait of two Polish ex-soldiers and their life on a farm in Carmarthenshire. Mr Bulaj and Mr Okolowicz have been living at Penygaer for 12 years. Exiled after serving in the Second World War, they miss home constantly. Borrowed Pasture documents their endurance in their efforts to work the farm and the tragedy of their loneliness in such a desolate place.

Director John Ormond made many programmes for BBC Wales and was also a prolific poet. In this programme his visual composition and script skilfully reveal the lyrical potential of the TV documentary. The film has a beautiful score by Arwel Hughes, performed by the BBC Welsh Orchestra. Not without its lighter moments, Borrowed Pasture remains in the memory long after viewing and has not been shown since its original broadcast in 1961.

Lisa Kerrigan

The Prizewinners (1962)

Producer Philip Daly

The Prizewinners (1962)

A single documentary featuring interviews with Nobel Prize-winning scientists, The Prizewinners is an entertaining look at scientific achievements and the lives of the men behind them. Interviewer Stephen Black is not only interested in asking the prizewinners about their work, he is keen to get to the bottom of the question “What manner of men are these great scientists?”

In turn he quizzes Max Perutz, John Kendrew, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and James Watson about their intellectual pursuits, their family lives, and even their spiritual beliefs. This is a rare look at great scientists in the round and the insight into some aspects of their personal lives is charming rather than intrusive. The Prizewinners also provides an example of the evolving ways in which science was presented on television prior to the establishment of the long-running series Horizon in 1964.

Lisa Kerrigan

Beat City (1963)

Director Charlie Squires

The Beat City (1963)

Intrepid reporter Daniel Farson makes the journey from London to Liverpool to discover why this “hard-drinking, hard-fighting” northern enclave has become the epicentre of the 1960s music scene. His whistle-stop tour takes in all the Merseybeat landmarks, most notably the celebrated Cavern club where youngsters twist and swoon to the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Close-up shots of the musicians and revellers together with evocative street scenes, courtesy of cameramen Ron Osborn and Peter Povey, capture the vitality of this defining moment in Liverpool’s cultural history.

Beat City was a stand-alone programme first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1963. By then the plummy-voiced Daniel Farson, who finds the atmosphere in the Cavern “intensely exciting”, was a household face, having gained his reputation presenting a string of current affairs series including Out of Step (1957) and Farson’s Guide to the British (1959-60).

Katy McGahan

  • Beat City is showing in the programme Pop Culture on 25 November at BFI Southbank.

The Colony (1964)

Director Philip Donnellan

The Colony (1964)

Birmingham-based filmmaker Philip Donnellan explored working-class lives in a series of remarkable films for the BBC, which gave a voice to otherwise neglected members of the community – in this case immigrants of West Indian origin, living in the West Midlands. Either in discussion or directly addressing the camera, the participants have a space to tell their own stories in their own words, which they do eloquently and with calm dignity. Donnellan stresses their diversity as much as their common experience, not least in the closing credits, which detail the islands of origin of those we have seen, and he economically sketches in the historical, geographical and social background to Caribbean immigration.

The Colony stands as an important record of a Britain in the early stages of significant social change and of the lives and thoughts of first-generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants. It will be included in the BFI’s DVD set of BBC documentaries released as part of the Visions of Change project.

Steve Bryant

This Week Special: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (1966)

Director Peter Robinson

This Week Special: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (1966)

A special edition of the groundbreaking current affairs series This Week, We Wish You a Merry Christmas has more than a hint of A Christmas Carol in its comparison of rich and poor families over the festive season. For the Foster family, Christmas is “just like any other day”, and no amount of pressure to celebrate and provide presents can conjure up the means to do so. In contrast, the family of no less than publishing mogul Robert Maxwell enjoys a luxurious and traditional Christmas complete with enormous tree.

The programme follows Maxwell’s youngest daughter in her celebrations at school and shows the family hosting a large party, presenting the vast difference in lifestyles by surveying the family homes and highlighting the opportunities available to those with money. Where a contemporary television format would see the families swap places and learn lessons, This Week simply conducts strikingly frank interviews with the Maxwells and Mrs Foster about money and the lack of it.

Lisa Kerrigan

What’s a Girl like You… (1969)

Director Charlie Squires

What's a Girl Like You (1969)

Welcome to the “Palladium of Drag” – south London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The first half of Charlie Squires’ scintillating LWT documentary celebrates the late-60s drag renaissance at one of Britain’s oldest surviving gay venues – albeit one that was then home to a diverse throng of working-class regulars. Dynamic camerawork swoops along the bar-cum-stage as pints are nonchalantly pulled under the thrashing heels of anarchic queens Bow, The Polka Dots and Mr Cleo Rose. Despite the clunking insistence that “the one thing you don’t have to be for drag is homosexual” this is a refreshingly non-judgemental and joyous insight into queer nightlife almost half a century ago.

A fascinating contrast in tone occurs when the spotlight shifts to the northern drag circuit. The audiences are still largely working class, but a harder-edged, freak-show vibe creeps in. The girls range from highly polished female impersonators (Bunny Lewis) and glorious grotesques (Al Nicholls) to innovative drag striptease (Terry Durham). Transgender singer Ava strikes a more melancholic note with her number ‘Strictly a He-male Female’ providing a sharp reminder that the outlook for trans women was far from rosy in 1969. Featuring candid interviews with all the performers, this is a valuable rediscovery – and a timely one given the RVT recently became the first venue in Britain to be awarded Grade II-listed status for its importance to the LGBT community.

Simon McCallum

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