Great British Documentaries

“In documentary we deal with the actual, and in one sense with the real. But the really real, if I may use that phrase, is something deeper than that. The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound.” – John Grierson.

With Sight & Sound’s recent poll for best documentaries (September 2014), I wanted to explore some of the British documentaries that didn’t quite make the cut.  Of course, the main issue that crops up in the poll (and other such exercises) is the lack of balance in the canonisation of a global cinema; a subject that Mark Cousins deals with brilliantly in his column in the same issue.  Perhaps dealing with a handful of British documentaries isn’t helping the cause as much as research and discussion of the work of other countries’ lesser known movements, but there’s something irresistible about British documentary and its natural avant-garde swaying that I find difficult to resist.

Initially, this was to be just a list of favourite general documentaries, having been inspired by the poll’s quality and the shock of finding just how many of my favourite films actually could come under the banner of documentary.  Instead though, I feel the process of doing it would only act as a snap-shot in an evolution of reception; something that won’t be particularly interesting to anyone other than myself.  Here then, are some great British documentaries that didn’t make the poll, all of which I feel deserve more recognition in general.

Drifters (1929) – John Grierson.

I was surprised when browsing through the polls of votes to find very little in the way of John Grierson’s legacy; the man whom documentary filmmaking owes a lot.  Aside from his involvement in Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936) – on which he was a production supervisor and narrator – there seems to be little mention of him.  Only Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London and Michael Sicinski of Cinema Scope, recognise Grierson’s directing efforts, the former putting this film in her top 10.

Drifters is an astounding piece of work, following a perilous trawler journey but documenting it in the most artful of ways.  Considering the heady praise for Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (2013), which apes several of Grierson’s stylistic interventions, its lack of presence in the poll is an oddity.  Released a few years back alongside Battleship Potemkin, the BFI release is an essential purchase if only to witness the film alongside a mesmerising score far from the twinkly piano sounds of the version below.  Also below is Sicinski’s Grierson choice, Granton Trawler (1934) which is shorter but equally as enjoyable.


The Dim Little Island (1948) – Humphrey Jennings.

Jennings was bound to get recognition for his astounding films and the usual suspects of his work where in the main poll (though were also strangely absent from the director’s poll).  There’s an odd misconception that, after the war was over, Jennings lost his bravado and resorted to duller material but this is a fallacy.  The Dim Little Island is one of a number of later films by Jennings that are optimistic for the future whilst still retaining of poetic sense of virtue.  It presents the opinions of the likes of Vaughan Williams (whose score for it is beyond majestic) and cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster, but the film actually spends most of its time visually defining the aesthetics of the next thirty years of British cinema.

Thursday’s Children (1954) – Lindsay Anderson.

Anderson’s documentary work sits largely in the shadow of his feature film fictions but they are an essential aspect of his work.  More than music videos or commercials, Anderson believes that the best way to practice and develop film technique is in fact through making documentaries.  A number of his are of interest, including his Free Cinema documentary of 1986 and O Dreamland (1953) but Thursday’s Children is his strongest.  It follows the methods of teaching used to educate deaf children and it’s surprisingly emotional, again with hints of a Jennings brew of optimism.  It’s also narrated by Richard Burton and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1953.

Elgar (1962) – Ken Russell.

Elgar isn’t by any stretch Ken Russell’s best composer film but it is without a doubt the one that fits most earnestly into the category of documentary.  Russell is one of the more overt experimenters within documentary at the BBC, sometimes seeming to make them under the guise of fact but really actually making a fictionalised drama of his own interest.  Elgar is visually stunning and the least distorted of Russell’s historical narratives.  Like a lot of his work, it deserves a far wider release as it presents a sumptuous culture addict being given the helm of a big, visual project.  Also worth noting are his documentaries on folk music (made for Channel 4 in the 1990s), his similar project for BBC Monitor, Bartok (1964), and his Rossetti docu-drama for BBC Omnibus, Dante’s Inferno (1967).

The Epic of Everest (1924) – J.B.L. Noel.

I remember being in attendance of an excellent lecture on British documentary tradition given by Kevin Brownlow a few years back and one thing that struck me was how much more I preferred both The Great White Silence (1924) by Herbert G. Ponting and Noel’s The Epic of Everest to the Robert Flaherty films that garnered the bigger audiences and praise (in spite of thinking Flaherty’s films were great too).  Everest manages to balance a very earnest sense of style and beauty (infamously so with the director making several aesthetic demands of his perilous dramatic material) with a real sense of captured reality.

The fact that Noel captures the tragedy of the Irvine and Mallory expedition seems like a sad coda yet it also marks it out as a documentary that still manages to find meaning and purpose in a tragedy that seemed like such a waste of life.  Everest was not conquered though perhaps there’s something more special about its personification as an unbeatable entity and Noel’s film attains a sense of the mystical because of it.

This is My Land (2006) – Ben Rivers.

If not for its floating caravan, Rivers’ 2011 film, Two Years At Sea would sit here.  As a character, the solitary Jake (who is in fact a geography teacher in real life) is one of the more enigmatic hermits of recent film.  This short document of his life before Two Years At Sea is a beautiful evocation of the rural wild whilst also a captured moment of contentment, so pure that it’s hard not envy Jake’s position; his life being filled with pottering and listening to vinyl in his small cottage somewhere in Scotland.  It is indeed an enviable position.

Other brilliant British documentaries:

Patience (After Sebald) (2012) – Grant Gee

The Arbour (2012) – Clio Barnard

The Stuart Hall Project (2013) – John Akomfrah

Diary (2012) – Tim Hetherington

Blue (1993) – Derek Jarman

Adam Scovell

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