Born in 1913: six filmmakers’ centenaries

Curator Patrick Russell celebrates the work of six filmmakers born 100 years ago, all leading lights in Britain’s mid-20th century documentary movement.

Patrick Russell
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Jack Lee

Jack Lee

Last year I cited five forgotten filmmakers’ centenaries. Now it’s the turn of the babes of 1913: fellow luminaries of 20th century Britain’s bustling documentary business.

Let’s begin with the best-known. The centenaries of twins John and Roy Boulting will be marked by a BFI Southbank season later this year. Best-known for fiction features, they deserve a small place in the non-fiction firmament. Mixing pastoralism, high-Anglicanism and leftism, their short Ripe Earth (1938) resembles neither others’ pre-war films nor their own soft-centred post-war satires. But arguably the most lasting work of either brother was Roy’s trilogy of feature-length WWII documentaries, outstanding cinematic records of World War II fronts, including the Oscar-winning Desert Victory (1943).

Desert Victory (1943)

Desert Victory (1943)

Unlike the Boultings, Jack Lee was a card-carrying documentarian before his own features crossover (directing, for instance, The Wooden Horse, 1950, and A Town like Alice, 1956). Lee’s fiction films were presaged by entries in the Crown Film Unit’s cycle of ‘story-documentaries’: reality-based propagandist dramas played by non-actors. Those of senior Crown colleagues Harry Watt and Pat Jackson (also en route to feature careers) are better-known, but Lee’s Ordinary People (1941), filmed in blitzed London, and Coastal Command (1942) and Close Quarters (1943), set offshore, are all good stuff.

Children on Trial (1946), most ambitious of the earliest Central Office of Information (COI) films, is more unusual, transposing this wartime format to a postwar social issue: juvenile delinquency. It’s hardly Rebel without a Cause, but despite flaws is surprisingly riveting, well-photographed – and not badly acted.

Incidentally, Jack’s younger brother, the poet Laurie Lee of Cider with Rosie fame, made several contributions of his own to documentary films, including at least three important ones: Spare Time (1939), Cyprus Is an Island (1946) and Journey into Spring (1957).

The ‘J’ in J.D. Chambers also stood for Jack, and Chambers similarly made well-executed wartime propaganda shorts, in his case at Paul Rotha Productions and employing less overt dramatisation. Check out The Battle of the Books (1941), Night Shift (1942) and Power for the Highlands (1943). In 1944, Chambers was one of the insurgents who, in a fit of idealism (tinged with resentment at Rotha’s management style), left Rotha to set up DATA Film Productions.

The increasingly disillusioned post-war optimism of DATA, Britain’s first film cooperative, is a fascinating fable in post-war history. Chambers’ dissimilar, equally excellent 1946 films, The Bridge and Chasing the Blues exemplify early DATA’s ambitions for imaginative social filmmaking, but his filmography also includes the more prosaic items that DATA (and its science films offshoot, Nucleus Films) found so much easier to raise funds for.

Chambers’ career gets harder to follow after the mid-1950s, apparently involving freelancing with several of Soho’s small industrial film producers. According to my friend Peter Pickering, who joined DATA in 1947, Chambers had been popular among younger members, sometimes touted by them as an alternative leader to another 2013 centenarian, Donald Alexander.

Alexander was, to my mind, one of the greatest and most interesting figures of the documentary tradition. Despite his privileged background, the young Alexander made impassioned contributions to the 1930s documentary movement: his filming in Welsh mining valleys yielded uncommonly strong visual documents of the depression.

Today We Live (1937)

Today We Live (1937)

The mature Alexander, marrying integrity to pragmatism, made the best he could of the economically vibrant, but politically and artistically constrained, postwar documentary. Having been de facto leader of the DATA breakaway and the key figure of its early years, in the 1950s he presided over the expansion of filmmaking at the National Coal Board (NCB).

One of the world’s biggest and best industrial film units, the NCB Film Unit remained informed, long after his 1963 departure, by Alexander’s commitment to miners’ welfare, his interest in the technology of coal-getting, and his keen analytical brain. Primarily now a producer and planner, he still occasionally directed. The fascinating industrial relations films Experiment (1958) and The Four M’s (1964), both viewable in the BFI Mediatheques, are warmly recommended.

Alexander’s wife Budge Cooper, also born 1913, was assuredly no appendage to her husband. Indeed, a staunch feminist, she won a union court case against the NCB to allow women to work (ie film) underground. In wartime days, Cooper had progressed from continuity at Crown to directing at Rotha’s: notably, the committed, starkly photographed Children of the City (1944).

At the NCB she specialised in directing first aid films, then co-producing several years’ worth of the ever-wonderful Mining Review. Following their mid-60s departure, Cooper and Alexander periodically returned to collaborate, freelance, on a sequence of warm Mining Review portraits of the various coalfields.

Children of the City (1944)

Children of the City (1944)

Last year, I inexcusably overlooked one 1912-born filmmaker. Brian Smith was best known in the business for documentaries about children, produced at the Realist Film Unit. Pieces like Your Children and You (1946) and It’s a Small World (1950) have, inevitably, dated – but charmingly so.

He rather disappears off the map in the later 1950s, more abruptly even than Chambers. He seems to have gone abroad: I’ve seen contemporary references to him filmmaking in Cambodia. What became of him I have no idea.  Any useful information on Smith – or anyone mentioned here – will be received gratefully! 

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Available to buy

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    The COI Collection Volume One: Police and Thieves

    Volume one of the Central Office of Information collection tackles crime, juvenile delinquency, policing and the justice system.

  • 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. 

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