An Impressive Look at the Evolution of the British TV Documentary

Most of the films in Visions of Change: Volume 1 - BBC 1951-1967 consists of writerly texts that challenge viewers to conceive of their meaning in new and unexpected ways.

Director: various
Cast: various
Distributor: BFI
Visions of Change - Volume 1: BBC 1951-1967
Release date: 2015-12-14

As a young teenager, I remember being very excited when Citizen Kane was shown on television. As a budding film fan, it was known to me as a masterpiece of early cinema, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. My chief memory of that first viewing, however, was one of disappointment – the cinematography seemed pedestrian, even a little hackneyed. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the film looked that way because just about every director worth their salt had cribbed off Orson Welles’ gigantic playbook for the next half century and more.

One gets the same feeling – of watching a visual language in the process of being created – on viewing Henry Moore (1951), a documentary by director John Read now acknowledged as having a formative effect on the genre, it's an archetypal statement of Reithian principles that pushed documentary filmmaking firmly in the direction of didacticism. The highbrow Henry Moore explores not only the works of the now world-famous sculptor, but also sets out to teach the viewer something of what it means to sculpt. With accompanying shots of his sculptures that are lavish in terms of camera angles and sheer length, we learn of Moore’s interest in primitive art; his meticulous method of working the material; and so on. Unlike so many subjects of such documentaries today, who prefer to maintain an aura of aloofness and enigma commensurate with their (or our!) expectations of how an artist should comport themselves, Moore is complicit in it all, explaining the principles behind his method of working with an alacrity that shows through in spite of his naturally dour Yorkshire exterior.

It's a fascinating beginning to Visions of Change, a two-disc DVD release from the British Film Institute showcasing the documentary genre in Britain from 1951 to 1967. Visions of Change is a conscious attempt to ‘[re-evaluate] the British documentary tradition’ as it manifested in television, a format which ‘allowed filmmakers to approach their subjects in new and exciting ways’. Most of the material contained here consists of what we today might apprehend as writerly texts, challenging the recipient to conceive of their meaning in new and unexpected ways.

Eye to Eye: Night in the City (1957), a marvellously offbeat look at life in a typical industrial town in the north of England filmed by Denis Mitchell, is a case in point. This fly-on-the-wall approach to the subject matter takes the viewer to settings that range from the domestic to the public, to the illicit. In one scene, filmed from the knees down, we see a prostitute emerge from the shadows to proposition a passer-by – and the viewer is invited to place themselves in the subject’s shoes.

To modern eyes, this life has a strange rhythm that verges on the peculiar: the working-class or petty bourgeois city dweller who keeps on keeping on, and makes a virtue of it, is lionised. The equanimity of the black man who is turned away from the bed and breakfast he seeks lodgings in for the night (the inevitability of which is emphasised, but not challenged, by Mitchell); the widow sitting in her prim kitchen, recounting with utter sincerity the recent visit of a ghost to her bedroom; the group of hopefuls attending a meeting of faith healers, desperately trying to believe in the efficacy of the ‘cure’; the exchange between a teenage runaway and the policeman who accosts him – all speak to a bygone world.

The revelation during the latter episode that the runaway is illiterate must have come as a shock to viewers in 1957, as it does to the policeman – ‘Good lord,’ he exclaims in genuine surprise. Across a distance of six decades, the moment is doubly surprising to today’s viewer, because it’s all so civilised. The teenager is deferential to the policeman to a fault; in return, the bobby displays a patrician gentleness that seems out of place in the dingy surroundings.

Other documentaries included here took a different approach. Eye on Research: Test Flight (Philip Daly, Tom Millett, 1959) was recorded at an RAF base in the Home Counties. Filmed as live – film editing was still in its infancy – this half-hour broadcast depicted a supersonic test flight, and is notable for its live footage of the aeroplane breaking the sound barrier. Joe the Chainsmith (Philip Donnellan, 1958) documents a day in the life of the eponymous workman, featuring as its centrepiece a lengthy scene in which a link for a massive chain is forged by half a dozen workmen, each wordlessly playing their part in the process with an almost spiritual efficiency.

Monitor: Pop Goes the Easel (1962) was a foray into the world of contemporary art by none other than Ken Russell, employed as a documentary film-maker by the BBC at the time, and who at this early stage had yet to direct any of the provocative feature films that were soon to be his hallmark. Here, in a work on the new wave of British exponents of Pop Art (including a youthful Peter Blake, fully five years before his famous Sgt. Pepper commission), his style is jaunty and business-like; not a single shot is included that is unnecessary. Yet, the visual rhetoric – juxtaposing shots of the artists firing air rifles at a fairground coconut opposite with found footage of a cowboy firing ‘back’ at them, for example – speaks to a mind already preoccupied by the lure of the lurid. It's a film that could not have been made during the previous decade. It's sassy, sexy, playful, and cocksure.

The biases contained in the collection are largely historical rather than editorial. Entries from female documentary makers, of which there were one or two during the period under study -- one thinks of Jill Craigie's To Be a Woman (1951), or the early works of Muriel Box -- are absent, as the BBC did not see fit to employ them in their capacity as documentary filmmakers at the time.

Somewhat more irksome is the rather Anglocentric bias. Doubtless this focus on England also reflects commissioning policy at the time at least in part; but some splendid additions to the genre exist that originated in Scotland and Wales. John Ormond's Borrowed Pasture (1960), the tale of two men struggling to make a living at a tumbledown Carmarthenshire farm narrated by Richard Burton, represents a Welsh corollary to the working-class realism of Joe the Chainsmith that would well have stood inclusion here. Otherwise, this is a worthwhile addition to the BFI’s growing range of documentary retrospectives.







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