British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Shadows of Progress

Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977. 2010. GB. DVD. British Film Institute. 851 minutes + extras (42minutes). £34.99

About the reviewer: Dr James Mansell is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies in the Department of Culture, Film and Media. His research and teaching expertise lie in cultural history, media history and sound studies. At Nottingham he co-directs the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network, a research cluster supporting sensory work across the disciplines with an especial focus on sensory methodologies, practices, and histories. He is currently Co-Investigator of an AHRC research network on ‘Music, Noise and Silence’ scoping ideas for a future Science Museum exhibition on music and sound. He is also a partner in the Leverhulme Trust research network ‘Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, Modernism and the Arts, 1875-c.1960’. His publications include The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit (2011), co-edited with Scott Anthony.

Shadows of Progress, the four-volume DVD collection of post-war documentary films recently released by the British Film Institute, forms a welcome counterpart to the earlier Land of Promise box set, which collected together the finest British documentary films up to 1950. While the latter offered us a tribute to the much-loved documentary movement founded by John Grierson, Shadows of Progress brings together lesser-known films and filmmakers with a somewhat different story to tell about British cultural and social history. The directors included here, among them John Krish, Lindsay Anderson and Guy Brenton, picked up the baton of public information filmmaking and narrated the story of post-war development to the generation who had ‘never had it so good’. Shadows of Progress demonstrates beyond doubt that their films were as daring and aesthetically ambitious as those of their inter-war predecessors. But what really stands out in the films collected here is the extraordinarily rich picture of everyday life they present. The Griersonian spirit of recording daily reality in all its idiosyncratic detail remains intact in many of these films, none more so than the marvellous Portrait of Queenie (dir. Michael Orrom, 1965), shot on covert cameras in a London pub.

Yet what we get is not the Britain of the 1930s and 40s. It is a Britain visibly transforming into the world we know today, a world of high-rise housing blocks, wide, fast-moving motorways, nuclear power stations, and supermarkets. Watching these films helps us to understand the Britain we live in today because it presents the original vision for aspects of it which we now either take for granted or repudiate as follies of the past. Several of the films, including in particular Stone into Steal (dir. Paul Dickson, 1960), present beautiful and visually poetic representations of heavy industry and infrastructure as it took shape in the post-war period. The motoring boom is promoted in the breathtaking road trip of Shellarama (dir. Richard Cawston, 1965), in which even oil rigs are made to look desirably modern. Sprawling housing estates on what had once been countryside are presented as the ideal solution to nerve-wracking, dusty old cities in Faces of Harlow (dir. Derrick Knight, 1964).

As in the days of EMB and GPO filmmaking, some of the films presented in the Shadows of Progress collection were sponsored by the British state or its agencies, as with the irritatingly elitist Today in Britain (dir. Peter Hopkinson, 1964), which was commissioned by the Foreign Office. Others were produced on behalf of major British corporations, such as Shell. What emerges is a culture of paternalism, which although typical of the post-war political consensus, has all but disappeared in our neo-liberal age of market ideology. State and corporate experts are uniformly presented as agents of modernising rationality in these films. This is no less true of the medical films in the collection, such as Time out of Mind (dir. Eric Marquis, 1968), in which the calm and rational voice of the male doctor is presented in sharp contrast to the childlike and markedly lower class personas of the patients whose psychiatric disorders, and their rational treatment through modern drug technology, are the subject of the film.

The ushering in of a new world of rational state-led modernity is not the only story to be found in Shadows of Progress, though. There is also a tangible sense of loss, nostalgia and humanity which make films such as Portrait of Queenie and The Elephant Will Never Forget (dir. John Krish, 1953), in which the final journey of a London tram is marked, timeless contributions to the art of cinema and evocative realms of social memory.

James Mansell

Delicious Save this on Delicious |