Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Four People (1962)

Courtesy of Action Medical Research

Main image of Four People (1962)
35mm, black and white, 46 mins
Directed by Guy Brenton
ProductionMorse Films
CompaniesBallad Films
Written by Guy Brenton
Photography Dick Pope
Music and lyrics byEwan MacColl
 Peggy Seeger

The lives and experiences of four polio sufferers.

Show full synopsis

Four People: A Ballad Film tells the stories of four people with polio. Its subtitle reflects the role of the music and words of folk musicians Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on a soundtrack dominated by a sung narrative. These are combined with delicate, even lyrical, photography of scenes in the lives of the people featured. There is little spoken commentary, and polio - referred to in the sung ballads as the 'hidden enemy lurking' - strikes the four adults suddenly as they go about their daily lives. It is mostly staged, but features non-actors in a reinvention of the traditional wartime drama-documentary. In hospital the four patients struggle to learn to walk again, and to come to terms with their new dependency on others - even to the extent of having an itchy nose scratched by a nurse.

Like the earlier Thursday's Children (co-d. Lindsay Anderson, 1954), Four People is full of subtle moments, with a light touch in both image and sound that is charmingly achieved. There are unusual visual angles - the ambulance swerving through traffic filmed from the driver's perspective; the under-the-bed shot as the occupant's feet reach for the floor for the first time in weeks. Neither shot is necessary to the narrative of the film, but both add vividness and a sense of looking at the world from an unusual perspective - an appealing side of Brenton's characteristic avoidance of the mainstream. A new angle on the world is just what the polio patients have had thrust upon them and they also learn greater control over their perspective and how to widen it as they reach out to the life around them. Brenton's own experience of having tuberculosis whilst he was at university must have heightened his awareness of the effects of the isolation of longterm patients in a hospital ward.

Four People inspired a BBC Radio Ballad, The Body Blow, when MacColl and Seeger approached Charles Parker, producer of the series, who recalled:

The year before, they had written and sung some songs for a half-hour (...) feature about polio sufferers, Four People. They hadn't particularly liked the result, largely because of the 'stagey' dialogue, and the sufferers' own words hadn't been heard, but thought it would be an interesting vehicle for a radio ballad.

The Body Blow featured the same four people and generated widespread comment, mostly very favourable.

Ros Cranston

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The hidden enemy (1:31)
2. A cage within a cage (1:37)
3. Visiting time (3:50)
4. A trial ahead (2:16)
5. Life goes on (2:46)
Brenton, Guy (1927-94)
Postwar Documentary
Songs of the Coalfields