A few months into World War Two, the GPO Film Unit was transferred to the Films Division of the Ministry of Information. Its new name - the Crown Film Unit - reflected its special status as film producer for the state itself.
The MOI continued to commission wartime propaganda and information films from
a range of outside units such as Verity Films, Greenpark and Paul Rotha
Productions. But Crown's output occupies a special place in the history of
wartime film. This is partly because it was central to continuation of the
pre-war 'documentary movement' into the era of war. The 'movement' had been
relatively marginalised from initial government propaganda plans, but the
creation of Crown cemented the central place of its filmmakers thereafter.
Initial producer Ian Dalrymple seems to have successfully steered its course so
as to avoid damaging entanglements with civil service politics.
The Unit's continuing acclaim is also partly due to a few particularly
well-remembered individual films - notably Humphrey Jennings pieces such as
Words for Battle (1941) and Listen to Britain (1942). These have rather
overshadowed the output as a whole: over a dozen years, Crown was responsible
for some 130 films for cinemas and non-theatrical venues. During the war, the
Unit undertook a range of productions. These included increasingly ambitious
refinements of the 'story documentary' format that had come to the fore of in
the GPO's later output: films in which non-actors played themselves in exciting
but realistic narratives typical of their own experiences. Men of the Lightship
(1940) was a tentative start. But the main cycle of WWII story documentaries
was bookended by Target For Tonight (1941) and the expensive, full-colour
Western Approaches (1944), both directed by former GPO staff (Harry Watt and Pat Jackson, respectively). Alongside such famous films, the Unit also turned out
crisply effective, strictly utilitarian information shorts - as well as many
fascinating, largely forgotten films well worth revisiting. Ordinary People
(1941), directed by Jack Lee and J.B. Holmes, is an intriguing recreation of an
average day in London, where the Blitz affects all social classes. Jackson's
Builders (1942) belongs to the strain of wartime documentaries that begin
looking ahead to a postwar Britain in which wartime collective effort could be
turned to transforming society.
In 1946, the MOI was closed, replaced by the Central Office of Information,
for which Crown continued to work. Crucially, the COI was not itself a
government department, but rather a central agency sponsored by numerous
departments to deliver information to the public. Crown's COI period -
representing half the unit's lifetime - is much the least appreciated phase of
its history. The only productions that remain well known are such late Jennings
films as the interesting A Defeated People (1946) and the unimpressive The
Cumberland Story (1947).
Yet the other work of the time deserves to be better appreciated. Even if
lacking wartime urgency, much of it was of continuing high quality. As during
the war, the Unit made short, relatively inexpensive films fulfilling specific
purposes alongside more prestigious productions. Some longer pieces applied the
story documentary approach to the social issues to which the community was
beginning to turn its attention. Lee's Children on Trial (1946) is a
surprisingly gripping, very well shot, and relatively liberal study of
state-sanctioned solutions to juvenile delinquency. Philip Leacock's Life In Her
Hands (1951) delivers - with surprising effectiveness - a documentary on nurses'
training in the form of a somewhat noirish melodrama. The same director's Out of
True (1951) is a very flawed but nonetheless brave and interesting attempt to
improve viewers' understanding of mental illness.
A significant proportion of the postwar productions reflect Britain's
evolving relationship with its colonies. 1949's Daybreak in Udi even won an Oscar
for best documentary. This skilful drama-documentary's representation of Nigeria
would now be considered deeply politically incorrect (though director Terry
Bishop and producer Max Anderson were two of the most committed left-wingers in
the film industry). Caribbean (1951) was a blander, but more likeable
impressionistic travelogue of the West Indies.
Other work focussed on the postwar era's own 'home front', with many films
like From The Ground Up (1950) capturing the progress of reconstruction or
promoting new public services. The Unit's films of the time also presage the
documentary industry's own future development. For instance, in 1947 Crown
produced the first six issues of Mining Review for the recently created National
Coal Board, before the series was outsourced to the independent unit Data.
Talented (though mostly overlooked) new filmmakers also emerged in Crown's later
output. Margaret Thomson made some of her best films at this time. Cyril Frankel, later a feature film director, made several issues of the COI's
This Is Britain series as well as one-off documentaries.
The Conservative Government's decision to close the Crown Film Unit in 1952
attracted its share of controversy. It was opposed by the Labour Party, and was
the subject of a letter-writing campaign by some of the film industry's 'great
and the good'. But it isn't difficult to understand the political reasoning:
that in a time of austerity a directly government-funded film unit was an
expensive luxury. Independent companies could just as easily take on the COI's
commissions (it has been argued that the Unit was deliberately left idle to
justify its closure). Many critics and filmmakers would, for years to come,
blame this decision for Britain's failure to develop an artistically respectable
tradition of public filmmaking, and would use Crown's demise to mark the death
of Britain's hitherto vibrant documentary culture. In fact, documentary did not
die in 1952: the documentary films of this and later decades are of far greater
interest than they have generally been given credit for. But it is certainly
true that the closure of the Unit brought an important phase in film history -
stretching back to 1929 and the Empire Marketing Board's first dabblings in film
production - to an end.