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Crown Film Unit

Film Unit

Main image of Crown Film Unit

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.

Patrick Russell

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Children of the Ruins (1948)Children of the Ruins (1948)

Documentary about postwar child poverty, made to promote UNESCO

Thumbnail image of Christmas Under Fire (1941)Christmas Under Fire (1941)

The British defy the Blitz to celebrate Christmas as cheerfully as possible

Thumbnail image of Close Quarters (1943)Close Quarters (1943)

Gripping WWII propaganda film, re-enacted by a real submarine crew

Thumbnail image of Defeated People, A (1946)Defeated People, A (1946)

Humphrey Jennings documentary about the fate of postwar Germany

Thumbnail image of Diary For Timothy, A (1946)Diary For Timothy, A (1946)

Classic documentary pondering the future of a baby born in 1944

Thumbnail image of Ferry Pilot (1941)Ferry Pilot (1941)

World War II documentary about the Air Transport Auxiliary

Thumbnail image of Fires Were Started (1943)Fires Were Started (1943)

Classic wartime documentary directed by Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of Life In Her Hands (1951)Life In Her Hands (1951)

Fascinating dramatised documentary describing a new career in nursing

Thumbnail image of Listen to Britain (1942)Listen to Britain (1942)

Humphrey Jennings captures the sounds of wartime Britain

Thumbnail image of Men of the Lightship (1940)Men of the Lightship (1940)

Documentary-drama about the sinking of the East Dudgeon lightship

Thumbnail image of People at No. 19, The (1949)People at No. 19, The (1949)

Fascinating public information film about the perils of syphilis

Thumbnail image of Shown by Request (1947)Shown by Request (1947)

Lyrical doc describing the work of the Central Film Library

Thumbnail image of Silent Village, The (1943)Silent Village, The (1943)

Powerful drama-doc reenacting a Czech village under Nazi occupation

Thumbnail image of Target for Tonight (1941)Target for Tonight (1941)

Classic war documentary following a bomber crew's mission over Germany

Thumbnail image of Trained to Serve (1948)Trained to Serve (1948)

Documentary about the training of Germany's postwar police

Thumbnail image of Way From Germany, The (1946)Way From Germany, The (1946)

Documentary about problems posed by 18 million liberated POWs

Thumbnail image of Western Approaches (1944)Western Approaches (1944)

Wartime propaganda at its best, and a rare Technicolor treat for its day

Thumbnail image of Words for Battle (1941)Words for Battle (1941)

A poetic call to arms from Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of Worth the Risk? (1948)Worth the Risk? (1948)

Road safety film about how 'accidents always happen to other people'

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Thumbnail image of Mining Review (1947-83)Mining Review (1947-83)

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