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Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-1933)

Film Unit

Main image of Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-1933)

The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) was a bizarrely innovative anomaly of interwar Britain. Directed by Sir Stephen Tallents, its brief existence encompassed everything from documentary cinema to yoga demonstrations. Established to bring 'the Empire alive', the EMB sought to tie new commercial, scientific and cultural bonds between the UK and its increasingly independent-minded colonies.

However, the EMB first came to wider public notice through its controversial use of modernist posters. These utilised leading industrial artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Frank Newbould (both of whom had been 'discovered' at the Empire Expo at Wembley in 1924), as well as established fine artists such as the Nash brothers.

More significantly, the intervention of Rudyard Kipling, and the appointment of the ambitious Chicago social sciences scholar, John Grierson, led the EMB to create a film production unit in 1928. German health films such as Influenza, and the popular British wildlife series, Secrets of Nature (1922-33), influenced the EMB's socially-useful output.

As with the Soviet filmmakers that Grierson admired (bemused civil servants were treated to afternoon screenings of pioneering work by Eisenstein and Pudovkin), poor equipment and material hardship shaped the EMBs abrupt filmmaking style. The scarcity of resources meant that early EMB shorts were simply re-edits of existing footage that had been donated by the Canadian government, while dull commissions would be brightened by gentle experimentation. Traces of Dovzhenko sneaked into Arthur Elton's first film, Shadow on the Mountain (1931), an otherwise dry report on an attempt to breed a grazing grass persistent enough to brave the Black Mountains.

However, the depression transformed the EMB into a harder-edged governmental advertising agency. In order to widen the appeal of 'home goods', the celebrity aviator Amy Johnson was paid to swoop over London as part of a massive multi-media campaign to encourage people to 'Buy British' and spend the country out of the slump. Even Grierson's Drifters (1929) - a film now popularly credited with inventing the documentary tradition and determining the 'realist' mode of representation that would dominate British cinema - has its roots in the British Trawlers Federation 'Eat More Fish!' campaign. But the EMB's efforts were in vain. By 1933, tariffs were considered the only solution to the UK's economic ills and the EMB was disbanded.

Ironically, after Tallents' innovative-but-marginal organisation was scrapped its influence grew substantially. By shooting a group of exceptional modernist architects, artists, filmmakers and writers into the orbit of far-sighted patrons such as Jack Beddington at Shell and Sir Francis Goodenough of the Gas, Light and Coke Company, the EMB laid the basis of a new cultural infrastructure. Institutions such as the GPO, London Transport, Imperial Airways, the BBC and the second Ministry of Information increasingly came to rely on former EMB staff, collaborators and promotional ideas.

The bulk of the EMB's film output is now ignored, with only atypical feature-length documentaries like Drifters, Robert Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1931) and Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon (1934; completed at the GPO) retaining significant critical interest. However, the film unit functioned best as an experimental film school. It offered a sympathetic home to wayward talents like Flaherty and provided filmmakers like Wright, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt with a unique apprenticeship. The creative hothouse of the EMB film unit also spawned controversial film histories, book-length investigations into film-financing, intellectual film journals and created a sizeable non-theatrical audience for factual film.

If films like Fires Were Started (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1943) and Target For Tonight (d. Watt, 1941) established the postwar primacy of British documentary, their achievement was only made possible by the faltering first steps of the EMB.

Scott Anthony

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Country Comes to Town, The (1933)Country Comes to Town, The (1933)

A look at new developments in farming and food distribution

Thumbnail image of Drifters (1929)Drifters (1929)

Pioneering documentary about Scottish fishermen

Thumbnail image of Experiment on the Welsh Hills, An (1932)Experiment on the Welsh Hills, An (1932)

Documentary exploring ways to ease the hardship of sheep farmers

Thumbnail image of Industrial Britain (1931)Industrial Britain (1931)

Classic documentary record of British industry at its peak

Thumbnail image of O'er Hill and Dale (1932)O'er Hill and Dale (1932)

Documentary about a Scottish shepherd during the lambing season

Thumbnail image of Spring on the Farm (1933)Spring on the Farm (1933)

Educational film for children focusing on new life in the farmyard

Thumbnail image of Upstream (1932)Upstream (1932)

Classic early documentary about salmon fishing

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