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Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)

Director, Producer, Editor

Main image of Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)

The standard histories of British documentary have been unkind to its auteurs. The accounts that stress John Grierson's derring-do or the civil service origins of the form reveal little of the wide range of the films themselves. Those that address the quality of filmmaking have focused on a very small subset of directors. Stuart Legg has suffered from the historiography more than most, often portrayed as Grierson's sidekick. His self-deprecation may have contributed to this; he said to Elizabeth Sussex that "I'd gone into … documentary, but I don't think I was ever very good at it really … I was interested in history. I was interested in international affairs". But if you get a chance to see the films, from his earliest productions it is clear that Legg's films have an extraordinary lyricism and fascination that demands that they become better known.

Legg came from solid middle-class stock - his father was a solicitor - and he was not alone in amongst the early documentarists in having a Cambridge degree, in his case in engineering. Whilst still completing his education, he made Varsity (1931) with the University's Film Society. This was followed by Cambridge (1932), produced with some involvement from British Instructional Films. After graduation, he worked for six months as an assistant to Walter Creighton at the commercial company Publicity Films. His first film after being taken on by Grierson was The New Generation (1932) for Chesterfield Education Authority, said to exemplify an attempt at "the Russian technique".

With The Coming of the Dial (1933) for the GPO Film Unit, Legg turned a technical subject (the introduction of electromechanical telephone exchanges) into a small Modernist masterpiece, lyrically conveying a world transformed by rationality and technology. BBC The Voice of Britain (1935) was one of the GPO Unit's prestige products, running to the best part of an hour and, at £7,500, the most costly to that point. Although most of the Unit was involved, Stuart Legg was the mastermind behind the overall structure, scenario and editing. Taking over from Paul Rotha at Strand Films from 1937, he began to make the transition to becoming a producer, taking responsibility for the animal films produced for Julian Huxley at London Zoo. In 1939 he went to Canada to work for Grierson on two films for the Department of Labour in Ottawa. He stayed on for the war after Grierson became the National Film Board's first film Commissioner, where Legg was particularly associated with the monthly series Canada Carries On and World in Action. These were both made from official and captured footage in March of Time style, with dominant commentary and continuous music. Notable examples were Churchill's Island (1941) and Hitler's Plan for Empire (1942).

Legg spent some time making films in New York after the war before returning to work as a producer for the Crown Film Unit between 1948 and 1950. For the first half of the 1950s, he concentrated more on writing film scripts, but he was soon invited by Arthur Elton at Film Centre to become involved in the documentaries that Shell were making on international issues. The films he produced, The Rival World and Unseen Enemies and even more Food - Or Famine?, which he also directed, mark a late efflorescence. The last of these exemplifies his strengths as producer and director. It is meticulously structured into sections that compellingly use international examples to show the role of science and technology in matching food supply to the growing world population.

Explicit evidence of how Legg thought of his technique is hard to find. Tom Daly, who went on to have a 45-year career at the NFBC, recalled how Legg taught him to edit in symphonic waves, and the importance of a strong opening and closing sections to individual films. Legg told Sussex that "I was never much good as a director, but I did love editing other people's material". In these two statements perhaps lies the root of the particular quality of his films; like the best of the British documentarists, his were editor's films, built on a Russian-inspired appreciation of the importance of their macroscopic and microscopic structure.

Tim Boon

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)

An impressionistic portrait of what was then a radio-only broadcaster

Thumbnail image of Cable Ship (1933)Cable Ship (1933)

How undersea telephone cables are detected and repaired

Thumbnail image of Children's Story (1938)Children's Story (1938)

A history of education in Scotland up to the late 1930s

Thumbnail image of Coming of the Dial, The (1933)Coming of the Dial, The (1933)

The introduction of the dial telephone system to Great Britain

Thumbnail image of Eastern Valley (1937)Eastern Valley (1937)

A social experiment in a South Wales mining valley

Thumbnail image of Food or Famine (1962)Food or Famine (1962)

Shell-sponsored film exploring food production and world population

Thumbnail image of From The Ground Up (1950)From The Ground Up (1950)

A report on Britain's progress in postwar rebuilding and modernisation

Thumbnail image of Pett and Pott (1934)Pett and Pott (1934)

Cavalcanti-directed comedy made to advertise the telephone

Thumbnail image of Plan for Coal (1953)Plan for Coal (1953)

The national plan for the reorganisation of the coal industry.

Thumbnail image of Today We Live (1937)Today We Live (1937)

Inspiring social documentary showing one way to aid poor communities

Thumbnail image of Wealth of a Nation (1938)Wealth of a Nation (1938)

Documentary championing Scotland's new industries

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Thumbnail image of Who's Who in the Documentary Film MovementWho's Who in the Documentary Film Movement

Key players in the EMB, GPO, Crown and beyond

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Thumbnail image of GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)

Film Unit