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Who's Who in the Documentary Film Movement

Key players in the EMB, GPO, Crown and beyond

In the 1930s and 40s, a unique collection of creative talents was assembled under the tutelage of Scottish-born producer John Grierson. Broadly young, middle-class and left-leaning, they shared an interest in documentary film (a term coined by Grierson) as a means of putting ordinary British life on the screen and helping to improve social conditions.

Grierson established the first of a number of documentary film units at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), later moving to the General Post Office and ultimately (as the Crown Film Unit) to the Ministry of Information. From these units there emerged such classic films as Night Mail, Spare Time and Target for Tonight and such diverse talents as Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Len Lye.

Main image of Who's Who in the Documentary Film Movement
Thumbnail image of Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)

Key director at EMB and GPO who later headed British Transport Films

Thumbnail image of Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)

Benevolent sponsor of documentarists at Shell and the wartime Crown Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)

Inspirational Brazilian who was a vital creative force at GPO and Ealing Studios

Thumbnail image of Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)

Influential producer who bridged the gap between commercial film and documentary

Thumbnail image of Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)

Underrated but influential filmmaker and producer at EMB, MOI and Shell

Thumbnail image of Grierson, John (1898-1972)Grierson, John (1898-1972)

Austere grandfather of the movement, who defined the term 'documentary'

Thumbnail image of Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)

Sister of John, whose own promising filmmaking career was tragically cut short

Thumbnail image of Jackson, Pat (1916-2011)Jackson, Pat (1916-2011)

Innovative young director of 'story documentaries' including the classic Western Approaches

Thumbnail image of Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)

Poet genius of the documentary movement, whose credits include Spare Time and Fires Were Started

Thumbnail image of Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)

Long-term associate of John Grierson who was an under-recognised but gifted filmmaker

Thumbnail image of Lye, Len (1901-1980)Lye, Len (1901-1980)

Dazzlingly talented animator and experimentalist, who had a surprising but fruitful relationship with the GPO

Thumbnail image of Tallents, Sir Stephen (1884-1958)Tallents, Sir Stephen (1884-1958)

Media entrepreneur who was instrumental in the establishing of the movement at EMB and the GPO

Thumbnail image of Watt, Harry (1906-1987)Watt, Harry (1906-1987)

Gifted GPO mainstay who directed Night Mail and carried documentary values to Ealing

Thumbnail image of Wright, Basil (1907-1987)Wright, Basil (1907-1987)

Thoughtful and poetic filmmaker and (reluctant) producer, whose masterpiece was The Song of Ceylon