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Wright, Basil (1907-1987)

Producer, Director, Writer

Main image of Wright, Basil (1907-1987)

The humanitarian poet of the British documentary movement, Basil Charles Wright was born into a wealthy liberal family in Sutton, Surrey, on 12 June 1907. After attending Sherborne School he studied classics and economics at Cambridge University. Intending to become a creative writer, he fell under the spell of Europe's advanced cinema and began to make amateur experimental films with his own camera. In London his interest in the aesthetics of film-making was fed by screenings at the Film Society.

Impressed with one of Wright's efforts, John Grierson hired him in November 1929 as the first recruit at the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit; they remained lifelong associates. Initially Wright edited existing footage to fit EMB purposes, most elaborately in Conquest (1930), designed to show industrial technology's role in the development of North America. Russian montage habits influenced the cutting, though better indications of Wright's mature work appeared in films made from his own material: The Country Comes to Town (1931), a hymn to food manufacture in the countryside, and O'er Hill and Dale (1931), documenting the lambing season on the Cheviot hills. In The Long View, his history of cinema, Wright used as an epigraph Grierson's phrase 'All things are beautiful if you have got them in the right order', and these modest films - observant, precise yet lyrical - launched Wright's own search for the most perfect order, the most beautiful things.

In 1933, the year when the EMB film-makers metamorphosed into the GPO Film Unit, Grierson sent Wright to the West Indies and Ceylon to shoot material for packaging into promotional one-reelers. In Windmill in Barbados (1933) especially, evocative photography blended happily with fluid editing and authentic sounds, though the aesthetic triumph masked Wright's struggle, here and elsewhere, to puncture the official line by criticising colonial exploitation. The trip to Ceylon, with John Taylor as assistant, duly generated its own one-reelers, but the principal outcome was The Song of Ceylon (1934), Wright's most acclaimed and personal film: a four-reel symphony of images and sounds, forged from the director's newly-born passion for the Orient and the Buddhist religion. The four sections evoke Sinhalese life and culture in images photographed and edited with immense finesse, shaped within a montage-driven circular structure inspired by the magic circle of the Buddhist mandala. The film is also notable for its complex soundtrack, recorded in close collaboration with the composer Walter Leigh, brilliantly juggling native and Westernised music, spoken commentary, and the shivers of reverberating gongs in unexpected, disjunctive combinations of sound and image.

If Wright had found 'the right order' in The Song of Ceylon, the order proved difficult to recapture in films with less exotic subject-matter. As his career developed, he became increasingly sucked into producing, never his favourite task, though he made vital contributions to major films, including Night Mail (d. Harry Watt, 1936) and A Diary For Timothy (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1946). In 1937 he formed the independent documentary unit Realist Films. The first year's crop included Wright's Children at School (1937), a three-reel report on state-supplied education in Britain, its facts and analysis enlivened by the director's sensitive eye and the camerawork of A. E. Jeakins, henceforth a regular collaborator. The Face of Scotland (1938), made for the Films of Scotland scheme, avoided pretty scenery-gazing for a poetic treatment of hardy lives and a challenging environment.

Writing, lecturing and administrative work kept him from directing during the Second World War. He produced official propaganda films through the Grierson-dominated Film Centre and, following earlier experiences with World Film News, helped found and edit Documentary News Letter, the movement's chief mouthpiece during the 1940s. After briefly serving as supervising producer at the Crown Film Unit, in 1946 Wright founded International Realist - a name in line with his strong conviction in cinema's power to spread understanding. Waters of Time (1951), his first major post-war film, made with Bill Launder for the Festival of Britain, looked no further than the Port of London; but its mastery of its topic was typical, along with the balance between lyric poetry and practical fact. World Without End (co-d. Paul Rotha, 1953), a survey of UNESCO's work in Thailand and Mexico, proved less visually appealing but better fitted the International Realist template. In his remaining output, Wright's love of Greek culture inspired Greece The Immortal Land (1958) and a shorter survey of Greek sculpture. The Stained Glass at Fairford (1956) surveyed a Gloucestershire church's medieval windows, while A Place for Gold (1960) celebrated the craft of its sponsors, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. All imparted their material crisply, sometimes poetically, though with little sign of the creative heat that had generated The Song of Ceylon - the masterpiece made when Wright the artist had not yet given way to Wright the public servant. In retirement, Wright gathered his experiences and knowledge into his personal history of the cinema, The Long View, published in 1974. He died in London on 14 October 1987.

Aitken, Ian (ed.), The Documentary Film Movement: an Anthology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998)
Beveridge, James, John Grierson: Film Master (New York: Macmillan, 1978)
Grierson, John, 'Close-Up: Basil Wright', Documentary News Letter v. 7, n. 63, March 1948, pp. 34-5
Low, Rachael, Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979)
Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)
Thomas, Sari, 'Basil Wright on Art, Anthropology and the Documentary', in Quarterly Review of Film Studies v. 4, n. 4, Autumn 1979, pp. 465-481
Wright, Basil, 'Filming in Ceylon', Cinema Quarterly (Summer 1934), p. 109

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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 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 Face of Scotland, The (1938)Face of Scotland, The (1938)

Documentary tracing Scotland's history and identity from Roman times

Thumbnail image of Fairy of the Phone, The (1936)Fairy of the Phone, The (1936)

Hugely entertaining GPO film offering advice on telephone manners

Thumbnail image of Glorious Sixth of June, The (1934)Glorious Sixth of June, The (1934)

A very silly cloak-and-dagger romp starring Humphrey Jennings (!)

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

Classic documentary record of British industry at its peak

Thumbnail image of Men of Africa (1940)Men of Africa (1940)

Documentary outlining the work of the Colonial Office in East Africa

Thumbnail image of Night Mail (1936)Night Mail (1936)

Classic documentary about the London to Glasgow postal train

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 Pett and Pott (1934)Pett and Pott (1934)

Cavalcanti-directed comedy made to advertise the telephone

Thumbnail image of Rainbow Dance (1936)Rainbow Dance (1936)

Vivid and energetic Len Lye animation made to advertise the Post Office

Thumbnail image of Smoke Menace, The (1937)Smoke Menace, The (1937)

Warns of the harm done to the atmosphere by burning coal

Thumbnail image of Song of Ceylon (1934)Song of Ceylon (1934)

Beautiful documentary about what is now Sri Lanka

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Key players in the EMB, GPO, Crown and beyond

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