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Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)

Producer, Director, Executive

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

Less well remembered today than many of his peers, producer-director Sir Arthur Elton was at one time arguably the most prestigious figure in British documentary after John Grierson.

Commentators on Britain's 1930s Documentary Movement have sometimes observed that while one of its aims was to make films that spoke to, for or about Britain's working people, most of its practitioners were from relatively privileged backgrounds. Elton, though, was one of the few with genuinely blue blood coursing through his veins. The Eltons were a leading West Country family with roots traceable as far back as the Norman invasion, and Sir Arthur's title was inherited on the death of his father in 1951. Elton's ability to rise above the bitter professional and personal disputes that occasionally infected the documentary community is generally attributed to a genial personality and a collegial approach to film production. There is certainly plenty of evidence for the affection and respect in which he was held by contemporaries and later by younger film-makers. At the same time, it seems likely that the economic security and social confidence instilled in him by his background played its part in enabling him to enter and navigate the documentary film industry with apparent ease, more than once assuming a leadership role within it.

On joining the Empire Marketing Board's film unit (run by Grierson), the young Elton quickly established himself as a leading figure in the emerging Documentary Movement. His EMB films Shadow on the Mountain (1931), Upstream (1932) and Aero Engine (1934) exemplified some of the Movement's contrasting impulses: to hymn the continuity of rural life, and to celebrate the forces of technology and modernity. These films had a little of the lyricism of Elton's contemporary Basil Wright, but also a sharper analytical edge. As the decade progressed, and Elton went on to make films both for other state and for private sponsors, the lucid filmic explanation of general principles and their relationship to specific circumstances became his stylistic signature. Sometimes this was applied to social subjects suiting his liberal-reformist political sympathies. Famously he co-directed Housing Problems (1935) with Anstey, though this film should really be celebrated as the collective product of a unit rather than solely the work of its directors. Equally interesting from both a technical and social point of view is Elton's Ministry of Labour film Workers and Jobs (1935), which similarly incorporated unrehearsed speech into its soundtrack.

Elton's style was ultimately best suited to industrial, technological and scientific subjects. Before World War 2, he made a significant contribution to cementing the Shell Film Unit's reputation as the leading exponent of technical documentary. This was in his position as Shell's consultant producer, an arrangement that arose out of Elton's role at Film Centre. He had helped found and, following Grierson's departure, was in overall charge of this organisation, an advisory and promotional body for documentary film-makers. Elton inculcated into Shell's film personnel what he called his 'First Law of Industrial Sponsorship', namely that "The impact of a sponsored film upon its audience will be in inverse ratio to the number of times the sponsor insists on having his name mentioned".

Given the clear informative approach of his films, Elton (like Anstey) can be characterised as operating at the less iconoclastic end of the Documentary Movement spectrum, closer to the sensibility of documentarists outside the Movement. From this perspective, the decision of Jack Beddington (himself an alumnus of Shell), to place him in charge of production at the Ministry of Information's Films Division in 1940 was an astute one: Elton was ideally placed to reconcile wartime film-makers with diverse pre-war professional backgrounds.

From 1940 onwards, Elton's film work was almost always in a production rather than in a directorial capacity. Following the war, he returned to Shell for many years, producing work overseas as well as in the UK. He pursued alongside film-making his many outside interests, including industrial and transport history, and the restoration of his family manor Clevedon Court. In later years he shared Clevedon Court with his brother Ralph Elton (1914-68), also a documentary film-maker, variously at the GPO, Crown Film Unit, Shell and the National Coal Board. Reputedly, during Ralph's period working for the NCB in the 1960s, his half of Clevedon Court ran on coal central heating; while Sir Arthur, loyal to Shell, had oil central heating installed in his own half of the mansion. Not only a charming example of English eccentricity, this domestic arrangement is also a neat metaphor for Britain's post-war mixed economy - and for the documentary film industry in its pay.

Patrick Russell

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Selected credits

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 Housing Problems (1935)Housing Problems (1935)

Classic documentary about the problems of Britain's slums

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

Classic documentary record of British industry at its peak

Thumbnail image of John Atkins Saves Up (1934)John Atkins Saves Up (1934)

A romantic comedy about the work of the Post Office savings bank

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow is Theirs (1940)Tomorrow is Theirs (1940)

A look at children's secondary education in wartime conditions

Thumbnail image of Transfer of Skill (1940)Transfer of Skill (1940)

Elegant documentary examining British craftsmanship in wartime

Thumbnail image of Upstream (1932)Upstream (1932)

Classic early documentary about salmon fishing

Thumbnail image of Workers and Jobs (1935)Workers and Jobs (1935)

Public information film for the unemployed

Related collections

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

Related people and organisations

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

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Shell Film Unit (1934-)Shell Film Unit (1934-)

Film Unit