Despite living in the shadow of her brother John, the founding figure of the
British documentary movement, and their tragically short-lived sister Ruby,
Marion Grierson herself had an intriguing career in documentary
filmmaking. Her style is notable for its inventive use of a sophisticated
array of techniques combined with an assured lightness of touch. Her films were
seen abroad more than in the UK, which perhaps explains why they are little
known today. They provide a varied record of British life, and were nearly all
made in the 1930s, at the height of the British documentary movement.
Marion was the youngest of the eight Grierson children, who grew up in a
mining village near Stirling. She moved to London to pursue a writing career
before travelling to Canada, where she worked as a reporter on a newspaper and
became editor of the women's page. After two years there, she decided to return
John Grierson was at this time living in Hampstead and editing his first
film, Drifters (1929). He showed Marion how to edit, using techniques much
influenced by Soviet montage films. Marion soon joined her brother at the Empire
Marketing Board (EMB) Film Unit. Her first job was to edit Canadian footage,
made for a film about a royal tour, into a variety of short films. Making use of
offcuts to generate multiple versions of films was common practice in the Unit
at the time.
Promotional films to attract tourists to the UK became the staple of her
career. She ran the film unit of the Travel and Industrial Development
Association (TIDA), which was attached to the EMB Film Unit. Initially, she did
some shooting herself, but soon moved on to producing and directing films, among
them Beside the Seaside (1935) and Around the Village Green (1937). At their
best, her films beautifully combine visual and sound techniques with wit and
The film units of TIDA and the EMB worked together on an informal
co-operative basis. The staff were freelancers who could turn their hand to
camerawork, editing and writing scripts. Working within tight budgets, the
filmmakers stayed with friends where possible when on location, and considered
it a matter of honour to be economic in their use of film: "If you didn't get it
right the second time you were pretty feeble," she recalled.
The closely-knit group of filmmakers discussed each other's works-in-progress
and lent each other footage. Grierson pointed out that "Night Mail, for example,
has pieces from everybody's films... I have two shots in it of Edinburgh".
In 1936 she returned to journalism in as editor of World Film News, a vehicle
for the documentary film movement and its ideals. Married to fellow
documentarist Donald Taylor, she left her post as editor shortly before their
first child was born, and subsequently all but withdrew from film work. In the
1940s, she returned to Glasgow, where she switched careers, working for the
Youth Advisory Service until her retirement.