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Spice, Evelyn (1904-1990)

Director, Producer

Main image of Spice, Evelyn (1904-1990)

Becoming a filmmaker with the British Documentary Movement was likely the furthest idea from Evelyn Spice's mind when she decided to pursue a career in journalism in the mid-1920s. Born in 1904 in the farming community of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, she had begun her working life as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the heart of the Canadian prairies. But her spirit of adventure and desire to take on a role in the wider world soon led her to enrol in the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, one of the first of its kind in the world, where she found herself the only woman in the programme. Upon completion of her Bachelor of Journalism degree in 1929, however, employment opportunities for women were few, and she was relegated to the role of social reporter at the Regina Leader-Post, the daily newspaper of Saskatchewan's capital city.

But it was in Regina that one of the most fortuitous incidents of her life occurred when she met English journalist and later-to-be filmmaker, Marion Grierson, the younger sister of John Grierson. Following her encouragement, Spice travelled to London in 1931, where she soon found work at the Empire Marketing Board with the group of documentary filmmakers surrounding John Grierson.

At first, Spice's tasks were menial, working as Grierson's secretary, operating the telephone, typing and filing, rather lowly tasks for a woman with a degree in journalism. But the intellectual milieu in which she found herself was exhilarating. As well as her colleagues in the documentary movement, such as Basil Wright, Paul Rotha, Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey, her circle included such artists and intellectuals as W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and Aldous and Julian Huxley. An avid reader of Marx and Lenin, she developed a keen interest in the Soviet films she had seen in London and it was here the foundation for her lifelong dedication to making art with a social purpose was laid.

Spice's first opportunity to direct came with a series on rural life, including the delightful Spring on the Farm (1933), featuring an inventive musical soundtrack and narrated, uniquely, by a young child's voice. Prior to this, she had experimented with editing silent 35mm footage from out-takes of "empire footage", as she called it, from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The material was turned into a series of silent films for distribution to schools.

After the group's move to the GPO, Spice found herself caught up in a whirlwind of learning and technical experimentation. Here she directed the film for which she is perhaps best known, Weather Forecast (1934), winning praise for the simple, straightforward camera style and complex, layered soundtrack. In 1934, with Scottish filmmaker, Jenny Brown, Spice travelled back to Canada to make Prairie Winter, a dramatized film about daily life in the Canadian north. Released in 1935, the film was intended to debunk the romanticized notions of prairie life depicted by the railway and steamship lines to lure prospective immigrants. Prairie Winter was one of the first Canadian films to be exhibited theatrically in England.

In 1935, Spice resumed her filmmaking career in London, going on to make such films as Calendar of the Year (1936), about the importance of telecommunications to everyday life; Around the Village Green (1937) co-directed with Marion Grierson, a prescient look at rural depopulation; A Job in a Million (1937), the dramatized story of a young postal worker; and Behind the Scenes (1938), a playful and affectionate look at London Zoo and the people and animals who make up its daily life. Other films include Sheltered Waters (1934), Sydney Eastbound (1938) and Birth of the Year (1938). All of the films contain signature portrayals of the daily lives of women and women's work, in contrast to those of her male colleagues in the British Documentary Movement.

By a remarkable coincidence, in London Spice had met another Canadian filmmaker, Lawrence Cherry, who also hailed from Saskatchewan and who had travelled to England to further develop his filmmaking craft. Romance soon sparked between them and in 1937 they were married. They continued living and working in London until the eruption of war in 1939, when they made the difficult decision to return to Canada.

Back in Saskatchewan, they began their new working partnership, Spice as director (now working under her married name, Evelyn Cherry), and Cherry as cameraman. The two films they made there, By Their Own Strength and New Horizons, released in 1940, portray the history and growth of political protest movements on the prairies. Audiences, still suffering the effects of the Depression, flocked to screenings in rural schoolhouses and churches, desperate for solutions to their economic misery.

In 1939, John Grierson had arrived in Ottawa to establish the National Film Board of Canada and, in 1942, Spice and Cherry joined in its formation, seizing the opportunity to participate in the creation of a national identity through film, the mandate of the NFB. It was here that she took on a pioneering role as the first woman appointed head of an NFB studio. The films she made at the NFB numbered into the hundreds, dealing with such varied subjects as women's and children's issues, world hunger, environmental themes, community organizing and health issues.

But all this activity came to an abrupt halt in the 1950s. The Cold War had swept into Canada and the NFB was seen as a leftist hotbed. Because of her political leanings, Spice was forced to leave her job at the NFB. In 1958, at the request of the socialist premier of the province, Spice and Cherry returned to Saskatchewan where they set up a provincial documentary film unit, establishing their own independent film company, Cherry Films, in 1961. After Cherry's death in 1966, Spice's son, Bill Cherry, joined her in the company. In 1985, Spice became ill, effectively retiring from her filmmaking career. She died in hospital in Campbell River, British Columbia, in 1990.

Barbara Evans

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Around the Village Green (1937)Around the Village Green (1937)

Documentary looking at changing ways of life in rural Essex

Thumbnail image of Calendar of the Year (1936)Calendar of the Year (1936)

A year in the life of Britain, as assisted by various GPO services

Thumbnail image of Job in a Million, A (1937)Job in a Million, A (1937)

GPO recruitment film about the training of a new messenger boy

Thumbnail image of Spring on the Farm (1933)Spring on the Farm (1933)

Educational film for children focusing on new life in the farmyard

Thumbnail image of Weather Forecast (1934)Weather Forecast (1934)

Documentary about the science and technology of weather forecasting

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers 1930-1960Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers 1930-1960

How women made their mark in a male-dominated profession

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Grierson, Marion (1907-1998)Grierson, Marion (1907-1998)

Director, Producer

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

Film Unit