You appear to be using a browser that is no longer supported. You may find that you are unable to use all features on the site. We recommend upgrading or changing your browser, if possible.
Skip to main content
Search... Open this section

Grierson and the Documentary Movement


This Lesson Guide focuses on the work of John Grierson and his legacy in the Documentary movement.

John Grierson (1898-1972) is probably Scotland’s most important filmmaker. To see him as a little old man with thick glasses introducing some of his films for his 1968 retrospective film I Remember, I Remember (clip 1) (premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1968), it would be easy to think of him as just another establishment filmmaker trying to talk up his own importance. However, what Grierson says in the film is in fact quite modest considering his true achievements.

One of the founding members of the British Documentary Movement, his work as a filmmaker and a campaigner had a critical influence over the development of the documentary as an art form, the development of other filmmakers, and the introduction of public service broadcasting. During his career he not only wrote, directed and produced a number of landmark films including 'Drifters' (1931) (see I Remember, I Remember (clip 2)) and Seawards the Great Ships (clip 1) (1960), he also was instrumental in setting up The Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, The General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, The Films of Scotland Committee and The Canadian Film Board.


Though today we take the idea and principles of documentary filmmaking for granted as one of the staples of British TV production, in 20s and 30s it was a huge innovation. Local Topical Films had documented true events since moving image cameras were first invented; however, for Grierson it was not enough that documentary film should simply document reality. He believed that documentary films needed to tell a story using the language and narrative techniques of cinema in order to "make the ordinary business of life look as splendid as possible" (see "I Remember, I Remember" (clip 2).

Though Grierson may come across in the film as a posh Scot, he was in fact the son of a church minister who preached in Deanston, near Doune, while his mother was a suffragette and ardent Labour Party activist. From an early age, both parents steeped their son in politics, humanism and other moral and religious philosophies. They were particularly keen to impress upon him the idea that education was essential to individual freedom and that hard and meaningful work was the way to prove oneself worthy in the sight of God.

In his twenties, Grierson travelled extensively in North America and became interested in the power of Hollywood and popular journalism to influence public opinion. He worked as a film critic for the New York Sun and on returning the UK he joined the Empire Marketing Board where he established the pioneering Empire Marketing Film Unit (1927-33).

In I Remember, I Remember (clip 1), the autobiographical film about his life and work, Grierson talks about how he got caught up with seeing things “the motion picture way”. He talks about seeing things “not head on anymore, but every which way and round about” and “making the cinema a great observer of the changing world.”

This was a radical idea both cinematically and politically and he talks of it as being one of the more important breakthroughs in modern communication and modern art nothing less. One of the first films to be called a documentary is 'Nanook of the North' (dir: Robert J. Flaherty, which can be viewed on YouTube) about the Inuit people (though there are earlier documentaries in this collection which have a clear narrative, such as Scottish Women's Hospitals from 1916), and Grierson’s talks about the importance of making a “big adventure of observing the world in action.” These early documentary films celebrate the daily triumphs of the working man and aim not only to show what people did but give us an idea of how it really felt to be in there shoes. Harnessing the popular power of the movies for this social end was a revolutionary idea in the hierarchical world of 1930s Britain where art and culture was still very much the province of the intellectual and social elite.

As a result of his experience of making his first film in 1929 'Drifters' about the Scottish herring industry (see I Remember, I Remember (clip 2)), Grierson managed to convince the Empire Marketing Board and its government funders to establish a permanent film and to make him the director. It was within the context of this State funded organization that the "documentary" as we know it today really got its start. He also managed to persuade the Post Office to set up the GPO Films Unit specifically to produce, purchase and distribute this type of film and so the British Documentary Film Movement was born.

Central to Grierson’s and the other early pioneers’ idea of documentary film was the idea that it should be “the creative treatment of actuality”. He advocated a poetic approach or an adventure in observation which he discusses in some detail I Remember, I Remember (clip 3).

In all of his early films, we see Grierson experimenting not only with the subject matter but also the layering of narrative through the use of image, camera movement, sound, music, narration and narrative. Notable early films to be found on the Scotland on Screen intranet resource include, clips from 'Drifters', 'Granton Trawler', 'Industrial Britain' I Remember, I Remember (clip 4), 'O'er Hill And Dale: Shepherd's Spring in the Cheviot Hills' and 'Up Stream: A Story of the Scottish Salmon Fisheries (see links at bottom of this page) where we see Grierson’s teams experimenting with the artistic use of location sound and camera angles and the selective use of point of view (‘through the eyes of a character’ shots) and reaction shots to put us in the action and to make us feel we are really there. In other films like 'Coalface' and 'Night Mail' (clips of which can be seen in I Remember, I Remember (clip 4) and I Remember, I Remember (clip 5) respectively) show John Grierson, W.H. Auden, the poet, and Benjamin Britten, the composer, experimenting even more with the possibilities of music and poetic narration to add philosophical and emotional depth to an already dense narrative – creating what some have called the first ‘modernist’ documentaries.

Grierson was a confirmed socialist and was even interrogated in Canada as a possible Communist spy during the Gouzenko Affair, when the a cipher clerk for the Soviet Embassy to Canada in Ottawa, Ontario defected on September 5, 1945 exposing Soviet espionage activities in the West creating a scandal known as the "Gouzenko Affair" which is often credited as a triggering event of the Cold War.

Apart from 'I Remember, I Remember' (1968), Grierson's final film in the Moving Image Archive collection is Health of a City (clip 1) (1965). Made to commemorate the centenary of the appointment of the first Medical Officer of health for Glasgow, it highlights the labour party controlled Glasgow Corporation work in housing, schools and hospitals. There is no formal screen credit to Director, but the Films of Scotland production file held in the Scottish Screen Archive refers to Derek Williams as director and creator of the original treatment and script. Grierson acted as unpaid associate producer and took a very active role in the final shape of the film. He had strong and critical views on what he held to be the grim and pessimistic portrayal of the city in the original cut, and proposed sweeping post production cuts and changes to the film render it much more optimistic and to give a more positive image of the city, changes which did not always sit well with Williams – and may well explain why he dropped his name from the credits. Despite (or perhaps because of) this struggle behind the scenes 'Health of a City' is a brilliant example of how documentary film uses the layers cinematic language to expand and enlarge on the subject of the film and the words used in the narration. Images, sounds and pictorial composition often work in parallel to the words, not to much illustrating the words as in inferior documentaries but lending added interest and meaning to draw the view through the narrative through a process of question and answer.

All of these films which can be linked to from the 'Related records' area of this page are worthy of detailed study and discussion from a Media Studies, Art and Design or strictly Moving Image Education perspective.


  • What was the first documentary?
  • What are the different types of documentary?
  • What different filming conventions do documentaries follow?
  • What are the different genres that underpin documentary narratives?


Media Studies/Computer Studies: Watch as many of the different films as you can and try to note the different visual, audio and musical techniques used to communicate with the audience. Make particular note of the way the filmmakers use diegetic and non-diegetic sound to enhance the feeling of being there. In terms of edits, try to find examples where the sound cut proceeds the image cut or where image leads narration and vice versa. Discuss the use of these different techniques and then apply them in your own editing and re-editing exercise.

Media Studies: Using the footage from these films create your own homage to Grierson. You may want to use your own narration to show the different use of shots cuts, camera movements and particularly telling compositions that Grierson's teams use to achieve his ambition "the creative treatment of actuality".

Lesson guide prepared by David Griffith, Lead Practitioner in Moving Image Education.

Updated August 2020