During World War Two, The Ministry of Information frequently reached out to a female audience and allowed more women to direct their short information films. One of these women was the pioneering documentarian, Ruby Grierson.
Grierson was born in 1904, graduated from Glasgow University then threw herself into the film world. Starting off training and working as a teacher she veered off that course to follow her brother John Grierson who was the Leader of the British Documentary Film Movement. Her sister Marion was also part of the movement and made two films including “Around the Village Green” and “Prairie Winter”. Ruby Grierson started out on the film by working on Empire’s Marketing Board and the General Post Office Film Unit.
In 1935 (just a year after sound equipment was introduced into documentaries) Grierson conducted a series of interviews that were used in “Housing Problems”. This documentary directed by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey left Grierson un-credited. However, she gained a name for herself among her fellow crew members for her ability to put working class female interviewees at ease. This is something Grierson would do again and again throughout her career.
Just one year later Grierson would make her solo directorial debut with “London Wakes Up” for Strand Film that was put in a series of other documentaries about London life. The other films in the series criticised for their treatment of their subjects, however, Grierson’s warm touch was singled out and well praised.
Her producer at Strand, Paul Rotha became a dear friend of hers and she worked with him twice after London Wakes Up. These two films were 1936’s “Today and Tomorrow” and 1937’s “Today we Live”. These two films both focused on the National Council of Social Service, an organisation that brought voluntary services and the government together.
After spending her first four films looking at social issues Grierson made two animal documentaries for Strand’s Zoological collection. Both films were made in 1938 and were titled “Animal Kingdom-The Zoo and You” and “Animals on Guard”.
After Strand Grierson would join the Realist Film Unit in 1939. This would produce her least successful work “Cargo for Ardrossan”. This short film was about the West Coast of Scotland the oil industry and highlighting West Scotland’s need for oil. Whilst the film was the least successful of Grierson’s work it was still applauded for being unpretentious and being non-sentimental.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, many documentarians began making films for the War effort. Grierson was no exception. On the 8th of January 1940 rationing in the UK began on certain foods and then more and more foods became rationed. This meant the Ministry of Food required short films about this to be shown in Cinemas. Grierson made four of these propaganda films in 1940. The four were “Choose Cheese”, “Green Food for Health” “Six Foods for Fitness” and “What’s for Dinner”. Grierson used comedy to make these boring subjects more interesting.
In 1940 Grierson made her most famous film and her last with “They Also Serve”. “They Also Serve” was a docudrama about the role of everyday women’s work in wartime. A message that was needed with all the men working hard they needed films showing women working hard too. Grierson’s film followed a housewife doing everyday tasks and being happy at her lot in life. The housewife does a lot of every day seemingly boring tasks in the ten minute run time all with a smile on her face, including cooking, tending her daughter and rubbing her husbands back. It shows generosity and happiness and the general “Keep Calm” behaviour the Ministry of Information wanted people to have. The film was well loved.
In 1940 riding on “They Also Serve’s “success Grierson went on a boat to Canada in order to make a documentary on the evacuation of British children there. Unfortunately, the boat was torpedoed and Grierson was killed. A horrible and untimely death for a great talent.
Unfortunately, not much of her has survived however you can still find some of her work on the BFI archive and a couple of other has been uploaded to YouTube. In these films, you can see Grierson’s straightforward yet caring approach to life and enthusiasm for documentary filmmaking.