TODAY marks the 50th anniversary of the death of John Grierson, Scotland’s hugely influential filmmaker.

He is widely renowned as the father of documentary film, not least because he coined the term “documentary” as long ago as 1926. Older readers may remember him as the presenter of the innovative Scottish Television programme This Wonderful World, which presented documentaries weekly, from 1957 to 1967.

He did not invent documentary films, but as a producer, director, scriptwriter, and presenter he both made films and championed the work of others – as well as training some of the best documentarians around.


JOHN Grierson was born the son of schoolmaster in Deanston, Perthshire on April 26, 1898. His father, Robert, became head teacher at Cambusbarron school in Stirlingshire, and the family moved there in 1900.

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His mother, Jane Anthony, was a school teacher from Ayrshire, and was a suffragette and early activist in the Labour Party. Grierson attended Stirling High School from 1908 and then won a bursary to attend Glasgow University. He matriculated in 1916, after a spell working in the munitions factory that had been the Argyll motor works in Alexandria in the Vale of Leven. Before starting his studies, Grierson joined the Royal Navy and served until 1919, mostly working as a telegraphist.

Winning several prizes as he progressed through Glasgow University, Grierson graduated with an MA in English and Moral Philosophy, before a Research Fellowship enabled him to live and work in the US, where he studied propaganda and wrote critical articles about cinema. It was in his 1926 New York Sun review of pioneering director Robert Flaherty’s film, Moana, that Grierson coined the word documentary.


HE explained: “We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself can be exploited in a new and vital art form.”

Grierson feared the “yellow press” tabloid journalism of the day was a threat to democracy. He wrote much later: “The basic force behind [documentary] was social and not aesthetic. It was a desire to make a drama out of the ordinary, to set against the prevailing drama of the extraordinary: a desire to bring the citizen’s eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what was happening under his nose.”

Heading back to Britain in 1927, Grierson began working for the Empire Film Board, a nakedly propagandist agency of the Government. For them he made his ground-breaking first film The Drifters in 1929. It enthralled audiences with its bleak portrayal of herring fishermen, and allowed Grierson to develop the Board into a powerhouse of young talents. Grierson never lost the left-wing political philosophy his parents inculcated in him. He once stated: “Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic: the drama is on your doorstep wherever the slums are; wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty.”


THE entire film unit of the Board moved en masse to the General Post Office, where he made Granton Trawler in 1934, and produced and narrated Night Mail, the legendary 1936 film which is the masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement which Grierson led.

Yet it was a film shot close to home in Scotland, which Grierson made some memorable footage for, that helped The Private Life of Gannets become the first wildlife film to win an Oscar in 1938.


HE was invited in 1938 to assess Canada’s film industry and wrote the report which saw the establishment of the National Film Commission, later the National Film Board of Canada. After the war, he served in many academic and administrative roles but still found time to write the script for Seawards The Great Ship, Scotland’s first Oscar winner.

This Wonderful World was powerful television at the time and was shown across Britain.

Grierson gave lectures on documentary film in several countries and was awarded the CBE in 1961. His archives were donated to Stirling University after his death, which was on February 19, 1972.


EVERY documentary filmmaker worth their salt acknowledges their debt to Grierson, but it was a genius from another genre who paid perhaps the finest tribute to him, in a dedicated programme produced for STV, made whilst the Scot was still alive.

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The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, was a friend and huge admirer of Grierson, and the legendary director admitted to being influenced by Grierson’s early work in particular.

Hitchcock said: “John, you and I have been called many things in our lives – I won’t go into what they have called me – but you they have dubbed educator, propagandist, lecturer and writer.

“The achievements of your life are on celluloid. Pictures of your inquiring mind are recorded for the benefit of the world. The creative talents of the industry are richer for the methods that you pioneered and the men that you trained. For myself I would prefer to think of you, quite simply, as a man of the cinema.”

Hitch said it all about a man we Scots should know more about. Exactly 50 years since his death, perhaps it is time for a new appreciation of his genius.