Faces of Scotland Review
Faces of Scotland represents the first move into the Blu-ray market for specialist label Panamint Cinema. The immediate response - even before the sampling the disc itself - is that this is great news. Scottish-based and predominantly Scotland-focussed when it comes to their output, Panamint Cinema are very much operating within a niche. And yet it’s a niche undoubtedly deserving of recognition. Although their back catalogue contains the odd feature (notably John Grierson’s Drifters and John Eldridge’s unjustly forgotten Laxdale Hall), their discs primarily tend towards the documentary compilation and, moreover, those from the Scottish Screen Archives. The significance of this is that no-one else out there is releasing these films. Whilst the British Film Institute has done sterling work over the last few years in terms of issuing hundreds of documentary shorts onto disc, and with the requisite background information to place them in their respective contexts, even their contact with the SSA has been minimal. (To the best of my knowledge encompassing only a handful of titles on the recent Tales from the Shipyard set.) As such Panamint Cinema really are the one-stop shop for those wishing to sample Scotland’s contribution to the various British documentary movements on disc.
One of the most significant contributions was the setting up of the Films of Scotland Committee in 1938 with the intention of promoting the country both at home and abroad. The initial run of films was overseen by John Grierson, thus maintaining ties with both English filmmakers and English companies as well as Scottish ones. The likes of the Realist Film Unit and the Strand Film Company were involved, bringing with them directors such as Basil Wright and Donald Alexander - all of whom should be familiar to those who purchased the BFI’s GPO Film Unit collections or their massive Land of Promise set. However, the original Committee was to be short lived as the declaration of war in 1939 put a stop to production after just seven films. The timing was such, in fact, that the premiere of the last, Dundee, was interrupted midway as news of war broke out.
It wasn’t until 1954 that the second Films of Scotland Committee was set up, and this time it proved to be a much more Scottish affair. Indeed, this may very well be the reason why these later films (which totalled over a hundred individual titles and continued being produced into the early eighties) are much lesser known in the overall picture of British documentary. Grierson was connected with a few (providing the original treatments for Seawards the Great Ships and The Heart of Scotland, being the subject of I Remember, I Remember), but otherwise the names who populate the credits are largely unknown, and I would argue that this is primarily because they stayed within the Scottish film industry and thus didn’t make a great deal of contact with the other documentary movements happening at the time. There were exceptions, of course, as when Laurence Henson and Edward McConnell worked on Glasgow Belongs to Me for the British Transport Films Unit (the film is available on the BFI’s second BTF volume) or made a trio of films for the Children’s Film Foundation as many British documentary filmmakers did at the time. Otherwise, the names are mostly unfamiliar: Henry Cooper, David Welsh, Oscar Marzaroli, Martin Singleton. And those that are familiar remain known for subsequent work outside of the Committee’s production, as is the case with animator Donald Holwill (who would provide the various drawn sequences for David Hayman’s Silent Scream) or Bill Forsyth, who of course went on to Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero.
Yet whilst there is this seeming divide between the Films of Scotland Committee and documentary production elsewhere in the UK, the evidence of the films themselves suggests otherwise. For this particular Blu-ray release Panamint Cinema have selected nine titles, one from the first Committee and eight from the second, all of which could easily rub shoulders with those on the BFI’s major documentary packages without any discernible shift in tone or approach. Given that original remit of promoting Scotland this collection therefore contains travelogues, examples of industrial filmmaking, adverts for social change, and so on. The fact that the Central Office of Information (subject, to date, to five separate BFI releases) distributed many of these films only emphasises the connection, whilst the presence of Seawards the Great Ships on both this particular disc and the Tales from the Shipyard set practically cements it. The essential point I’m making is that Faces of Scotland’s titles are at least the equal of those so well received when issued by the BFI and, just as importantly, some of the filmmakers behind them deserve equal recognition too.
The collection opens with Seawards the Great Ships (1960) which is fitting for two reasons. Firstly, this was the film which earned Scotland its first Oscar and is therefore arguably the best known of the Films of Scotland Committee’s output. Secondly, thanks to its self-evident subject matter, it makes perfect sense as a means of showing off what high definition can do to these films. Seawards the Great Ships is predominantly a visual film, hardly surprising considering that American director Hilary Harris started out making experimental cinema and would later go on to photograph sequences from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. He approaches the grand scale of shipbuilding on the Clyde - or “superhuman tailoring” as Bryden Murdoch puts it on the voice-over - through the use of colour and suitable sense of the epic. The overall remit of the film is really quite simple as it follows the construction of a ship from it being dreamt up in “the chamber of a human brain” to its eventual launch. Yet Harris knows how to communicate this in almost purely visual means. His camera prowls around giant warehouses and test tanks or cranes upwards past an immense hull, continually emphasising just how big an operation this is. Combined with the wonderful sense of colour, and the added atmosphere of Iain Hamilton’s score and Murdoch’s narration, it really is hard not to be taken in. However, Harris never gets lost amongst this emphasis on size, weight and scale; he’s alert to the details too and herein lies Seawards the Great Ships’ charms. The most striking moment is when he decides that his film should take a lunch break along with the men he’s recording. Thus the sights and sounds of heavy machinery die down to the mere murmur of jokey banter, a little breather before it all starts up again.
The next inclusion continues in a similar vein. 1963’s The Big Mill was produced, as was Seawards, by Templar Films and again features Murdoch on voice-over duties. The subject this time is the production of sheet steel, though it too gets a very similar treatment by director Laurence Henson as the one Harris used for his film. The narrative emphasis is on science and manpower, whilst the visual emphasis is on scale. The Technicolor photography by Edward McConnell looks wonderful, really highlighting the greens, oranges and reds, whilst the camerawork is incredibly deft, at once a perfect match for the various stages of production (lengthy tracking shots that, surprisingly, call to mind Godard’s British Sounds) and the inherent abstract qualities in moulded and shaped steel. As with Seawards the Great Ships, The Big Mill is the industrial film as visual poem - and certainly worthy of comparison with those found on the BFI’s Shadows of Progress set, Paul Dickson’s Stone into Steel and Richard Cawston’s Shellarama (albeit without the latter’s recourse to Super Technirama).
As well as industrial filmmaking, the Films of Scotland Committee also produced a great deal of works centred around tourism. The next four films on the disc all provide slightly differing takes on the subject, even though each could be loosely grouped together under the title of travelogue. The first two, The Silver City and Pleasure Island released in 1957 and 1960 respectively, are arguably the most conventional. The former serves as a promo for Aberdeen, the latter for the Firth of Clyde, Rothesay and the Isle of Bute. In both cases you really understand - thanks to their high definition treatment - how affecting these promotional pieces could be on the big screen. The colours and the landscapes look wonderful - ultimately they really do sell their destinations. Yet there is more to these films than their visual properties; there’s also a great deal of charm too. In Pleasure Island’s instance this relies primarily on the narrator’s irreverence as he is continually interrupted in his descriptions by a striking pair of female legs. Of course, it dates the film immediately, but then is it not the case that a certain amount of nostalgia exists in most of these documentaries, whether it be for an industry now past its peak or a more guiltily entertaining strain such as Pleasure Island’s casual - though undoubtedly innocent - misogyny?
Such accusations could never be levelled at A Kind of Seeing (1967) as here we find the travelogue in the guise of experimental cinema. Subtitled The Colour of Scotland, this lovely little short by Edward McConnell is completely wordless and occupies its brief running time solely through the beautiful photography of Scotland’s nature and plant life. The big and the small are given equal attention - from mountains to heather - and once again it all looks terrific on Blu-ray. The single shot of a sunrise towards the end, one that suffices the screen in red, is really quite breathtaking.
The fourth of the travelogues comes from the original Films of Scotland Committee. Directed by Basil Wright (the man responsible for such classics of the documentary form as Song of Ceylon, Night Mail and Waters of Time) in 1938, The Face of Scotland is the only film in this collection to have been shot in black and white. John Grierson and John Laurie share the narration as the country’s various aspects - literature, engineering, religion, industry, the military - are documented with Wright’s usual skill. Indeed, the film shares the evocative nature of his best known and best loved works, and arguably there’s even a strain of Song of Ceylon’s ethnography in the manner in which it goes about its task. Yet this is also a reverent work, one of the remits of the original Committee being that Scotland should be seen as not a collection of popular stereotypes but something far richer. Mention should also be made of Wright’s collaborators, cameraman A.E. Jeakins and composer Walter Leigh, both of whom worked on a number of classic British documentaries, although Leigh’s career was sadly cut short when he was killed in action in Tobruk in 1942.
Interestingly, this remit to avoid national stereotyping seems to have diminished somewhat by the time of The Silver City. Here we tick off all the obvious elements, from Robert Burns to the Highland Games, with Aberdeen Angus cattle and golf in-between. Yet The Silver City is by no means a bad film, rather its lightness of touch works perfectly with the subject matter. The overall structure - taking in Aberdeen through the eyes of a young couple, a family and a Scandinavian sailor - isn’t too far removed from John Eldridge’s Waverley Steps (a film that was produced outside of the Films of Scotland Committee, but nonetheless remains one of the absolute gems of Scottish documentaries - it too can also be purchased from Panamint Cinema on DVD), yet director Henry Cooper has no interest in matching Eldridge’s artful approach. His film is a light hearted travelogue, slickly told and that’s all that matters.
As well as these various travelogues and industrial films, the Films of Scotland Committee also made a range of documentary portraits, represented on Faces of Scotland by Still Life With Honesty from 1970. Here the subject is Sir William Gillies, painter of Scottish landscapes and still lives. Directed by Martin Singleton and a young Bill Forsyth (who also serves as editor), the film is simple and unobtrusive. Gillies provides the voice-over, which takes us through his life and experiences intermittently peppered with shots of his paintings and old black and white photographs of the artist as a young man. Admittedly, Still Life With Honesty is too quiet a film to get overly excited about, but its presence here makes for a welcome respite. Of course, there’s also Forsyth’s name amongst the credits too, and the ability to sample some of his early work prior to his move into features is certainly a welcome one.
Handily Forsyth crops up again on one of Faces of Scotland’s final films too. He served as editor on Glasgow 1980, a look at the city’s redevelopment plans which sits nicely alongside 1959’s New Day, a glimpse at Glenrothes, the ’new town’ situated in the heart of Fife. It’s interesting to compare these two side by side as one shows of the results of massive urban redevelopment, whilst the other catches it during the development stages. (The title Glasgow 1980 refers to the target date for the project - the film was in fact produced in 1971.) On the one hand we have New Day effectively treating Glenrothes to more of that travelogue-style promotion. The new architecture, new health care centres, new colliery, etc. are given the breathless treatment. And yet some of that irreverence seen in The Silver City and Pleasure Island also comes through. The health care centres, for example, are “clean and attractive, just like the nurses” and there are further instances of this slightly cheeky nature. At one point the narrator even intones that “there is no more dangerous a pastime for a man than a woman shopping”. With that said New Day also knows when to be reverent if called upon; a visit from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sees a significant shift in tone as the soundtrack swells and the voice-over opts far more hushed tones. Conversely, Glasgow 1980 has to combine such promotion (it too features a royal visit, this time from the Queen Mother) with a great deal of information relating to the redevelopment plans. Thus scenes of Glasgow’s night life - scored to a catchy Hammond and horns combo - are contrasted with bridges under construction and the like, whilst the final shot is underscored with a “To be continued…” subtitle hinting at what is to come.
In sum, then, Faces of Scotland offers up an intriguing cross-section of the Films of Scotland Committee’s output during its two periods of existence. It documents social change, offers up a quiet portrait and combines the more immediate pleasures of strikingly visual examples of industrial filmmaking and the travelogues, of course. On this evidence alone, the Committee’s films easily deserve comparison with those various areas of documentary filmmaking released by the BFI over the past few years. Those who have been taken in by the British Transport Films’ nationwide promo pieces would do well to sample The Silver City, for example, or The Face of Scotland, whilst the likes of The Big Mill or Glasgow 1980 could have easily fitted in alongside those on the Shadows of Progress collection had their directors been more prominently known within the documentary form. And yet, as I’ve already stated, many of them do deserve better recognition and, more importantly, this recognition has already been placed on them somewhat by Panamint Cinema’s other DVD releases. A quick scan of their website reveals numerous other Films of Scotland Committee productions already on disc (this particular link should help those interested in more), so hopefully this particular Blu-ray can do two things: firstly, prompt those who sample it to investigate further into Panamint Cinema’s back catalogue; and secondly, prove successful enough to allow for further releases thus making the history of Scottish documentary filmmaking increasingly apparent. Indeed, their next Blu-ray, a release of the recent six-part BBC series Films of Scotland due later in the year, should similarly aid in this manner.
Each of the nine films present on Faces of Scotland has been restored by the Scottish Screen Archives and transferred in high definition. They have been presented in 1080p at 24fps with each of the titles maintaining their original aspect ratios and soundtracks. In all cases this means 1.33:1 and mono, the latter ably handled by a two-channel Dolby Digital mix. For the most part, the high definition rendering does wonders for the films, ably highlighting the visual pleasures of the likes of The Big Mill and Pleasure Island. The colours, in particular, really do pop allowing for a full understanding of how effective these promotional films could be. There are, understandably, still instances of unavoidable damage (intermittent tramlines on select titles, a slight underlying buzz on the soundtrack of The Face of Scotland - no doubt a by-product of its age), whilst it is also worth noting that some utilised stock footage resulting in occasional inconsistencies in the image, but neither to any distraction. The Silver City, meanwhile, has faded a little over time giving it a slightly pinkish tint, though again this was no doubt unavoidable. The bottom line is that the majority of these films - I would question only Still Life With Honesty from a visual standpoint given its softness - undoubtedly benefit from the upgrade to Blu-ray, a move that is all the more welcome given their niche status. From a purely technical standpoint the disc offers no major flaws to point out: contrast and clarity are excellent, the colours, as said, are stunning, and there’s a lovely level of fine grain dancing over the image. Note that there are no English subtitles, for the hard of hearing or otherwise.
As for extras, we find the welcome inclusion of a 24-page booklet, fully illustrated, containing notes on the two Films of Scotland Committees and a complete filmography for their 100-plus productions. This added context makes for a handy companion and also comes with a number of fascinating factual details. We learn, for example, that a Russian dubbed version of Seawards the Great Ships became one of the most popular British documentaries in the Soviet Union, whilst Scotland Dances (1957) met with similar success in Japan. There are also instances given of these films pairings on the big screen, as when The Big Mill supported Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Australia, whilst The Line of Skye (1973) garnered large audiences thanks to its screenings before The Sting. The only misgiving is that the massive filmography doesn’t note which titles are also available from Panamint Cinema. As such you’ll have to do your own work, but needless to say there are many other examples out there awaiting discovery.
'Faces of Scotland' has also been released onto standard definition DVD, albeit without the inclusion of 'New Day' and 'Glasgow 1980'.
Seawards the Great Ships (1960, d. Hilary Harris)
The Big Mill (1963, d. Laurence Henson)
The Silver City (1957, d. Henry Cooper)
Pleasure Island (1960, d. David Welsh)
A Kind of Seeing (1967, d. Edward McConnell)
The Face of Scotland (1938, d. Basil Wright)
Still Life With Honesty (1970, ds. Martin Singleton & Bill Forsyth)
New Day (1959, no director credit)
Glasgow 1980 (1971, d. Oscar Marzaroli)