Two examples of Panamint Cinema’s impressive Scottish documentary output.
Last month I wrote about Faces of Scotland, Panamint Cinema’s first foray into the Blu-ray market. The full review can be found here, but to save clicking between that particular piece and this one a little of the background will be discussed again here. Faces of Scotland collected nine examples of the two Films of Scotland Committees, rendering them in quite lovely high definition. The Committees were set up as a means of promoting Scotland – from various perspectives, whether it be industrial, for example, or touristic – through the documentary format. The first was set up in 1938 but ceased production the following year owing to the outbreak of war, resulting in only seven films. The second was active from 1954 until 1982 and, understandably, turned out to be far more prolific. Examples of both featured in Faces of Scotland and, indeed, have appeared on a number of Panamint Cinema’s releases over the years. In some cases they have rubbed shoulders with non-Committee films (Scotland Calling, for example, mixes up the majority of the first Committee’s output with various contemporaneous amateur movies), in others a particular key title is the main event (such as Hilary Harris’ Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships), but predominantly they come in themed collections. As you can see from the listing on Panamint’s website (click here) the likes of Aberdeen and Dundee have each had their own compilations and, in the case of the two discs under review here, so too have areas of Scottish industry.
Weave Me a Rainbow focuses its attentions on Scotland’s textile industries, containing five films (three of which were produced under the remit of the second Films of Scotland Committee), whilst Young in Heart similarly offers up five titles (all from the second Committee), albeit with a broader overview of various industrial practices. Here we look at agriculture, nuclear energy, oil and steel, the production of automobiles and hydroelectricity. Of course, Weave Me a Rainbow’s inclusions are very specifically Scottish – especially with their focus on the like of longstanding companies such as James Templeton & Co, one of the leading carpet manufacturers for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the world famous Michael Nairn & Co Ltd. And yet watching the various films over these two discs it’s hard not to think of many of those films included in the BFI’s Shadows of Progress boxed-set from last year (reviewed here). Here we have industrial filmmaking, often sponsored by the firms in question themselves and with an overtly promotional remit. Occasionally we find hints of decline (as when The Clyde Estuary from 1975 – included on the Young in Heart disc – acknowledges that many of the once thriving dockland berths are now empty), but for the large part these films were commissioned solely to extol the virtues of their given sponsors and subject matters. Fine Floors, for example, which was made for Michael Nairn & Co Ltd, was produced by I.C.E. Films, a company whose output was exclusively industrial, their clients ranging from Esso and the Electricity Council to Sutton Seeds.
However, as Shadows of Progress has shown, the very fact that these films were made, predominantly, as promotional pieces needn’t prevent them from demonstrating their own qualities or, indeed, historical significance. There’s a lot of crossover between Weave Me a Rainbow and Young in Heart and the BFI set. It’s there, for instance, in the similar approach of the film Young in Heart and Anthony Simmons’ From First to Last, each detailing the various production stages of the Hillman Imp and various Ford automobiles, respectively, from start to finish. It’s also there in Rivers at Work (found on Weave Me a Rainbow) which was produced by Greenpark, one of the key documentary makers of the post-war years, who were responsible for There Was a Door and The Shadow of Progress on the BFI set too, not to mention the likes of the National Coal Board’s Nines Was Standing (present on the first NCB volume) or John Eldridge’s Waverley Steps, one of the highpoints of British documentary filmmaking from whichever era. The essential point that I’m making is that those who have enjoyed making their way through Shadows of Progress, or for that matter any number of the BFI’s documentary sets, would do well to investigate some of Panamint Cinema’s back catalogue.
To return to the historical aspects of these various assembled films, such elements can be found throughout. The newsreel Royal Occasion June 22nd 1955, which opens the Weave Me a Rainbow, is perhaps most blatant in its documenting of a significant event – in this case HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH Duke of Edinburgh paying a visit to James Templeton & Co in Glasgow – and there’s another royal visit in Young in Heart too, again from the Duke of Edinburgh. Yet the mixture is that of both comparatively major and minor historical records. Central Scotland from 1962, for example, which appears on the Young in Heart set, offers up a portrait of the Scottish economy at that particular moment in time. From Glasgow Green to Bendigo, on the other hand, encapsulates the workings of the James Templeton & Co factory when it was at its peak (the film was produced in 1962; by 1979 the company was reportedly employing around 3000 people). Particularly welcome is the manner in which From Glasgow Green to Bendigo is so thorough in its documentation, taking the audience through the firm’s history and its current practices, talking to designers, noting all the processes through which its carpets go (as the voice-over intones: “half an art, half an industry”), and even notes that some of their work is situated in the White House.
Mention of the White House is significant inasmuch as many of these films have an international flavour and are prone to a bit of globe-trotting. Whilst they may be largely forgotten in the broader view of British cinema, a number of these documentaries clearly had big aspirations. In Young in Heart, for example, we move from Scotland to France, Germany, Italy, the African bush and even the Arctic Circle. Fine Floors, meanwhile, happily skips between Slough, Paris and Montreal. Of course, such a blend of locales naturally lends a strong visual element, one that prevails throughout. Whilst the titles on Weave Me a Rainbow may understandably be less ‘tough’ than those found in Young in Heart’s looks at hydroelectricity and so on, they undoubtedly provide a rich combination of colours and textures. The best comparison between the two can be found in the film Weave Me a Rainbow and Young in Heart’s The Invergordon Smelter. The latter at one point provides a “puny” man against a giant silo – the emphasis being on scale, one that’s heightened by the attendant prog rock soundtrack – whereas the former offers the cheekier delights of a group of air hostesses undressing their various woollen garments. Both very different, yet both providing their own visual delights. However, perhaps the clearest indication of the cinematic nature of these films comes from the fact that Island of the Big Cloth was shot in the Techniscope widescreen format. As such it is clearly going for the overtly pictorial: every shot highlights giant scope or great expanses and ensures that plenty is going on to keep the eye busy.
Such cinematic qualities hopefully put paid to the idea the Films of Scotland Committee had solely dry connotations. Of course, in many cases they are required to deliver educational voice-overs, yet even these, when in the hands of the likes of John Grierson (Rivers at Work), Stuart Legg (From Glasgow Green to Bendigo) and Bryden Murdoch (Young in Heart), are a pleasure to listen to. Furthermore, the fact that we are dealing with quality filmmaking here also prompts an interest, therefore, in those responsible. As I noted in my review of Faces of Scotland, the Committee films were made predominantly by Scottish filmmakers who had little contact with the larger British documentary scene and are therefore considerably less well known. As this paragraph has already mentioned there was input from the likes of key figures such as Grierson and Legg, yet the more common names were the likes of Robert Irvine, Edward McConnell, Oscar Marzaroli, R.A. Riddell-Black, Laurence Henson and a pre-fame Bill Forsyth – all of whom worked on some of these two discs’ shorts in one capacity or another. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Panamint Cinema’s Films of Scotland releases, beyond the immediate interest prompted by their historical significance or subject matter, is the fact that they are shedding a light on a number of filmmakers who have been pretty much forgotten (or, in the case of Forsyth, a particular stage in their career). Watching these discs (and others from Panamint) it’s great to be able to identify McConnell, for example, are being a director and cinematographer with a superb visual sense or to note Forsyth’s early skills as an editor. Seeing as the BFI’s Shadows of Progress DVD set and accompanying book have recently helped rehabilitate the standing of some important, but previously forgotten, documentary makers, let’s hope the Films of Scotland Committee releases can do likewise.
Weave Me a Rainbow and Young in Heart are available separately. In both cases their selected films occupy a single disc and have clearly been derived from prints. As such damage is prevalent in a number of cases, whether it be the faded colours of From Glasgow Green to Bendigo or dancing tramline during Rivers at Work’s opening scenes. With that said, it’s unlikely that Panamint Cinema could do any better with the materials at hand. What these films really require is the preservation work as seen in those Faces of Scotland films (or those which appeared on the BFI’s Tales from the Shipyard set). Of course, this also explains why standard definition is the obvious choice here as opposed to Blu-ray. However, once you adjust to the less than perfect nature of some of the prints and the slight buzz on some of the soundtracks the qualities of the films do still come through – and there appear to be few technical flaws in the mastering of the discs themselves. Moreover, the Techniscope framing of Island of the Big Cloth has been anamorphically enhanced. As is the case with all of Panamint’s discs there are no optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing. As for extras, Weave Me a Rainbow comes with a booklet detailing both Films of Scotland Committees and a complete filmography (as per the one found in the Faces of Scotland Blu-ray).
Weave Me a Rainbow:
Royal Occasion June 22nd 1955 (1955)
From Glasgow Green to Bendigo (1961)
Weave Me a Rainbow (1961)
Fine Floors (1963)
Island of the Big Cloth (1971)
Young in Heart:
Rivers at Work (1958)
Central Scotland (1962)
Young in Heart (1963)
The Invergordon Smelter (1972)
The Clyde Estuary (1975)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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