Spotlight: Marion Grierson
Remembering and Forgetting the Grierson Sisters, Part 2
The past is vast and unknowable, and the history that we construct from it is assembled from scraps: What was written then; What has been written since; Fragments of flawed memories; Archival “evidence.” Writing history is an imperfect, never finished process, an ever-churning cycle of remembering and forgetting.
Those who historically have had less power, are most vulnerable to this back and forth.The female filmmakers who we are fascinated by, were often side-lined during their lives, and that pattern is replicated by history makers. Once a woman has been left out of official histories, it takes repeated efforts and critical consensus to reinsert them.
The ego of the researcher adds another layer of complication. There is a romance to being an explorer and it’s all too easy to create an exaggerated narrative about “loss” and “discovery.” But the truth is, we never really “discover'' anyone - consciously or unconsciously, we are building on the work of others. Identity politics informs this process just like every other. For decades, feminist historians have written accounts that place women at the centre of film history. Yet, until it is picked up by wider scholarship, by male advocates and by popular culture, that research is considered fringe. So the cycle of “discovery,” “loss” and “rediscovery” stretches on - gains are made, then lost again, names go in and out of fashion.
The story of Ruby and Marion Grierson, of how they’ve been forgotten and remembered, is an illustration of this process. Since Ruby and Marion stopped making films, around 1940, they have been caught in this churn. There have been many revisionist interventions across the decades - academia, articles, films - yet still the loop continues. Ruby and Marion have been discovered and re-discovered many times over, but so far they have remained semi-obscured.
Part One of this SPOTLIGHT, centred on Ruby Grierson, the pioneering filmmaker whose empathy and talent placed her at the centre of the British Documentary Movement. We also talked about John, Ruby’s more famous brother, aka the “Father of Documentary.” But there is a third, lesser known filmmaking Grierson. Let’s talk about Marion...
Marion Grierson grew up as the youngest girl in a large liberal family. Quieter than her older siblings, Marion was nonetheless raised with ambition, by a suffragette mother who believed “there were better things for women than the kitchen sink.” After graduating from Glasgow University, Marion worked as a journalist in London and in Canada. When she returned to the UK her brother was working on his breakthrough film Drifters (1928), and it wasn’t long before Marion too was sucked into filmmaking. By the 1930s, Marion was working as an editor for the Empire Film Board, and from there moved sideways into shooting, producing and directing.
Marion had arrived in the industry during a documentary boom. As the propaganda potential of film became clear, demand was high and Marion was soon running her own unit, specialising in tourist board promotions. From the start however, Marion’s films frequently transcended simple travelogue. Her first, So This is London (1933), offers the tick box tour of landmarks that we would expect – Big Ben, the Thames, St Pauls – but combines these familiar images with a wistful artistry. Dreamlike images of swinging cranes and slow-motion seagulls hovering above the river reflect “the city of Shakespeare, Pepys and Dickens,” a London threaded through with poetry. Strange, surreal shots capture the city’s ebb and flow - waves of commuters, flocks of children – and the forbidden pleasures that emerge as night falls.
The release of So This is London was a triumph, bringing Marion international fame. Other travelogues followed, including Edinburgh (1934), Beside the Seaside (1935) and London on Parade (1938). The touristic nature of her work meant that Marion’s films were more widely seen abroad than in the UK, a fact which perhaps offers a clue to one reason why she never had quite the same profile as her siblings at home. Around the Village Green (1937, co-dir. Evelyn Spice) is a more journalistic piece, exploring the changing face of the English village and capturing a traditional way of life on the verge of disappearing. In 1936, Marion returned to her reporting roots, becoming Editor of World Film News.
We can’t talk about Marion without talking also about Ruby. Their careers unfolded across the 1930s in parallel, but while the sisters’ commissions often overlapped, the two women had distinctive approaches to filmmaking. Ruby’s films were direct and outspoken, looking forward to Direct Cinema. By contrast Marion offers a lighter approach, a cinema of beauty and instinct. This style is typified by Beside the Seaside (1935), a witty and atmospheric portrait of a scorching day out on the coast. Rhythmically edited and with beguiling narration written by W.H. Auden, Seaside feels surprisingly modern. Playful techniques, such as use of slow motion and bent sound, capture the woozy energy of a long hot afternoon.
That’s not to say however, that Marion’s films are apolitical, and there is often a subtle undercurrent of commentary beneath the beauty. In This is London Marion captures wealth alongside poverty, placing rich and poor in pointed juxtaposition: a procession of judges in their pomp and pageantry, alongside dustmen in wide felt hats and pearly kings in their finery. We can sense a raised eyebrow behind the camera as bowler hatted city types, absurd and alien, wander around the business district. In contrast, shots of workers manning scaffolding present us with a mythic image of the working man silhouetted with dignity against the skyline.
As the 1930s drew to a close the sister’s parallel lives met an abrupt end. In 1940, Ruby’s promising career was cut short when she was lost at sea, the victim of a Nazi torpedo. Soon afterwards, Marion’s own film career also ceased. Married to fellow documentary maker Donald Taylor, Marion left World Film News upon the birth of her first child. A final, outlying film - Post War Work: Civil Engineering (1946) - is her last recorded credit. In the mid-1940s, Marion moved back to Glasgow, began working for the Youth Advisory Board and disappeared from public view.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Ruby’s memory is stronger than Marion’s, despite their parallel careers, is that Ruby’s story is more dramatic, neater and self-contained. Her untimely death gives Ruby’s life a tragic resonance, a promising young filmmaker, cut off in her prime. Marion’s story is more complicated. When she stops making films is it out of choice or necessity? Did she want a change of career after the hectic war years? Or did she, after her marriage, discover what women in so many professions have realised – that some work is incompatible with family life? Did a sexist industry quietly lock her out, or did Marion remove herself?
Marion’s story reminds us that it doesn’t take a torpedo to cut short a woman’s filmmaking career. History is littered with stories of women whose creative lives grind to a halt upon marriage and children. In fact, if we look a little closer at the Grierson family we can find another story that directly mirrors Marion’s own.
In 1928, John edited Drifters alongside a young woman named Margaret Taylor. Margaret was a talented editor who taught techniques to John and other future key members of the Documentary Movement. In 1930, Margaret and John married. Yet while the couple continued to work together at the film unit (keeping their relationship secret from their colleagues) the marriage effectively marked the end of Margaret’s autonomous career. From this point her role became very much as a supporter, a “creative servant” for her husband. An uncredited assistant, cheerleader and secretary for John, Margaret Taylor-Grierson becomes a ghost, absorbed into her husband’s legend. She only resurfaces, briefly decades later, when upon her husband’s death, Margaret becomes the primary donor for the John Grierson Archive at the University of Stirling.
After the end of World War II, the British Documentary Movement became history. John Grierson remained a high-profile figure throughout the decades, and the books, articles and essays that were written about the movement centred almost entirely on him. Scottish critic Forsyth Hardy became an official chronicler, working with John to write works that preserved the movements principles and ideas, as well as securing John’s status as “The Father of Documentary”. These accounts focused on John and his male counterparts at the expense of the women also involved in the movement. The likes of Kay Mander, Jill Craigie and Budge Cooper are virtually absent from these histories, as are Margaret, Ruby and Marion.
By the time John Grierson died in 1972, his status was secure. With their sister and brother now dead, Marion Grierson became the sole representative of the Grierson’s filmmaking legacy. In the 1980s, she occasionally pops up in newspaper cuttings consecrating tributes to her brother across Scotland. There she is in 1982, a solemn looking old lady, unveiling a plaque to John at their old schoolhouse; here she is again in 1989 opening a community centre named after her brother. In these clippings she is usually referred to by her married name, Marion Taylor, and described as “sister to the filmmaking John”. No reference is made to Marion’s own filmmaking life, or to her sister’s. It is only John, who is honoured by these memorials.
In 2017, we visited the John Grierson Archive in Sterling in search of Ruby and Marion. Inexperienced, and naïve, we were high on the illusion of discovery. In reality, we were following a trail of crumbs left by others who had looked before us. Yet despite their work, we felt like explorers because we were entering into the middle of an ongoing process. The information we could find remained scant, the catalogues incomplete, the records contradictory. Some ground still felt uncharted.
Left out of the official history, ignored by many subsequent critics, Marion and Ruby might well have disappeared entirely from view if it weren’t for the efforts of feminist historians and canny archivists. Over the past few decades, researchers have picked up on the scant trail of clues left behind. In the residual light cast by John Grierson’s status, they’ve picked through the shreds and begun to partially reconstruct the sisters’ lives and to re-map history.
In 1994, Fiona Adams made Ruby Grierson- reshooting History, a short “in search of” documentary which attempts to reconstruct Ruby’s life and rehabilitate her films. A year later Gwendolyn Audrey Foster includes both sisters (in one entry) as part of her 1995 feminist dictionary Women Film Directors. Thanks to archivists Ros Cranston and Sarah Eason, stub articles about the sisters and their films are searchable in the BFI database. In more recent year’s Dr Sarah Neely’s article Sisters of Documentary and Dr Isabel Segui’s The Grierson Women have been substantial interventions that have led directly to better awareness of the sisters within the John Grierson archive.
Some of the sisters’ films are lost, while others have for a long time been largely inaccessible to public audiences. Happily however, steps are being made to address this issue too. In March 2022, the BFI are releasing The Camera is Ours, a new DVD boxset which includes films by Ruby and Marion alongside work by other British female docmakers including Kay Mander, Sarah Erulkar and Jill Craigie.
The remembering of the Grierson sisters remains incomplete, but it’s at least ongoing and alive. However, even within this process of rehabilitation, Ruby remains the better remembered and appreciated of the two sisters by some distance. There are a number of reasons why this might be so – Marion’s lower profile in her lifetime, her longer quieter life, her stories “lack of drama”. As far as we know, Marion never spoke publicly about her decision to move away from the public eye, and she remains a mysterious and poignant figure. In Reshooting History, Fiona Adams approached Marion to talk about Ruby. Now aged 84, Marion agrees only to be recorded in voiceover - “ironically she is camera shy.”
How should we remember the Griersons then? All three filmmaking Grierson siblings had their own distinct voices and approaches, and all three lives took a different path – a tragic death, a quiet fade out, a march of triumph. Yet their development as filmmakers was tightly intertwined. Without John, would Ruby and Marion have found their way to film? Without the innovations and successes of Ruby and Marion, would the movement John “founded” have had the impact it did? Back in 1995, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster argued that “perhaps the three Griersons should share credit as the founders of the British Documentary movement?” Looking backwards now, at three legacies that are impossible to unpick, a shared credit would be a small but significant way to restore the sisters back into a history they were written out of.
Part One of this Spotlight, centred on Marion's sister Ruby Grierson, the pioneering filmmaker whose empathy and talent placed her at the centre of the British Documentary Movement. You can read it here
Many thanks to Andrew Horne and Becca Hutton-Horne for providing additional images and background for this piece.
Images of Marion Grierson press cuttings taken at The John Grierson Archive in Stirling.
The Camera is Ours: Female Documentary Makers, a season featuring work by Marion Grierson, Ruby Grierson, Kay Mander, Sarah Erulkar and Jill Craigie, runs at the BFI Southbank from 3-15 March 2022, followed by a UK Tour.
Sisters of Documentary, Sarah Neely.
The Grierson Women, Isabel Segui.
Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (1995)
BFI Screen Online: Marion Grierson, Ros Cranston.
Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers, BFI Screen Online, Sarah Eason.
Ruby Grierson: Reshooting History, Fiona Adams.