Spotlight: Ruby Grierson
Forgetting and Remembering The Grierson Sisters: Part 1
The John Grierson archive in Stirling holds hundreds of records. The collection, dozens of boxes of correspondence, notebooks, photos and scripts, is dedicated to preserving the legacy of its namesake. Through his work as a director, executive and producer, John Grierson has earned his status and is widely seen as a pivotal figure in the development of the British documentary. He is taught to undergraduates, he features in textbooks, he has whole books dedicated to him. In such texts, John is referred to as “The Father of Documentary.” In fact, the term “documentary” itself, most likely comes from John – he is widely credited with coining the label in 1926.
John is a dropped pin, a landmark that we must pass as we ascend upwards through film history. His influence means that to miss him is to skip something pivotal, a jarring jump cut. There are many like this in the canon, the points against which all subsequent routes are plotted. These key figures are overwhelmingly male, but, when we look closer, sometimes we see women standing behind them. Often, these women are lit up by their connection to a “Great Man.” Without that residual glow, they too would be invisible.
John had two filmmaking sisters. Ruby and Marion Grierson began their careers working (often uncredited) with their brother, as continuity girls, editors, assistants, before becoming filmmakers under their own names. Between them the sisters made several films in the 1930s and took up key positions at the heart of “John’s” new movement. Around 1940, both women’s filmmaking careers stopped, suddenly, for different reasons.
Ruby and Marion Grierson are not a secret. Both filmmakers had some profile in their day and built a body of work. Yet for reasons that will emerge as this story unfolds, their contribution was for decades largely left out of film histories. Only recently has this situation begun to change.
In 2017, high on the illusion of discovery, we visited Stirling to see what we could find out about Ruby and Marion. In the archive that bears their brother’s name, we requested a list of every recorded mention of the two women in the collection. The printout we received at that time, double spaced and with wide margins, barely covered two sides of A4.
This two-part SPOTLIGHT is about the Grierson sisters and, to a lesser extent, about their brother John. It’s about what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and how we might, overtime, bridge those gaps. The story of Ruby and Marion, the way they have been obscured, forgotten, then re-remembered, encapsulates the experience of many women in film, both living and dead.
Part 1 focuses on Ruby, the better-known, better documented of the two sisters. But, we can’t tell her story without first talking about John.
John Grierson (1898-1972) grew up in a small village in Stirlingshire, Scotland, surrounded by interesting women. His mother Jane Anthony was a formidable figure, a suffragette, a teacher and a Labour activist who brought up her eight children with liberal politics and an emphasis on education. Jane raised her children as equals, and thanks to her influence both John’s younger sisters, Ruby and Marion, were able to follow their brother to attend Glasgow University.
In 1923, after a brief hiatus to serve in World War I, John graduated. Soon after he went on a research trip to the US, where he studied the psychology of propaganda. In America John also wrote film criticism and came into contact with the burgeoning documentary genre, meeting pioneer filmmaker Robert Flaherty (best known for Nanook of the North). This experience convinced John that film could be used as a powerful propaganda tool to further socialist causes. On his return to the UK, John took this vision and made a film to demonstrate his theory in practice.
John’s directorial debut Drifters (1929) was a silent portrait of the North Sea fisheries, that drew upon Modernism and Soviet cinema to create a poetic but political vision of industrialised Britain. Premiering alongside the first British screening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Drifters immediately established John as a figurehead. Already working as an executive for the Empire Film Board, John used the publicity attracted by Drifters to begin to assemble a network of filmmakers. These eager young men – the likes of Edward Antsey, Arthur Elton, Paul Rotha and Ralph Bond, were to become the hub of the Documentary Film Movement, gathering nightly at the pub to smoke, drink and plot the future of film.
Among these “Documentary Boys” however, were a number of equally important women, many of whom climbed their way up through continuity and secretarial jobs to make the most of this exciting moment. They included names such as Kay Mander, Budge Cooper and Jill Craigie, as well as several women with direct connections to John – his future wife Margaret Taylor (who had edited Drifters) and his two sisters Ruby and Marion.
After attending University, Ruby Grierson had trained to be a teacher. This career was short lived and given the strength of her family connections and political convictions, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ruby quickly joined the documentary scene. Nonetheless, something of that early training perhaps lingered – as a filmmaker Ruby’s trademark was to become her empathy, pragmatism, and profound skill with people.
Ruby’s first film role was as an uncredited assistant on Housing Problems (1935, Elton & Antsley), a stark expose of slum housing. The film centres on raw, to-camera interviews in which residents describe their experiences. In one scene a woman, hands on hips and casting a long shadow, shows the camera her wonky stairs and the vermin in the walls. Elsewhere another woman, stood before peeling wallpaper, talks about waking up to find a rat on her head. This focus on working class people, especially women, addressing the camera directly in their own homes, with their own words, lends the film a raw intimacy unusual at the time. First-hand accounts credit Ruby with spearheading this revolutionary approach. “The camera is yours” she is reported to have said to her subjects, “now tell the bastards exactly what it’s like to live in the slums”.
From her directorial debut London Wakes Up (1936), Ruby began to make a name for herself as an urgent, ideologically driven filmmaker. People of Britain (1936, co-dir. Rotha) is a radical plea for peace that eschews narration to let its subjects speak directly to camera. Its pacifist message was deemed so radical in inter-war Britain that “The Peace Film” was briefly censored until public outcry caused the ban to be overturned. Today We Live (1937, co-dir. Bond), a study of the effects of recession on rural communities, again demonstrates Ruby’s ability to flesh out ideology with intimacy and detail. Short documentaries such as Cargo for Ardrossan (1939), capturing island life on Islay, and her (now sadly lost) London Zoo films, display Ruby’s calm, quiet eye.
Many of Ruby’s films create a sense of peaceful, unobtrusive observation, a precursor to the “fly on the wall” technique of the Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité movements. She balances this observational approach with a politicised desire to empower her subjects, creating conditions which allow them to talk seemingly directly to the viewer. In this achievement, she is arguably just as much an architect of the future of documentary as her brother, whose own focus after Drifters had shifted more towards propaganda and advertising. In fact, from early on Ruby had formed her own theories about the role of the filmmaker and was openly critical of her brother’s approach. “The trouble with you is that you look at things through a goldfish bowl,” Ruby is reported to have said to John in one confrontation, “I’m going to break your goldfish bowl.”
The outbreak of war did trigger Ruby to turn her own attention to propaganda, although her approach remained distinct. They Also Serve (1940) centres on the quiet heroism of a middle-aged housewife, as she holds her family together in wartime. The approach is unsentimental, but Ruby’s empathetic eye brings dignity to her protagonists’ emotional and physical labour – from picking vegetables, to comforting neighbours, to giving her husband a backrub. The voiceover, an endless list of chores and worries, allows us to see through this woman’s eyes, itself an unusual choice of subjectivity.
Ruby’s empathetic abilities, unobtrusive camera and teaching background made her the obvious choice to shoot a film about evacuees. In 1940, the SS City of Benares set off from Liverpool to Canada. Among the 400 souls on board were 90 child refugees and Ruby, who was planning to document the children’s safe resettlement in the New World. Although circumstances were sad, there was a sense of anticipation on the ship. A surviving evacuee, interviewed in 1994, remembered that they had been excited to arrive because to the children Canada was the same as Hollywood, a connection to the movie business emphasised by the presence of a real-life film director on board. But it wasn’t to be. At 10.30pm on 17 September the ship was struck by a German torpedo and sunk within 30 minutes. 258 passengers and crew were killed, including 77 children. Ruby Grierson was lost at sea.
Ruby’s early death cut short a promising career. In only 5 years, she had made a distinct mark on the film scene. A smattering of eulogies marked her death, but already the mechanics of forgetting were rolling into motion. Newspaper obituaries were a sign of Ruby’s status, but many of these stub articles identified her foremost as “John’s filmmaking sister,” with little comment on her own work. When her films are discussed, several articles get titles, dates and facts wrong. In the busy war years, the churn of tragedy is constant, and the death of a filmmaker is sad but not unusual. Yet as the war ended and the years passed, Ruby’s achievements began to fade from memory.
John’s own career arguably reached its peak in 1939 when he founded the National Film Board of Canada, a key voice in Canadian film to this day. Nonetheless, after World War II John remained an influential figure, executive producing numerous film, TV and advertising projects. John himself seems to have felt the effect of Ruby’s death throughout his life, and she crops up occasionally in his correspondence. During the 1960s, John presented The Wonderful World for Scottish TV, a series combining short documentaries with commentary. In one episode, he refers, obliquely but with emotion to Ruby: “I had a sister once who was a very interesting filmmaker. She had a passion for taking the camera around and just looking in people’s faces.”
Yet while John may well have been haunted by memories of Ruby in later life, the seeds of her erasure had been planted decades before. Back in 1930, Scottish film critic Forsyth Hardy had written a glowing review of Drifters, which so pleased John that he went to the office of the newspaper and demanded to meet the writer. This meet-cute was the start of a lifelong collaboration between the two men, and Forsyth quickly became the official chronicler of the movement. Grierson on Documentary (1946), was the beginning of a series of books that Forsyth edited and wrote in collaboration with and about John, spanning all the way up to official biographies in the 1970s/80s.
John had always had a talent for self-promotion, and the history that these two men constructed centred on the heroic image of a Great Man leading his “Documentary Boys” into a bold new era. In this account women are almost entirely absent. While John had been a broadly supportive employer of women as filmmakers, neither he nor Forsyth seems to have felt a need to include much acknowledgement of the vital role women had played. As a result, the official history of the movement erases the contributions not only of key women such as Kay, Budge and Jill, but also of John’s wife and his own sisters, Ruby and Marion.
When Forsyth died in 1994, his papers were donated to Sterling university, where they are preserved in the John Grierson Archive. Neither Ruby nor Marion’s papers were ever taken into the collection. The two women remain ghostly presences in the archive that bears their family name. Two lives, two careers, dozens of films, two sides of A4.
Part 2 of this SPOTLIGHT will discuss that process of remembering and forgetting. We will also tell the story of John and Ruby’s other filmmaking sister, Marion Grierson.
To be continued…
Many thanks to Andrew Horne and Becca Hutton-Horne for providing additional images and background for this piece.
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.
Please note, a shorter profile of Ruby Grierson, featuring some overlapping material with this article, has previously been published via Girls on Tops.
The Documentary Handbook, Peter Lee Wright.
Sisters of Documentary, Sarah Neely.
Five Pioneering Women Behind the Camera in the Second World War, BFI Online, Ros Cranston et. Al.
Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers, BFI Screen Online, Sarah Eason.
Obituary: Bess Cummings, Telegraph.
The Grierson Women. Isabel Segui.
Ruby Grierson: Reshooting History, Fiona Adams.