Marion Grierson

Born: 7 July 1907, Cambusbarron
Died: 1 October 1998

Introduction

Despite living in the shadow of her brother John, the founding figure of the British documentary movement, and their tragically short-lived sister Ruby, Marion Grierson herself had an intriguing career in documentary filmmaking.

Her style is notable for its inventive use of a sophisticated array of techniques combined with an assured lightness of touch. Her films were seen abroad more than in the UK, which perhaps explains why they are little known today. They provide a varied record of British life, and were nearly all made in the 1930s, at the height of the British documentary movement.

Marion was the youngest of the eight Grierson children, who grew up in a mining village near Stirling. She moved to London to pursue a writing career before travelling to Canada, where she worked as a reporter on a newspaper and became editor of the women’s page. After two years there, she decided to return to London.

John Grierson was at this time living in Hampstead and editing his first film, Drifters (1929). He showed Marion how to edit, using techniques much influenced by Soviet montage films. Marion soon joined her brother at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) Film Unit. Her first job was to edit Canadian footage, made for a film about a royal tour, into a variety of short films. Making use of offcuts to generate multiple versions of films was common practice in the Unit at the time.

Promotional films to attract tourists to the UK became the staple of her career. She ran the film unit of the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA), which was attached to the EMB Film Unit. Initially, she did some shooting herself, but soon moved on to producing and directing films, among them Beside the Seaside (1935) and Around the Village Green (1937). At their best, her films beautifully combine visual and sound techniques with wit and penetrating observation.

The film units of TIDA and the EMB worked together on an informal co-operative basis. The staff were freelancers who could turn their hand to camerawork, editing and writing scripts. Working within tight budgets, the filmmakers stayed with friends where possible when on location, and considered it a matter of honour to be economic in their use of film: “If you didn’t get it right the second time you were pretty feeble,” she recalled.

The closely-knit group of filmmakers discussed each other’s works-in-progress and lent each other footage. Grierson pointed out that “Night Mail, for example, has pieces from everybody’s films... I have two shots in it of Edinburgh”.

In 1936 she returned to journalism in as editor of World Film News, a vehicle for the documentary film movement and its ideals. Married to fellow documentarist Donald Taylor, she left her post as editor shortly before their first child was born, and subsequently all but withdrew from film work. In the 1940s, she returned to Glasgow, where she switched careers, working for the Youth Advisory Service until her retirement.

Ros Cranston

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline

Highlighted works

  • Beside the Seaside

    Beside the Seaside

    This wittily observant documentary shows Londoners flocking to the coast to enjoy themselves during a heatwave.

  • Around the Village Green

    Around the Village Green

    This documentary portrait of English rural life in the interwar years was filmed in some of England’s most picturesque villages.

Filmography

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