A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain (U)

I saw four films today, oh boy

Did they sense in the early 1960s what was about to happen to them? It sometimes appears that the second half of the decade was all in colour, while the early years, up to about 1963, were still in black and white, an extension of the 1950s when British streets looked somnolent and almost empty of traffic, bombed ground was ubiquitous, and children still dressed like their parents. Those years could hardly be called innocent – the fall-out of two world wars had put paid to that – but they do seem curiously unknowing, a quality wonderfully caught in a series of short films entitled A Day in the Life, to be shown at BFI Southbank as part of Boom Britain: Documenting the Nation's Life on Film.

They are written and directed by John Krish, a documentary-maker born in 1923 (and still living) whose name is less well-known than it ought to be. Having worked as an assistant to the likes of Humphrey Jennings in the 1940s he became involved in the postwar craze for public sector documentary making. All four films reissued here were originally undertaken as sponsored commissions. In July 1952, for instance, just days before the London trams ceased operating, he was told to go to the New Cross depot to film the chairman of London Transport shake hands with the driver of the last tram. Instead, Krish pinched some film stock and with his cameraman spent the week filming the trams in action, the result of which became the daintily elegiac The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953). Working without a script, he confessed later that his one firm idea was to film an old couple taking their last tram ride, to which end he went to "a Darby and Joan club in Lewisham" to recruit one. "I made sure that they weren't married because I didn't want them sitting in silence throughout the whole trip," he said in interview.

The film, only 10 minutes long, was a success, though the shot of the final tram arriving at New Cross had to be bought from Pathe: the LT chairman had given a speech on the night, and Krish was working without sound. In return his producer gave him the boot, on the pretext that the company wanted "fresh blood". Krish was 29. From that point on he never looked back. The quartet of films chosen here (all in black and white) reveal his technical accomplishment – an unobtrusive way of getting a shot, an instinct for corner-of-the-eye detail – but also his humane sensitivity to the trials of growing up, and growing old. In They Took Us to the Sea (1961) he accompanies a trainload of Midlands children on an NSPCC outing to the seaside. The boy commentting on the trip is not identified in the film, though one assumes he was not the only child there who had never seen the sea before. Krish is less interested in words (there are no interviews) than in faces, and what we read in them. The expectant mood on the train, the fish-and-chip lunch, the donkey rides on the beach, all these are simply ways for Krish to capture the infinite variety of facial expressions, which seem timeless to us in way that words do not.

Even in Our School, the highly verbal film he made for the NUT the following year, you sense the camera watching faces with rapt attention. This is clearly intended to be a call-to-arms for state education, set in the brave new world of a Hertfordshire Secondary Modern. Beneath the stiff manner of teachers aware that they're on camera, you sense an almost quixotic zeal to improve and instruct. You may chuckle at the awkwardness of the headmaster popping into an English class, and his equally hilarious exit, but the teacher's earnest intent stays with you: she wants her pupils to pass, but "much more than that I want you to be able to distinguish between good and bad writing". That may not be in accord with the "inclusiveness" of today, but it still sounds blameless as a goal. What's stirring – and in retrospect rather poignant – is the sense of community and hopefulness, identified in an otherwise sparse commentary as the product of good parenting as much as good education: "it is from us they could learn to care more, rather than less".

That note of caution is echoed in the last film, which is, in a word, heartbreaking. I Think They Call Him John (1964) quietly considers the life of an old-age pensioner, John Cartner Ronson, widowed nine years before, without children. Again, Krish prefers not to interview but to watch his subject, getting up, shaving, making his breakfast, cleaning his small flat in the drab-looking estate where he lives. John looks like one of the background soldiers in Dad's Army, the ones never introduced to us, and indeed he did volunteer for the Home Guard in 1940. He also served before that in the trenches of the First World War, and before that as a miner in Northumberland.

Krish's Australian cameraman David Muir tenderly photographs John pottering about, talking to his pet budgie (the only time we hear him speak), even falling asleep at the table. I felt my eyes welling up as the camera lingers on his face in the light, and they spilled over as he prepared his Sunday night dinner of sausage and boiled potatoes. It adds up to a Larkinesque portrait of solitude in age, beautiful in its way but also guilt-inducing, which was the director's purpose. Having observed a contemplative silence for most of the film's length, a voice towards the end lays the problem at the collective door: "Those of us who aren't old secretly believe we'll be different when it happens. The old are an army of strangers we have no intention of joining. But it is not that simple. If we don't care, who will learn to care?" The tone is homiletic, but the sentiment is so finely expressed – and unarguable – that objection feels beside the point. Simply, I Think They Call Him John is the most touching film I've seen this year. Hail John Krish, and the BFI for rediscovering him.