Underrated: The case for Philip Donnellan

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The Independent Culture
DOCUMENTARY was a term coined in 1926 by the genre's Scottish father-figure, John Grierson, who defined it as 'the creative treatment of actuality'. The teams he led - at the Empire Marketing Board, the GPO and the Crown Film Unit - shouldered the burden of developing that creative treatment as a British speciality until the genre was absorbed wholesale by television in the 1950s.

These days, television barely sustains documentary output, preferring more readily packaged series and serials, 'non-fictional programming' fronted by marketable TV personalities. The great teledocumentarists are no longer active or have moved into drama. And their work is largely forgotten, none more so than that of the best and most committed of them, Philip Donnellan.

In his seventies now, Donnellan treated actuality with more creative respect than any of them. His forte was the enticing of story and song, memory and dance, from working people.

He began in radio, pursuing the traditional methodology of observing people in their native habitat, then knocking out a script for them to read, awkwardly, in the studio. Donnellan seized on the scope offered by the newly portable tape recorder and began to experiment with location recording and sound montage. They were techniques he took with him when, in 1958, he was transferred to television.

His first film, Joe the Chainsmith, was shot in the Black Country to his own script. But he soon took to filming on the wing, catching spontaneous images and blending in individual testimony without the traditional BBC formality of spoken or captioned introduction.

Through some 70 films, Donnellan brought a great variety of ordinary lives to the small screen, from steelworkers and blacksmiths to immigrants and travellers. Many of his films were the subject of splendid rows, both before and after transmission. Five were never transmitted. At least five brought the wrath of the politicians upon Donnellan's head.

His most ambitious essay was 1980's Gone for a Soldier, a relentless attack on the conduct of warfare over 165 years by the British top brass. Now that its frank indictment of the royals (then a reckless piece of lese-majeste) is the small change of any commentary, perhaps it would be safe for the BBC to show the film again. Harder to explain is the failure to rerun Pure Radio (1977), the best film ever made about the BBC. Uniquely, Donnellan is there, swishing about in his self-parodyingly seigneurial manner, but it's valuable because he gets talking the survivors (all dead now) of Laurence Gilliam's fabled Radio Features department.

It's a fine body of work, the epitome of what public service broadcasting was meant for and enough to make Reith spin in his grave. It shouldn't be a secret for enthusiasts.