Archives document another time, but the place is still the same

21st August 2009 at 01:00
The last piece of work by John Grierson, the father of UK documentary film-making, has been unearthed during a project to make hundreds of historical clips available to schools. Emma Seith reports

John Grierson is often considered the father of British documentary film-making. Now, David Griffith, the head of Scotland on Screen, a project to make film clips dating back to the 1800s freely available to schools, believes he has unearthed the last documentary he was involved in.

Health of a City was first aired in 1965 to commemorate the centenary of the appointment of the first medical officer of health for Glasgow, and highlights medical officers' work in housing, schools and hospitals. Grierson, who died in 1972, is not listed in the credits, but when the reels and additional written materials were sent to the Scottish Screen archive at the National Library of Scotland, they showed that he was heavily involved with re-editing the work to give it a more positive slant.

At the time, the significance of his involvement was not appreciated and, while the information was recorded, it was only when Mr Griffith, who is also a part-time film lecturer, began his work that the find was publicised.

Moments from Grierson's last documentary are just a few of the 120 clips soon to become available to schools via the schools intranet, Glow. Through the Scotland on Screen project, a joint venture run by Scottish Screen, Learning and Teaching Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, pupils will be free to view, analyse, discuss, download and creatively re-use 15 hours' worth of film, using editing software.

Currently, schools wishing to access snippets of film to use in their own projects have to buy DVDs at a cost of pound;40 to pound;50. So this development will make moving image education a more affordable and convenient option, argues Mr Griffith. It will allow pupils to create everything from multi- media essays, built up around the clips, with music and sound effects added, to their own documentaries.

The clips have been carefully chosen to cover as many genres as possible, from local topical films, propaganda films and adverts, to newsreels, scientific films and award-winning documentaries. They have also been chosen because they demonstrate different styles of filming. So Mr Griffith is hopeful that schools will use the archive to teach pupils about the "grammar and punctuation of film". He adds: "We have failed to educate people in the dominant culture of the last 40 years - the moving image."

The oldest clip to be made available was filmed in 1896 by John Macintyre at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It is a silent film showing X-ray pictures of a frog's knees and a human heart beat. The shortest clip runs for around a minute; the longest lasts for 10.

"For the most part, the clips were produced and shot in Scotland, though in a few cases they are produced outside Scotland but depict Scotland or Scottishness," says Mr Griffith.

Thirty teachers have been involved in the site's design and each clip has teaching resources attached to it. For more intensive project work, packages have been created which demonstrate how different clips can be combined in lessons on various themes: for example, the way advertising has changed over time, the Second World War, how documentary-making has evolved or public health over the past century.

The archive can be searched by subject, and relevant Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences are highlighted. Searching under maths, for instance, will throw up a documentary called The Calculators, from 1964, which explores the consequences of the introduction of computers to Scottish industry and education.

The next phase of the project will see a further 10 hours of footage added to the site, additional educational resources compiled and online editing tools made available.


Scottish Learning Festival

Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow,

September 24, 1pm seminarss2h.asp.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today