The first blog from our 2018 stipend holders comes from independent scholar and author Martin Stollery who investigates the legacy of filmmaker and critic Paul Rotha through the museum's Peter Cotes Collection.
A few years ago I published an essay on the making and remaking of British documentary film maker Humphrey Jennings’ reputation. One issue I explored was how and why his reputation had gradually eclipsed that of his documentary movement colleague and exact contemporary Paul Rotha (both were born in 1907). A key consideration is whether influential champions step forward to promote their chosen subjects’ reputations. Lindsay Anderson eloquently fought Jennings’ corner in a frequently reprinted Sight and Sound article published a few years after his death. John Grierson was well served by the labours of his long-term colleague Forsyth Hardy, who edited selections of his writings and wrote his biography. I had always assumed that nobody was willing to perform a similar role in relation to Rotha, until I became aware of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s Peter Cotes collection. With the support of a generous stipend, I visited the museum towards the end of July 2018. My aim was to research the archival traces of Cotes’ and Rotha’s relationship between the 1950s and the latter’s death in 1984, and of Cotes’ efforts to promote Rotha’s reputation.
Cotes was a theatre and early television drama producer, not a documentary person. Nevertheless, Rotha referred in a 1955 letter to Cotes in the collection to their ‘mutual respect for each other’s outlook in life and integrity of purpose’. In the late 1970s, on the cusp of Thatcherism, Rotha wrote to Cotes about ‘how much we believed in those far off days that our hopes which rode so high during the war would be realised in the peace post-war years. Alas, it was not to be!’ In those hopeful days, both Rotha and Cotes sought to change the relations of production within their respective fields. Cotes described in his book, No Star Nonsense (1949), how Arts Council and Miners Welfare Commission sponsorship enabled him to tour productions of Anna Christie and An Inspector Calls to mining communities in South Wales in autumn 1947, to coincide with the nationalisation of mining and the beginning of a coal production drive. Working with these audiences was a revelation; Cotes recalled their intense seriousness, engagement with the drama and the actors’ craft, and their disinterest in egotistical star performances. As a result, Cotes championed the idea of a decentralised theatre, no longer dominated by the West End, but open to international exchanges. He concluded: ‘My ultimate ambition is to lead a group of socially conscious actors, working for the advancement of the theatre. With these actors I hope to blaze a way which will eschew the star system and all the vulgarity that system implies [to achieve instead] the sincere portrayal of the dramatist’s creation’ (189).
The locus classicus of the argument for transforming the relations of cultural production is Walter Benjamin’s 1934 text ‘The Author as Producer’. Cotes and Rotha were certainly not Marxists and would not have agreed with Benjamin’s insistence that writers should ultimately adapt the ‘productive apparatus...to the purposes of the proletarian revolution’. Within a social democratic context, however, Rotha’s practice can fruitfully be understood in relation to some of Benjamin’s precepts. In an argument focusing on writers, but applicable to other media, Benjamin proposed that ‘an author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one’. He also posed the questions: ‘Does [the author] succeed in promoting the socialisation of the intellectual means of production? Does he [sic] see how he himself can organize intellectual workers in the production process?’ Rotha’s career can be considered using these yardsticks.
In his 1936 book, ‘Documentary Film’, Rotha extrapolated from some of Grierson’s ideas to advocate the formation of documentary units, led by ‘producer-teachers’, involving ‘collective working...directed to a common end and not riddled with rivalry born of personal advancement. This, I believe, can only be possible if there is a common social purpose to be achieved’. With Grierson out of the country, the role of leading British documentary ‘producer-teacher’ fell to Rotha during the wartime and immediate postwar years. Many young British film makers started their careers or gained significant production experience working with him. After Rotha’s company went bankrupt at the end of the 1940s, his public stance - glossing over private acrimony - was a selfless one, in deference to documentary’s contribution to the common good: ‘Having had a fine and loyal unit disbanded because of economic pressures...At least I see our people making their mark today at the Transport Commission's Unit, at the Data Cooperative and in Television’. More broadly, Rotha also campaigned, unsuccessfully, for the postwar Labour government to implement some modest socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exhibition across the British film industry as a whole. He inscribed a copy of his 1958 book, Rotha on the Film, containing some of these proposals, to Cotes and his wife, the actor Joan Miller.
Rotha’s last major attempt to adapt the productive apparatus was in the early 1950s. He was the only member of the British documentary film movement to occupy, albeit briefly and unsuccessfully, a senior position in BBC television documentary production, between 1953 and 1955. It could be argued that Rotha’s efforts to breach the citadel of television with documentary film accorded with Benjamin’s argument that cultural producers should embrace new technological developments, turn them to progressive purposes, and not confine themselves to a single medium. Rotha’s main reason for turning to television was the size of its audience, which promised to resolve the perennial challenge of documentary distribution. He also argued that shooting television documentaries on film forced a more considered, thoughtful approach than live material shot in the studio. Television documentaries shot on film could also more easily form part of international exchanges between broadcasters. However, as Tim Boon highlights in Films of Fact, one of the very few works of contemporary scholarship offering sustained analysis of Rotha’s career, these preferences simply confirmed, for his critics, that he was a superannuated film man who could not adapt to the nature of the new medium. This perception was reinforced by BBC budget and operational restrictions on how much film could be shot, which prompted Rotha to recycle a considerable amount of his old film footage in his television work.
One revelation in the Cotes archive is that leaving the BBC did not quite extinguish Rotha’s ‘producer-teacher’ and ‘collective working’ aspirations. In a letter from 1955, the year in which he left the BBC and Cotes was appointed Deputy Head of Drama at the new commercial television contractor Associated-Rediffusion, Rotha encouraged Cotes to lobby Roland Gillett, Controller of Programmes at Associated-Rediffusion, regarding his plans for documentary at the new television channel. Rotha wrote: ‘If G is interested I think he’s got to make up his mind quickly as to whether he wants just me, or whether he wants later to set up within his service a documentary unit. If the latter...the next few weeks and months will decide very much where the small really skilled and experienced talent [among those who had previously worked for Rotha at the BBC] goes’. However, Rotha was not appointed to any further senior positions in television after his stint at the BBC, and British television documentary from the mid-1950s onwards developed without his direct input.
Rotha stridently campaigned for the British film and television industries to become other than what they were, but as a jobbing independent film maker from the mid-1950s onwards, he also had to negotiate these industries’ current realities. He had to do this having alienated, partly because of his campaigning, some influential figures who were more comfortable with these realities. The emergence of new critical and creative voices, such as Lindsay Anderson’s, within the documentary and features fields, also positioned Rotha as yesterday’s man. Film and television historians are drawn to archives to search for what we hope to find - my starting point was the ‘author as producer’ hypothesis - but we also need to listen to what they tell us. The great value of the Cotes archive is that it sheds considerable light on the least known, latter part of Rotha’s career. Rotha, for whom financial management does not seem to have been a strong point, faced economic precarity during this period. The correspondence reveals some of his process of developing and pitching new ideas, precious few of which went into production, during his later career.
Rotha’s unfinished projects in the Cotes archive range from the sublime to what he privately may have considered ridiculous. There are several documents in the archive, including a film synopsis written by Rotha, relating to The Traitor, an adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s short story Jumbo’s Wife, for which he hoped to cast Orson Welles, Siobhan McKenna, Cyril Cusack, and other Irish actors. Rotha sought to capitalise on contacts he had made shooting the documentary Cradle of Genius (1958), narrated by O’Connor, about the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Rotha envisaged Cotes as co-producer. Despite No Star Nonsense, Rotha and Cotes fully understood that Welles’ participation, as the most bankable star name in the proposed cast, after good notices for Compulsion (1959), was vital to securing funding for the project. The correspondence details Rotha’s efforts to contact Welles, apparently without success. Equally remarkable, in a very different way, is Rotha’s letter to Lloyd Williams, Assistant Controller of Programmes at Associated-Rediffusion, dated 3 November 1955. I had to read this twice for it to sink in. Following up on a parlour game played one evening at Cotes’ flat, called ‘Three, Two, One, Click’, Rotha pitched it as a presenter-led television game show, which he would be involved in producing: ‘It could, I suggest, have considerable public appeal because of its basic rhythm, its opportunity for viewer participation and its simplicity.’
Rotha was a contrarian, sometimes contradictory figure whose career was frequently defined by conflicting pressures, attitudes and actions. A principled, progressive ‘producer-teacher’, whose stated ideal was ‘collective working’ without the ‘rivalry born of personal advancement’, his neglect of his own financial advancement, in a society which did not live up to his social democratic ideals, left him insecure. His later career involved trying to tap contacts and build networks in a scrabble to get projects - any project - off the ground, in order to generate income. This type of struggle will be familiar to many ‘independent’ cultural workers today. Rotha became bitter. In a January 1966 letter to Cotes, he wrote scathingly of the ‘’distinguished’ characters’, some of them still active film makers, ‘sponsoring my application to the [Cinema and Television Benevolent] CTB Fund. Pity one of them couldn’t give me some work instead!’. In his draft Rotha obituary, Cotes hit upon another contradiction; Rotha’s arrogance and authoritarianism, partly arising from his extensive practical and historical knowledge of cinema: ‘A theorist about teamwork, he was a martinet where any questioning of his mastery of a film was concerned’. Finally, there was Rotha’s alcohol fuelled relationship, from the early 1960s onwards, with the Irish former film star Constance Smith, who also questioned the film industry’s established structures, and railed against the on and off screen roles it allocated to women. The couple became tabloid fodder when she was imprisoned for stabbing Rotha. Despite this, they reunited after her release. This kind of publicity was incompatible with the ‘discourse of sobriety’ contemporary theorist Bill Nichols associates with documentary. Rotha and Smith exemplified to an unusual degree the personal costs sometimes attendant upon contrarian and oppositionist commitments, which as Christopher Hitchens has said, do not necessarily offer a ‘decent or charted way of making a living’.
Promotional images of Constance Smith. The second shows her visiting a mine in South Wales.
Grierson is regarded as the founder of the documentary film movement, Jennings as its poet. Their prominence was reinforced by episodes of the prestigious BBC1 arts documentary series Omnibus, celebrating Jennings’ and Grierson’s work in 1970 and 1973 respectively. Cotes acknowledged the diminution of Rotha’s reputation when he devised the title ‘Filmland’s Forgotten Man’ for the television documentary project about Rotha’s life and career he pitched to Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show and Alan Yentob’s Arena towards the end of 1983. Neither wanted to run with it, with Cotes receiving rejection letters just months before Rotha’s death.
One of the reasons Rotha was eclipsed by Grierson and Jennings is because his projects, passions and commitments were too multifaceted to easily be reduced to a single epithet. His disappointments and setbacks were many, but these can now be situated in relation to the concept of ‘shadow’ cinema and television, which acknowledges that our historical understanding can be enhanced by attending to film and television projects that were never completed. Hopefully the documents held in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, and the material dispersed across several other archives around the world, can eventually be marshalled to give Rotha, undoubtedly a significant figure within British film and television history, the recognition Cotes felt he deserved. But research on Rotha is challenging because his career is difficult to encompass within a single framework. I have suggested Walter Benjamin as one starting point for thinking about Rotha’s authorship, but the material I encountered in the Cotes collection also put me in mind of the poetry of another Walt [Whitman]: ‘Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’.
The front and back covers of Rotha's Documentary Diary, Rotha's account of the documentary film movement published in 1973. The cover is based on a charcoal drawing made in 1929 by Bunch Dixon-Spain and the back cover is a contemporary portrait by Russell Madden.