John Grierson lived from 26 April 1898 to 19 February 1972. He is often regarded as the father of documentary film making in Britain and Canada. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Grierson was born at Deanston near Doune, the son of a father who was a Presbyterian Church Minister and a mother who was a Labour Party activist and suffragette. During the First World War he served on Royal Navy minesweepers and then studied at Glasgow University, where he became closely involved in political activities before graduating in moral philosophy. In 1924 he won a Rockefeller Research Fellowship which enabled him to study at the University of Chicago, and later at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He spent much of his time undertaking research into the psychology of propaganda and the role of the mass media in influencing public opinion.
His views on the role of film in society led to his being invited to become a film critic for the New York Sun. In a review of Robert Flaherty's 1926 film "Moana", John Grierson was the first to use the word "documentary" in relation to a film. Grierson returned to Britain at the end of the 1920s with a deeply held conviction that film-making could be a force for good in society. He joined the Empire Marketing Board, a governmental agency intended to promote British trade abroad and unity in the British Empire. In 1930 he persuaded the EMB to form a film unit, headed by himself, to produce "documentaries".
Grierson had made his first film the year earlier. "Drifters" was about North Sea herring fishermen and was unlike any film ever made before. During the 1930s, Grierson was responsible for a whole series of ground-breaking films, including "Housing Problems" and "Song of Ceylon" in 1935; and "Night Mail" and "Coal Face" in 1936.
In 1938, Grierson was invited by the Canadian Government to help establish the National Film Board of Canada, which emerged the following year with Grierson at its head. During the war years, Grierson directed a series of propaganda films. After the war the NFB developed into a producer of a wider range of documentaries, many of which are recognised as being of very high quality. Grierson returned to Scotland in 1945, however, following allegations that some of his work for the NFB had been too sympathetic towards communism. Between 1957 and 1967 John Grierson hosted a weekly Scottish television program, "This Wonderful World" showcasing outstanding documentaries. John Grierson died in 1972 and is remembered by the "Grierson Documentary Film Awards".