Women's marginalization in the British feature film industry is well documented: gender discrimination, and sometimes overt segregation, shut most women out of senior creative roles after the introduction of sound. What has received less critical attention is their participation in nonfiction filmmaking, which offered women greater employment opportunities, especially in the decades after World War II as Britain rebuilt its economy. This article provides the first historical mapping of women's involvement in sponsored nonfiction filmmaking in Britain in the period between 1945 and 1970, using newly available statistical data from Britain's film trade union, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT). It also draws on oral histories, extant films, and specialist trade publications to outline two case studies, one featuring three editors, and the other a director (Sarah Erulkar) who between them produced, directed and edited more than two hundred shorts on topics ranging from mineshaft sinking to French cookery. It argues that evidence of women's creative agency in this sector offers new ways of thinking about film history.

The study of nonfiction film is a growing field of scholarship in film history. A suite of recent publications, including Useful Cinema (2011) and Learning with the Lights Off (2012)—publications that emerged in turn from a number of conferences and symposia held since the turn of the twentieth-first century—testify to the vibrancy of the field.1 Scholars researching the flourishing of nonfiction film between the 1920s and the 1960s have analyzed industrial films, training films, educational films, public service films, and other comparable forms. They have grappled with questions of genre, categorization, and audience, and critically reflected on the relevance of existing theoretical models and explanatory paradigms for analysis. How useful, for example, is the theory of the auteur or questions of aesthetics for analyzing these films? Perhaps, as Thomas Elsaesser recently argued, critical attention to the Aufttraggeber (commissioner), Anlass (occasion), and Adressat (addressee) is more relevant for the classification, reading, and interpretation of nonfiction film of the sponsored and public service variety.2 Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible found in their study of educational film a historic reluctance to serious engagement from film scholars, on the grounds that the work was perceived as offering little formal or aesthetic innovation.3 Thus, the first scholars to work critically on this material were not from film studies but from communications and the history of education.

And yet recent research has shown how nonfiction film could be a space for experimentation. In the British context, directors such as John Krish and Derrick Knight have demonstrated significant and varied aesthetic creativity.4 It is for these reasons that nonfiction film scholarship is credited with opening up not only what we think of as film history, but equally fundamental questions about the ontology of film. Much of this research has been made possible through increased digital access to extant films and the tireless efforts of a small band of archivists, librarians, and amateur enthusiasts working across the United States, Europe, and Britain. As the study of industrial, training, and other forms of public service film enters university curricula, there is a pressing need to reflect on how questions of gender are shaping these debates.

What does nonfiction film have to do with feminist media histories? Certainly women are relatively well represented as makers of documentary film—both historically and currently—compared to their presence in the feature film sector. Amy Taubin estimates that more than half of the documentaries supported by Sundance funds in the early 2000s were directed or codirected by women.5 Women documentarians have received major awards; Nancy Hamilton won an Oscar for her 1954 documentary Helen Keller in Her Story, while women have directed many recognized classics in the documentary canon, including Harlan County, USA (dir. Barbara Kopple, 1976) and Union Maids (dir. Julia Reichert, James Klein, and Miles Mogulescu, 1976). There is an established body of feminist scholarship on both the documentary form and feminist documentary films, with feminist scholars and documentary filmmakers recognizing their shared commitment to social equality, counter-histories, and reflexivity about the politics of representation and the power dynamics between subjects and filmmakers. Key publications such as Diane Waldman and Janet Walker's Feminism and Documentary (1999) have played a central role in investigating and theorizing the relationship between documentary and feminism's concerns with questions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.6 

Notwithstanding these developments, women are markedly less visible in the existing scholarship concerning other types of nonfiction film production, for instance shorts produced for training, public service, educational, and promotional purposes; sponsored by governments, businesses, and charities; and principally intended for nontheatrical distribution. This absence can be explained in part by the tendency to focus critical analysis on company film archives (Renault for example) or film genres (natural history or surgical and medical film) rather than named individuals such as directors. And where case studies of individual filmmakers do exist, the scholarship principally focuses on men. The research by Scott Curtis on Frank B. Gilbreth, Rick Prelinger on Jam Handy, and Charles Acland on Mark May are representative examples.7 Is it the case that women directors did not work in the sponsored nonfiction sector?

Feminist scholarship has only recently begun to make inroads into the debate, with two short pieces published in Feminist Media Histories in 2015 on directors Anita Maris Boggs and Lee Dick (by Laura Isabel Serna and Tanya Goldman, respectively). These are a welcome intervention, showing how women's contributions have been overlooked, and providing a platform to redress the wider critical absence around women's work in this sector of the film industry. Is it possible to look beyond women directors to women in roles such as editing, which played an essential part in the institutional structures that supported and sustained nonfiction film culture? Perhaps, as Serna argues in her research on Boggs, the absence in film historiography of women working in the nonfiction sector is “doubly determined: first by the relative invisibility of educational film, and second by ideologies of gender that obscured women's work in the film industry, broadly construed, behind that of their male collaborators.”8 And yet there is much to be learned through a focus on women's creative labor in this sector. As Goldman's research on director-producer Lee Dick testifies, the highly collaborative context in which she worked allows us to test out received notions of personal authorship, with wider implications for how we think about film and cinema.9 

This article addresses the concerns of gender through a case study of women's contributions to sponsored nonfiction film production in Britain the years between 1945 and 1970. It examines the production roles women performed, and the industry conditions that shaped their career trajectories and participation as filmmakers. It explores the ways in which the institutional structures and cultures that supported nonfiction filmmaking were gendered, and asks what new histories and methods may emerge from this inquiry. Britain serves as an illustrative case study because of its long tradition of nonfiction filmmaking, widely recognized in academic scholarship for its significance to film history. Within this history it is acknowledged that women documentarians such as Marion and Ruby Grierson, Evelyn Spice (Cherry), Jill Craigie, and Kay Mander, among others, played a significant role in nonfiction film production in the 1930s and 1940s, but not beyond.10 Recent revisionist histories have illustrated that the nonfiction sector remained buoyant in the postwar period (1945 to 1970), with industrial and corporate sponsors joining the state in commissioning films. This development took place in the wider context of significant social change in Britain, including the creation of the welfare state, the nationalization of industries, growing consumerism, and independence of the former colonies, all of which created both themes and markets for nonfiction films. As revisionist scholarship on this period emerges and histories are laid down, there is a danger of women's contribution to this sector being under-researched. The recent BFI landmark publication Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (2010) is to date the only substantial body of scholarship on the topic but, with the exception of a welcome and much-needed short essay about the director Sarah Erulkar, women are largely absent.11 While my own research is indebted to the scholarship in Shadows of Progress, there is still a pressing need to better understand the full scope and range of women's work in nonfiction film, especially at a time when the production sector and British society were going through a period of growth and renewal.

What sources can help reconstruct women's creative labor in nonfiction film? The challenges of researching women's film history are well documented: scholars have utilized fan magazine gossip, novelistic representations, shipping records, and family histories to piece together women's work in the film industries.12 In a similar manner this study draws on oral history interviews, extant films, and critical reviews, while broadening the scope to include evidence from a newly available data set of trade union records for the British film and television industries. By working with both quantitative and qualitative material I am able to examine women's work in greater detail than has previously been possible.

This article will first draw a historical map of women's work in the sector using numerical data, then develop two case studies focused on the professions of editor (Monica Mead, Kitty Wood, and Kitty Marshall) and director (Sarah Erulkar), chosen because they represent both above- and below-the-line roles and typical and atypical career pathways for women. Between them, these women edited and directed in excess of two hundred shorts, with Erulkar in particular having a high-profile career that garnered many national and international awards. These case studies examine the women's own reflections on their creative practices and the working cultures in which they functioned before opening out to reflect on questions of aesthetic expression and creative agency. This article thus opens up new pathways in British film history and makes a gendered intervention in the scholarship on nonfiction film.


The British nonfiction sector of the postwar years had its own distinct production culture consisting of specialist companies, publications, membership organizations, and distribution networks. The sector's workforce was represented and regulated by the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT), the film and television union, which controlled employment and negotiated pay for its members. It had a specialist Shorts and Documentaries branch and regularly published articles for that branch in the union's journal, The Cine-Technician. As the British economy grew in the 1950s, the demand for nonfiction shorts increased exponentially. Corporations such as ICI, Unilever, and British Petroleum looked to film to communicate new ideas, products, and services to domestic and global markets. The newly created National Health Service used short films to promote, recruit, and train its expanding workforce, as did Britain's growing education sector. This rich and multifaceted film culture also supported the proliferation of annual film festivals, film libraries, and a range of specialist publications, including Film User, Visual Education, and Look and Listen.13 

Researching nonfiction film and women's work in the sector presents particular challenges. Extant films are scarce (only a small proportion are held by national archives such as the British Film Institute), and paper records do not survive for specialist companies such as Realist or DATA. Denis Gifford's The British Film Catalogue is a core resource for film historians, but volume 2, Nonfiction Film, 1888–1994, covers only 35mm films released for theatrical exhibition, while much British-sponsored documentary was released on the nontheatrical circuit.14 The BFI holds copies of some trade and specialist publications, for instance Film User, Look and Listen, and Industrial Screen, and while these give invaluable access to documentary film culture, there are limitations, as individual directors are only mentioned occasionally in reviews, and editors not at all. In the light of these constraints I have drawn on oral history testimony and trade union data, alongside more traditional forms of documentation, to sketch women's presence into the historical record. What follows is necessarily a provisional mapping, with gaps still to be filled, but it does represent a long-overdue development of the slender body of existing work in this area.


One of the key sources informing my research are the records of the ACTT, the British film and television trade union. Formed in 1933, the ACTT regulated employment in the British film industry through what were known as “closed shop” agreements with employers. All technicians had to join the union to secure regular employment, a rule that extended to both above- and below-the-line workers, and by 1943 those in short film production were sufficient in number to warrant their own branch, Shorts and Documentaries.15 The union holds a complete run of its membership application forms; approximately sixty-seven thousand in total for the years between 1930 and 1991.16 These forms record the name, gender, rates of pay, job title, and employer of film and television technicians applying for union membership and, as such, give the researcher unique insight into the media production workforce. Because of the comprehensiveness of the collection, the data set allows us to quantify, for the first time, the total numbers of women and men applying for union membership, a prerequisite for employment in the industry.


The most effective way to identify women working in short film production is to search the database by employer. I compiled a list of forty production companies using sources identified in the BFI's Shadows of Progress study, and then organized the data into four groupings that the Shadows of Progress research suggests broadly reflected the mixed economy of postwar documentary production: the independents; state-sponsored units; film units of transnational corporations; and the Film Producers Guild (FPG).17 The independents were a self-identifying group of commercial companies associated with the Federation of Documentary Film Units (FDFU) and were ideologically in step with the socialist values of the documentary movement aligned with John Grierson in the 1930s and 1940s. They included companies such as Basic, Realist, and the animation studio Halas and Batchelor. State-sponsored units such the Crown Film Unit and the National Coal Board were linked to ministerial departments or nationalized industries, while corporation film units were a feature of large industries such as oil and companies like Shell. The FPG, more commercially attuned and astute than the FDFU independents, included companies such as Verity and Publicity Films alongside smaller operators such as Wallace and Rayant. Collectively the FPG was especially skilled in attracting private finance, and secured much of the work on offer in the postwar period.18 After initial inquiries, I discounted Pathe and Rank primarily on the grounds that the variety of output associated with these companies (including newsreels and film processing laboratories) made it difficult to identify union applications that were specifically connected to short film production. A secondary consideration was that these companies are better known in film history, and there is a greater contribution to be made to scholarship targeting under-researched employers.19 Adapting the framework used by the BFI's research team allows a picture of women's work to emerge that complements and enriches the Shadows of Progress scholarship.

A date range of 1939 to 1970 was chosen to identify numbers recruited during World War II, thereby contextualizing the postwar data. The figures presented here must be interpreted with care, and with two caveats. One is that the list of employers cannot be claimed as fully comprehensive, although any production companies missing from the search should not be of sufficient weight to skew the sample. Second, what follows is an analysis of the number of technicians who applied for union membership in the shorts and documentaries sector. There will have been technicians with union tickets already in the industry prior to 1939 who continued to work throughout the postwar years. What the membership application figures do illuminate is the film industry's demand for skilled technical workers, and from that we can extrapolate the relative economic health of the sector, the buoyancy of the film economy, and patterns in the gendered structure of the workforce.


A total of 1,084 technicians were granted union membership between 1939 and 1970 across the forty companies specializing in shorts and documentary production. Of these, 72 percent were male and 28 percent were female. This compares favorably with the numbers of women across all sectors combined (including features, laboratories, et cetera), where on average they represented 23 percent of applications.20 There is some numerical variation by gender between the war and postwar periods, with women representing 26 percent of all shorts and documentary technicians processed between 1939 and 1945, and 29 percent between 1946 and 1970. The numbers of women granted union membership were relatively stable when compared to applications by women across all sectors, which varied noticeably from 32 percent during the war to 20 percent during the 1960s. The data suggests that, notwithstanding the special circumstances of wartime production, women were a remarkably stable and visible presence in the shorts and documentary sector. Interestingly, unpacking these figures in more detail shows some variation both by company and across the four groupings, which gives insight into the relative progressiveness, or not, of individual employers.


British production companies specializing in nonfiction film 1939–1970.


British production companies specializing in nonfiction film 1939–1970.

Grouping 1: The Independents

There were eight leading independent documentary production companies: Realist, Basic, World Wide Pictures, DATA, Paul Rotha/Films of Fact, Seven League, Merlin, and Halas and Batchelor. Between 1939 and 1970 a total of 334 technicians applied for union membership through these companies, with 59 percent of applications from men and 41 percent from women. The greatest numbers of applications were processed through Britain's leading animation studio Halas and Batchelor—145 in total—of which 46 percent came from women, far higher than the average for the sector. Of the applications received through World Wide Pictures, 27 percent were from women, with 35 percent of the Realist applications coming from women. Proportions were higher at Paul Rotha/Films of Fact (40 percent), Basic (46 percent), and DATA (53 percent). Seven League and Merlin were small companies, with only a dozen staff between them applying for union membership.

World Wide Pictures processed the smallest number of applications by women technicians as a proportion of its total applications, and the majority of those came in the postwar period, when women joined the company's animation department as painters and diagram artists. Women were well represented in the DATA workforce, but they were almost exclusively in secretarial roles (clerks, typists, telephonists), a pattern that was repeated at Basic, where women's applications were primarily for secretarial grades, with only a few applying as animation painters and trainees. At Realist five women joined during the war as assistant directors, production assistants, and negative cutters, but in the postwar period applications only came through secretarial routes. Despite the visibility of women in the sector, the workforce of these companies was highly gendered: men in camera or sound grades, women in secretarial.

Women fared better at Paul Rotha/Films of Fact in terms of role variety, with the applications showing them applying in grades as diverse as animator, set designer, production trainee, and scriptwriter in the period between 1939 and 1947, the year the company folded. Among the independent companies, Halas and Batchelor was unique in employing women in a wide variety of roles over a sustained period of time. Established in 1940, the company quickly built a reputation for its promotional and instructional films, and its success in the postwar years created a high demand for skilled technicians. An analysis of union applications reveals that women were not only recruited to “ink and paint” roles (the traditional “feminine” role in animation), but also as animators, editors, model makers, colorists, tracers, and in-betweeners (a junior animator role). The figures must be interpreted with care, as there was gender discrimination at the company. It was men, not women, who were recruited to camera grades and employed in the more prestigious roles of background artist and layout assistant. But there do seem to have been greater opportunities for women, certainly more than Kristin Thompson found in her study of the US animation industry in the 1920s through the 1960s, where women were “almost entirely restricted to the Inking and Paint department.”21 While a detailed study of the company is beyond the scope of this paper, I would speculate that the presence of not only company cofounder Joy Batchelor, but also several high-profile women in key creative roles, including Rosalie (Wally) Crook, Vera Linnecar, Stella Harvey, and Kathleen Houston (née Murphy), played some part in normalizing greater opportunities for women.22 

Grouping 2: State-Sponsored Companies

Alongside the independents were production units funded through state sponsorship: the Crown Film Unit, the Colonial Film Unit, and the Central Office of Information. Here again there was some role variety for women. Of the 151 technicians granted union membership through Crown, 26 percent were women, who applied as librarians, studio managers, art apprentices, stills assistants, negative cutters, researchers, and production secretaries.23 Opportunities for women only extended so far, however; editor Vivienne Collins recalled that her attempts to get into the camera department at Crown were quashed by the men in the charge, who deemed women “not capable” of handling the camera equipment.24 Nevertheless, Crown was a more hospitable place than the Colonial Film Unit, which recruited only one woman—a typist—out of a total of twenty-four technicians, and her temporary status suggests that even here the company was hedging its bets. Of the 97 applicants received from Central Office of Information employees, 32 percent were women, most of whom applied from the mid-1960s onward in roles such as production assistant, editor, or researcher.

A small number of women applied through the production units of the newly nationalized postwar industries: British Transport Films (BTF) and the National Coal Board (NCB). They recruited modest numbers of film staff, as the business model was to have a small cohort of permanent employees with larger numbers either on rolling contracts or working freelance.25 Only one of the eighteen technicians who applied through BTF was female: chief librarian Elizabeth Wallis. This was a highly responsible position requiring specialist knowledge and expertise to meet the demands of the increasingly diverse audience for sponsored films, which included “motoring clubs … Women's Institutes …; holiday camps, [and] ships at sea,” alongside the usual schools and universities.26 Wallis's expertise was well remunerated; her salary of thirteen pounds per week in the mid-1950s was comparable to the average wages for men working as camera operators in independent television at the time. While Wallis was a lone figure at BTF, women fared better at the NCB, where 26 percent of applications came from women, principally editors. NCB's long-running cine-magazine Mining Review, which reported on life in the collieries and mining communities, enjoyed both theatrical and nontheatrical distribution and provided a steady flow of work for film technicians, especially freelance women editors, to whom I will soon return.

Grouping 3: Film Units of Transnational Corporations

Outside of state-sponsored production were the internal film units of major corporations such as Shell and ICI. The Shell Film Unit, launched in 1934, was active throughout World War II and the postwar period. Just under one-third of the forty-nine applications it processed were from women. Roles were quite varied at Shell, with women applying as editors, production trainees, scriptwriters, researchers, and assistant directors. The director Sarah Erulkar gained her union ticket through Shell in 1944 and remembered it as a “very exciting” place to work as a woman, at least before she was married (more on this later in the article).27 ICI, a leading sponsor of industrial films, had a small in-house film unit through which six technicians applied for union membership, including two women listed as assistant directors in the publicity department.

Grouping 4: The Film Producers Guild

The final grouping are companies that operated under the banner of the Film Producers Guild (FPG). Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor's description of the FPG as a “many-headed hydra” captures the complex nature of what was the largest single outfit producing sponsored film in the postwar period.28 The commercially astute FPG initially drew together seven companies: Verity, Publicity Films, Merton Park Studios, Technique Film Productions, Greenpark Productions, Gryphon Films, and Sound-Services. A total of 280 technicians applied for union membership through these FPG-affiliated companies, but only 18 percent of applications were from women, a noticeably smaller proportion than the numbers applying through the independents. Most of these were made during the 1940s, mainly through Merton Park Studios, where women were recruited during World War II to work on propaganda shorts as editors and animation artists, with a few librarians and continuity assistants joining in the postwar years. Only a handful of women gained their union tickets through other companies such as Verity, once again as editors or production and scenario (continuity) assistants, with most of these joining during the war, when Sidney Box ran the company. In sum, the data shows that while the FPG played a significant role in the postwar shorts and documentary sector, the employment opportunities it afforded women technicians were limited.29 This might be explained by the fact that by the 1950s companies like Verity were operating with bigger budgets than the average for the sponsored film sector, which may have worked against employing women in anything other than traditionally feminine secretarial or otherwise supportive roles.


Four key features emerge from this mapping exercise. First, women were a remarkably stable and visible presence in the shorts and documentaries workforce. Second, the proportion of women varied significantly by company, with data for Halas and Batchelor indicating they were more progressive in employing women. Third, employment pathways were gendered; many women gained their union tickets in typically “feminine” roles such as secretary or clerk. Finally, and notwithstanding role segregation, role variation for women is a noticeable feature of the sector. The data highlights their employment as editors, librarians, researchers, and animators—skilled grades that made a significant contribution to the output of the shorts and documentaries sector.

The trade union data is invaluable in mapping women's entry into the industries and the early parts of their careers but, valuable though that picture is, the records do have their limitations. Point-of-entry data can only ever present a partial picture, and other sources are needed to trace women's longer-term career pathways and shed light on the working habits, practices, and cultures in which they operated. In the next section I will focus on the careers of four women who forged long careers in the shorts and documentary sector—the freelance editors Kitty Marshall, Kitty Wood, and Monica Mead, and the director Sarah Erulkar—examining both typical and atypical career pathways. Editors were selected because of women's visibility in this grade and the availability of a small number of archived oral history interviews that provide sufficient qualitative data from which to draw a more nuanced picture of their work. Erulkar provides an interesting case study because of her more extensive archival trace in the form of extant films, oral history interviews, trade magazine commentaries, and other forms of documentation. These materials illustrate not only the constraints women encountered working in a male-dominated industry but also the opportunities they took for creative expression and the premium they placed on professional autonomy.


Editing has long been characterized as a feminine skill due to commonplace understandings of it as a supportive function that provides assistance to the (typically male) director's creative vision. The proportion of women editors in Britain was, by the 1930s, sufficiently high to attract the attention of industry commentators, who proclaimed that women were “numerically powerful” in London's cutting rooms.30 The demand for labor during World War II brought even more women into the profession, with cutting room crews described as “at a premium … [and] generally they were 100% female,” a profile that continued into the 1950s and beyond.31 

In the space available I want to focus on three women editors whose long careers in the British industry stretched between World War II and the 1980s: Kitty Marshall, Kitty Wood, and Monica Mead. Collectively their editorial work contributed to the production of a substantial number of shorts, children's films, and second features, although the exact figure is impossible to quantify. The women were interviewed as part of oral history projects, and their testimony is invaluable to the historical record. Their voices and recollections give us insight into the experiences of rank-and-file women, illuminating working practices and cultures that are rarely recorded in official archives. The longevity of their professional lives means they were steeped in the production culture of British nonfiction filmmaking and well qualified to speak about it; their testimony helps us understand its working culture from a female perspective. The women came from broadly similar middle-class and educational backgrounds and spent much of their professional lives as freelancers providing contract editing services in the 1950s and 1960s for companies such as the National Coal Board, World Wide Pictures, British Transport Films, Basic, the BBC, and others. I will look in detail at three topics: routes into editing and training; how the women understood their creative practice as editors; and their reflections on being women in the industry. Collectively these topics illuminate career profiles and pathways of typical women in this profession as well as providing a methodology from which narratives of other types of professional work may be traced.

Each woman came to editing after a spell working as a general assistant to a director. As Marshall described it, this “jack-of-all-trades” role introduced her to different aspects of filmmaking, including editing, location scouting, organizing crew, and continuity work, functions commonly deemed appropriate for women. The early years of their careers were characterized by variety: Marshall did animation drawing, Mead cut film and worked as a production assistant, and Wood took continuity work when editing was in short supply. All three freelanced extensively. Wood recalled, “There were a lot of little jobs you could get then in … children's films or second features.”32 Mead similarly moved from job to job, initially knocking on doors “on spec” and then surviving on short-term contracts “bit by bit.”33 Marshall, who had a long-standing association with the National Coal Board, nevertheless described herself as a “temporary worker for thirty years” who sustained her career through a series of short-term contracts.34 None of the women served formal apprenticeships as editors, but rather learned on the job, usually by working as an assistant to someone more experienced. These experiences illustrate the typical work avenues available to women in the mid-twentieth-century film economy.35 

Wood felt that working in what she characterized as “the very bottom rung of the feature world” gave her a type of training that worked to her advantage when she later moved into documentaries and commercials. In her estimation, directors of second features were used to working quickly, and were therefore well trained and efficient. She felt that working alongside them had “sharpened me up,” and left her well placed to take advantage of work in the new commercial sector in the mid-1950s, which needed editors who could turn things around fast.36 Marshall and Mead likewise recalled that working quickly was a highly regarded skill, and that those who could work accurately at speed were in great demand by the industry.

Marshall's reflections on her experience at the National Coal Board shed light on what the role offered women in terms of creative input into filmmaking. The NCB's Mining Review was its premier in-house cine-magazine, shown in miners' welfare halls and pit canteens as well as commercial cinemas. It profiled the collieries workforce and the technicalities of the mining process. It was highly regarded, with good production values and a reputation for turning out some “crisply fluent little movies” popular with audiences.37 Marshall recalled that as an editor for the NCB she was given “something like 30,000 [feet] of 35mm material on the sinking of shafts for a certain pit, highly technical … shot higgledy-piggledy … and trying to work out what the exact process was … in what order it would come.”38 With no more than a one-page outline of the film's general story to guide her, her first challenge in deciding how to edit the footage was to decipher the technical processes behind mine-shaft sinking. A chance encounter with an NCB engineer on the London Underground confirmed that her technical assessments were correct, and she went ahead and edited the footage accordingly. The finished film, likely to have been Bevercotes New Mine Part 2: Sinking the Shaft (1958), was widely distributed both domestically and overseas. Marshall embraced what she saw as the creative potential of editing: “Your most exciting times as an editor are when you get this material [that] hasn't been connected … and putting it together yourself, it's great fun.”39 

Mead echoed Marshall's sentiments, reflecting that the creative input she had working on documentaries was “enormous” because “they'd go off to a factory or a location somewhere and they'd shoot everything in sight and then come back … and say ‘Make something out of it.’”40 The opportunity to “make something” out of raw footage in nonfiction production provided Marshall, Mead, and others with scope for considerable creative license, which they actively embraced. Marshall's reflections on the editor's role are insightful. She likened it to “a glassblower”—that is, someone who responds to another's design brief but who “would have quite a bit of effect on the design, and he [sic] was an artist craftsman.”41 Equally valued was professional autonomy and control over one's work. Good editors were in high demand, and rather than being secondary to the director could expect a more equal working partnership. Wood recalled that when the well-known documentary director Mary Field was late for a pre-booked editing session, Wood “put her work away and got out somebody else's work,” much to the consternation of Field, who lost her place in Wood's schedule.42 This small anecdote is revealing, giving insight into how freelancers like Wood regarded both their own time and their position in the creative hierarchy.

The scope to manage one's own time was especially important for women with children. By the early 1960s Mead had three children and, with a cameraman husband away on location, sole responsibility for their care. She managed this over the years through a combination of home working, part-time work, and employing live-in help. When the children were small she worked from home “doing tiny little jobs in the spare bedroom” for small companies that “didn't require elaborate equipment.” As the children got older she worked on Mining Review as a contract editor for the NCB, hired out cutting rooms on an ad hoc basis, and found that by moving quickly with a coworker they could finish “two weeks' work … in about three or four days if we were clever.” She found that contract work on “short-time jobs” fitted with family life; she would “work for four or five weeks, and have a few weeks off.”43 Mead's preference for what she characterized as “episodic work” was echoed by the feature film editor Anne Coates, who chose editing because it afforded a degree of flexibility: “If one of the children was ill and I went in a couple of hours later, it didn't really matter.”44 

While editing was more open to women than other technical grades, it was not immune to gender-based discrimination. Women reported being refused work or feeling that they had to work harder than men to prove themselves. Wood recalled how her gender-ambiguous name (Kitty/Kit) would get her an interview, but that she'd be turned down for work when the male employer discovered she was a woman. She experienced a generational divide in the profession of the 1960s, with some older men from a features and shorts background “very much against … employ[ing] women as editors,” while “the commercial people” had no such reservations, suggesting how emerging production sectors could create new professional openings for women. Conversely, Wood found that some male directors preferred women editors because of an implicit belief that they must be good to have survived in what she described as a professional “atmosphere of not liking women.”45 Mead similarly struggled to get a toehold at some companies that were more suspicious of women in the role of editor. She described the head of editing at Movietone News as “a bit horrified at the idea of a woman” on the team, because they were “an alien species to him”; he was only persuaded to give her a chance when a male colleague vouched forcefully on her behalf. It was for this reason that Mead felt that “women had to be that much better … [whereas] men could busk it a lot more.”46 

These oral history testimonies illustrate that, despite women's visibility in the editing workforce, they operated in professional circumstances that brought challenges because of their gender. In some contexts, cutting crews might be female dominated, whereas in other contexts, such as Movietone News, women were in the minority. To succeed in an “atmosphere of not liking women” they needed to be tenacious, highly skilled, and extremely professional; there was no “busking” for women in the industry. Despite these challenges, editing shorts and documentaries seems to have afforded these women a high degree of creative agency. They took the opportunity to exercise professional autonomy by “mak[ing] something out of it,” taking the creative lead in a way that challenged the privileged position afforded the director in much film scholarship. Editing work also enabled women, where necessary, to combine paid work with family responsibilities. Topics such as mine-shaft sinking may have been less obviously glamorous than feature filmmaking, but the sector had its compensations. This may explain why women's recollections of the mining industry are so enthusiastic; Marshall describing it as “marvellous … I adored it,” while for Wood it was “really extraordinarily interesting.”47 In the final part of this article I want to extend the question of gender and creative agency into the director's role, and the particular career of Sarah Erulkar, one of the leading figures in British shorts and documentaries.


Sarah Erulkar's career is notable for its longevity and professional standing. She worked in the film industry for almost forty years (between 1944 and 1983), and her shorts won prizes at the Venice Film Festival (1952, 1971) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) (1970). She was born in India to a Jewish family who moved to Britain in 1928 when she was a child. Taken on as a trainee at the Shell Film Unit in 1944, she initially operated projectors in schools and learned to edit film before progressing to writing and directing. In 1950 she married Peter de Normanville, also a director of short films, and the couple had two children. A short article by the BFI nonfiction curators Ros Cranston and Katy McGahan provides a useful overview of Erulkar's career and its notable films, including Lord Siva Danced (1946), District Nurse (1952), Physics and Chemistry of Water (1965), Picture to Post (1969), and The Air My Enemy (1971).48 As these titles suggest, Erulkar's output was wide-ranging in its subject matter, encompassing traditionally “feminine” topics such as birth control, nursing, and cooking alongside more technical subjects such as helicopter mechanics and water molecules. Erulkar worked freelance for much of her career, and her practice combined social purpose with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility. Her choice of projects was motivated by a desire to, in her words, “be doing some good” while simultaneously relishing the creative freedom she thought unique to the short film sector. Indeed, she turned down opportunities to work in television in the belief that its filmmakers were more tightly bound by institutional rules.49 

A cursory glance at Erulkar's extensive screen credits—almost eighty in total—may suggest a smooth, upward career trajectory from junior recruit at Shell to the BAFTA-winning director of Picture to Post, but the reality is more complex and reflects the many obstacles women faced as filmmakers in mid-twentieth-century Britain. Challenges ranged from institutional discrimination to social pressures. Upon her marriage, Erulkar was forced to leave the Shell Film Unit, as her husband worked for the same company and the unit would not employ married couples, with the policy being that the woman would leave—an experience Erulkar recalled as “very painful.” After leaving Shell it was two years before she directed another film—District Nurse in 1952—and in fact her output as a director slowed considerably in this decade. The couple's two children were born and Erulkar turned first to writing and then freelance editing for the NCB for much of the 1950s. So few opportunities to direct came her way—she recalled being “unemployed for some time”—that she was “very tempted” to accept a commission to make a film for the South African diamond company De Beers although, ultimately, she refused on ethical grounds.50 

For a woman, especially one with children, keeping going as a filmmaker in any capacity was challenging, and it was gender rather than racial discrimination that Erulkar named as the main obstacle to her career. While some colleagues were supportive—for instance regular collaborators such as cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky and the producer Anne Balfour-Fraser—Erulkar found location shooting abroad almost impossible. Of her time directing Korean Spring (1969), she recalled that the male producer was “treated with enormous respect, none of which I got,” and that bathroom facilities for women were nonexistent: “That's where women … really do suffer, it was not easy.” As a working mother she experienced considerable social sanctions, especially from some of her peers, recalling that the wives of documentary directors “thought I was terrible. … Everybody disapproved of me. … It was quite a struggle.” Acutely aware of the tension between motherhood and creative practice, Erulkar reflected that “having children … [is] very difficult. When I [had the] first … I thought I'd give up … [but] it's all I wanted to do, was to make films.”51 In a manner similar to the editor Monica Mead, she hired au pairs, worked in the more “child-friendly” role of editing, relied on a supportive husband, and took short periods of time off, strategies that provide a vivid portrait of the working lives of middle-class professional women in mid-twentieth-century Britain. Why she continued in the face of these obstacles had to do with the principles of social justice that fueled her professionally. What emerges strongly in her oral history testimony is the value she placed on other people finding her work socially relevant. She recalled letters of gratitude from parents who had educated their children in personal safety using her public information films, and impromptu feedback from teachers on her training shorts. “That was great … a lovely feeling.”52 

Her commitment to social value was matched by an artistic inventiveness that was widely recognized by her peers. Although many of her films are lost, some titles are extant, and these, alongside contemporary critical reviews, provide a tantalizing glimpse into Erulkar's creative practice. She returned to directing in 1958 with Birthright for the Family Planning Association, but her floruit period was the 1960s, with films such as A World of Difference (1963) and Something Nice to Eat (1967) garnering lavish praise and widespread distribution on the nontheatrical circuit. The films are about domestic topics, respectively household washing and cookery, but Erulkar approached the quotidian subject matter with creative flair. A World of Difference is a twenty-three-minute, 35mm color film sponsored by Unilever intended to introduce domestic science students to the correct techniques for washing household fabrics. I have yet to find an extant print, but contemporary reviews suggest how it communicates technical information through a combination of animation and studio photography, including “close-up … imaginative composition and colour, startling lighting effects and so on.”53 Reviewers delighted in the film's cinematic qualities: “No where in the film are kitchens, people or washing machines seen; everything happens in a world that belongs only to the cinema and the deeply-involved viewer. The approach is both successful and breathtaking.”54 The tone of one review expresses surprise—“Who could expect a subject like this to yield the scope for creative film-making?”—while praising the film for being “outstandingly successful in combining useful information with elegance of presentation.”55 

Something Nice to Eat is similarly innovative in its formal qualities, blending studio photography with the specialist techniques of schlieren photography, animation sequences, tight close-ups of food items, cooking techniques shot in silhouette, superimposed images, and imaginative compositions shot through fish aquariums.56 The twenty-one-minute Technicolor short was written and directed by Erulkar with the high-profile Sunday Times cookery columnist Margaret Costa as adviser and featuring the model and actress Jean Shrimpton in a handful of scenes. The film was sponsored by the Gas Council, who wanted a film that, through cookery, promoted the virtues of gas as a modern fuel, but beyond that remit gave the director free rein: “We were just given a free hand with that film. … We were just allowed to do anything and we did anything.” In terms of subject matter the film is a love letter to French food, introducing audiences to the delights of cooking with garlic, olive oil, spices, and herbs, how to make a cheese soufflé or flambé a steak au poivre. “We used a lot of trick work … [which] we worked out ourselves. … [It] was one of the first documentaries to use the wide-angle [lens] … the 9.8, which I fell in love with.”57 It was techniques such as these—choosing an ultra-wide-angle lens to film a domestic subject—that illustrate her formal inventiveness and led one critic to praise her ability to “turn the ordinary into the exquisite.”58 Grasping the opportunity for creative freedom, Erulkar also experimented with playful sequences such as superimposing the film's neatly suited presenter on a giant, expanding soufflé. She and her cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky, went “over the top … on our ideas” and captured the imaginations of critics, who described the work as “a beautiful visual study” and praised its cinephilic capacity to “convert some of your non-film-minded friends to the medium.”59 The film went on to win national and international awards, paving the way for Erulkar's hugely successful Picture to Post, which was selected for commercial release, accompanying the world distribution of MGM's feature-length Alfred the Great (1969).


Something Nice to Eat (dir. Sarah Erulkar), 1967.


Something Nice to Eat (dir. Sarah Erulkar), 1967.

As with editors Monica Mead, Kitty Marshall, and others, Erulkar found in nonfiction film a space to flourish creatively, where “ordinary” topics could, by dint of imagination, be elevated to the “exquisite.” Professional success as a woman was by no means easy, and Erulkar had to navigate both institutional discrimination and social censure. Given this context, her success as a director is remarkable. More typical are the relatively short directorial careers of Erulkar's peers Yvonne Fletcher, Mary Beales, and Mary Francis, who worked intensively in the 1940s before “retiring,” either by choice or due to external pressure. Mary Beales, for example, was one of the women taken on as a production trainee at Paul Rotha/Films of Fact in 1943, when she was just seventeen years old; she went on to direct some notable films for DATA, including Fair Rent (1946) and Dover, Spring 1947 (1947), alongside shorts for Mining Review, before retraining as a sculptor. She worked intermittently in film, editing March to Aldermaston (1959) and codirecting the children's film The Secret Pony (1970) with her better-known documentary director husband Michael Orrom, but for the rest of her professional life she channeled her creative energies into sculpting and teaching, which perhaps could be more readily combined with raising the couple's children.60 There is more work to be done to research the careers of these and other women, including the editor Luisa Krakowska, whose creative input on Sunday by the Sea (1953) helped the film win the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and documentary producer Anne Balfour-Fraser, who reflected in 1962 that “women can achieve everything but it's appallingly hard work and it shouldn't be as difficult as it is.”61 


Perhaps unsurprisingly, union data has shown how the shorts and documentary sector offered opportunities for women; the sector's low status relative to features meant that gaps and interstices opened up where women's careers could gain traction. They still had to prove themselves with greater determination relative to men in order to rise up through the ranks, but women could reach more senior roles than in the film industry at large, while those in below-the-line roles had scope to take the creative lead. And women like Sarah Erulkar, Monica Mead, and others grasped the opportunity, making significant contributions to the sector's body of work as it stimulated, and sustained, the appetite of film audiences in the new, postwar British society. As a gendered history of sponsored films this study has illuminated not only women's contributions to film but provided a methodology by which narratives of other types of professional work may be traced, and from this may come new ways of thinking about film history.


This research was supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The author would like to thank the Council and interview participants for their valuable contributions to this research.
Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, Useful Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, eds., Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See also Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau, eds., Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009). For conferences see “Other Cinemas” (Screen Studies Conference, 2012) and the biennial Orphan Film Symposium at New York University, which has played a central role in recovering orphaned and nontheatrical films.
Thomas Elsaesser, “Archives and Archaeologies: The Place of Nonfiction Film in Contemporary Media,” in Films That Work, 23.
Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible, “Introduction,” in Learning with the Lights Off, 3–4.
See Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, eds., Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 30–59.
Amy Taubin, “Documenting Women,” Ms., Summer 2004, accessed December 8, 2017, http://www.msmagazine.com/summer2004/womenonfilm.asp.
Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, eds., Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). This anthology suggests new theoretical approaches to documentary around themes of self-other, filmmaker-subject, et cetera.
See Films That Work.
Laura Isabel Serna, “Anita Maris Boggs, Historical Invisibility and Gender in the History of Sponsored and Educational Film,” Feminist Media Histories 1, no. 2 (2015), 135.
Tanya Goldman, “Picturing Lee Dick, A Nonfiction Pioneer,” Feminist Media Histories 1, no. 2 (2015): 125–34.
See Jo Fox, “To Be a Woman: Female Labor and Memory in Documentary Film Production, 1929–50,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 10, no. 3 (2013): 584–602.
Ros Cranston and Katy McGahan, “Science and Society: Peter de Normanville, Sarah Erulkar,” in Shadows of Progress, 230–45.
See Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, eds., Doing Women's Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, “Documentary Culture: Groupings, Gatherings and Writings,” in Shadows of Progress, 14–15.
Denis Gifford, Nonfiction Film, 1888–1994, vol. 2 of The British Film Catalogue (Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2001).
“Above-the-line” and “below-the-line” are terms used in Anglophone film industries. The former negotiate salary on a film-by-film basis, while workers' salaries in the latter are standardized by union contract wage scales. In the British film industry, all film technicians in the period under review—from directors to negative cutters and production secretaries—were represented by the same union, the ACTT.
As part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded project, I have been working with a team to digitize these records, bringing them into the public domain for the first time through a searchable database. See the “Histories of Women in the British Film and Television Industries, 1933–89” database at http://bufvc.ac.uk/womenswork
The forty companies searched were Realist; Basic; World Wide Pictures; DATA; Paul Rotha/Films of Fact; Seven Leagues; Merlin; Halas and Batchelor; Central Office of Information; Crown Film Unit; Colonial Film Unit; Shell Film Unit; British Transport Films; National Coal Board, ICI; Verity; Publicity Films; Merton Park Studios; Technique Film Productions; Greenpark Productions; Gryphon Films; Sound Services; Technical & Scientific Films; Larkins; Derrick Knight; Wallace; Rayant; Samaritan; British Films; Anthony Gilkison; Pelican; Anvil; Horizon; Film Workshop; Ford Motors; Unilever; Strand Films; RHR Productions; Films of Today; and Cygnet.
Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, “Production,” in Shadows of Progress, 43.
I would encourage others to use the database to explore Rank and Pathe's contributions to short film production.
In total, just over thirty thousand workers were granted union membership between 1939 and 1970, with 23 percent of those applications (7,025) coming from women.
Kristin Thompson, “‘Quick—Like a Bunny!’ The Ink and Paint Machine, Female Labor and Color Production,” Animation Studies Online Journal, February 3, 2014, accessed December 14, 2017, https://journal.animationstudies.org/kirsten-thompson-quick-like-a-bunny/.
For a more detailed gender analysis of the Halas and Batchelor workforce see my forthcoming Female Technicians: Women, Work and the British Film Industry, 1933–1989 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2020).
The Crown Film Unit closed in 1952, and some of its technical staff may have transferred over to Anvil, which was established by three of Crown's leading directors, Ken Cameron, Richard Warren, and Ralph Nunn May. Russell and Taylor, “Production,” in Shadows of Progress, 33. This seems plausible as, despite producing in excess of 350 shorts, only one application for union membership was made through Anvil, which suggests they were using established technicians on either long-term contracts or a freelance basis.
Vivienne Collins (1997), interview 398, BECTU History Project, http://media.bufvc.ac.uk/web/bectu_oh_transcript/Vivienne_COLLINS_BECTU.pdf
Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, “Sponsorship,” in Shadows of Progress, 75.
C. E. Tiffin, “The Non-Theatric Audience,” Industrial Screen, October 1963, 388–90.
Sarah Erulkar (1991), interview 187, BECTU History Project, http://media.bufvc.ac.uk/web/bectu_oh_transcript/Sarah_ERULKAR_BECTU.pdf (hereafter Erulkar, BECTU interview).
Russell and Taylor, “Production,” in Shadows of Progress, 42.
This gender profile is consistent across the miscellaneous other small production outfits working in the sponsored-film market, such as British Films, Wallace, Rayant, and Derrick Knight, whose workforces included women editors, researchers, librarians, and production secretaries.
Alison Selby-Lowndes, “Women and the A.C.T.,” The Cine-Technician, July–August, 1938, 58.
Freddie Wilson cited in Roy Perkins and Martin Stollery, British Film Editors: The Heart of the Movie (London: BFI, 2004), 178.
Kitty Wood (1987), interview 6, BECTU History Project, https://www.uea.ac.uk/film-television-media/research/research-themes/british-film-and-tv-studies/british-cinema/oral-history-project. This recording is also available through consultation with the British Film Institute.
Monica Mead (2015), History of Women in the British Film and Television Industries project, http://bufvc.ac.uk/new/bectu/oral-histories/womens-work-oral-histories?interview=Monica_Mead (hereafter Mead, History of Women interview).
Kitty Marshall (1988), interview 31, BECTU History Project, http://media.bufvc.ac.uk/web/bectu_oh_transcript/Kitty_MARSHALL_BECTU.pdf (hereafter Marshall, BECTU interview).
While working freelance also characterized men's experiences in the industry, the opportunities available were highly gendered, with men having access to a greater number of grades closed to women, including camera, sound, and lighting.
Wood, BECTU interview.
Russell and Taylor, “Sponsorship,” in Shadows of Progress, 80–81. Exact audience figures are hard to determine, although one estimate put it at thirteen million people per issue in the late 1950s.
Marshall, BECTU interview.
Marshall, BECTU interview.
Mead, History of Women interview.
Marshall, BECTU interview.
Wood, BECTU interview.
Mead, History of Women interview. The buoyancy of the sector meant that there was plenty of work for those like Mead, who had a reputation for quality and reliability.
Quoted in Anne Ross Muir, A Woman's Guide to Jobs in Film and Television (London: Pandora, 1987), 107.
Wood, BECTU interview.
Mead, History of Women interview. Mead subsequently qualifies that this was “too broad an answer.”
Marshall, BECTU interview; Wood, BECTU interview.
Ros Cranston and Katy McGahan, “Science and Society: Peter de Normanville, Sarah Erulkar,” in Shadows of Progress, 230–45.
Erulkar quoted in Cranston and McGahan, “Science and Society,” in Shadows of Progress, 236.
Erulkar, BECTU interview.
Erulkar, BECTU interview.
Erulkar, BECTU interview.
Industrial Screen 7, no. 5 (May 1963): 209.
Industrial Screen 7, no. 5 (May 1963): 209
Film User 17, no. 200 (June 1963): 292.
“Schlieren photography” is a technique used mainly in aerodynamic research to photograph the flow of fluids, air around objects and shockwaves.
Erulkar, BECTU interview.
The Times, October 2, 1967, 24, quoted in Cranston and McGahan, “Science and Society,” in Shadows of Progress, 236. The 9.8 millimeter lens was later famously used by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Erulkar, BECTU interview; Alec Hughes, Movie Maker 1, no. 9 (November 1967): 681.
It is highly likely that she continued to have some creative input in her husband's long filmmaking career, even if it is not evidenced through formal mechanisms such as screen credits.
Quoted (no date attributed) in Patrick Russell, “Anne Balfour-Fraser” obituary, The Guardian (London), August 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/21/anne-balfour-fraser-obituary.