Documentary pioneer John Grierson presenting his STV (Scottish Television) programme ‘This Wonderful World’
David Sherry, ‘Stitching’, 2000, 10’34” Film courtesy of the artist
David Attenborough in The People of Paradise, ‘Cargo Cult’, 1960, BBC

My second selection for MAP Screen’s The Anthropology Effect brings together clips from two television programmes alongside a video work by Glasgow-based artist David Sherry.

The first clip is taken from This Wonderful World . Produced by STV (Scottish Television) this series, which ran from 1957-1965, was developed and presented by John Grierson, who at this time was already being hailed as the father of the British (and Canadian) documentary film movement. The immensely popular programmes featured, as Grierson describes in his introductory preamble, ‘…some of the strange things, the wonderful things, that the camera has seen’ and were viewed by a large UK audience, one of the few Scottish programmes at the time to be broadcast nationally. This short clip is taken from the episode which aired on 1 January 1960, which is now the only surviving episode known to exist.

Broadcast a few months later in April of the same year, the next clip is from David Attenborough’s ‘Cargo Cult’. The second documentary in the series The People of Paradise, this episode takes Attenborough to the South West Pacific island of Tanna where he meets the ‘Cargo Cult’ followers of John Frum.

Both clips selected are taken from programmes broadcast in an era when television was developing as a distinct form of communication and a new cultural medium. It was a time when ‘infotainment’ shows were posited as ‘the hallmark of modern broadcasting’. [1]

As with the television programmes in question David Sherry’s video ‘Stitching’, 2000, is predicated on a direct ‘presenter to viewer’ dialogue. Although made as an artwork and therefore most likely to be seen in a gallery context, the video taps into, and questions, the apparent intimacy conjured by ‘documentary’ TV programmes like This Wonderful World and The People of Paradise (and the array of similar series that have followed), produced in a now familiar format which appears to enable the viewer to engage with the rest of the world (ie the non-western or non-English speaking world) from the comfort of our armchairs.

In all three pieces—an artwork, a studio-based TV programme, a documentary made ‘in the field’—an unequivocal level of authority is conveyed by an individual, the European male, his monologues, descriptions and introductions given as much for the camera as for the implied viewer at the receiving end. In each case the presenter, interlocutor or guide takes centre stage, assuming the position of conduit through which their chosen ‘subject’ or indeed (if we are to interpret as ‘imperialistic’ the image of the presenter with the globe by his side, as set-up in the opening sequence of Grierson’s programme) the Whole World can be understood.

Karen Cunningham

[1] Jo Fox ‘From Documentary Film to Television Documentaries: John Grierson and This Wonderful World’ Journal of British Cinema and Television, Issue 10.3

Karen Cunningham’s new moving image work Fib was commissioned by LUX and Collective Gallery and is currently being screened in the solo exhibition ‘Factish Field – Project 1’ at Collective Gallery, Calton Hill, Edinburgh until 24 November 2013.