PD Smith

Films of Fact

Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 2008

Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, by Timothy Boon (Wallflower Press) 312 pp, £45. ISBN: 978-1-905674-38-1

Review by P. D. Smith

Films of FactThe first opportunity the British public had to see scientific films was at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square, London, in August 1903. The programme was billed as "The Unseen World: Revealing Nature’s Closest Secrets by Means of the Urban-Duncan Micro-Bioscope". It included a one-minute film called Cheese Mites that became a sensation. As the showman behind the event, Charles Urban, said it depicted the film’s stars “crawling and creeping about in all directions, looking like great uncanny crabs, bristling with long spiny hairs and legs”. Urban later added an opening shot of a man eating his lunch and suddenly realising that something is amiss with his Stilton. After examining it with a magnifying glass, he throws the cheese away in disgust. Nature was delighted. Its correspondent noted: “The music halls are being increasingly used for good music; why not for good science?”

This early example of microcinematography is Timothy Boon’s point of departure for a fascinating survey of science in British documentary films and television, the first book-length study of the subject. Boon is Chief Curator at the Science Museum and his book is the inspiration for an exhibition there featuring more than thirty rare British scientific documentaries (29 May – 30 November). Natural history films such as Cheese Mites owed much to the electricity exhibitions and magic lantern shows of the nineteenth century, which wowed their audiences with what historians have called the “aesthetic of astonishment”. But this impressively researched and scholarly study concentrates on the twentieth century up to 1965, examining in detail key “films of fact” and the people behind them. Interestingly, many early films, such as Frank Percy Smith’s The Balancing Bluebottle (1908), were made not by experts but by amateur naturalists using “gimcrack combinations of equipment” to capture their novel shots: “This was amateur or popular science made accessible”.

Boon’s title is borrowed from the influential documentarist Paul Rotha (1907-1984) who pioneered the use of modernist techniques in film to convey “a series of celebratory statements about modernity and technology”. The book marks Rotha’s centenary and is in part a homage to him. Nuclear fear and scares about man-made chemicals like DDT meant that Rotha’s techno-enthusiasm went out of fashion as a mode of filmmaking during the 1960s. However, the Cheese Mites approach – science as “spectacle and pleasure” – has, as Boon shows, remained a core TV genre. By showing that “science and film-making are old – not odd – bedfellows”, Films of Fact usefully places the current debate about TV science into its historical context.