The Long Journey – documentary by Philip Donnellan

Philip Donnellan 1

I was lucky enough to view this Philip Donnellan documentary at BBC Birmingham this week. Here is what I made of the film:

This black and white documentary explores what it was like to be a teenage in 1960’s England. It was transmitted on 7 April 1964.

Like several other of Philip Donnellan’s documentaries, the music/voice montages were adapted by Charles Parker. This time from a Radio Ballad called ‘On the Edge’ by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, who sing the songs in the film.

The documentary was made at BBC Birmingham at the Carpenter Road headquarters in Edgbaston. It would have been shot on 16mm film, with sepmag audio. The camera crew were Peter Bartlett and Brian Tufano, sound by Bob Roberts. The sound mixer for the montage sections was Pat Whittaker, and Edward le Lorrain was the film editor. The production assistant was Richard Marquand.

As in much of Donnellan’s work there is no voice over. The contributors tell their own story accompanied by observational camerawork of actuality sequences. Some of the scenes seem rather staged, and less truly observational than desired. This is particularly true of the hitch hiking sequences.

Much of the synch sound comes from close ups of talking heads, which are frequently intercut, to present different perspectives on a subject. The voice montages are re-versioned from the Radio Ballads, with appropriate new visual overlay. The montages provide structural breaks in the film, and punctuate the developing narrative scenes. They also provide an energy, with a myriad of quickly cut sound bites. They are disruptive to the narrative flow. There are several new contributors, and viewpoints besides those from the radio audio montages.

Music accompanies much of the film, and the lyrics from the folk songs that were part of the original Radio Ballad, are perfectly in tune with the subject matter and treatment, although they seem slightly old fashioned in contrast to the pop music performed in different scenes of the documentary.

The film is quite melancholic and downbeat. The representation of teenagerhood is certainly not one of unbridled joy and feelings of liberation. Subjects like drug use and sex before marriage are talked about, but the emphasis is on the difficulty teenagers face in making sense of the world and finding their place within it. Loneliness is another key theme, as is breaking away from parents and their expectations, and living for the moment. The selfishness of being young is also talked about: that you only care about yourself.

The key contributor is a 16 year old girl who has left home, has no money, and gets around by hitching. She is trying to find answers. Along the way she is joined by another similar girl, and the two have some quite philosophical discussions about their perception of life, religion and of nature. They walk in the countryside, and overlook the city, mentioning how beautiful the smoke from the power station looks, and how a tree planted in a streetscape seems so different from a tree in its natural, rural setting. They seem apart from the real world: they are observers from outside, struggling to get a sense of scale. They talk about how when you’re in the city, you unwittingly become part of it, whereas from the top of the hills looking down you can observe and be free. They walk through a hillside graveyard, observed by a handheld camera, and read from some of the gravestones – again pondering meanings of life, and death, and deciding that you’ve got to make the best of the time you’ve got.

We dip in and out of the girls’ story; they provide the narrative thread to the film. When we meet them next they are entering a church, with the vicar mid-sermon. He preaches about young people. Amidst overlay shots of slum clearance, and the high-rise flats that are replacing them. One of the girls talks about wanting to construct something, to make a positive contribution, but that sometimes you need to destroy what is already there, in order to move on.

The last time we meet the 16-year-old girl is at the end of the film. Again she is hitching, this time going south. She says she has a long way to go, and muses nihilistically about the importance of life: that when you die, you become a memory, just a name written in the front of a school book, or clothes that must be discarded from your home. This depressing perspective is in tune with earlier philosophical themes running through the film, and is certainly not the depiction of youth that we expect from the supposedly liberating and hedonistic sixties. It is the girl’s Long Journey we have been following, both her physical journey, and more importantly her metaphorical journey into adulthood.

This film would be most unlikely to be commissioned today. Its treatment would not be appreciated by modern commissioners; there are too many voices, and not enough of a compelling narrative. Although there is a narrative flow to the piece, it is a subtle one, woven by Donnellan, and not inherent in the actual story of the 16-year-old girl. However, the documentary gives us a powerful social commentary on what it could actually feel like to be a teenager in the 1960s, away from more stereotypical images. The film has depth, and a philosophical outlook that makes it withstand the test of time.

Vanessa Jackson

Gordon Astley who worked with Donnellan and Parker added the following comment on the Pebble Mill Facebook Group:

‘I knew Parker and Donnellan in my first week after leaving Wood Norton. I cannot believe now that as young broadcaster I was allowed to wield a razor blade on the “Radio Ballads”. Also remember all the people I worked with slagging them off for being time wasters on arty farty stuff.’

Memories of Philip Donnellan – Peter Poole

Philip was a producer who gave a voice to people who seldom appeared on television. His films had a similar style to the ‘Radio Ballads’ produced in Birmingham by Charles Parker. They mixed actuality with specially commissioned music to tell the life stories of people from all sections of society. Philip was a great interviewer and was able to put interviewees at ease and talk at length.

Philip frequently had a high shooting ratio to achieve the highest standard of documentary production. He sometimes ran over budget before his films were finished. This caused some conflict with BBC management. However he always seemed to find the money to complete his films. In 1977 he produced ‘Pure Radio’. This film was about the Radio Features Department and Charles Parker. John Pierce from Audio Unit had worked on the ‘Radio Ballads’. He took part in this drama documentary working again with Charles Parker. The film editor was John Bland.

I remember working on ‘Gone for a Soldier’. A large group of World War 2 veterans told stories of their war time experiences. This was covered by 2 film cameras and 2 microphone booms. The only time filming stopped was when the audio tape ran out. The sound recordist was Dennis Cartwright from BBC Manchester. I can’t remember the rest of the crew. The film editor, Greg Miller spent many months on this production. It was broadcast in 1980 as two 50 minute films shown on the same night. This film was very controversial and generated a strong reaction in the media and the establishment. Questions were asked in Parliament as it showed the military in a very poor light. Philip was driven by a strong socialist political belief and was on the side of the “underdog”. The film’s main theme was the poor treatment of soldiers by the senior military. Specially commissioned music was used to illustrate the lives of soldiers throughout history to contemporary times. This was Philip’s finest film and much of it is still relevant today.

At times Philip could be a little “difficult” and did not appreciate my comments about his tape recording skills. His PA Elizabeth Seaborne called into the transfer suite with tapes for transfer to SEPMAG. It was evident they had not recorded by a professional sound recordist. My report listed many technical faults with these tapes. I stamped the tapes “Not for TX”. I soon heard Philip was rather annoyed by my comments. A little later Elizabeth phoned to tell me Philip was coming to see me. I was very apprehensive about telling a senior producer that his tapes were not broadcast quality. Philip came in looking quite annoyed but after some discussion we came to a mutual understanding.

Philip had a policy of keeping all material from his films after broadcast. A storage area in Pebble Mill’s basement was full of film negatives, tapes and paperwork going back many years. I hope this collection is now in safe storage.

Philip made many films and I was fortunate to have a very minor role in the last few. These films would never be made today due to cost and the long production times. Philip is a major figure in the documentary movement but now seems totally forgotten by the BBC. A Donnellan season on BBC Four would be a fitting tribute to this great producer. But the BBC seems intent on never repeating any of his work.

Peter Poole

John Bland, photo by Peter Poole

Greg Miller, photo by Peter Poole

The Colony – Vanessa Jackson

I recently watched ‘The Colony’ by documentary film maker, Philip Donnellan, and wrote down my thoughts on seeing it for the first time:

‘The Colony’, a documentary produced and directed by Philip Donnellan for the BBC in Birmingham, is now almost 50 years old.  It shows the lives of black immigrants to Birmingham, through the eyes of the West Indian contributors.

Looking at the documentary as a programme maker it illustrates some techniques we would consider quite modern, alongside a narrative structure which does not chime with contemporary sensibilities.

It is surprising how well the documentary stands up to a modern day viewing.


The film is refreshing in that it lacks the heavy sign posting which is ubiquitous in the documentaries of today.  There is no opening two minutes where the whole premise of the film is explained, intercut with the most gripping clips of actuality.  There is no voice over to tell the story, and no captions; so we only know the names of the contributors when we read the end credits.  On the one hand this is frustrating, as we would be more engaged by the characters if we knew their names, whilst on the other the concept of anonymous outsiders is increased by the absence of a named identity.

The lack of signposting, and voice over means that the audience has to work harder to make the connections, and to understand what the documentary is trying to achieve.  The construction is subtle, but carefully thought out, with the juxtaposition of the audio and visuals reflecting the conflict between the Imperial motherland and the West Indian immigrants.  Throughout much of the film, the audio is out of vision, covered with overlaid visuals.  Sometimes these show the contributor, for instance, going about their work, but more often are of seemingly disconnected images, for example shots of civic Birmingham, with audio about black children being unsuitable for adoption.  This disconnect between sound and vision highlights the disconnect between the white civic culture and the black experience.

The audio is partly often out of vision because of the use of ‘voice montage’, which sets Donnellan’s work apart from other documentary film makers past and present.  The radio producer, Charles Parker, is credited as the creator of the ‘voice montages’ in ‘The Colony’.  The montages are effective in delivering a range of views from different voices.  They add energy, but also a sense of confusion and disembodiment.  We cannot assign voices to faces, and cannot build up an empathetic relationship with these contributors.

Whilst the film is certainly authored by Donnellan, it is not didactic.  He seems to be trying to let the contributors speak for themselves, although it is naive not to assume that questions have been asked off camera to prompt the discussions and responses.

‘The Colony’ was shot on 16mm film, by a film crew consisting of a cameraman and sound recordist; a minimal crew by 1960’s standards.  Reels of film would have had to be replaced every ten minutes.  If you were making such a film today it would almost certainly be recorded by a self-shooting producer/director, on a high-end camcorder, with the ability to record continuously for at least 40 minutes.  Given that Donnellan was filming with a crew and in short bursts, he managed to catch some natural moments, and the documentary does have a very observational air.

The camerawork is interesting in terms of style.  Some sequences are handheld, and on a couple of occasions the camerawork becomes subjective, rather than objective.  At one point a woman describes how disorientating the arrival by train to Birmingham was; when she finishes talking there is a frenetic montage of fast cut shots, of trains, guards, cars etc.  The audio is a cacophony of train sounds, cars and horns.   This approach of stylistically cutting the sound and pictures to give the impression of what the contributor experienced appears to us to be quite a modern technique – but this is obviously not the case!  The other sequence, which uses a similar technique, is the introduction to the Church scene.   The gospel singing and particularly the clapping are treated in a similarly frenetic fashion.  But here the rationale, I think, is different.  The montage is not to get the audience to empathise more with the experience of the contributor, but to highlight the difference between a sedate Church of England Service, and this far more participatory, higher energy occasion.  The effect is to make the viewer feel an outsider.

The style of the film is mostly observational, with the contributors speaking off camera or to each other; however this convention is broken very near the end of the film where the signalman speaks directly to camera, in the manner a presenter would.  I wonder if the contributor adopted this form of address instinctively, or whether he was directed to do so by Donnellan, in order to talk directly to the audience for the first time and to emphasise the main point of the film: that the West Indian immigrant has a choice, to go back home, to integrate, or to live some unsatisfactory existence that is short of full integration.

An observational film, such as this, is nowadays largely constructed in the edit, but Donnellan would have had to shoot much more tightly than we can do on modern videotape, which is a fraction of the cost of 16mm film.  The expense of shooting on film may well have meant that Donnellan had to be far more restrictive about what he shot, and he may have consequently had to plan out his running order far more carefully in pre-production.

A technique that Donnellan uses relatively frequently is the intercutting and revisiting of different scenes, for instance the signalman’s contribution is broken up.  This is a classic documentary technique which is still common today, inter-threading stories and allowing for progression and the build up to the conclusion of the narrative.

There is a marked use of G.V.s (general views) in ‘The Colony’; urban townscape shots are long and lingering.  Frequently the shots are of gas storage towers, railway sidings, and street scenes.  Their job is to provide space for the film to breathe, but also to highlight the contrast between the grab, grey, industrial cities the immigrants were coming to in Britain and the largely rural, colourful and certainly sunny life in the West Indies. The recurring images of industrialization and particularly the railways, hark back to the early point made in the Science Museum: that the industrial pioneers had open minds, and asking the question whether people in 1960’s Britain were as open minded when it came to accepting the new immigrant population.

Although Donnellan makes much use of wide G.V.s, he does not follow the usual documentary convention of today, of beginning a new scene with an establishing wide shot.  Instead he often shoots very tight shots, and the audience only catch brief glimpses of the surroundings as the scene progresses.  This is particularly the case during the long discussion in the coffee shop, where the audience only realize how many men are in the room, and the actual location, towards the end of the scene.  The same is true of the scene with Aston Hall, where additionally we have a disconnect between outside and inside.  The camerawork is an observational exterior high pan, whilst the audio is from a guided tour inside.  The audience is initially excluded, perhaps echoing the content, of the black man being excluded from white history, where subjects like slavery and the wealth this brought to Britain, is rarely mentioned.

Donnellan achieved good access with what could have been potentially difficult to reach contributors.  As a white, middle class male, this might have been quite challenging, and extremely time consuming.  Access is still a critical factor in successful documentary making today, and being able to gain the trust of hard to reach communities is no easy feat.

Donnellan did not shy away from non-standard production techniques, both in his shooting and editing.  Noticeable are some jump cuts, which are rather jarring and unattractive.  These would be seen as unprofessional today, and an attempt would be made to overlay them somehow.  He also uses soft edged wipes from time to time, which we might wrongly consider a fairly modern technique.  The use of ‘voice montage’ he borrows from radio.  Visual montage is an extremely common tool of the factual programme maker, but the concept of ‘voice montage’ is not.  It is also noticeable that Donnellan sometimes uses stills, to freeze the action and show a disconnect between the contributor and audience.


The narrative is constructed in a fashion that is unlikely to be used today.  We are being shown a ‘slice of life’, rather than a cohesive story.  This is not to say that the film lacks a narrative arc, and there is certainly an ordered and logical progression of scenes.  This style of narrative tends not to be favoured by commissioners today.  There is no clear conclusion to the story, and the sheer number of contributors means that it is difficult for the audience to empathise.

The film is consciously constructed, despite the observational shooting style.  Subjects are introduced and then picked up on later.  This is sometimes done in a rather heavy-handed fashion, and is particularly apparent when introducing the scenes of nursing and teaching.

Some scenes are held far longer than would be acceptable to today’s tastes.  This is particularly true of some of the discussion scenes, where although the content is interesting the visuals are not very stimulating.

The scenes are ordered for a progression of activity, from work scenes, home scenes, and community gatherings , through to socializing and worship.  There is also a progression of themes including the concepts of open mindedness, broken promises, disappointment in arriving in Britain, wanting to go back, problems with discrimination and racism, working together, but not socializing together, and worshiping separately.   The conclusion, stated by the signalman is that the black man has certain choices: going home, integrating, or living an unsatisfactory middle existence.


The contributors have been carefully chosen, and all are articulate and dignified.  Donnellan concentrated on including predominantly black contributors, including many seemingly ordinary working class men, whose voices were rarely heard on 1960’s British television.  He was not interested in seeing how white contributors viewed the immigrant families, but in hearing the untold story, of what it felt like to be an immigrant coming to Britain.  The contributors are predominantly but not exclusively male.  The scenes with the nurse and the teacher felt like they had been included to give some gender balance.


One of the striking aspects when watching ‘The Colony’ as a modern day viewer is the depiction of contemporary 1960’s society.  Smoking was much more commonplace, and much of what we see has changed in the fifty years since the film was recorded.  There are no bus conductors nowadays and very little heavy industry in Britain.  Something else that surprised me was how smart, and how dignified all the contributors were, and how respectful of each other, and of the British Motherland, they were.  The way the use of language has changed is also noticeable.  We hear words like ‘half-caste’, and ‘coloured’ in the film, being used in everyday parlance by black contributors: words that would be seen as derogatory or racist today.

BBC offices in Carpenter Rd, Edgbaston, where I think Donnellan would have worked whilst producing 'The Colony'


The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Conal O’Donnell: ‘He was certainly at Pebble Mill in the mid-80s I had the privilege & pleasure of drinking with him -often in the company of Stan Jones-in the club bar.The standard of wit & repartee was high indeed!’

Pete Simpkin:’Fascinating Vanessa and a very detailed analysis..I would very much like to see a similar treatment given to some of todays efforts which unlike Donellan’s are all style and very little substance. Were he to make this feature today it would undoubtedly have been called ‘Donellan’s Colony’.’

Gordon Astley:‎’..when I joined the Beeb I was seconded to Charles Parker and worked on the Radio Ballads. One night, editing in Carpenter Road, I fell into bad company when Charles and Philip,plus assistant Gina, broke into the BBC records room and they went through their files. All I can remember was that the Beeb regarded them both as rather subversive!!!’

When asked if the escapade in the BBC Records room had ever been discovered Gordon Astley replied, ‘….I have waited until what, I presume, is the Statute of Limitations on the case. All I remember,m’lud, is that drink had been taken…they were my seniors..I fancied Gina to bits….and it was a merry jape. Mea Culpa etc. !!!’

Philip Donnellan’s ‘The Colony’ – Paul Long

‘The Colony’ (1963) is remarkable for being different in concept and execution from the typical BBC documentary of the time, let alone any of those dealing with immigrants in Britain and the general manner in which they were treated as objects to investigate and speak about. Its distinctiveness was a result of the particular vision of its creator Philip Donnellan, a figure whose oeuvre has been barely acknowledged by the BBC itself or by historians of the media.
Donnellan was a documentarist based in Birmingham who felt particularly dissatisfied with the BBC’s approach to its public service remit.

At issue was the nature of the ‘public’ it assumed to address and those it did not. He recalls in his unpublished autobiography that he was conscious of the ways in which British society began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as result of the post-war settlement. All about him was evidence of the challenge to traditional social divisions and deference located around authority and class. Confident explorations and celebrations of the vitality of working class life were found in the of the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, in the films of Free Cinema, in the theatre and novels of the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’. This new world was there also in the presence and vitality of the culture of Black migrants. For Donnellan, and with honorable exceptions (see below), little of this vista was adequately registered by the BBC, which was not only limited in its coverage but in the way it spoke of and to its audience. This was governed by an unspoken consensual idea of how Corporation employees proceeded about their work: ‘An understood, though undefined, cultural, social and political consensus which fenced in the world we inhabited and gave boundaries to decisions of taste, style, and subject and to the choice of broadcasters who might handle them correctly and safely’.

From his first film ‘Joe the Chainsmith’ (1958), which ventured into the Black Country, Donnellan aimed to challenge this consensus by extending the subject and form of documentary. He sought out working people and under-represented social groups, the Irish, travelers and Black migrants. He created a space in his films that would allow them to speak for themselves and about their concerns and opinions without any overt intercession from the authorial tones and spurious objectivity of the BBC. Conceived in this vein, ‘The Colony’ is one of the enduring achievements of Donnellan’s career for the way in which he sought to represent the Black experience in Birmingham. As he recalled:

The intention was not to examine ‘colour prejudice’ it was certainly not our purpose to report on or review white people’s feelings of superiority: that was frequently implied in one news broadcast after another, and in the routine programmes that almost entirely ignored the black minority. Our aim was to present what it felt like to be a West Indian, in Britain, in Birmingham, and to offer West Indians the chance to describe in their own way the feelings they had about Britain and the British. 

In order to fulfill this aim, Donnellan marshaled together a range of men and women who populate the film and give it its complex textures. They are seen and heard at home, in the workplace, at leisure, in prayer and participating in group discussions. Subjects speak directly to camera about their experiences, taking time to think about the insights they offer. In addition, a range of further, unidentified voices give testimonies that overlay the imagery that locates them in the day-to-day environment and interactions of the city. This mise-en-scène includes images of civic dignitaries at St Martin’s Church, busy streets, faces staring back at the camera (taking on a position of Black subjectivity), slum streets and walls daubed with racist graffiti.”

Paul Long (2011), ‘Representing Race, and Place: Black Midlanders on Television in the 1960s and 1970s’, Midland History. Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 261–76



Free Screening Event – Sat 5 March

Archive Event Flier

Screening Schedule


Film info















On Saturday 5 March, Birmingham City University are holding a free screening event at the School of Art in Margaret Street, very near the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  The event is open to the public, and it would be great to see as many people there as possible, so please come along if you can.

We’ll be screening three BBC Pebble Mill dramas: Fellow Traveller, (the only TV film made at Pebble Mill) TX 1991, which will be introduced by Exec Producer Michael Wearing and writer Michael Eaton; A Box of Swan , starring Adrian Dunbar and Pete Postlethwaite, TX 1990; and A Touch of Eastern Promise, TX 1973, which will be introduced by writer Tara Prem and script editor Peter Ansorge.

There will also be the opportunity to see excerpts from a Philip Donnellan documentary made in Birmingham before the building of Pebble Mill: Joe the Chainsmith.




The schedule for the screenings is as follows:

11am-12pm and 2pm-3pm: ‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’ (1973) & ‘A Box of Swan’ (1990)

12pm-1pm: ‘Joe the Chainsmith’ (1958) & ‘A Story of Cradley Heath’ (2010)

1pm-2pm: ‘Made in Birmingham’ (2010).

3pm-4.30pm:            ‘Fellow Traveller’ (1991 )


I hope to see you at the event on Sat 5 March. For more information see this link: