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. !!!’

The Colony – a reflection by contributor, Victor Williams’ daughter, Sandra

Victor Williams

Sandra Williams























‘The Colony’ (documentary filmed and aired in the early 1963 – featuring the late Victor Joseph Williams)

The ‘clippie’, featured in the documentary ‘The Colony,’ is Victor Joseph Williams, my father.  He arrived in west Bromwich, West Midlands from his native Jamaica, in 1959.

I have vivid childhood memories of sitting at my father’s knee and gazing up into his eyes while he recounted endless stories about his experiences of living in Britain.  I listen intensely as he goes back in time to the early days of 1959 when he first arrived in the ‘mother land’ as a young and naive immigrant.  He had imagined a life where the streets were paved with gold, where meritocracy and egalitarianism were woven in the fabric of this modern civilization, and the sweat of one’s brow was rewarded with prosperity. As was the case with so many other immigrants to post-war Britain, Victor’s illusion was quickly shattered. He found himself in a land where the sun rarely shone, and the overcast and dreary weather enveloping grey drab buildings formed the perfect backdrop that could surely induce a deep depression.  As for streets of gold, they were more likely to be covered with dog faeces and discarded fish-and-chip wrappings. In the winter months, the blanket of clean white snow on the pavements would inevitably turn into piles of dirty slush.  On bitterly cold days, I can see my father braving the blustery breeze and blizzards, with shoulders hunched right up to his ears and his gloved hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, but his fingers remained numb.  His toes, meanwhile, metamorphosed into solid blocks of ice crammed inside of his heavy laced up winter boots.  It was during these bleak times that he most missed his beloved Hazel, who waited patiently in the Jamaican sunshine for my father to send enough money to book a one-way ticket to join him. Unlike Victor, there was no need for Hazel to endure the 21-day sail across the ocean on the Big-ona passenger ship, as air travel had become the preferred route.

Finding a room to rent was a challenge in itself. As my father pounded the streets of West Bromwich, he would stumble across a ‘room to rent’ sign posted in the front window.  However, when he knocked on the door to inquire, he was often scowled at and irreverently greeted with “no blacks, no Irish and no dogs.” How painful that must have been!  All that he wanted was to prepare a home for himself and his dear Hazel.  My father kept his perspective and taught me well, that there was good and bad in every race.  His hope and patience were rewarded when he found someone who was able to see past the colour of his skin and provide decent accommodation.

I remember my father’s smile, especially when he recalled one of the first letters he sent to my mother:  “My dear Hazel”, he writes, “this Britain is not all what I thought it would be, nor the life I had envisaged for us.  Here the sun rarely shines, the days are mostly cold and damp and I don’t see myself living here much longer. Do not fret my dear, for I have found myself a job and will work hard to save enough money to book my return passage home just as soon as I can.” As the weeks turned to months and the months quickly turned into a full year, my father slowly began to adjust to his new life in Britain.  By 1961, he had saved enough money for Hazel to book her flight to join him in West Bromwich, West Midlands.

By 1962, Victor got a job as a clippie with West Midlands Transit Corporation.  Although he was more than qualified for such a lowly position, those in authority could not seem to fathom how a young Jamaican immigrant could demonstrate, show such poise and intelligence, and whose command of the English language allowed him to articulate and express himself with such eloquence and grace. However, his attempts to improve his lot by applying for a position as an inspector were consistently denied.  Soon, he had to choose: remain a clippie or return to his former position as a labourer in one of West Bromwich’s grungy factories.  Deep in his heart he always knew that he was capable of doing so much more than what was expected of him.

I smile as I recall the stories my father shared about the obstacles in comprehending the local dialect.  It took quite a while for him to understand the meaning of “ado cock how am ya” when greeted by the lady serving tea in the cafeteria, but it took far less time for him to understand when his race was being insulted. He was referred to as a “darkie” and he soon became familiar with other pejorative terms, such as “nig-nog”, “sambo”, “golly-wog” and “black-jack. ” Back then, they even had sweets that were called “black-jacks”, with a picture of a grotesque looking “golly-wog” on the wrapper. It was not uncommon to find children in their local corner shop purchasing a penny’s worth of “black-jacks”. It was several years before these offending sweets were finally taken off the shelves.

Jamaican immigrants arriving in Britain had what they describe as the ‘five-year plan.’ It was the cornerstone of a work ethic and self-discipline that kept them on track to work hard and save diligently for five years.  After that time, the plan was to return to their Caribbean homeland more prosperous, able to build a home, and provide a much better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children.  In 1962, Victor and Hazel welcomed the arrival of their first child to be born in the motherland.  Like so many other idealistic couples, their original five-year ideal was replaced by a more realistic 20-year plan. During this period, they raised enough money to purchase their own home and to have their three remaining children, who had been living in Jamaica with grandparents, join them in England.

Both my parents did return to their native Jamaica, which was the intention of almost every immigrant who emigrated from the Caribbean. My parents were one of the few who did realize that dream, and in 1979, they returned to Jamaica with my youngest sibling Tracey and myself.  Unfortunately, their return to the land of their birth did not play out as they had hoped and, ironically, it was difficult for then to readjust to their new life as returning expatriates.  In 1980, my father returned to England to find work, only this time he had a two-year plan, but his untimely death prevented him from achieving his ultimate goal:  to return to his beloved Hazel, whom he had left behind with his two youngest, me and my sister Tracey.  With the passing of a dear husband and father, Hazel and ‘the girls’ decided to return to Britain. In 1982 we once again packed our belongings and returned to the familiar West Bromwich in the West Midlands.

Hazel never remarried and continues to reside in the West Midlands. Tracey returned to the West Midlands after spending some eight-years living and working in London.  She is now the Deputy Head of a school for children with special needs. Tracey resides with her husband and their two sons.  As for me, I followed in my parents’ footsteps by embarking on a new life in another country. After graduating from the University of Oxford and then living and working in London for several years, I immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1998. It was there that I met Lloyd, my long-term partner, and would you believe it, he was born and raised in Wolverhampton, West Midlands…how uncanny is that?  We now share a home and cherish our seven-year-old son Declan.  My dad would be so proud!

As a second generation Brit, I have not allowed my achievements and successes to be marred by racial prejudice.  Sadly, the ills of racial prejudice still exist albeit at a more covert level. To this end, I vehemently believe that, as the offspring of Caribbean decent immigrants, there is a place for us in this modern civilization where we can co-exist with the indigenous population.  Many men and women of my generation have benefited enormously from the drive, determination and strong will that was passed down to us from a generation that overcame barriers and made it easier for use to succeed. Like many others, I, too, will cherish those same values and pass a proud and lasting legacy to the next generation.

Sandra Williams

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