When Canada sought its place in the world: NFB memoir recalls a country with a great global purpose
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 January 2006)

We have to take Canadians by the throat and convince them they're a great people: You could have heard John Grierson saying that any day at the National Film Board in 1940, when he was teaching Canadians how to produce documentaries. He was arguing that Canadian pride and energy were needed, to save the world.

His words may now sound worn, made over-familiar by the hypocrisy of politicians and CBC bureaucrats. But when he spoke them they were fresh and powerful, not least because they came from a man obviously committed to a cause.

Today, as Canada clumsily gropes for a sense of purpose, it's exhilarating to recall a period when our best people knew precisely what they had to accomplish. Grierson helped stir that passion, as we can read in the account that Graham McInnes (1912-1970) set down in One Man's Documentary: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Film Board (University of Manitoba Press), edited by Gene Walz.

That book took about 35 years to get from manuscript into print, and it took me another year to hear about it. It's a notable event in cultural history, perhaps the most intimate account we have of Grierson fighting a war from the old Ottawa lumber mill where the government installed its propaganda agency, the NFB.

In 1940 Grierson was 42 years old, at the top of his game, playing a role he had always desired and would never find again -- the brilliant leader with desperately needed talents. France fell that summer and soon the Nazis owned continental Europe. Their only remaining enemies were Britain and the Dominions, including Canada. The Soviets were Hitler's allies and the Americans wouldn't go to war till late 1941. "There's no use pretending we're not in a terrible mess," Grierson told his colleagues. It was a crisis, and he blossomed in crisis.

Grierson decided documentaries would help decide the war. He knew all about documentaries, having made some great ones in Britain. McInnes remembers the intense excitement of hearing this master say that Canada was still half asleep, but Canadians could be aroused by "images that will straighten their shoulders, brighten their eyes, put spine into them."

Prosaic, unexciting Canada would become, it seemed, the Arsenal of Democracy, the western end of the Atlantic lifeline. Grierson radiated energy and spoke an exotic language, pure Glasgow. He pronounced "truth" as if it were "trith," called the female employees "gairls," and described the enemy as "the Gairmans."

"The Decline of the West?" Grierson would say. "Do you believe that? If you do, you're wasting your time here, because we've work to do."

Films would inspire the people, Americans as well as Canadians. Churchill's Island, a 1941 paean to the wartime nobility of the British, with Lorne Greene's commentary, won the Board's first Academy Award. Millions of Americans saw it in movie theatres.

While the British filmmakers imported by Grierson seemed amazingly sophisticated in Ottawa, the Canadians (McInnes writes) brought to their work "a truly wonderful innocence of eye." They also brought diffidence and uncertainty, which meant dullness on the screen. An exception was Sydney Newman, a Torontonian with a rare panache who went on to invent BBC drama. With Newman's help, Grierson turned Canadian stodginess into "a blazing self-confidence."

The man who wrote this version of a famous Canadian legend was almost as unusual as Grierson himself, though in an entirely different way. Graham McInnes was a novelist, a critic who wrote two histories of Canadian art, and a diplomat who served as Canadian delegate to UNESCO in Paris. He was also the most prolific autobiographer in Canadian history. Four volumes of his memoirs were published in England during his lifetime, all to good reviews; One Man's Documentary makes five.

A British-Australian-Canadian, McInnes emerged from a bizarre family dominated by art and anger. His mother, Angela Thirkell (1890-1961), eventually the author of best-selling novels about English country life in the 1930s, was the granddaughter of Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter, and the daughter of the professor of poetry at Oxford. Angela's second cousin was Rudyard Kipling and her brother, Denis Mackail, also a novelist, was the official biographer of J.M. Barrie, a family friend.

In 1911, when she was 21, Angela married Campbell McInnes, a baritone who often sang for prosperous Edwardian families in their homes. On her wedding day she had known him for only six weeks. Sixteen years older, he turned out to be a violent alcoholic. The fact that he was bisexual, leaning toward gay, presented another conflict. His long-term lover was a composer, Graham Peel, with whom he continued his relationship after marrying.

When Angela gave birth to their first child in 1912 he was named Graham, after his father's lover, who served as godfather. (The English in those days wrote the best novels because, apparently, they had the best material.) In a few years Angela divorced her husband, married an Australian engineer named George Thirkell, and took her children with her to Melbourne. Campbell McInnes moved to Toronto, where he taught music and gave recitals until his death in 1945.

Graham became a Canadian by accident when he visited Canada in 1934 to connect with the father he hadn't seen since infancy, a story he told in Finding a Father. His younger brother, Colin, also met the father in Canada. They all agreed on Angela's faults. She was a tyrant. "Mother was awful," Graham wrote, "but I loved her." Colin also thought her awful but didn't love her -- or her books, which he thought "totally revolting."

For the rest of his life Colin winced whenever described as "Angela Thirkell's son." He changed his name slightly and became Colin MacInnes, journalist and novelist, renowned eventually for his trilogy of novels about underground London: City of Spades, Absolute Beginners (the basis for a 1986 movie musical with David Bowie), and Mr. Love and Justice. Like his father, Colin was homosexual.

Graham McInnes couldn't find a publisher for One Man's Documentary, so after his death in 1970 his widow donated the manuscript to the NFB library. There it languished until it was discovered recently by Gene Walz, who teaches film at the University of Manitoba. He ushered it into print, a precious fragment of history, rescued at last.

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