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Today We Live

A Non Profit-making Organisation Devoted To The Interests Of The Gloucestershire Parish Of South Cerney And Cerney Wick

Today We Live - Villagers see themselves on screen, 1937

Stills From The Cerney Film - Villagers Have A Preview - See Themselves As Actors

from a local paper (probably Wilts and Glos Standard, Thursday 5th August, 1937)

South Cerney people have now seen themselves as others will shortly see them.

On Wednesday afternoon large numbers of them visited the Picture House at Cirencester to see 'Today We Live', the film which, in February last, they helped to make, and - truth be told - they laughed heartily at themselves.

Five months ago we told our readers of the 'South Cerney Film' - it then had no other title - of its object and of South Cerney's share in its making, and introduced them to Miss R. I. Grierson, who was responsible with Mr Ralph Bond for its direction, Mr Paul Rotha, producer, and Mr Stanley Hawes, his assistant, to Mr S Onions and Mr Paul Burnford, the photographers.

Today, by the courtesy of the Strand Film Company Ltd, of Oxford Street, London, we are enabled to reproduce a number of 'stills' from the film itself, in which will be recognised many of the Cerney people taking part.

Miss Grierson, who so successfully got under their skins during her period of 'contact' and now probably knows Cerney people as well as anyone not a long resident of the village, was at the Picture House on Wednesday afternoon to welcome her guests, who greeted her as an old friend. She very kindly arranged for the film to be run through twice, so that members of the audience might first uninterruptedly grasp its 'story' and the second time more readily 'spot' themselves.

Picture House,1956
The Picture House (later Gaumont), Cirencester seen here after closure in 1956.
It stood at the corner of London Road and Victoria Road and has been replaced by a block of flats.
Photo: Cinema Treasures

As we have indicated before, 'Today We Live' is a film of real people in the distressed areas and the villages of the countryside in Britain. It is played by the unemployed men of Pentre, Rhondda, the villagers of South Cerney, and officials of the National Council of Social Service.

Though we have already told of the aims of the film, we may here give the 'outline' as spoken during the earlier scenes by Mr Howard Marshall:

'Not long ago the wealth of Britain lay in the countryside. The village and market town were the centres of community life. But there came a change, not in seasons but in power. The centres of wealth passed to the new industrial areas around the coal fields. Thousands of houses were built to shelter the increasing population. Today, these houses are the slums and shame of Britain. The village population grew less. Much of the old community life disappeared.

'The War Memorials across Britain mark the climax and close of a long era of social life. Slowly the country struggled out of the chaos of war. Some men went back to their old jobs. Some found new work. But for many there was nothing.

'Improved machinery produced more goods. Warehouses and docks became stacked with produce for which there was no market. Fewer men when needed by industry. Queues at the labour exchanges grew longer.

'On October 24th, 1929 the breaking point came. That day saw the Wall Street crash. Within two years the crisis had spread to nearly every country. In Britain, the gates shut behind three million workers.

'Today, depression has given way to boom. Many men out of work have been reabsorbed. But the crisis has left its mark.

'Some of the old industrial areas of the north, Scotland and Wales, now find themselves without a share in the revival of work. In many mining districts, pits still stand idle. Men, who once hewed coal in the mines, now snatch fragments from the slag heaps to keep a fire in their own grates. Real work there is still none.

'And through these years of slump and boom, community life has almost disappeared. In the villages, some people still try to keep alive the social spirit where the cramped schoolroom is the only place to foregather. In a typical distressed area the unemployed have nowhere to go except the street corner or the coffee shop.

'A broadcast talk on social service schemes is heard both by a woman in the country village and by an unemployed man in his local coffee shop. Both then write letters to find out what it is all about. As a result, work begins on the building of an occupational centre in the distressed area and on the conversion of an old barn into a new hall in the village.

'These are made possible by grants and loans from a Social Service Council. The two buildings completed, men who once had time on their hands now find plenty to do in their club hut; while the village hall is used for dances, physical training classes and all sorts of other social activities.

'But, at a committee meeting in the men's club hut, it is made clear that social service schemes cannot do everything. There are fundamental problems which strike at the very root of our existence. There are still over a million unemployed. Only by working together with unsparing energy can we hope to face these problems.'

Stills from the film

Public Meeting
A public meeting to discuss the project
(left to right) Rev. F. Kennan, vicar, representative of Council Social Service, Mrs H. Haddleton, Captain E.T. Cripps, MC, Mr. F.S. Riggall

Whist Drive
A whist drive helped to raise funds

The hall completed
The hall completed - taking in the equipment

Physical jerks
Physical jerks - the villagers let themselves go

The film is admirably produced and admirably edited, conditions on the two sides of the Bristol Channel being contrasted most effectively. Naturally, there was not much outlet for humour in the scenes of the 'black area', but the lighter-hearted villagers who really let themselves go in their whist drives, their folk dancing and physical jerks, provided the necessary light relief and gave opportunity for many a hearty chuckle.

Not yet released for public exhibition - it was a private preview that Cerney people had on Wednesday - it will be included in a programme at the Picture House, Cirencester, early in September, when, we fancy, the whole countryside will wish to see it.

About Ruby Grierson

'Today We Live' is an excellent example of the social documentary, intertwining two stories that combine actuality footage with re-enacted scenes. The South Cerney segments were directed by Ruby Grierson (1904-40), sister of John Grierson, the acknowledged founder of the 1930s British documentary movement, and the Wales sequences by Ralph Bond.

Born in Scotland, Ruby Grierson originally trained as a teacher but moved into film making after working as an uncredited assistant on the social documentary 'Housing Problems' (1935). Her first film as director - 'London Wakes Up' (1936), part of a series about life in London - set the tone for her warm observations of ordinary people which became a hallmark.

'Today We Live' was the third of five documentaries she made for the Strand Film Company before embarking on a series of home front propaganda films at the outbreak of war. The last of these - 'They Also Serve' (1940) which showcased the importance to the war effort of the British housewife - sadly also proved to be her final film.

Grierson died while making a film about the evacuation of children to Canada when their ship, SS City of Benares, was torpedoed claiming the lives of 260 pasengers and crew, including all but 13 of the 90 children on board.

Watch 'Today We Live'

'Today We Live' is available to watch free on the BFI Player.

It is also included in the BFI's 'Land of Promise - The British Documentary Movement, 1930-1950', a 4-DVD boxed set which is available for purchase. The collection also includes 'Housing Problems' on which Ruby Grierson worked as an uncredited assistant and her last film, 'They Also Serve'.

'Today We Live' Documentation

Download a copy of Strand Film's original 'Today We Live' brochure and a villager's invitation to the screening.


Martin Stephens for unearthing the press report of the preview

'Today We Live' stills courtesy of the BFI National Archive