This film is held by the BFI (ID: 11110).


The tea plantations of Ceylon.

17th century map of Ceylon. Commentary states that the island has been known to traders for many centuries. Shots of interior forests. Footage of Buddhist temples and statues, many in ruins: 'The dry climate of the low country has been the means of preserving these ruins, which would have never have survived in the wet atmosphere of the hills'. Shots filmed from vehicle in motion as it travels a road at the top of mountain hills. Close-up of 17th-century map, focusing on mountainous areas: 'it is the cool, damp upland climate which makes possible the large-scale cultivation of tea'. Shots of tea plantations filmed from moving vehicle; commentary outlines the beginnings of tea production in Ceylon in 1883. Elephants clearing forests to make way for tea plantations. Elephants transporting granite for the factory buildings and bungalow apartments of a new plantation. Long-shot of a tea factory; 'Ceylon now has half a million acres under tea'.

Tea-clippers filing out of the factory and heading for the plantations. Commentary states that 'they are all Tamils from southern India' and that the women and children do the picking while men work in the factories and do the heavier work in the fields. Shots of women clipping tea. Close-ups of a tea bush as the plant is explained in detail. Footage of the clipping process as it is described. The weighing of the women's tea clipping. Men spreading tea leaves on hessian shelves inside the factory where it is left to 'wither' for 24 hours. Tea being 'rolled' in the factory machines, a process that creates the tea's colour, flavour and strength. Further automated factory processes: fermentation; drying of the leaves; sorting of the leaves into various sizes; packaging of the tea leaves.Transportation of tea crates on barges, which take the product to large trading vessels. Long-shot of boat heading out to sea. Arrival of tea at a European (presumably British) dock, where it is unloaded by workers who wear flat-caps and waistcoats. Ends.



Basil Wright was the first recruit hired by John Grierson, head of the British government’s Empire Marketing Board (EMB) film unit, which was formed in 1928 with the aim to promote imperial produce within Britain and so help form an imperial economic bloc (Grieveson, 2011). The EMB created films for other agencies, including the Empire Tea Marketing Board and Ceylon Tea Board, who in 1933 sponsored a project to film four one-reel promotional films in Ceylon. Basil Wright was appointed as director for this project, and in late 1933 travelled to Ceylon where, with cameraman John Taylor, he shot over 23,000 feet of film (CQ, Summer 1934, 231). He claimed that ‘I started shooting the film with a logic that I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t imagine why I was forcing myself or being forced by something inside me to shoot this material’ (Thomas, 1979, 479-80). There were, however, specific influences. On the one hand, he was ‘sucked into the Buddhist conception and enormously impressed by the excitement and beauty of the country’, on the other, he was ‘extremely indignant about the way the British colonial rule was operating’ (Thomas, 1979, 480).

By the time Wright returned to England to edit his material, the EMB had morphed into the GPO Film Unit. Grierson remained at its head, and for a year and a half let loose ‘an orgy of experimentation’ within the new organisation (Wright, 1974, 134). Regarding the Ceylon film he informed Wright that he ‘wouldn’t accept anything except something special’ (Taylor, 1988). The result was the four-part film Song of Ceylon (1934). Noted for its impressionistic style and the innovative soundtrack that Wright created with Alberto Cavalcanti and the composer Walter Leigh, Song of Ceylon became one of the GPO Unit’s most acclaimed films, and won the award for best film at the International Film Festival in Brussels in 1935.

The original commission to create four one-reel films was not abandoned, however. The material shot by Wright was also utilised to create the documentaries: Monsoon IslandNegombo Coast, Dance of the Harvest and Villages of Lanka. While regarding Song of Ceylon ashis most successful work, Wright made few comments about these other films. It is unclear how involved he was in editing them, and there are conflicting statements regarding the input of John Taylor. Grierson stated that it was Taylor who ‘fulfilled the actual contract with the Tea Propaganda Board’ (Grierson, 1948, 34). However, in a 1988 interview Taylor commonly uses the term ‘they’ to describe the people at the GPO Film Unit who finalised this material (Taylor, 1988).

The tea trade in Ceylon began in 1867 and expanded rapidly. By 1900, 600 square miles of the country were under cultivation and the tea industry was responsible for more than half of the country’s export earnings (Moxham, 2003, 183, 209). The ownership of the estates was primarily in British hands, and Britain also provided the primary market (Romance of Tea, 9). From the outset, plantations in Ceylon relied on imported labour. The local Sinhalese regarded it as against their way of life to work for hire; consequently the plantation owners relied primarily on Tamils from southern India (Moxham, 2003, 172). Indian Tamils eventually settled in large numbers, and by 1900 constituted 300,000 out of a population of just under four million (Moxham, 2003, 183-84).

The plantation workers were provided with ‘extremely basic’ accommodation, and were expected to work a ten-hour day with no break (Moxham, 2003, 180-81). The work was sexually divided, with women being responsible for tea clipping, while the men carried out the heavier agricultural work.Although conditions improved towards the end of British rule, Roy Moxham believes that ‘it was a tragedy that so many of the British planters showed so little compassion, and made so little effort to improve life for their labourers beyond what was strictly in their own interest’ (Moxham, 2003, 183).

Of the four films it is Monsoon Island that is most directly concerned with the tea industry. It also features some of the material of Buddhist statues and shrines that Wright had filmed. Buddhism has been practised in Ceylon since the second century B.C., and it remains the majority religion on the island. However, the island is also home to other religions, including Hinduism, which is practiced by the majority of Tamils of Indian descent.



The relationship between Monsoon Island and Song of Ceylon is interesting. On the one hand, while much of the material witnessed in Monsoon Island can also be seen in Basil Wright’s longer film, the way that this film compiles and comments upon the material leads to a more straightforward and supportive account of colonial trade than is given in Song of Ceylon. On the other hand, because Monsoon Island is largely reliant on Basil Wright’s footage, the film also retains some of his biases. This is most notable in relation to its discordant and disproportionate focus on Buddhism.

The film opens with its footage of Buddhist shrines, but goes on to focus upon the tea trade. It acknowledges the fact that the tea workers ‘are all Tamils from southern India’, but fails to mention their differing religious belief. Instead, climate provides the contrast that links the two strands of the film. It is argued that the ancient Buddhist shrines have been preserved because they are in the dry lowlands; in contrast the ‘damp upland climate […] makes possible the large-scale cultivation of tea’. This link appears forced, and the Monthly Film Bulletin was right to argue that this film would be more satisfactory if it were ‘divided into two parts’ (MFB, 1936, 73).

It is interesting to note the differing ways in which Monsoon Island and Song of Ceylon utilise the same film sources. In Monsoon Island Buddhism is presented as an ancient religion. The commentary discusses the ‘highly developed civilisation that flourished in Ceylon from about the second century B.C.’, but it also describes this civilisation as being something that has passed: it has ‘left evidence in the ruins’ of the Buddhist temples and statues that are featured on screen. These religious monuments are filmed in slow, lingering detail. At no point is Buddhism considered to be a living religion, and at no point are worshippers to be seen. Song of Ceylon uses its images of Buddhas and temples differently. They are used dynamically, often casting only fleeting images on the screen. They are also populated: sometimes with intercut shots of worshippers and dancers filmed elsewhere, at others times we see believers who make offerings and prayers. There are also significant structural differences between the two films. Monsoon Island places its portrait of Buddhism at the beginning of its film, and then moves on to the modernity of the tea industry. In Song of Ceylon Buddhism is featured circularly, appearing most prominently in the films opening and closing segments. As well as implying continuity, this pattern has deeper significance. Wright claimed that the film is structured as ‘a magic circle, the Buddhist mandala’ (Thomas, 1979, 481).

There are also significant differences in the way that the two films portray the tea trade. Monsoon Island follows a pattern that can be seen in other sponsored films. Tea production is shown in sequential order. There is a detailed focus on the processes taking place: figures are given for the acreage under plantation; the length of time it takes to grow the crops; the time period for which tea should be left to wither. Meanwhile, a discrete amount of information is given regarding the workers – we hear about the sexual segregation of the work and of how the women are paid in relation to the amount of tea that they pick. However, the implications of these practices are never addressed. Song of Ceylon features much of the same film material, which is gathered together continuously in the third section of the film, entitled ‘The Voice of Commerce’. The scenes are not shown in chronological order and neither are the processes outlined. ‘The Voice of Commerce’ was, in fact, the most controversial aspect of Wright’s film, in which his ‘ambivalence towards British imperialism’ was most clearly highlighted (Russell, 2007, 188). Here the images of the tea workers are accompanied by the sound of discordant radio waves and British voices calling out trading prices. It is this juxtaposition of sound that delivers Song of Ceylon’s message, rather than the way in which the scenes are filmed.

Indeed, there is nothing in the way in which the footage of plantation workers is shot that would help to undermine its use for tea marketing propaganda. Brian Winston claims that the footage was shot half-heartedly ‘one morning’, and that the process of filming this material gave Basil Wright a headache (Winston, 2008, 45). The workers aren’t focussed upon in any great detail (instead the concentration is upon the processes), and the plantation looks orderly and efficient. As such, in Monsoon Island the footage is used to outline a positive, if fairly pedestrian, account of the industry.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Anthony, Scott, ‘Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-33),

Grierson, John, ‘Close-Up: Basil Wright’, Documentary News Letter, 7/63 (March 1948), 34-35.

Grieveson, Lee, ‘The cinema and the (common)wealth of nations’, in Film and Empire (London: BFI, 2011), edited by Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe.

‘Monsoon Island’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 3:25/36 (1936), 73.

Moxham, Roy, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London: Robinson, 2003).

The Romance of Tea: A Story of Its Journey Direct to the Table of Co-operators (London: The English and Scottish Joint Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd, 193-).

Russell, Patrick, 100 British Documentaries (London: BFI, 2007).

Taylor, John, ‘BECTU Interview Part 5’ (1988),

Thomas, Sari, ‘Basil Wright on Art, Anthropology and the Documentary’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4/4 (Autumn 1979), 465-481.

Winston, Brian, Claiming the Real II: Documentary: Grierson and Beyond (London: BFI, 2008).

Wright, Basil, ‘Filming in Ceylon’, Cinema Quarterly, 2/4 (Summer 1934), 231-32.

Wright, Basil, The Long View (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974).




Technical Data

Running Time:
13 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
350 ft

Production Credits

Production Company
Empire Tea Marketing Expansion Board