Empire Marketing Board

The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) was established by the Conservative Party in 1926 to promote inter-imperial trade. It was headed by the Colonial Secretary Leopold Amery. In early 1927 the EMB established a film unit to publicise and promote empire produce and trade. Led by civil servant Stephen Tallents and by a young social sciences scholar called John Grierson, the unit innovated new practices of film production, distribution, and exhibition, and was central to the establishment of what Grierson would christen ‘documentary film’. The beginnings of documentary in Britain were in this way directly connected to the visual illustration and elaboration of imperial economic relations, and thus to the sustenance of an imperial political economy. To these ends, both Grierson and Tallents wrote about the uses of film. The unit produced a number of films, including Conquest (1928), Drifters (1929), One Family (1930), Windmill in Barbados (1933), Cargo From Jamaica (1933), and it initiated the production of The Song of Ceylon (1934); the unit established a film theatre within the Imperial Institute and encouraged its use by schoolchildren; and in turn generated new practices of non-theatrical and mobile exhibition that would be important to the way the British state used film for the furthering of its colonial goals. The unit folded in 1932, and Tallents and Grierson went on to set up the GPO Film Unit; Grierson later participated in the creation of, and headed, the National Film Board of Canada.

The history of the EMB itself was tied up with the Conservative Party’s strategy to develop a new imperial economy in the interwar period. Responding to the growing economic power of other industrialised nations, and the devastating economic depressions that opened and closed the 1920s, the Conservative Party proposed a shift away from the classical free trade liberalism that had been the guiding principle of economic strategies since the mid-nineteenth century towards a policy of protectionism and ‘imperial preference’ that would place a tariff on goods imported from outside the territories of the empire (Hobsbawm, 1994; Williamson, 1993; Eichengreen, 2004). The Party produced films to make the case for this shift in economic policy, including, on this site, West Africa Calling (1927) and Empire Trade (1934). At the same time, the British government constructed new economic and political structures for the establishment of a Commonwealth bloc (Drummond, 1974; Butler, 2002). The political and capitalist rationales underlying this radical shift in macro-economic policy were varied. It would protect finance capital, which was increasingly dependent on the empire; it would, it was hoped, support a faltering British industry by delineating a protected empire market for the exchange of raw materials and manufactured goods while reinforcing the ‘under-development’ of peripheral economies (Cain and Hopkins, 2002; Rooth, 1992). The resulting stronger exports would thus ideally lower the levels of unemployment in the metropole and so counteract the political radicalism that accompanied worker disaffection with new Fordist manufacturing practices and which also proposed socialist alternatives to liberal capitalist political economy (Hobsbawm, 1969). Finally, the economic and political ties with, in particular, the settler dominions would fence off an economic bloc that could, it was hoped, sustain geopolitical hegemony.

Tariff reform was, however, electorally unpopular, principally because it would increase the price of goods for the majority of the recently enfranchised population. The Conservative Party’s election defeat in 1923 was attributed in large part to the tariff question. When it returned to power in late 1924, on the back of a renunciation of the direct imposition of tariffs, the Party sought other ways to encourage a protectionist economy and closer economic ties within the empire (Williamson, 1992). One of these was the establishment of an Imperial Economic Committee (IEC) with a budget of £1 million per annum to be spent on finding ‘entirely new and untried ways of developing trade with the Empire, trade which will bring in Empire stuff in lieu of foreign stuff’. The IEC recommended in 1925 that the money be spent by an ‘executive commission’ that would produce ‘continuous publicity on a national scale with a view to spreading and fostering [the idea] that Empire purchasing creates an increased demand for the manufactured products of the United Kingdom and therefore stimulates employment at home’ (Imperial Economic Committee, cited in Meredith, 1987, 31).  The head of the Board of Trade, Philip Cunliffe-Lister, supported this version of what has been called ‘non-tariff preference’, arguing that the improved marketing of empire foodstuffs in Britain would reduce a reliance on foreign imports – and thus the dollar gap with the United States – as well as stimulate colonial economies to enable them to purchase British manufactured goods (Self, 1994). Leopold Amery at the Colonial Office supported this also, and the executive commission to carry out this economic task was established as the Empire Marketing Board in May 1926, with Amery as its first Chairman. Alongside publicising empire goods in the UK and, in the words of Amery, selling ‘the idea of Empire produce and purchase’, the EMB also provided economic analysis and intelligence that included notes on various commodities, trade pamphlets for various exporters, the provision of statistics on market prospects and consumer behaviour, and world commodities surveys (Amery, 1953, 352). It also supported scientific research into problems of agricultural production.

At its first meeting in June 1926, the members of the EMB observed that they would be implementing a new government policy of publicity that was unprecedented in peacetime (‘The Work of the Empire Marketing Board’, 1926, 2). In this respect the EMB marked a significant moment in the connection of state economic goals with cultural work that was clearly informed by the new ideas about government, ‘public relations’, and the maintaining of liberal democracies that had proliferated in particular in the immediate post-war period. The membership of the Board reflected this, for it included a number who were drawn from the BBC – the institutional embodiment of ideas about culture as a public utility – and from the advertising profession, that other crucial industry that mushroomed in the 1920s predicated on ideas about the effects of media and its economic utility.

The publicity goals of the Board were marshalled by its secretary, Stephen Tallents, who had played a significant role in the management of the 1926 General Strike. As secretary to the Cabinet committee dealing with the strike he had particularly supported government use of the BBC radio network to elaborate its response as well as its political critique of union action (Williamson, 1999, 83-87). Tallents elaborated on the logic that animated his and the EMB’s sense of the importance of culture to government in a pamphlet entitled The Projection of England published in 1932. ‘When England by her sea power won her place in the sun,’ Tallents wrote, ‘her shadow was the longest of them all. To-day that morning of the world is past … The shadows of the peoples are more equal and the long shadows have grown less’ (Tallents, 1932, 11). England needed to elaborate ‘the art of national projection’ to ‘create a belief in her ability to serve the world under the new order as she has served it under the old’. In other words, to maintain ‘supremacy’ in the revised geopolitical configuration marked by transformations in imperial rule – the lessening of England’s shadow – and by the emergence of a ‘new order’ dominated by the USA and to some extent Soviet Russia (Tallents, 1932, 12). Along the way, Tallents bemoaned how American dominance had ‘turned every cinema in the world into the equivalent of an American consulate’, and discussed also the innovations of Soviet cinema (Tallents, 1932, 24, 29-30). The projection of geopolitical supremacy needed to be supplemented by the communication of economic qualities and primacy. ‘If we are to win their custom, we must first win their minds’, Tallents wrote. ‘[A]nd to win their minds we must set ourselves to project by all means of modern international communication a picture of England’s industrial qualities’ (Tallents, 1932, 19).

Visual culture was important to the EMB, and to its goal of ‘winning’ minds, as Tallents’ use of ‘projection’ suggested. The Board commissioned modernist artists to produce posters, which were displayed widely (Constantine, 1986). It quickly discussed the possibility of using film to support the establishment of a system of non-tariff preference and to ‘sell the idea of Empire’. Tallents had in fact discussed this with the author Rudyard Kipling in August 1926, immediately after the formation of the EMB (‘Note on a proposal’, 1927). Kipling suggested that the EMB should undertake the production of a major feature film ‘in which intrinsic entertainment value would be paramount, and which would be suitable for distribution on its merits in the ordinary commercial way to the trade’ (‘Minutes of the First Meeting of the Film Conference’, 1927). Kipling also proposed the Board hire Walter Creighton to carry this out.

Creighton had produced the Wembley Tattoo at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, with help from Kipling, and was thus well versed in the production of imperial spectacle. After a Film Committee was established at the EMB in February 1927, Creighton was appointed in March, with the support of the Colonial Secretary Amery. Creighton had no actual knowledge of film production, and was employed because of his connection with Kipling, whose fame and association with imperial storytelling would, it was thought, help guarantee the film’s success. Kipling was also very closely associated with the Conservative Party, which was led by his cousin Stanley Baldwin. The Board proposed that Creighton travel to Canada and the USA to gather knowledge of film production, from both commercial studios and from the Canadian Motion Picture Bureau, and to scout locations for the imperial epic he and Kipling imagined.

While Creighton was away, John Grierson was employed by Tallents initially on an ad hoc basis to develop the EMB’s film activities (Tallents, ‘The Birth of British Documentary’, 1968, 17). Grierson’s intellectual history is now relatively well known: a Glasgow philosophy graduate, he had recently returned from the USA, where he had been a Rockefeller-funded scholar based initially at the famed Sociology Department at the University of Chicago (Aitken, 1990, 16-89). Grierson had become interested in the social psychology of popular media, as had others within the social sciences at Chicago, had met Walter Lippmann, whose work on public opinion and democracy was widely influential, and had gravitated thereafter increasingly towards examining the social and political function of film. Tallents commissioned him initially to write a report for the EMB on ‘popular appeal in cinema’ and its potential use by the government. The lengthy ‘Notes for English Producers’,  written between February and April 1927, was influenced by the social science work Grierson had studied in the USA; it would be an influential document for the establishment of a theory and practice of what later came to be called documentary cinema.

Grierson sought to discern how cinema could be used to further the economic and political goals of the state. He dismissed the utility of the pre-existing models of film form exemplified by commercial American cinema, government-financed Soviet cinema, and, to a lesser extent, actuality cinema. ‘American producers’, Grierson wrote, ‘are so bound up with what they call ‘human interest,’ and so insensitive to the dramatic importance of scene and setting, that they invariably allow the more private preoccupations of their characters to destroy the sweep of events‘ (Grierson, ‘Notes for English Producers’, 1927, 17). Yet, he continued, ‘the Russians, to take ‘Potemkin’ as a guide, have gone to the other extreme. Communist interests have made them somewhat blind to personal themes,’ and this results in ‘cinematic expression in an emphasis on crowds, ships, streets and factories, to the almost complete exclusion of individual life’ (ibid, 18). Grierson’s political theory of film sought to articulate a space for state-sponsored British cinema and for its enactment of the liberal problematic to form the interdependence of individual and social formation. The appropriate register for this was a realism that meshed ‘scene and setting’, and ‘the sweep of events’, with a proper focus on aspects of individual life. Arguing for the establishment of a practice of cinema that was positioned  between the poles of economic individualism and collectivism, Grierson’s government-sponsored memorandum on film was clearly driven by the same rationale that shaped the British state’s efforts in the inter-war period to establish a political role for the country and its empire in what Tallents had described as ‘the new order’ dominated by the coming hegemons, the USA and Soviet Russia. The problem of cinema was in this sense a microcosm of the economic and geopolitical problems facing the British state.

The examples of this new state-mandated political formation of cinema that emerged from Grierson’s paper, and indeed later practice, were, not surprisingly, closely tied to the imperative to establish a new imperial political economy, for it was that task that was central to the Conservative Party and government and to the institution it formed to further those aims, the EMB. ‘Where no story existed’, he proposed, imagining a film that might be produced by the Board:

‘…there would be no great difficulty in creating original scenarios round the adventures of the great explorers, around the different phases of Colonial life, and round the great commercial and industrial enterprises of the time. We might, for instance, have a picture of the search for the Northwest passage, a picture of the exploits of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a picture of the crossing of Canada before the railways came … a picture of South African diamond mines or of Western Australian gold fields, of the building of a canal, a bridge, a dram, a railway (the Trans-African Railway for example)’ (ibid, 20).

Likewise, the intertwined stories of ‘discovery and colonisation’ and the establishment of infrastructures should, Grierson asserted, be central to the films the Board produced. Its films could thus draw on ‘the visually dramatic material in which the Empire is so rich’ to show and develop accounts of ‘the sweep of commerce … the ships, the docks, the factories, the furnaces, the streets, the canals, the plans, the plantations, the caravans, the parades, the dams, the bridges, all over the earth ball that carry the flag of English energy’ (ibid, 17).

Grierson’s paper on the proposed use of cinema was circulated widely, and he was subsequently employed full time by Tallents at the EMB. He quickly set to work establishing both the theoretical and practical grounds for the way cinema could be effectively deployed by the state to further its economic and political goals. Late in 1927, he arranged a series of screenings at the Imperial Institute, inviting various members of the government to attend and to participate in a discussion about the films and ‘the various possibilities of the film in educational, scientific, marketing and propagandist work’ (Times, October 31, 1927, 8). Likewise, in October 1927 Grierson organised a screening of films on a train carrying members of the Imperial Agricultural Committee from Edinburgh to London. Amongst the films was one ‘showing the saving of labour and greater efficiency which comes with the electrification of the land’ (Times, October 24, 1927, 18). Watching the pictures of the modernization of farming on a speeding train was no doubt uniquely appropriate for the government and the EMB’s goals to establish infrastructural networks to facilitate imperial economies and to rationalise imperial production. Later, in 1930, Grierson reiterated his account of the political economy of differing filmic forms to an inter-departmental Trade Propaganda committee set up by the government to extend the purposes of the EMB outwards to establish trade propaganda overseas (‘Trade Propaganda Committee’, 1930; Grierson, ‘Film Propaganda’).

The innovation of new non-theatrical exhibition spaces, like the Imperial Institute and the train, was quickly established as a critical task for the EMB’s elaboration of the filmic corollary to the projected imperial economy. Grierson wrote another position paper, ‘Further Notes on Cinema Production’, to assess the situation. ‘All those interests which do not (and cannot) find their ends satisfied by the commercial organisation’, he wrote, ‘are beginning to look elsewhere; and this they must do’ (Grierson, ‘Further Notes on Cinema Production’, 1927, 8). In mid-1928, the EMB innovated the use of ‘automatic projectors’ in public spaces to show short ‘poster’ films that advertised some element of imperial produce, such as South African fruit or Canadian apples. The first of these was placed in Victoria station in London, an appropriate space of transit. ‘The model’ of the poster film, Grierson wrote, ‘is the American ‘trailer’, – the short film advertisement which heralds the ‘coming soon’ of another Hollywood masterpiece’ (Grierson, ‘Film Propaganda’, 7). Hollywood’s advertisement for itself was a successful model to be copied for the advertisement of imperial goods. Later in 1928 the EMB sponsored a mobile cinema van in Leicestershire (EMB Film Committee Minutes, 1928, 2). The elaboration of mobile cinema networks, and non-theatrical exhibition spaces, were critical formative moments in the establishment of a media infrastructure to facilitate the flow of goods and thus an imperial economic bloc.

The long-term goals of the EMB in respect to non-theatrical distribution and exhibition centred on the use of its films by teachers, either bringing schoolchildren to the cinema established by the EMB at the Imperial Institute or by circulating films to schools who would use the films in classes on geography, economics, and the empire (Grierson, ‘The Empire Marketing Board and the Cinema’, 1928). The integration of film, pedagogy, and imperial economics was pursued consistently by the EMB in the early 1930s, operating on the assumption that film was most appealing to children and that it could thus be deployed as a pedagogical technology. Its ideas and assumptions in this respect would support the British government’s later development of film production for colonial populations, who were positioned in colonial rhetoric and practice as childlike in their susceptibility to the suggestive and persuasive powers of cinema.

EMB films would work both as advertisements for specific products and for ‘the idea of empire’ more broadly. The strategy initially evolved by Grierson and Tallents was to use pre-existing film, principally from the Dominions, that showed examples of agricultural produce or raw materials. The poster films Canadian Apples, Lumber and South African Fruit, for example, functioned as short advertisements for these products, in line with the EMB’s rhetoric on the importance of buying empire goods to better sustain the British and imperial economy. Conquest (1929) was a more expansive project, a compilation film on ‘the pioneering development’ of Canada that re-used scenes from Hollywood westerns and from footage shot by the Motion Picture Bureau in Canada to tell a story about the settlement and ‘conquest’ of Canada (Hardy, 1979, 58). The film drew, if unwittingly, links between the western genre and the ‘drama’ of ‘discovery and colonisation’ that Grierson had written about in the government memorandum on the economic and political uses of cinema. Grierson and the young filmmakers he employed produced a number of compilation films in the early months of the EMB’s film production, re-using existing footage drawn mainly from the Commonwealth and introducing new practices of editing that were partly influenced by Soviet cinema. The compilation film pioneered by the EMB marked in its very form the imperative to construct the imperial political economy that the Board sought to visualise and foster, for in the mingling of footage from across the nascent Commonwealth the films made concrete the idealization of the circulation of goods and capital at the base of the efforts to create the British-led imperial economic bloc. Grierson discovered, in his theory and practice, that montage could be divorced from its radical function in Soviet film, and repositioned in the service of the closely linked imperatives of the consumer and imperial economy. Advertising executives would learn well from this innovation.

Visualising the ‘complementary’ imperial economy, and its utility for Britain, was established as a central goal of the EMB’s film production right from the outset. The first film the Board commissioned was the one imagined by Kipling, Creighton and Tallents, though it was not finally completed and released until 1930. One Family, as the film came to be called, presents an elaborate fantasy of Commonwealth economic integration. It tells the story of a young boy who imagines visiting various Commonwealth countries to collect the ingredients that go to make up the King’s Christmas pudding [see the entry on this site]. The pudding functioned in this respect as a concrete symbol of the way empire goods could be used to produce an object that marked in its nature the commingling of produce central to the nascent Commonwealth bloc imagination and that also marked something specific to British traditions. At the core of many of the EMB films were images showing the harvesting of products in colonial spaces and their transport and arrival in the metropole. This is a dominant trope across the Board’s work, indeed across the colonial archive in the inter-war period more generally, for it offers the clearest visual record or account of the efforts to establish the so-called complementary imperial economy. One Family is consistent with many other EMB films in this respect (though it has been subsequently largely ignored in the critical literature on the unit, one consequence, as Martin Stollery has astutely observed, of the broader ignorance of the imperial contexts for the emergence of British documentary cinema: Stollery, 2000, 157). The better-known Cargo from Jamaica (1933), for example, directed by Basil Wright, shows the harvesting of bananas and their transport, on the heads of colonial subjects, to be manually loaded onto a large ship. Arriving in London, the cargo is transported efficiently by conveyor belts from the ships to warehouses. The contrast between the use of bodies and technology of course marks acutely the standard contrast between an advanced technological modernity and its double, the ‘primitive’ economy of colonised labour and agricultural produce. The ubiquity of the large transport ship in EMB films and a great number of British colonial films is in this way instructive, for they mark not only the idealisation of technology and transport, but stand also as concrete symbols of the literal mobility of the British finance capitalism that sustained the shipping industry and thus British economic control of the global circulation of materials and goods.

In 1932 Grierson and the EMB set about organising a film screening at an important imperial economic conference held in Ottawa. The conference would however mark the end of the road for the EMB. The global economic depression enabled the Conservative dominated British National Government to introduce the protectionist measures that were hitherto electorally unpopular and, in Ottawa, to establish a system of imperial preference that supported quotas and other bilateral arrangements between Britain and the Commonwealth (Rooth, 1992, 71-100; Hobsbawm, 1994, 106-7). The EMB Film Unit had been set up to foster a non-tariff form of protectionism; it was quickly disbanded when the protectionist economic bloc was legally established. It stands now as a formative, if brief, moment in the history of British documentary cinema, and of the ways cinema was directly used by the state to foster an imperial political economy.

Lee Grieveson

Works cited

Aitken, Ian. Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (London: Routledge, 1990).

Amery, Leopold. My Political Life (London: Hutchinson, 1953).

Butler, L.J. Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002).

Cain, P.J. and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2000, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmann, 2002).

Constantine, Stephen. “‘Bringing the Empire Alive’: The Empire Marketing Board and Imperial Propaganda, 1926-1933,” in John M. Mackenzie ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986).

Constantine, Stephen. Buy and Build: the Advertising Posters of the Empire Marketing Board (London: HMSO, 1986).

Drummond, Ian M. Imperial Economic Policy 1917-1939: Studies in Expansion and Protection (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974).

Eichengreen, Barry. “The British Economy Between the Wars,” in Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume II: Economic Maturity, 1860-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Hardy, Forsyth. John Grierson: A Documentary Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1979).

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain Since 1750 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969).

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).

Meredith, David. ‘Imperial Images; The Empire Marketing Board, 1926-1932’, History Today, 37:1 (January 1987).

Rooth, Tim. British Protectionism and the International Economy: Overseas Commercial Policy in the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Self, Robert. ‘Treasury Control and the Empire Marketing Board: The Rise and Fall of Non-Tariff Preference in Britain, 1924-1933’. Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1994).

Stollery, Martin. Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and the Cultures of Imperialism (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000).

Swann, Paul. The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Tallents, Stephen. ‘The Birth of British Documentary’, Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1968).

Tallents, Stephen. The Projection of England, 1932 (London: Olen Press, 1955).

Williamson, Philip. Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Williamson, Philip. National Crisis and National Government: British Politics, the Economy and Empire, 1926-1932 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Archival materials

(All from National Archives, Kew, London. BT=Board of Trade papers; CO=Colonial office; EMB: Empire Marketing Board).

Grierson, John. ‘Notes for English Producers’, BT 64/86 6880, April 1927.

Grierson, John. ‘Further Notes on Cinema Production’, CO 760/37 EMB/C/4, 28 July 1927.

Grierson, John. ‘Government Cinema Activities in the United States’, EMB/c/15, 12 September 1928.

Grierson, John. ‘The Empire Marketing Board and the Cinema’, CO 760/37 EMB/C/9.

Grierson, John. ‘Film Propaganda’, CO 323/1102/2.

Empire Marketing Board, Film Committee, Minutes of the Seventh Meeting, 13 November 1928.

‘Minutes of the 1st meeting of the Film Conference held at the Board’s Offices’, CO 760/37, 1 February 1927.

‘Note on a proposal for the preparation of a film under the auspices of The Empire Marketing Board’, CO 760/37 EMB/C/1, 28 January 1927.

 ‘The Work of the Empire Marketing Board, Report No. 1’, July 1926, 1, CO 323/962/7.

‘Trade Propaganda Committee, Intermit Report’, July 1930, CO 323/1102/2.


Times, 31 October, 1927, 8.

Times, 24 October, 1927, 18.

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INTEREST. Lumbering in New Zealand and Burma.

Titles (27). New Zealand lumberjacks felling large tree by axe, sawing trunk into sections, ...



INSTRUCTIONAL. The banana industry in Jamaica.

Credits (30). Views of the hillside and banana plantations (76). Branches are cut down and ...



Animated film sponsored by the Empire Marketing Board, it is designed to persuade British consumers that 'Empire Buying Begins at ...



Life on board a liner, the Orford of the Orient Line, on a cruise to the Caribbean.


ONE FAMILY (1930)has video enhanced entry

A London schoolboy dreams he visits Buckingham Palace, where he makes the King's Christmas pudding from ingredients collected from different ...



The film shows Indian towns and villages, and highlights the production of silk, wheat, rice, sugar and jute.

The film ...


SONG OF CEYLON (1934)has video enhanced entry


r.1 Part 1 - the Buddha. Scenes of dark jungle with glimpses of animals, ruined temples and tropical vegetation (180), ...


WINDMILL IN BARBADOS (1933)has video enhanced entry

The production of sugar cane in the West Indies, contrasting old and new methods.

Over a map of Barbados, a West ...