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North Sea (1938)

A dramatic reconstruction of the fishing trawler 'John Gillman' in trouble in a storm.


Harry Watt


Harry Watt


Bill Blewitt


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Uncredited cast:
Bill Blewitt Bill Blewitt ... Crewman on the"John Gillman" (uncredited)


The story of real fishermen going about their hazardous tasks in the North Sea fishing-grounds off the British Coast. The fishing boat departs from a Scottish town, and the crew is seen going through their routine tasks. On arriving at the fishing grounds they encounter a storm that disables their craft. They radio for help and the rest of the film shows primarily the manner in which the government coastal-radio supervises the rescue the the fishing boat. Written by Les Adams <longhorn1939@suddenlink.net>

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Plot Keywords:

fishing | storm | fishing boat | boat | sea | See All (27) »


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Release Date:

7 March 1938 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Visatone Marconi)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Carl Theodor Dreyer was originally hired to write and direct the film, but the script he submitted to executive producer John Grierson was deemed unsuitable and he was let go. Grierson next had Harry Watt write a script. The one Watt submitted met with Grierson's approval, and Watt was hired to write and direct the film. See more »

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User Reviews

Worth watching for its social history
12 September 2012 | by JamesHitchcockSee all my reviews

"North Sea" is one of a series of short documentary films produced by the GPO Film Unit during the late thirties. A number of them have recently been shown on the "Sky Arts" channel. Most of these, of which "Night Mail" is perhaps the most famous, were expressly made to publicise the work of the British General Post Office, but the unit clearly had a wider remit as it also made films with no, or little connection to the postal service, and "North Sea", made by Harry Watt who was one of the directors of "Night Mail", is one of these. It is possible that the radio stations which play an important part in the film were operated by the GPO, but this is never made clear.

The subject of the film is the British fishing industry, specifically the rescue of an Aberdeen-based trawler, the "John Gillman", which is disabled in a storm. The crew radio for help and are rescued with the assistance of the coastal radio stations. The skipper of the rescuing ship is initially reluctant to set out- he has superstitious objections to setting sail on a Friday- but soon conquers his fears when he realises that the lives of his fellow-seafarers are at stake.

This is not a "fly on the wall" documentary of the type with which we are familiar today; I doubt if such a film would have been feasible given the technology of the thirties. It is rather a dramatic reconstruction of real-life events, although Watt used real fishermen as his actors, just as he had used real railwaymen and postal workers in "Night Mail".

The film has never achieved the fame of "Night Mail", possibly because it lacks that film's most distinctive feature, an evocative poem by a famous poet set to music by a famous composer. As with a lot of the GPO documentaries, its main interest today lies in the picture it gives of life in the period. As with "Night Mail" a lot of stress is laid on contemporary technology, in this case the network of radio stations which allow the stricken trawler to be located quickly and help dispatched as soon as possible. This sort of technology was doubtless very unsophisticated compared with modern radar and satellite-based global positioning systems, but as shown here it appears to have worked.

I haven't awarded the film a score out of ten, as it seems pointless trying to compare it with the full-length dramas which I normally review. Like a number of the GPO documentaries, however, it is still worth watching today, if only from the point of view of the social history it contains.

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