The British Council film reviewers of 1946

So, as you know, I went to the National Archives, where I looked at three main British Council files. The first one contained a general history of the organisation’s film making. The second had more specific information about the 1946 handover of its film-making capabilities to the newly formed Central Office of Information.

The third – and most engaging – file contained reviews of individual films from British Council staff worldwide, written up in 1945 and 1946, and I’m going to begin by writing about that. Before going into detail, here’s a picture of one of the standardised review questionnaires that staff were asked to fill in:

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

Taken together, these questionnaires give very rich insight into what the films were intended to achieve, who watched them, and how they were received. I’m going to begin by pulling out some quotes which help illuminate that first point – just why were these films made and distributed?

The review questionnaires give us a very clear answer. In fact, the lead question, repeated on each, contains a very clear mission statement for British Council film making. It asks:

‘Does this film achieve its aim to promote a wider knowledge of Britain and her people overseas in your territory?’

For the most part, the various films reported on do achieve that main goal. What’s notable in particular is a strong sense of their very specific function as post-war propaganda. That comes through particularly well in these two quotes, which show the films working to correct both historic Nazi and (I suspect) more contemporary Communist propaganda:

London 1942: ‘The impression of London’s energy & vitality made a marked impression. The sight of the food available to the British People in 1942 interested some who remembered that Gt Britain was then supposed to be starving.’

E. A. S. Bullingworth, British Council Vienna, 9th May 1946

New Mine: ‘Good – valuable here (a mining country) showing progress does happen in the reactionary West.’

H Gardley-Wilmot, British Council Prague, 2nd November 1946

However, such propaganda could sometimes be too successful. Here’s an unknown British Council employee (he or she didn’t write their name on the form), who has had to deal with a rather disgruntled Greek audience:

Second Freedom: ‘Films of this type do more harm than good – presenting England as a Utopia where maternity homes, model schools, specialized training, employment under ideal conditions, are within everyone’s reach. Why not show food queues, the tiny meat and fat rations, housing shortage and other uncomfortable facts…The audience, believing the film gives a true condition of conditions in England, is dissatisfied with the absence of similar amenities in Cyprus.’

Respondent unknown, Nicosia Institute, 15th January 1946

And sometimes, of course, the films are either heartily disliked – Gardley Wilmot of Prague comments that Local Government ‘seems meant for mental age 14’ – or bafflingly irrelevant. D. S. A. Adams, of the British Legation in Kabul, when asked whether Life Cycle of the Newt helped promote wider knowledge of Britain and its people, responded:

‘NO! My dear sir…’

R. Wye, Jerusalem’s 1945 Functional Officer, was similarly puzzled to be asked about the propagandistic effectiveness of King Penguins, quite reasonably pointing out that ‘penguins are not particularly British’. He had other problems too:

‘I am cutting a little of the love scene between two penguins. It just goes far enough to produce raucous guffaws.’

In general, however, the films do seem to have been very successful. They were thematically varied, and both reached and entertained very diverse international audiences. But who were those audiences? The questionnaires reveal much about them, too; too much, in fact, to share just now, so they will be the subject of my next post.

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What Has The British Council Ever Done For Me?

In this video Piers Brown explains what the British Council did for him.

Mining the National Archives

As promised, I took a trip to the National Archives, and discovered a wealth of fascinating information about the British Council’s film production and distribution. I’ll be going into more detail on that in future posts; for the moment, here’s a videoblog entry with some initial thoughts on what I found. Enjoy!

A heads up on the National Archives at Kew

Well, today’s an exciting day in the world of British Council film blogging. I’m making plans to visit the National Archives at Kew, to dig through some original documents, and find a little more out about the organisation’s involvement with film.

That’s been triggered by some very helpful information from Claire Twinn, the British Council’s Archives Manager, who’s had an initial look at the files held down there. So, in our first official guest contribution, she writes:

There are various historical paper files relating to British Council films held at The National Archives in Kew. You can see the descriptions of the files on their online catalogue. The department code for the British Council is BW. A search for “film” in the word or phrase field and “BW” in the department or series code field produces 76 results.

I was there yesterday, and I had a bit of time to look at a few of the paper files relating to British Council films. I consulted:

  • BW 1/770 – Film General Policy: British Council film operations overseas: survey of Central Office of Information (COI) film work 1946-1969
  • BW 4/26 – Foreign Office: distribution of films 1938
  • BW 4/54 – Film Department Minutes 1942-1943

They were very interesting, and certainly help put the various British Council films in context.

BW 1/770 concerned the relationship between the British Council and the COI (that is, the Central Office of Information – very broadly speaking, the government’s communications and advertising agency). It included the take over by the COI of BC film work and staff in 1946, and some discussion about the value and use of film work, allocation of films, resources and audiences.

BW 4/26 had an interesting document that explained the beginnings of BC film work and the formation of a joint committee on film work with the Travel and Industrial Development Association.

BW 4/54 The main discussions recorded in the minutes seemed to be subjects for potential films, progress of films, funding and production costs, reasons for some of the films and distribution. It was useful to see who attended the Film Committee meetings.

For example, there were representatives from the Ministry of Health, General Post Office (I assume from the Film Unit, in fact an advisor to the Joint Committee, according to BW 4/26, was a former GPO Film Unit employee), Government Cinematograph Adviser etc.

That’s fascinating information. In particular, I’m very intrigued by the 1946 COI take over. After ’46, the British Council seemed to start producing fewer films, with more of a cultural bent; it’s going to understand how and why that happened in more detail. So, building on Clare’s initial work, I’m looking forward to going in a bit deeper, and finding out more about how, why and for whom the British Council was commissioning films, and how people across the world responded to them. More in upcoming posts!

Reviewing the BFI Mediatheque films, part 2

Time for more reviewing; so here’s a brief description of the second four films I watched at the BFI Mediatheque. They’re all fascinating in their own way – and they cover a very interesting period in the British Council’s history, as its film making activities peaked, and then began to drop away…

Market Town, 1942

Once again, another Mary Field film; but sadly not one either as characterful as ‘Development of the English Town’, or as wide ranging as ‘History of the English Language’. In fact, by comparison to those two, this film felt very static indeed. What is interesting is the incidental detail – for example, the travelling bookseller that joins the throng at the market, or the small details of domestic life revealed as people prepare to head for town.

The war is casually but very definitely present. Establishing shots twin a steeple with a castle, implying a defense of clearly defined values. Many people arrive at market by bicycle, perhaps a result of petrol rationing. Various military vehicles whizz across the screen; but the commentator doesn’t feel the need to remark on them. I read this subtle reticence as a reaction to then dark military times; the stuggle is not allowed to dominate the national sense of self. The Britain that is being fought for is shown as being separate from, and to an extent protected from, the fact of war itself.

Country Town, 1945

By contrast, director Julian Wintle’s ‘Country Town’ is both highly engaging, and much more open about contemporary events. A very cheerful (and only mildly patronising) local newspaper editor talks directly to the audience, showing us round his patch. A deep and confident sense of community emerges, with the media very definitely at its heart – a surprisingly modern touch. We’re introduced to everyone from the local farmers and market traders, to visiting servicemen and enthusiastic town roller skating rink patrons (yes, there really was one! I was astonished).

And the war is very directly addressed. It is shown as directly shaping the way that British people live. A feel of ‘we’re all making sacrifices and working together’ is very strongly communicated; partially, I think, to emphasise that those working on the home front haven’t had it easy, and partially to understand victory in the war as a function of positive communal effort; an effort that should, ideally, be maintained in peacetime. The town’s links to America are subtly emphasised, too. The community of nations – the British Council seems to be saying – is just as important as the community of individuals.

General Election, 1946

After the war comes peace, and a time for reflection and reassessment. Ronald H. Riley’s ‘General Election’ deals with the 1945 election, providing an example of democracy in action for international post-war audiences. In this, it seems to have been relatively successful. Contemporary feedback from British Council workers worldwide seemed to be broadly positive, with sections showing the three candidates speaking to (more or less) fascinated audiences going down particularly well.

To me, what was notable about those speeches was a fierce, shared need to win the peace. The three candidates differ on means; but all three are strongly aware that, now the international struggle is done with, domestic battles await. Again, each makes a more or less explicit appeal to the sense of community established during the war. That seriousness does occasionally tip over into comedy, as when the Conservative candidate is shown sticking out of the sun-roof of a very small car indeed, gravely broadcasting his message to empty village streets. And he’s John Profumo; which adds more than a little pathos to his enthusiastic electioneering.

Cricket, 1951

One last film, very different in tone from the previous ones, and made in a very different time. By the early 50s, the British Council’s golden age of film production had passed. The Central Office of Information (effectively, the government’s advertising and communications agency) had absorbed the British Council’s film making department; Grahame Tharp’s ‘Cricket’ was one of the relatively few films that it would make off its own bat (so to speak) after the transfer.

‘Cricket’ very definitely pitches itself as a film for aficionados; I’m not a big fan of the sport, so to be honest its charms passed me by rather. However, I did enjoy the Ralph Richardson / John Arlott commentary, and it was fascinating to see footage of W. G. Grace and co in action. But in the end, watching it was a melancholy experience. After the broader concerns of the earlier films, it seemed rather parochial; but then, perhaps being able to return to a focus on the gloriously inconsequential is one of the privileges of peace time.

And an interesting footnote; I’m writing this at the National Records Archive at Kew, where I’ve been digging through various British Council records. ‘Cricket’ was in fact the subject of a hard fought battle between the British Council and the C.O.I. over who would manage (and profit from) the distribution of British Council films. In the end, the British Council won out – but more on that, and more on all the other information on the holdings here in Kew, next week…

Reviewing the BFI Mediatheque films

So last night I hit the Counterpoint relaunch event at the rather nifty Jerwood Space as part of the Tuttle crew; it was a very enjoyable evening indeed, but what was particularly gratifying was the extent to which people were asking about – and fascinated by – the British Council / BFI archive exploration project. In particular, they were very intrigued to know what the documentaries themselves are like. So, I thought for this post I’d talk in more detail about last week’s films. I’m going to cover four of the eight I watched – more to come a bit later on.

Heart of an Empire, 1935

On the one hand, this is a pretty static little film, about the St James district of London. On the other, there’s a fascinating sense of imperial confidence to it, a deep ease with Britain’s (then) status as a global administrator of nations. That confidence is embodied in the film’s opening scenes, a roll call of the various Colonial Offices in and around St James.

Sadly, looking at several offices doesn’t make for thrilling cinema, although things do get a little more interesting when the history of St James’ Park is explored. In sum; certainly a powerful reminder of Britain’s mid-30s imperial reach, but not one (I suspect) that had audiences queuing round the block back in the day.

Island People, 1940

‘Island People’, fortunately, was much more engaging. Made in 1942 by Paul Rotha, it seems to have been produced for a US audience. An American narrator extols the virtues of British culture and society.

For me, the film was notable for its sexual even-handedness; as much time is spent with psychiatrist Dr Jane Martin, and confidential secretary Elizabeth Anderson, as with various male farmers, scientists and sailors. It’s an effective little documentary piece, giving a series of insights into 40s British society that remain as compelling now as they no doubt were back then.

Development of the English Town, 1942

Another winning little film; and another one that made my inner feminist very happy, directed as it was by prolific female documentarist Mary Field. This film is a history of English town planning, from Saxon to contemporary times. Its descriptions of urban growth are – to be honest – pretty dry, but it comes to wonderful life when ghostly town inhabitants appear, and start haranguing the audience about conditions in their various times.

As the film concludes, it strongly endorses a model of town planning based on social justice and quality of life for all. I read this endorsement as an implicit rebuke to the stratified, exploitative and downright lethal urban rule that Nazi administrators were then trying to establish across Europe.

History of the English Language, 1943

Another Mary Field film, and another subtle and yet very punchy piece of propaganda. The film documents the development of the English language, showing how it includes linguistic components from a wide variety of European and Asian tongues. That inclusiveness positions the English language – and therefore the British people – as being open to the shared best of a variety of global cultures.

Viewed on release in the early 40s, this film would have subtly but firmly reminded its audience that Britain (and, by implication, its English speaking ally America) was fighting for an open and highly creative inclusivity; one that that its opponents very firmly denied.

So that’s the first four films; watch this space for more! And, if you find the above intriguing, all you need to do is head to any one of the BFI Mediatheques dotted round Britain, to watch the films yourself.

Videoblogging at the BFI Mediatheque

As promised, I’ve visited the BFI Mediatheque and seen my first British Council films – as it turned out, a very interesting selection from the 30s, 40s and 50s. And, I’ve been inspired by them – rather than writing about them, I thought I’d introduce them on film. So, here’s a bit of (almost live) videblogging from the South Bank –

And in upcoming posts – more detailed commentary on the individual films, plus some interesting discoveries in Kew…