Introducing ‘Mining the Archive’

The British Council is well known and well respected, but there’s one area of its work – and, indeed, its history – that’s sadly slipped into obscurity. From the early nineteen thirties, for a period of about twenty years, it was an enthusiastic commissioner and distributor of documentaries from some of the finest film makers of the time.

From the British Council 1942-43 film catalogue

From the British Council 1942-43 film catalogue

These documentaries were designed to showcase contemporary Britain to the world, and so were wide ranging in form, content and tone. Titles include everything from ‘The English Inn’, ‘Piccadilly Roundabout’ and ‘General Election’, to ‘Lubrication of the Petrol Engine’, ‘How the Telephone Works’, and (the no doubt enthralling) ‘Springs’.

They were created by some of the finest creatives then working in film. Paul Rotha – later the BBC’s Head of Documentaries for many years, and a crucial influence on British film culture in general – was a regular Director. Several were shot by Technicolor pioneer Jack Cardiff, who would go on to help legendary film makers Powell and Pressburger establish their signature style, before moving to Hollywood to help make everything from ‘The African Queen’ to ‘Rambo II’. Some later films were scored by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

There’s also a fascinating feminist narrative sitting behind these films. Many of themwere commissioned during the war, when women were more easily able to step into traditionally male roles. At this time, regular female production staff included directors Mary Field and Irene Wilson, and writer Mary Cathcart Borer. They were part of a wider contemporary female presence in documentary; a presence that, sadly, would not be sustained after the war.

And of course, these films are wonderful social documents. In part, they’re a window on a vanished time; it’s fascinating to watch them for details of daily life – fashions, hairstyles, transport, technology – and realise just how much has changed in the last fifty years or so. They also embody a consistent, idealistic and profoundly optimistic view of what it is to be British; one that we modern Britons could perhaps learn much from.

These films are now held in the British Council archive at the BFI. Over the next few weeks, we at Tuttle are going to be digging into that archive. Partially, we’re going to be watching as many of them as possible, and partially we’re going to be exploring their background and history. We also hope to help you see some of them, initially by explaining how to access them through the BFI, and perhaps also by bringing them to you more directly.

So, if you want to find out a little more about an unjustly neglected corner of Britain’s cultural heritage, stick with us! It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks. Oh, and the image above is from ‘Films of Britain 1942-3’, the catalogue of British Council holdings for those years. We’ve been given a selection of catalogues to look through – more on them in a future post!


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