Hitting gold at the BFI

Time spent in reconaissance is never wasted; so, knowing that there are about three hundred films in the BFI / British Council archive, and very aware that we’re certainly not going to have time to watch them all, I decided to do a little rooting around. I wanted to understand a little more about the various films that the British Council had made, and use that to come up with a short list for viewing.

Being something of a geek (‘No!’, I hear you cry, but it is true) I decided that the best place to start was online. The IMDB wasn’t much use; a lot of these films seem to have slipped entirely under its usually impressive radar. That’s exciting in itself; it made me suspect that most, if not all, of them have been unseen since their initial production and distribution. But it’s not very helpful. So, I did what I should have done first of all, and went to the BFI website.

The BFI have a superb database of all the films that they hold, and it was here that I hit gold. The BFI has a Film and TV database; the Film and TV database has an advanced search facilty; selecting ‘Organisations’ in the advanced search drop-down menu, and typing “British Council” in brings up 418 British Council films held by the BFI (try it yourself! For a truly precise search, don’t forget to type “British Council”, rather than just British Council).

Searching the BFI Film & TV database

Searching the BFI Film & TV database

Of the films that come up, 160 or so are ‘British News (Colonial Version)’ shorts. They run from 1940 to 1944, and aggregate patriotic news stories for international distribution. I’m sure they present a fascinating composite picture of the war years; but, as re-cut versions of pre-existing news footage, they’re not original British Council content, and so outside the scope of what we’re doing. A shame; they look fascinating – a treasure trove of contemporary reportage, waiting to be mined.

The remaining films – roughly 240 of them – are all documentaries, produced for the British Council between the mid 30s and the mid 80s. Most seem to have been made during and just after the War; they cover an extremely wide range of subjects, but as a whole seem to be determined to capture and present a very clear, and very wide-ranging, sense of how Britain works, and therefore what defines it. These films are – I think – propaganda in the best and broadest sense. They provide a compelling narrative of a highly positive national self-image, to both rally support in wartime, and to provoke debate and provide aspirations as the post-war world rebuilt itself.

Of course, it’s one thing to read about these films, another to see them. The BFI database has helped me define a shortlist of films to watch – more detail on that coming soon. More immediately, it also helped me realise that several British Council shorts from the 30s, 40s and 50s are viewable right now at the BFI Mediatheque on the South Bank. They look like they’ll be a fascinating introduction to the archive. So, I’m going to complement my list making by heading down to the South Bank, finding out exactly which ones are available, and sitting down and watching them. And that will be what the next post is about!

Some search results

Some search results

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