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…


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