A little bit of British Council film history

Lloyd and I have been down in the bowels of the BFI, watching many British Council films. When I sat down this morning, I was meaning to put up our videoblog of that; but I realised that, before talking about the films, a little more context might be valuable. So, once again drawing on my National Archives trip, here’s a brief history of the British council’s engagement with film.

As I’ve mentioned before, the British Council’s film making golden age was during and after the war, up until 1946. It had a substantial in-house production / commissioning staff, and a clearly defined sense of mission. Films were intended to communicate information about one of four key areas:

  1. Arts (including architecture, drama, fine arts, music and town and country planning)
  2. Education (including films dealing with schools, teacher training, aspects of Britain and the British, law and order, sport and youth activities)
  3. Medicine (intended for medical and para-medical audiences only and not for the lay public)
  4. Science (including all branches of science, science teaching and technology)

About 90 films were produced; they were regarded as being important pioneer work, but with the end of the war came re-organisation and rationalisation:

It was decided that the production of officially sponsored films was to be the concern of the Central Office of Information – in effect, the government’s in-house advertising and communications agency – and that if the Council wanted any films made they would have to be produced through the C.O.I..

Much bureaucracy ensued, as the British Council’s film department was moved over to the new organisation. Quite apart from the logistics of the move, both had different pension and employment regimes; understandably disgruntled film staff battled to retain the rather better conditions they’d enjoyed working for the British Council.

Discomfort was felt more officially, too. Almost as soon as the new organisation was up and running, in January 1947, BFI Director Oliver Bell was writing to General Sir Robert Adam at the British Council. He bemoaned handover of film making reponsibilities to the C.O.I., and suggested that a small Sub-Committee of the Council should be set up to develop a clearly defined film making policy for the British Council.

Bell’s motivation is rather interesting; he admired the Council’s general output, but was particularly impressed by the way that it had created a trend in medical films with Surgery in Chest Diseases. I’ve talked about the positive overseas impact of the Council’s medical films in previous posts; it’s fascinating to see that they were very influential at home, too.

However, a combination of factors meant that Bell’s rearguard action was doomed. The General responded positively, but cautiously, in particular citing deep budgetary issues as an impediment to action. There was nothing more to be done; film production was now definitively in the hands of the C.O.I..

The British Council / C.O.I. relationship didn’t seem to be particularly smooth. There’s a fair amount of general grumbling in the records. Much of it is about a perceived lack of efficiency. A 1950 Treasury report bemoans:

The lack of adequate funds in the last 2 or 3 years, and the injunction to get any special films through the C.O.I. involving higher cost and delays in production as compared with what the Council could obtain by direct trade contacts.

There were also more specific issues. In 1950 and 1951, for example, the Council battled the C.O.I. over who managed the distribution of British Council films. The C.O.I. wanted to make distribution deals, and take a percentage of the profits; the British Council felt that it could handle this more efficiently itself, and objected strenuously:

Would you please advise me on this. I cannot quite see why we should seek C.O.I. Finance Division’s views on whether we are to make a good deal as regards selling our wares.

On 25th May 1951, the Council was victorious:

subject to Treasury approval, the Central Office should cease to conduct the commercial distribution in the United Kingdom of the Council’s films

The battle may have been won; the war, alas, was lost. The two organisations were tussling over Cricket, an enjoyable but inconsequential piece about – somewhat unsurprisingly – the history of cricket. It’s a fun little film (and is available to view at the BFI Mediatheque) but it lacks the deep political and social engagement of much of the Council’s earlier output.

From now on, the British Council’s filmic focus would be mostly on either artistic or linguistic subjects. However, there were consolations; from being a producer of its own films, the Council would move to develop a strong role as a booster of the British film industry in general.

It would establish a substantial film library, with movies available for screening worldwide, and work directly with major film makers to bring them and their work to the attention of international audiences.

Major figures including Terence Davies, Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway and others would be closely associated with the Council’s activities; and there’ll be more on that in upcoming posts, once we’ve looked at the films the Council was commissioning and distributing in the 40s…

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