My first taste of the archive

BFI British Council film archiveI went to a place in space-time yesterday that was lovely, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The spatial co-ordinates were familiar ones in London & Birmingham and other parts of the UK but we shifted down the timeline to the 1940s watching films in the BC collection held by the BFI.

So it’s a world that’s very familiar, a place that you’ve heard about and seen pictures of, but never actually been to. My parents and grandparents saw it first hand but I never will – and neither do I wish to – not to be churlish, but I do believe in progress, although that doesn’t mean I think we should forget or lose everything from the past. Looking at treasures like these helps us see what’s on offer, how things used to be done not so long ago and consider bringing some of them back to life in a 21st Century context. I’d love to call that being a “progressive revivalist” but because of connotations that both words have acquired, that makes me sound like a religious sex nut, which I’m not, so let’s not go there.

The viewing experience was strange. Al and I were shut up in a small room with a Steenbeck film player – we were given a quick introduction to how to set up the 35mm film and the key controls for playing, rewinding, changing volume and getting the picture “in the rack” (a bit like twiddling the vertical hold button on your old TV set)

We had to call the technician back after my first pathetic attempt to do it on my own which resulted in several feet of film lashing free because I’d basically put the reel on upside-down. I had visions of the room filling up with unleashed celluloid, and a hilarious cartoon entitled “The man who trashed the British Council Film Archive” but I managed to switch it off before calling for assistance and no harm was done except to my pride. Al was in charge of loading film up for the rest of the day.

We started with The Lincolnshire Poacher – a little animation set to the folk song of the same name. Just how this piece, celebrating the catching of a hare in the moonlight and other general outlawish behaviour fits in with something like The English Criminal Justice System escaped me. I suppose it’s a picture of the British (or at least the English) as pragmatic anti-heroes pluckily outwitting the rest of the world… perhaps… What grabbed my attention more though was the rhythmically pulsing white lines on the left hand side off the moving image. It was the soundtrack. There’s no separate magnetic recording here, just a bit of the film given over to an optical analog representation of the soundtrack which is read by a sound head and presumably very slightly out of synch to account for the distance the film travels through the projection equipment before it gets froom the light source to the sound head. Fantastic.

The whole day became a reminder of the impact of digital technologies. Who knows or cares about how sound is packaged up in a video file now? But with these films you can see it, actually see the recorded changes in sound. Like being able to go down into the groove of a record and see the undulating landscape over which the needle travels. Analog approaches to the problem of reproducing sound somehow seem much more clever than digital ones, perversely enough, because they are actually easier to see.

And so the theme that emerged as we watched was how far we have built our current society and culture on abstract representations. Everywhere in these films we saw men (and women during wartime) making stuff, making useful things out of natural materials.

“Men Who Work”, about the Austin plant at Longbridge in Birmingham, shows the peak of industrialisation that doesn’t rely on the use of plastics – everything is wood and leather and metal and glass and the focus is almost entirely on the manufacturing process – the only management task shown here is the accounting function. And even then we see women manipulating huge typewriter/cash-register/calculating machines to produce a spreadsheet of wages for the week and the production line stuffing pound notes, half-crowns and sixpences into little pay packets for the workers to pick up at the end of the week. At this time, there were 19,000 people employed at Longbridge and the total payroll cheque is shown at just over £85,000 (so an average of less than £5 per person per week).

Writing now brings up the frustration of this project. Ideally, I’d want to illustrate each of these ts by showing you the frame that’s sitting in my memory, but that would require a great deal of other work. The digitisation of all of this material is important so that we can share not just these films as social objects but also individual shots and story lines for us to talk about and discuss our reactions.

Also watched in this session were:
“Women in Wartime” about the WVS before it became the WRVS. “Little Ships of England” showing wartime work in an unnamed shipyard in the West Country. “Learning for Life” about the pre-Education Act state school system, “Papworth Village Settlement” which has nothing to do with heart disease as I’d originally thought but turns out to be about a TB colony in Cambridgeshire with lots of insights into community and attitudes to illness and work. “City Bound” and “London 1942” show how London kept calm and carried on in the early days of the war. “For all Eternity” is a soporific trip around the cathedrals of England and we finished off with “Ulster” which combined tourist information with some oblique references to the loyalty of the province, no doubt something that would be very interesting to those with a better grasp of Irish history and politics than I.


One Response

  1. […] came clearer for me before Christmas when I was watching archive film from the British Council as part of our work with […]

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