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…


Audiences of the Forties

The British Council’s film making golden age lasted from the 30s to 1946, when its production capabilities were transferred to the newly created Central Office of Information. It had – as previously noted – a very clear sense of mission, as this comment from a 1969 internal summary of its film making activities shows:

During the war the Council embarked on the sponsorship of documentary films – some 90 in all – designed to illustrate and explain some of the cultural, scientific and educational experiences of the British people and to enable those in other countries to form some idea of their way of life.

These films were designed to reach very speicific audiences; and those audiences come out very clearly in the 1946 reports on British Council films. First of all, there were the specialists. Key among these were doctors and other medical staff. An unnamed British Council operative records an Eastern European showing of Accident Service:

This film was shown to a medical audience of approximately 200 persons at the Chief Military Hospital in Belgrade on Sunday 3rd February. A running-commentary was given in Serbo-Croat by Dr. Milos Simovic. Very great interest was taken in this film and a second showing will probably be asked for.

These medical films seem to have been part of a very specific communications effort that combined propaganda with education. Writing in 1947, then BFI Director Oliver Bell comments approvingly that the British Council has helped create a trend in medical films, while a 1950 Treasury assessment notes that these films are:

[valuable demonstrations of] the technique of surgical operations for limited audiences of specialists. The extension of anaesthesia in Italy, for example, with the consequential dependence of this specialisation upon British methods and equipment, would not have been possible without the aid of films…

Such formal engagement was not limited to medicine. British Council films achieved broader educational goals; here’s a town planning example. Writing in 1946, Margaret Travis – Assistant Secretary of the National Film Society of Canada – comments that Development of the English Town is:

[a] good film of historical and topical interest. Used on many programmes in conjunction with the American film The City for showings to civic and town planning groups. Also with New Towns For Old.

Farmer’s Boy was also much enjoyed. Jerusalem’s Functional Officer (he of the enthusiastic penguins) noted that:

This film has been appreciated by agricultural teachers and pupils as well as by the general public. I consider this somewhat of an achivement! More please.

while the Council’s Accra representative had no doubt of its educational usefulness:

A very good film, of great interest to the people of West Africa, where agriculture is a major question. Is calculated to encourage a return to the land, much needed here.

Of course, not all the films were for specialists. Many reached much wider audiences. Here’s a notably polyglot example from D. H. Adams, who thoroughly enjoyed showing Cambridge in Kabul:

This film is an absolute winner: it has been very much appreciated by all types of mentality, Afghans, Turks, Egyptians, Greeks, Czechs, English & Americans. The little talks by the dons are good and particularly that of the Provost of Kings. Personally I always delight in showing this film but naturally I am somewhat prejudiced!

Belgrade seemed to be a good place to show films; the representative there describes audiences of 150 people. And such film goers would have been treated to more than just documentaries. When shown in the Middle East, Local Government benefitted from ‘having an authority on the subject answer questions afterwards’; in Nairobi, Market Town was also accompanied by a talk (and shown twice!).

But not all viewers were enthusiastic, or even engaged. Here’s the previously enthusiastic Adams of Kabul, running into problems with a game of cards while showing Distillation:

The business with the playing cards seems quite unnecessary: the thing is perfectly clear without that. Presumably the film has not been produced for morons! As far as Afghans are concerned it introduces an unfathomable mystery into the whole thing as they have never seen playing cards – I had to waste a lot of time subsequently trying to teach them ‘Snap’ which they thought silly anyhow.

British Council representatives from South America to China complained about the lack of local language versions, while the irrepressible Major Cathcart Bruce of Malta submitted multiple rants about sound:

As I have repeatedly emphasised in reporting on other films, the background music is much too loud, in many cases spoiling the spoken commentary. This applies to this film under review. Why oh Why! cannot the musical background be toned down to pianissimo when the Commentator speaks? This is the opinion of many of our members, and spoiled an otherwise good film. News reels never give us this trouble.

Taken generally, however, these complaints were outweighed by the positive impact the films had. They seemed to delight audiences from Tashkent to Tijuana; and they seemed to very successfully communicate Britishness to a very wide range of people indeed.

The British Council film reviewers of 1946

So, as you know, I went to the National Archives, where I looked at three main British Council files. The first one contained a general history of the organisation’s film making. The second had more specific information about the 1946 handover of its film-making capabilities to the newly formed Central Office of Information.

The third – and most engaging – file contained reviews of individual films from British Council staff worldwide, written up in 1945 and 1946, and I’m going to begin by writing about that. Before going into detail, here’s a picture of one of the standardised review questionnaires that staff were asked to fill in:

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

Taken together, these questionnaires give very rich insight into what the films were intended to achieve, who watched them, and how they were received. I’m going to begin by pulling out some quotes which help illuminate that first point – just why were these films made and distributed?

The review questionnaires give us a very clear answer. In fact, the lead question, repeated on each, contains a very clear mission statement for British Council film making. It asks:

‘Does this film achieve its aim to promote a wider knowledge of Britain and her people overseas in your territory?’

For the most part, the various films reported on do achieve that main goal. What’s notable in particular is a strong sense of their very specific function as post-war propaganda. That comes through particularly well in these two quotes, which show the films working to correct both historic Nazi and (I suspect) more contemporary Communist propaganda:

London 1942: ‘The impression of London’s energy & vitality made a marked impression. The sight of the food available to the British People in 1942 interested some who remembered that Gt Britain was then supposed to be starving.’

E. A. S. Bullingworth, British Council Vienna, 9th May 1946

New Mine: ‘Good – valuable here (a mining country) showing progress does happen in the reactionary West.’

H Gardley-Wilmot, British Council Prague, 2nd November 1946

However, such propaganda could sometimes be too successful. Here’s an unknown British Council employee (he or she didn’t write their name on the form), who has had to deal with a rather disgruntled Greek audience:

Second Freedom: ‘Films of this type do more harm than good – presenting England as a Utopia where maternity homes, model schools, specialized training, employment under ideal conditions, are within everyone’s reach. Why not show food queues, the tiny meat and fat rations, housing shortage and other uncomfortable facts…The audience, believing the film gives a true condition of conditions in England, is dissatisfied with the absence of similar amenities in Cyprus.’

Respondent unknown, Nicosia Institute, 15th January 1946

And sometimes, of course, the films are either heartily disliked – Gardley Wilmot of Prague comments that Local Government ‘seems meant for mental age 14’ – or bafflingly irrelevant. D. S. A. Adams, of the British Legation in Kabul, when asked whether Life Cycle of the Newt helped promote wider knowledge of Britain and its people, responded:

‘NO! My dear sir…’

R. Wye, Jerusalem’s 1945 Functional Officer, was similarly puzzled to be asked about the propagandistic effectiveness of King Penguins, quite reasonably pointing out that ‘penguins are not particularly British’. He had other problems too:

‘I am cutting a little of the love scene between two penguins. It just goes far enough to produce raucous guffaws.’

In general, however, the films do seem to have been very successful. They were thematically varied, and both reached and entertained very diverse international audiences. But who were those audiences? The questionnaires reveal much about them, too; too much, in fact, to share just now, so they will be the subject of my next post.

What Has The British Council Ever Done For Me?

In this video Piers Brown explains what the British Council did for him.

Mining the National Archives

As promised, I took a trip to the National Archives, and discovered a wealth of fascinating information about the British Council’s film production and distribution. I’ll be going into more detail on that in future posts; for the moment, here’s a videoblog entry with some initial thoughts on what I found. Enjoy!

A heads up on the National Archives at Kew

Well, today’s an exciting day in the world of British Council film blogging. I’m making plans to visit the National Archives at Kew, to dig through some original documents, and find a little more out about the organisation’s involvement with film.

That’s been triggered by some very helpful information from Claire Twinn, the British Council’s Archives Manager, who’s had an initial look at the files held down there. So, in our first official guest contribution, she writes:

There are various historical paper files relating to British Council films held at The National Archives in Kew. You can see the descriptions of the files on their online catalogue. The department code for the British Council is BW. A search for “film” in the word or phrase field and “BW” in the department or series code field produces 76 results.

I was there yesterday, and I had a bit of time to look at a few of the paper files relating to British Council films. I consulted:

  • BW 1/770 – Film General Policy: British Council film operations overseas: survey of Central Office of Information (COI) film work 1946-1969
  • BW 4/26 – Foreign Office: distribution of films 1938
  • BW 4/54 – Film Department Minutes 1942-1943

They were very interesting, and certainly help put the various British Council films in context.

BW 1/770 concerned the relationship between the British Council and the COI (that is, the Central Office of Information – very broadly speaking, the government’s communications and advertising agency). It included the take over by the COI of BC film work and staff in 1946, and some discussion about the value and use of film work, allocation of films, resources and audiences.

BW 4/26 had an interesting document that explained the beginnings of BC film work and the formation of a joint committee on film work with the Travel and Industrial Development Association.

BW 4/54 The main discussions recorded in the minutes seemed to be subjects for potential films, progress of films, funding and production costs, reasons for some of the films and distribution. It was useful to see who attended the Film Committee meetings.

For example, there were representatives from the Ministry of Health, General Post Office (I assume from the Film Unit, in fact an advisor to the Joint Committee, according to BW 4/26, was a former GPO Film Unit employee), Government Cinematograph Adviser etc.

That’s fascinating information. In particular, I’m very intrigued by the 1946 COI take over. After ’46, the British Council seemed to start producing fewer films, with more of a cultural bent; it’s going to understand how and why that happened in more detail. So, building on Clare’s initial work, I’m looking forward to going in a bit deeper, and finding out more about how, why and for whom the British Council was commissioning films, and how people across the world responded to them. More in upcoming posts!

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…