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.


Lloyd and I talk film

Lloyd and I spent Wednesday deep in the basement of the BFI, watching various British Council films. Most of them were from the 40s; most of them were, in one way or another, rather wonderful. We’re going down there again this Friday, and will be writing about it all in more detail over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here’s some initial on-video thoughts about what we’ve seen so far – brought to you in authentic FORTIESvision! And I’ve also tried to catch the rather wonderful Steenback machine we were watching the films on.

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.

Reviewing the BFI Mediatheque films

So last night I hit the Counterpoint relaunch event at the rather nifty Jerwood Space as part of the Tuttle crew; it was a very enjoyable evening indeed, but what was particularly gratifying was the extent to which people were asking about – and fascinated by – the British Council / BFI archive exploration project. In particular, they were very intrigued to know what the documentaries themselves are like. So, I thought for this post I’d talk in more detail about last week’s films. I’m going to cover four of the eight I watched – more to come a bit later on.

Heart of an Empire, 1935

On the one hand, this is a pretty static little film, about the St James district of London. On the other, there’s a fascinating sense of imperial confidence to it, a deep ease with Britain’s (then) status as a global administrator of nations. That confidence is embodied in the film’s opening scenes, a roll call of the various Colonial Offices in and around St James.

Sadly, looking at several offices doesn’t make for thrilling cinema, although things do get a little more interesting when the history of St James’ Park is explored. In sum; certainly a powerful reminder of Britain’s mid-30s imperial reach, but not one (I suspect) that had audiences queuing round the block back in the day.

Island People, 1940

‘Island People’, fortunately, was much more engaging. Made in 1942 by Paul Rotha, it seems to have been produced for a US audience. An American narrator extols the virtues of British culture and society.

For me, the film was notable for its sexual even-handedness; as much time is spent with psychiatrist Dr Jane Martin, and confidential secretary Elizabeth Anderson, as with various male farmers, scientists and sailors. It’s an effective little documentary piece, giving a series of insights into 40s British society that remain as compelling now as they no doubt were back then.

Development of the English Town, 1942

Another winning little film; and another one that made my inner feminist very happy, directed as it was by prolific female documentarist Mary Field. This film is a history of English town planning, from Saxon to contemporary times. Its descriptions of urban growth are – to be honest – pretty dry, but it comes to wonderful life when ghostly town inhabitants appear, and start haranguing the audience about conditions in their various times.

As the film concludes, it strongly endorses a model of town planning based on social justice and quality of life for all. I read this endorsement as an implicit rebuke to the stratified, exploitative and downright lethal urban rule that Nazi administrators were then trying to establish across Europe.

History of the English Language, 1943

Another Mary Field film, and another subtle and yet very punchy piece of propaganda. The film documents the development of the English language, showing how it includes linguistic components from a wide variety of European and Asian tongues. That inclusiveness positions the English language – and therefore the British people – as being open to the shared best of a variety of global cultures.

Viewed on release in the early 40s, this film would have subtly but firmly reminded its audience that Britain (and, by implication, its English speaking ally America) was fighting for an open and highly creative inclusivity; one that that its opponents very firmly denied.

So that’s the first four films; watch this space for more! And, if you find the above intriguing, all you need to do is head to any one of the BFI Mediatheques dotted round Britain, to watch the films yourself.

Videoblogging at the BFI Mediatheque

As promised, I’ve visited the BFI Mediatheque and seen my first British Council films – as it turned out, a very interesting selection from the 30s, 40s and 50s. And, I’ve been inspired by them – rather than writing about them, I thought I’d introduce them on film. So, here’s a bit of (almost live) videblogging from the South Bank –

And in upcoming posts – more detailed commentary on the individual films, plus some interesting discoveries in Kew…