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.

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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!

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.