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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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.

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.

Welcome

We are a group of consultants, members of London’s Tuttle Club, who are helping Counterpoint, the British Council‘s in-house think-tank, to look at interesting ways of talking about what the Council does and has done, in the context of it’s 75th Birthday this year.

We are carrying out work in four project streams, each of which you’ll be able to read about and discuss here. This blog will be short-lived in this incarnation as it will shortly move over to the new Counterpoint site (to be launched on 12th October 2009), but we are committed to carrying the work out as openly as we can and so we will be writing about our experiences, what we’ve done and what we’re learning as we go along. No point in waiting for the corporate infrastructure when something like this is freely available.

The project streams are:
Conversations – we are experimenting with getting conversations about culture and cultural relations started in small, face-to-face groups as well as online.
Testimony – we’re asking several people to reflect on the question “What has the British Council ever done for me?” and we’ll be making some short films out of the results.
Film Archive – we have access to the Council’s film archive going back to the 1940s, we’ll be exploring that and writing about what it tells us about how views of culture have changed in the lifetime of the Council. We hope also to be able to share clips of archive material.
Exploring the Social Web – we’ll be working with staff of the Council to teach and encourage them to extend what they do by adding the use of social media and online social networking to their working lives

Please do join in through the comments form that you’ll find on every page. We’re interested in what you think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and what you else you think the British Council should be doing.