Tuesday, 5 June 2012

British Council Film Collection

The British Council Film Collection is an archive of over 120 short documentary films made by the British Council during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played. The films vary in length between around three and thirty minutes and show all aspects of Britain during this tumultuous decade. The films were produced as a way of promoting Britain and Britishness and were seen in over 100 countries as cultural propaganda, as a way of counteracting the Nazis own propaganda about Britain being stuck in the past. In amongst the collection there will be at least a few films that are of interest to everyone with subjects as diverse as the Criminal Justice System, Town Planning, Shakespeare, Ship Building and even the life of an Onion...

Although at the time these films were produced to show how modern and diverse Britain was they feel very dated now. They are voiced over by men with accents that no longer exist outside an American tourist's imagination and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who isn't white on film. Some of the views are also quite outdated. In one film nursing is described as "the most interesting and satisfying career open to women." If you are familiar with any of the towns and cities featured in the films then their appearance will also be a big shock to you. The country has changed a lot in seventy years. Most of the films are shot during the Second World War and this is another interesting feature about them. We are able to see how the nation coped with rationing, bombing and death on a daily basis.

Below are links to and a brief description of four of my favourite films. These are films which for various geographical, historical or personal reasons were of interest to me.

Merseyside – 1941 – 9 minutes.
This short film tells the story of the river Mersey from its source in Derbyshire to its great estuary in Liverpool where it forms the basis for one of the world’s greatest ports. In 1941 Britain was still the world leader in commerce and trade and Liverpool was one its most important assets. The city had at the time of filming 70 docks, shrouded in smog and mist and alive with the sound of horses, trucks, cranes, ships and men. This film is of special interest to me because not only do I visit Liverpool fairly regularly but the Mersey passes through the town in which I currently live, Stockport. This section of the river is highlighted in the film as it travels 30 feet below the town centre, under the man made Merseyway which is now a shopping centre. I see this area every week but it was unrecognisable to me. It wasn’t until my girlfriend pointed out a bridge that she recognised that I could place where I was looking at. For me this film highlighted several changes of the last seventy years. Both towns featured looked completely different to how they look today and the voice over is conducted in an accent which is almost lost today. How Liverpool uses the Mersey and its docks has changed drastically too. There is very little traffic now and the docks are home to bars, restaurants and museums.

Piccadilly Roundabout – 1943 – 11 minutes.
This film shows life at the heart of London during the Second World War. It begins with a soldier describing Piccadilly Circus to his comrade before cutting to a Tube train entering the station and its passengers ascending the escalator up into the light of the Circus, to join the crowds of shoe shines, flower sellers, soldiers, office workers and shoppers; quite a different mix from today’s tourists who flock to the famous landmark. The Circus is described by the voice over man as a meeting place for people from all over the world and like the central hub of a wheel with the spokes of Regent Street, Shaftsbury Avenue and Coventry Street protruding away from it like spokes. The film looks briefly at the history of the surrounding area and mentions the small streets of Soho and shows huge lines outside Leicester Square’s cinemas. The film also shows the considerable war damage to the area with shells of theatres and huge water tanks sat waiting to extinguish flames. There are also warning posters everywhere and several exhibitions promoting the history and work of fighting nations such as Yugoslavia, Poland and the USSR. Much like the Merseyside film, this film shows us how drastic the change has been in 70 years. While more recognisable than Liverpool, Piccadilly Circus has changed immeasurably in the last seven decades and this film is a fascinating glimpse into how it looked at one of it’s most in endangered times.  

General Election – 1945 – 19 minutes
This is another film of interest for me as I have a Degree in Politics. This film looks at the process by which an MP is elected and focuses on the Constituency of Kettering in Northamptonshire, a division of 170,000 acres with a population of 74,000. The film discusses how each candidate becomes so and briefly outlines each of the three candidates; from the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and an Independent Christian. The film follows the three men on the road and in fields and village halls where they give speeches and talk to constituents in their places of work. One of the things that struck me most about this particular film was the high level of participation. It seemed like everyone was involved in one way or another whether it be canvassing, assisting candidates or attending talks. These days we’re lucky if 40% of people even vote. The film talks about the difficulty of having so many servicemen abroad during this election and tells how their ballot papers are flown overseas while the actual count is delayed until their return. Another interesting aspect of the film was the impartiality of the press, something which has mostly disappeared now. The film makes regular emphasis of the fact that this is a free election, something which the country was probably very proud of as much of Europe had been under Fascist or Communist rule for the past decade or so. In the end it is a victory for the Labour candidate as it was for the party on a national level and the film follows Kettering’s new MP into Parliament on his first day representing the town. Even with a Politics Degree this film taught me a few things I didn’t know and it was also interesting to see how Politics has altered since the War.

Student Nurse – 1944 – 32 minutes
This is one of the longer films available but is of interest to me as not only is my girlfriend a Nurse but my Nan actually trained as a Nurse just a couple of years before this film was made and nursed soldiers throughout the war and continued after it. It follows two fictionalised student nurses through their three years of training from arrival to qualification and discusses their training and duties in each year. The first year emphasises study while by the second year they are given more duties and responsibilities. By the third year they are well on their way to becoming qualified and get a new uniform; a uniform that is much nicer than my girlfriend’s! The film also emphasises the importance of cleanliness and goes into details about the technological advancements of recent years which have made a Nurse’s life easier. In one interesting section the film takes us through a surgery from preparation, through the operation and recovery, detailing each member of a surgical team’s responsibilities. This film, as with all the others in this series feels dated and this is highlighted not so much by the practise and instruments but by the voice over stating that Nursing is “the most interesting and satisfying career open to women.” This statement made me laugh, a lot.    

The whole collection is available for free here.

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