In focus: British-made for the global village

Patrick Russell, Senior Curator for Non-Fiction at the BFI National Archive, examines the role of the British Council film archive collection in the UK's 'documentary movement'.

One seated and one standing figure on a hillside overlooking a village in a valley.

It’s apt that a British Council resource should touch simultaneously on global and national themes. This collection of films, preserved by the BFI National Archive, reveals much about UK self-positioning in the global culture of the time. Equally, their digital availability here, speaks, with a strong British accent, to worldwide phenomena of our own times.

Rediscovering hidden gems

Ours is the moving image age. It is also the age of rediscovery of overlooked films of earlier eras, reconstituted as 21st century digital copies of 20th century analogue prints or negatives. This rediscovery reveals how little of film history was previously understood, how much of it was made up of the precursors of today’s web content: non-fiction shorts, made in their millions worldwide yet – until recently – the slumbering giants within our film archives.

Britain's national history of factual filmmaking is rich and intricate, but has long been reduced to a repeatedly recycled canon of a dozen films by half a dozen filmmakers associated with its ‘documentary movement’. Today’s historiographical revolution proves documentary’s real history to have been a much bigger and spectacularly intricate jigsaw puzzle. The British Council's film archive adds a significant piece to that puzzle, reflecting its broader patterns while furnishing it with unique details.

Don't mention the war!

The bulk of the material here was produced in the early 1940s: during the Second World War. Its exceptional significance is that it was the only series of films commissioned, on large scale, outside of the vast programme of films then being overseen by the Ministry of Information, or directly by the armed forces. The British Council’s output is different in two crucial respects.

First, the main propaganda programme, aimed at audiences at home and abroad, was aspiring to be urgently contemporary: directly tied to winning the war and building a socially just peace. The British Council films, targeted at overseas viewers, almost never ‘mention the war’, giving instead an ageless vision of Britain. If anything is guaranteed to date fascinatingly, it’s the attempt of any past epoch to evoke a ‘timeless’ vision of its own society: this film archive is wonderfully evocative in this respect. At the same time, there is a much more determinedly detailed focus on the ‘nations and regions’ (and greater use of colour film stocks) than in other documentaries of the time. Finally, occasional films (for instance those about deafness and blindness) take on unusual social themes. The task of projecting Britain abroad would be taken up, on gigantic post-war scale, by the Central Office of Information.

Preserving underrated talent

The second key point about the British Council canon is its creative personnel. The Crown Film Unit is usually credited with being at the heart of the 1930s wartime documentary movement. Bar one title, Crown is absent from the splendid credits lists on this archive. The Realist and DATA units ('movement' companies that would prove more important to post-war production) also get one or two each. More noticeable are the several contributions by Gaumont-British Instructional, often signed by the great Mary Field, pointing backwards to what was much the largest, most commercially successful factual output of the 1930s. Equally significant is the heavy presence of the commercial companies which would soon dominate sponsored filmmaking: the Merton Park-based units like Greenpark, Technique and Verity, nucleus of the Film Producers Guild, and World Wide Pictures. Among individual credits, aside from those later associated with feature film (Henry Cass, Ken Annakin, Jack Cardiff) sit the many underrated figures who remained in short film. James Carr, Ronald Riley and Stanley Irving would all become mainstays of production or commissioning. Max Anderson, Grahame Tharp, Terry Bishop and Robin Carruthers are all directors, unfairly absent from reference books (Bishop and Carruthers, indeed, both later won Oscars for the Central Office of Information).

A precious resource

The BFI is delighted to have supported this digitisation project. To add a personal note, there are several old favourites here: Western Isles, Ulster, Triumph Over Deafness, The History of the English Language, the industrial films … But there are plenty more I had never caught up with: it’s a wonderful pleasure to be able to do so easily. But while enjoying instantaneous access, we should pause for respectful reflection. For their imaginative persistence with a then-expensive, ill-understood medium, the British Council’s film department deserves credit for completing so many works that might have died as daydreams. So do the BFI archivists without whose own foresight and persistence they would mostly have ended not as digits but as dust.

This article was first published in 2012.

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