In focus: The British Council film archive collection looks back on who we were

Sarah Cole, Creative Archivist at Time/Image, the mastermind behind digitising the British Council film archive collection, explores the common themes of a united nation.

A woman in a tweed skirt suit crosses the road.

112 films with common themes

Despite the diversity of the subjects covered by the British Council film archive collection, the films are nonetheless remarkably cohesive in tone. It is easy to accept that all these films show different parts of the same country, the same united society. This is largely due to the presence of a few distinct themes throughout, presenting the same messages again and again through different scenarios.

A green and pleasant land

The categories into which the films can be sorted are numerous, yet some topics crop up for more repeatedly than others. For example, films about the towns or countryside outside London are far more common than those on science and technology. One might wonder at the logic of that - what sort of message could be conveyed by endless vistas of rolling hills that would look better than a showcase of Britain’s modern science?

Diversity is the answer. Through such extensive coverage of Britain’s cities and dales, overseas audiences were exposed to the sheer variety of landscapes and people in Great Britain. This was a key aim for the British Council’s film department - the original commissioners of the films - to showcase the different types of British life, and thus illustrate the personality of the country.

This personality was primarily shown to be a hardworking one. Films on industry and commerce came second in number only to those on the countryside. Britain’s industry was portrayed as the backbone of the nation, ever-growing and infallible. Furthermore, the factories are always a demonstration of the labours of the common man - often in the face of challenging environments. Everyone in Britain was a hero in their own way, content in their job and working together for a common cause rather than personal gain be they policemen, underwriters, or steel workers.

They worked for the country, and so the country worked for them in kind. Films on public utilities and services were the next most numerous type of subject explored. Covering the new NHS, social insurance, and the respectable government systems, the projection of Britain was one of plenty, of security, and of a caring state.

Throughout these topics, there are other undercurrents too. Films covering maritime subjects often refer to Britain’s amicable overseas connections, and those films on industry almost invariably refer to the export of the high-quality British products. Overall, Britain is very much depicted as a green and pleasant land, productive and full of happy but hard-working individuals who carry on regardless of the problems caused by World War Two.

Of course, we can see today that such ideals had a very limited basis in reality, and this representation of a golden, bygone era is a theme perhaps best appreciated by a modern audience. Some who watch these films today may feel that the Britain they show is a true representation, but it is the places, jobs, and technologies depicted, not the utopian ethos, that are realistic.

Viewing archive films with a modern eye

The optimistic visions of the future shown in the collection also strike a very different chord now. The unrelenting praise of public services, and cheerful references to the future of British industry are particularly poignant, given the privatisation of the former and decline of the latter. All of these themes have been changed by time - never again can they make the carefully-crafted impression they were once intended to.

However, one theme is perhaps more relevant now than ever. Many of the films show how Britain’s past, both positive and negative, has led to improvements in British life, culture, and society. They tell us to respect our heritage, and what it can teach us. We should regard the British Council film archive with this mindset, and appreciate what it can offer us today so that we too may strive to improve ourselves, not just in Britain, but worldwide.

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