British-made, for the global village

British-made, for the global village

Patrick Russell, Senior Curator for Non-Fiction at the BFI National Archive assesses the place of the British Council Film Collection within the UK's Documentary movement

  • Snowdonia, 1945 - part of a large number of films portraying the nations and regions

Snowdonia, 1945 - part of a large number of films portraying the nations and regions

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 era in which prints of those films first circulated. Equally, their new digital availability here as streamed and downloadable files, speaks, with a strong British accent, to worldwide phenomena of our own times.

Ours is the moving image age. ‘Film’, in the form of digits travelling further distances, faster, than celluloid ever could, is penetrating its every facet. Yet ours 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 is revealing how little of film history was previously understood, how much of it comprised 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 is playing an especially prominent part, its national history of factual filmmaking being singularly rich and intricate, but long 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 Film Collection adds a significant piece to that puzzle, reflecting its broader patterns while furnishing it with unique details.

The bulk of the material here was produced in the early 1940s: during World War II. Its exceptional significance is that it was the only Collection commissioned, on large scale, outside of the vast programme of films then being overseen by the Ministry of Information (dominating the standard histories of the period’s documentaries), or directly by the armed forces. The British Council’s output differs from these others 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: the British Council Film Collection 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.

The second key point about the British Council canon is its creative personnel. Standard accounts put the Crown Film Unit, with other units closely associated with the 1930s 'movement' at the heart of wartime documentary. Bar one title, Crown is absent from the splendid credits lists on this Collection. 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 COI).

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.


Patrick Russell - 2012
Senior Curator Non-Fiction
BFI National Archive