Ah, yes, plucky little Britain. A cuppa tea; a cheery smile; down to the job; ’oo do yer thinking yer kidding, Mr ’itler? And now there is a new chance to spend many happy hours wallowing in those days of simple truths and straightforward choices.
The British Council, which was and, to an extent, still is the government’s soft-propaganda wing, on Thursday released 25 newly digitised films dating from the second world war or thereabouts, designed to tell the world of the wonders of the nation’s ways and its quiet but unflinching determination.
This is the culmination of an epic venture, led by the council’s director of film, Briony Hanson, to track down and digitise the 114 shortish movies made in the 80-year-old council’s early days. One of them was discovered in a scout hut.
The flavour and tone is not unfamiliar to anyone who has seen Pathe News or Brief Encounter. What makes this collection different is that the films were never shown in Britain: they were designed to be seen around the world to showcase British virtues.
Occasionally the makers slipped into wartime bombast: “The storm gathers. Its shadow envelops mankind. It is the eve of cataclysm.” That’s the start of War Comes to London, a 1940 effort looking back to the earliest days of the conflict. However, the mood changes to show crowds of smiling schoolchildren carrying gas masks while being evacuated to the countryside: “It was like a holiday … to an excitingly unknown destination.”
Actually, that whole episode was a total waste of resources which traumatised many of the evacuees. But that is not the point. The intent was to depict the British doing what they believe they do best: getting on with it.
What the canon as a whole shows is what Britain really does best: understatement. There is very little outright boasting. Several of the films are pastoral, complete with bucolic music, including The Story of English Inns where “men of all degrees and all opinions meet in comradeship and comfort”. Others show heavy industry. Ms Hanson is especially proud of the restoration of Steel, a 1945 film about a Sheffield foundry, narrated, appropriately, by John Laurie, who became an everlasting symbol of wartime defiance as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army.
Generally, the sun shines a surprising amount. There is no grumbling. Crime? One film (Routine Job, 1946) depicts Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad in which the crack sleuths are deployed to solve the fearsome riddle of 30 missing tea chests. They are all relics of a more consensual time.
“It was cultural propaganda,” Ms Hanson admitted. “These films were about caring, sharing Britain at a time when we wanted to show the world we were good and noble people. But many of the subjects surprised me. There are films about trade unions, the beginnings of national insurance, about disability.
“One thing I really love about them is the way they show people dealing with intricacies. What they’re saying is ‘We may be little people, but by God we’re important.’”
The films can be found at www.britishcouncil.org/film and can be downloaded under a Creative Commons licence, enabling clever people to mash them up as rock videos or satire. Or they can be simply enjoyed over a cup of tea.