Who Were We?

Film, Landscape, Memory

I spent last night at the British Council’s wonderful ‘Who Were We?’ event at the BFI. They were unveiling their film collection, which has just gone online here.  It was a wonderful evening, for many different reasons.

First of all, it was the end of a rather wonderful process I helped begin back in 2009. I researched and blogged about the British Council films as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations – you can check out my posts and videoblogs here. It was a fascinating project, part of a wider Tuttle Club engagement with the British Council through their thinktank Counterpoint.

Secondly, it was great to catch up with the TIME/IMAGE people who’ve spent the last 18 months or so researching and digitising the films that are now online. They’ve done a wonderful job – it’s very much thanks to them that the archive is now so easily available and so well contextualised.

And finally, there are the films themselves. I’ve written about them extensively elsewhere, so won’t talk about them in too much detail here. Suffice to say, they’re wonderful artefacts.

On the one hand, they’re beautifully crafted masterclasses in delivering detailed information in a concise, easy to digest form. Some of Britain’s finest creative talent worked on them – cameraman Jack Cardiff, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, directors Ken Annakin and Mary Beard, and so on.

On the other, they encode a very specific vision of Britain and its place in the world, one that’s in some ways inspiring but in others deeply problematic. Watching them raises fascinating questions about how we saw ourselves then, how we see ourselves now, and how  we (and the world) have changed along the way.

Anyway, enough description. The best way to get to understand the films is to watch them! So, here are three of my favourites. First of all, here’s propaganda piece ‘Little Ships of Britain’, connecting 1940s warfare to deep rural time:

Secondly, the hypnotically surreal ‘Life History of the Onion’ –

And finally, a Technicolour mini-masterpiece, shot beautifully by Powell and Pressburger’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff – ‘The Western Isles’:

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