British Film Archive Goes Online

May 3, 2012 Updated: September 25, 2019

A treasure trove of films that depict British life has gone online for the first time.

Over 120 short films from the British Council’s film archive dating back to 1939 have been digitised and are available to stream via the Council’s website.

The films were made to be shown at embassies, consulates, and to school children around the world, and as such present an idealised vision of Britain at a time when fascism was spreading across Europe.

Bobbies on the beat, football, Shakespeare, the manufacture of Harris Tweed, the London Underground, and the life cycle of an onion all feature in the collection.

Many were made by film-makers who subsequently had successful careers in the film industry, such as director Jack Cardiff, who went on to work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

“Important in its own right, the collection represents a significant chapter in British documentary film history with involvement from some of the UK’s cinema greats,” said Briony Hanson, the British Council’s Director of Film, in a statement.

“It also gives a unique insight into how Britain wanted to portray itself internationally – a portrait which was probably quite far from the truth,” Hanson said.

The collection has been preserved for the last 30 years by the BFI National Archive but rarely seen.

Highlights include:

“Border Weave”: Shot in glorious Technicolor, this film by Jack Cardiff shows the industrialised manufacture of Harris Tweed, which is still very much rooted in a classic tradition.

“Morning Paper”: Illustrates in fascinating detail how a daily newspaper (The Times) is produced on old Fleet Street – the men and machines nobly serving the public appetite for news during the Blitz.

“Man on the Beat”: Shows the rigorous training necessary to become a police constable. Our man on the beat documents the scene of a traffic accident, helps the general public, keeps the peace, and occasionally fights crime.

“English Criminal Justice”: A fantastically dramatised documentary, directed by Ken Annakin (Battle of the Bulge), that depicts the various workings of the English legal system – including a striking scene of a murderer being sentenced to death.

“Life Cycle of the Onion”: Using time lapse photography and some incredible close-ups – very state-of-the-art for the time – we see the life cycle of the onion, from seed, to leaf, to flower, to harvest, and to seed again.

“City Bound”: A patriotic look at the daily commute into town faced by Londoners in 1941. Particular attention is given to buses, trains, and the Underground network to highlight the busy atmosphere of London, despite the war.

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