Monday, October 24, 2011

Shadows of Progress

Following the first box set of BFI documentary films from the years 1930-1950 (see June post), I've just finished the sequel, Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-war Britain 1951-1977 which comprises another 32 films ranging from 5 to 44 mins, sprawled over 4 DVDs and a book.

It's all riveting stuff, capturing the half-hearted boom of economic development in the 50s & first half of the 60s, and then the political & economic stagnation of the 70s. Like the earlier volume, they're all public information films, commissioned by local or national government, charities, the Post Office, a few commercial companies and so on. As far as I can make out, none of them made it onto TV.

There are films about the march of progress: steel industry (actually in the descendancy), the car industry (Ford Anglias rolling off the production lines)... there's even a doc about - yes, really - conveyor belts!  There are propagandist films extolling the wonders of new towns (Faces of Harlow [1964]) and another one on how Shetland bargained with the incoming North Sea oil compannies and won.

On the more earnest side, there are films about epilepsy (People Apart [1957]), polio (Four People: A Ballad Film [1962]), Down's Sydrome - 'though it's not mentioned by name (There was a Door [1957]), terrorism (Time of Terror [1975]) and a terribly sad one about what it is to be old and alone in a 60s tower block (I Think They Call Him John [1964]). Of course, they're insightful in their own right, but what makes them particularly interesting is how people viewed the issues 50 years ago. There are also two commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children whose briefs required the directors not to show cruelty to children.

Perhaps the most tellingly apposite in terms of mood and message are two films commissioned by oil companies. The brazenly confident Shellarama [1965] features gleaming pipelines snaking into and out of futuristic looking refineries and sports cars driving along the Riviera in a combined Technicolour cry of 'Progress!'. Its 14 minutes took two years to shoot. On the flipside, BP's The Shadow of Progress [1970] is hard-hittingly earnest about pollution and so downbeat that it almost got quashed by the Board. 

Amongst all the men are two women directors: Jill Craigie, who appropriately directed To Be a Woman [1951]; and Sarah Erulkar, who directed Birthright [1958] for the Family Planning Association and the gender-neutral Picture to Post (1969) about the process of designing commemorative stamps - a surprisingly diverting little film. The fact that Erulkar was also Indian makes for a refreshing inclusion.

Add in a few nostalgic and light-hearted films about the last tram journey in London (The Elephant Will Never Forget [1953]), the British love of cold, windswept, beach resorts with songs replacing any narrative (Sundays by the Sea [1953]), and a wonderful snapshot of East End life in Queenie [1964], and you have 27 years of Blighty covered in six hours.

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