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The British Council Film Department Letterhead, June 1943


The British Council’s Film Department came into existence just as World War 2 began, and worked hard to prove itself to its peers, skeptical politicians, and civil servants over the next few years.

Despite its lack of experience and criticism, the wartime film department gained respect for its output, and its high-quality short films came to be seen by hundreds of thousands of individuals the world over, helping to shape the popular image of Britain for decades to come.



Pre-War: 1934-1939

The British Council is founded in 1934, with the goal of maintaing cultural relations with other countries, and promoting Britishness and all things British abroad. It has a small budget courtesy of the Foreign Office, which it uses to organise cultural events abroad such as musical performances and lectures.

The Council quickly realises the potential for positive filmic depictions of Britain abroad, but at this stage does not have the resources required to create its own fully-functional film department.
As a result, it forms a Joint Film Committee with other institutes such as the British Film Institute (BFI) and the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA). The latter of these is largely privately funded by railway companies and suchlike, and has been producing short promotional films about Britain since 1932 with their own film unit, and been showing them abroad to encourage tourism.

Phillip Guedalla, popular historian, chairs the Committee, which works to pick the best of extant British documentaries. The members then work to distribute these abroad. In later years, some new films are sponsored from the Committee’s budget, which are then put into production by Mr A.F. Primrose, who is the Secretary for TIDA’s Film Department as well as the Committee. In mid-1939, the British Council invests £10,000 in the Committee for just this reason.

1939

With the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939, tourism ceases in Britain. As a result, TIDA effectively ceases to operate. Rather than let the now-experienced TIDA Film Department completely disintegrate, the British Council adopts it (predominantly in the form of Mr Primrose) to form the British Council Film Department in October 1939. They also complete the production of any unfinished films begun by the Joint Film Committee before outbreak of war.

By the end of October, the Joint Film Committee becomes an official part of the British Council, and is renamed the British Council Film Committee. The members change over the years, but the Committee is responsible for most of the production decisions relating to British Council filmic output until 1946.

The government sees the opportunities in this form of media and the British Council, with an increased budget, now begins to commission its own short documentary films on various aspects of British culture and daily life.

1940

The first purely British Council titles are released, and the tone is noticeably different to the films of both TIDA and the Joint Film Committee - they are less focussed on industry, and none are travelogues; they do not advertise the country as such, but merely inform. Those films whose production was initiated by these bodies before the war are often reworked before completion to reflect this new ethos.

A number of the films produced this year focus on the impact of the war. The Ministry of Information does not implement their own film propaganda programme until November 1940, making the British Council the sole body producing British film propaganda of this type for the first year of the war. Foreseeing this late in 1939, Phillip Guedalla had suggested beginning production on some war-orientated films in order that they might be later paid for by the Ministry of Information, but these films are ultimately retained by the British Council. The only films to mention the war that were produced by the British Council in 1940 were those whose production was initiated by the Joint Film Committee.

Neville Kearney, former Secretary of the Newsreel Association, is appointed Director of the Film Department.

1941

Despite these good intentions, the British Council and the Ministry of Information - the government body responsible for wartime propaganda - found themselves at loggerheads with one another by the end of 1940. After some debate, the Council was not allowed to mention the war within its films due, apparently, to an embargo from the Ministry itself.

The two organisations are very antagonistic towards one another during this time. In 1941 the Ministry of Information decides that the British Council’s films are outdated in tone and topic, and thus encourage the Nazi propaganda suggesting that Britain is ‘living in the past’. It recommends that the British Council should cease producing and distributing films. The Council argues that this ‘outdated’ tone is due to the Ministry’s nonsensical embargo, and stands its ground.

It is eventually realised in February 1942 that there is no such embargo, and that there has simply been a misunderstanding about the issue. The British Council immediately begins to produce films that address wartime industries and life in Britain.

1944

The charismatic Chair of the Film Committee, popular writer Philip Guedalla, becomes very unwell following military service in Africa with the RAF at the beginning of the year. His absence is keenly felt and, coupled with production problems, the Film Department’s output is less than half of the previous year, with only eight films being produced. Sadly, Guedalla passes away in December 1944.

1945

The production of films resumes in earnest, with 22 titles being completed in 1945.

Neville Kearney leaves the department, and is replaced by Mr R.E. Tritton by October.

World War 2 ends and, though resources have been hampered, the British Council has produced around 100 films in the last five years.

1946

Following the war, there are many changes made within the government. The now defunct Ministry of Information becomes the Central Office of Information (COI), the government’s new marketing and communications agency.

In February 1946, the Cabinet decides that the British Council must do all of its ‘production and procurement’ through the COI. Whilst the Council can order new films as it pleases, production is largely in the hands of the COI, and bureaucracy means that films take far longer to complete than before.

At the same time, the British Council cuts its budget for film, and many staff from the British Council’s Film Department (including Mr Tritton) choose to migrate to the newly-expanded film department at the COI whilst others (notably Mr Primrose) quit entirely by May. This, coupled with the hefty fees the COI charges the Council for its work, cripples the British Council’s film output.

1950

The radical changes of 1946 take their toll, and the British Council produces only eight films, all made through the COI, between 1947 and 1950. A far cry from the clear cultural propaganda of the war years, they focus on dance, music, foreign culture, medicine, and the teaching of English - foreshadowing the future work of the Council and the majority of its later filmic output.

The only film sponsored by the British Council in 1950, Cricket, is the last film sponsored by the Council until 1958.



Despite the changes of 1946, the British Council retained the right to distribute its films abroad in a non-commercial capacity. As such, these wartime films continue to be shown to thousands of people in dozens of countries for the following decade.

Though many of the films dated quickly in the post-war years, the high production values meant that films on industrial and educational topics did not. These titles were still being shown as far afield as Mauritius in 1960, where they continued to entertain hundreds of people, and helped a whole generation to learn the English language.



See also: The British Council's Medical Department and Films
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