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A part of what makes this collection of films so exceptional is the high production quality. This was made possible by the scores of directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, and advisors who worked together to make them. Not all of those individuals listed in the credits went on to become masters of their trade, but dozens of names nonetheless stand out for their future achievements in the arts.


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Bill Owen, Ken Annakin, Humphrey Jennings, John Laurie, Robert Helpmann, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth, Anne Scott-James


The British documentary film movement had only begun a scant decade before the British Council’s Film Department had come into existence. It was a new genre of film, and as such it attracted exciting new talent.

One such talent was Ken Annakin, future director of Battle of the Bulge. Annakin’s earliest known works can be found in the British Council’s documentary film archive, and already the comedic overtones can be seen in English Criminal Justice that would later influence such works as Swiss Family Robinson and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

Well-known names from the documentary film movement are also hidden in amongst the credits of numerous titles, including Mary Field, Marion Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Paul Rotha, Alexander Shaw, Donald Taylor, and Basil Wright. These individuals may not be household names, but their techniques and ideas were pioneering, and their influence shaped the documentaries we now see daily.

It was also the dawn of colour films, and the British Council’s collection hosts some of the first colour documentaries. Technicolor was the company of choice for many filmmakers, despite production companies having to rent the bulky cameras and skilled operators, and most of the colour films from this archive were made using their technology.

The first Technicolor film to be shot in Britain was by a young Jack Cardiff in 1937. Four years later, Jack Cardiff was producing most of the British Council’s colour wartime documentaries. Cardiff’s cinematography was exceptional, and by 1945 he had left England for Hollywood, going on to film such classics as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes.

The other prominent Technicolor cameraman in this collection is Geoffrey Unsworth. Unworth’s debut as a cinematographer came in the form of the British Council film The People’s Land, and propelled him on to Hollywood where he would go on to assist Cardiff on A Matter of Life and Death before making a name for himself filming such titles as 2001: A Space Odyessy, Cabaret, and Superman.

A number of famous musicians also contributed to dozens of films produced by the British Council. The most prolific of these is conductor Muir Mathieson, who worked on many of the films in this collection, and was involved in over four hundred productions in the thirty years following the outbreak of World War 2.

Another prominent figure is William Alwyn, who wrote several operas, concertos, and symphonies during his lifetime, and composed the soundtracks to over a dozen British Council titles between 1939 and 1945.

Other noteworthy musicians who made audible contributions to British Council documentaries include Richard Addinsell, Arthur Benjamin, and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Unexpected actors can occasionally be found, including classic actors Felix Aylmer (Henry V, 1944), Leo Genn (Moby Dick, 1956), Catherine Lacey (The Lady Vanishes, 1938), Wilfred Lawson (Pygmalion, 1938), and Cathleen Nesbitt (An Affair to Remember, 1947), in Julius Caesar and Macbeth.
Dancers feature too, such as Sir Robert Helpmann, Gerd Larsen, Alexander Grant, Elaine Fifield, and Moyra Fraser, in Steps of the Ballet.

A number of acclaimed journalists and photographers, though uncredited, can be seen in the editorial meeting in the film Picture Paper, including Bert 'George' Hardy, Kurt Hutton, Albert Lancaster Lloyd, Fyfe Robertson, and Anne Scott-James.

The occasional scene alights upon certain individuals before they gained fame, such as an uncredited snippet of a cabaret act by a young Bill Owen in London 1942, who later gained renown as Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. John Laurie, on the other hand, already had a number of film appearances by the time he narrated Steel; though he would come to be most known for playing Private James Frazer in Dad's Army years later.


Other individuals who helped to shape the content of the films includes:

Oliver Bell, Director of the British Film Institute.
Charles Dukes, 1st Baron Dukeston, General Secretary of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. Also can be seen in Each For All.
Phillip Guedalla, Head of the British Council Film Department until 1944, popular historical and travel writer, and biographer.
Henry Forsyth Hardy, Head of Information at the Scottish Office.
Sir Harry Lindsay, Director of the Imperial Institute.
Dilys Powell, Film Critic for the Sunday Times from 1939 to 1979.
Sir Stephen Tallents, former Secretary of the Empire Marketing Board and propaganda advisor at the Ministry of Information.
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