Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 291 mins
Region: Region 0
Released: 18 July 2011
Cat No: BFIVD921
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COI Collection: Volume 5 - Portrait of a People
A collection of short information films made by the Central Office of Information (COI) throughout the latter half of the 20th century.... Read More
It's telling that in the nearly five hours of film in Portrait of a People - the latest volume from the archives of the COI, about Britain, its people and its customs - there is only half a minute of rain (in Looking at Britain: Industrial Town - a film about Huddersfield). Otherwise the country seems to exist in a perpetually sunny summer, over which cotton wool clouds cast occasional, picturesque shadows. If this seems surprising given the usual meteorological uncertainty which hangs over these isles, it's worth noting that the films in this collection were mostly sponsored by the Foreign or Colonial Office and made to be seen overseas. In vaunting the land and the achievements of its people they had the the practical purpose of encouraging immigration to a tolerant, welcoming (and sunny) place, but also served the wider aim of re-defining the postwar country in the eyes of the world, especially its former colonies.
These are, for the most part, unabashedly rosy-cheeked portraits of English village and town life, where young people spend their holidays roving through open countryside, staying at Youth Hostels along the way (Looking at Britain: National Parks), where the village policeman 'is more of a friend than a policeman', where the local inn is 'a cheery, companionable place' and Sunday 'is a day of rest and worship' (An English Village) and where arrivals from other countries and cultures live 'not the life of an immigrant but a local citizen' (Moslems in Britain - Cardiff).
The earlier films paint a picture of a nation embodying the values for which it had recently fought and lost so much. Small details in these films are filled with significance as they represent abstract values in action at a local level. An important local tradesman charged with dangerous driving is fined and has his licence removed for a year in a magistrate's court (Local Newspaper - 'however rich and important the offender, the facts will be given to the public' says the narrator), while a farmworker, retired general and a vicar have an equal say on the Parish Council in An English Village. Here is equality before the law and equality of opportunity in action. Likewise, in other films, lliberty, peace, fairness, democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of worship are similarly treated.
Come Saturday is a portrait of Saturday's 'pleasure makers' - working men and women waiting for the clock's hand to move around to 12.30 on Saturday afternoon, so they can knock off and enjoy their day and a half of rest, rushing out to enjoy the fields, streams and gently rustling trees that await. Cyclists, walkers, cricketers, bowlers, fishermen and swimmers take their pleasures gladly, with 'go as you please and do what you like' the only rule through to sing-songs in the inn at closing time ('c'mon folks, half past ten please, come on everybody please') and the band scratching out a last waltz at the local dance.
Of the other films in the set, Oxford (1958), carefully sprinkled with signs of ethnically diverse students, sets out to attract people to a place that is described as 'the fulfilment of an ambition'; Dateline Britain: Look at London (1958), a film sponsored by the Commonwealth Relations Office, sees Bernard Braden present a generous view of London, its places and people, while Shown by Request (1947) (included as a bonus) is a rather lovely little film that presents the work of the Central Film Library, the organisation responsible for the non-theatrical distribution of 16mm MOI and later COI films to canteens, village halls and schools throughout the land. 'In peacetime the need for training and information remains' we are told. As a marker of how access to visual entertainment has changed, people assembling to watch Cyprus is an Island in a village hall on a July evening - a sunny one, of course - is telling. As is the fact we are told in the film John Turner MP, about the work of a fictional Member of Parliament, that 'some members can afford cars.' The Poet's Eye: A Tribute to Shakespeare (1964), sees actor Stephen Murray - gasper in hand, all poise and pauses - present an appreciation of the Bard's imagery, drawn from 'springs of common humanity and shared experience', allied to views of contemporary Britain.
However, it's when the films are asked to address the great changes in 1960s society that they move out of their comfort zone and into a more challenging brief. The surfeit of self-congratulation in a film such as Looking at Britain: Industrial Town ('Oh, yes, the people of Huddersfield are shrewd, hard-working and fiercely independent, but they have a natural gaiety and a zest for pleasure',) gives way to a film such as Speaking of Britain (1967), which addresses this very question of how to adapt to the momentous changes in culture then taking place, with co-operation, extended community and comprehensive education uppermost in 'producing a generation properly equipped to understand life'. A conviction of tone is still present: talk of 'automated motorways' trips off the tongue along with the 'certainty' that one day cancer will be controlled. However, the images of the already seedy-looking high-rises (to the sound of Handel's Messiah) raise a questionable note; spectres of dampness, cracking and poorly-conceived design seeping into the confident talk.
Don Levy's Opus, sponsored by the FCO for the British Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal as a way of showcasing the work of British artists, architects, composers, designers and sculptors, bucks this trend though. Opening with the shimmers, gloops and shards of Tristram Cary's soundtrack, which mixes exclamatory tones with sounds inspired by industrial grinding and clanging, it is notable for its tone of insouciant confidence in the various artistic endeavours shown, from Mary Quant to Rolls Royce. It's interesting too for the clips of David Warner's Hamlet, Peter Brook's Marat/Sade and Ian Holm and Vivien Merchant on stagte in Pinter's The Homecoming.
The final film in the volume, Portrait of a People - Impressions of Britain (1970), is something of a curiousity, offering what comes across as motivational bullet-point platitudes over scenes of the country, from romanticised landscapse to Brutalist architecture in a busy, thrusting place of industry and purposeful change. With quotations such as 'let us not be grudging or falsely modest about the graces of this island, we are the luckiest of races in our surroundings' and 'no society gets more than it deserves', the spirit of Cecil John Rhodes and Englishmen being first in the lottery of life begins to stir. But then other words come along to challenge such complacency, words against which it is worth measuring our society in 2011: 'England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, hobbies and humours.. If history is any guide, it's worth remembering that if we want great men (sic) in all walks of life in the future, we should encourage differences in background and upbringing, differences in education and development' is one; 'happiness depends on freedom from fear, and in this our record is better than anyone's' is another.