The COI Collection Volume Five: Portrait of a People Review
This week sees the arrival of three BFI releases united around a common theme. Though a seemingly disparate bunch - two documentary compilations, Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow and Portrait of a People, and the latest Flipside offering, Requiem for a Village - each surveys Britain’s cultural past from its own unique viewpoint. In the case of Here’s a Health… we find a century’s worth of recordings dedicated to folk customs and traditions, the earliest dating back to 1912. Such is the niche quality of these films, many were captured by amateurs or enthusiasts and therefore exist outside of the confines of conventional cinema and its distribution methods. (Although, with that said, the set also finds room for both professional newsreels and television news items.) By way of contrast, Requiem for a Village is a mostly forgotten feature from the seventies that, to this day, still stands out as very much its own work. An amalgam of drama and documentary, the film prompts comparisons to a number of unexpected sources, whether it be the Euro-horror of the time or those short pieces made by Amber Films devoted to outdated industrial practices during their early years. The line between fiction and non-fiction is continually blurred, making Requiem for a Village as valid a documentary as it is a feature film; its record of Britain’s cultural and industrial histories just as important as those found amongst the Here’s a Health… titles. By way of further contrast, Portrait of a People is the fifth in the BFI’s ongoing series of Central Office of Information collections, two discs of government sponsored documentary shorts extolling the qualities of British culture to both a home audience and viewers abroad. Their ‘official’ nature is important as these films don’t merely enthusiastically recall as per the Here’s a Health… films, but actually propagate the myths surrounding British life and ‘Britishness’. If Here’s a Health… and Requiem for a Village show us the undercurrents and the underbelly, Portrait of a People demonstrates the populist view: cricket on the village green and a London populated by bright red double-decker buses.
To open in such a manner is arguably to do Portrait of a People a disservice: positioning the genuine article (as found on Here’s a Health…) and the experimental take (Requiem for a Village) against the Government-endorsed view. Surely the mummers, the Faddy Dance and dwile flonking tell a more interesting tale of Britain than lawn bowls, recreational cycling and the Tower of London. Yet whilst there’s truth in such a statement, it fails to acknowledge just how broad Portrait of a People’s subject range is. Similarly, the ways in which nostalgia and history work are also to be factored in. In other words, yes, you will be able to spot a double-decker bus in pretty much every one of the shorts assembled here, but you’ll also find more besides. Over the course of these thirteen titles there is discussion and consideration of the British landscape, British politics, immigrants and immigration, the education system, contemporary art and architecture as well as the constant shadow of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats. The years covered by Portrait of a People - the earliest dates back to 1949, the most recent from 1970 - are also important inasmuch as this adds to the documentary value. We are witness to the post-war mood, a combination of austerity and optimism punctuated by the occasional scar. We are witness to the changing landscape as new towns spring up and the ‘swinging sixties’ briefly burst into life. We witness the end of the British Empire and continued existence of the Commonwealth, prompting both a need to define what Britain is and stands for as an era comes to end as well as an endorsement as its foreign subjects are enticed to come to this land for education and labour.
In this respect Portrait of a People shows itself to be as rich as a record of the past as Here’s a Health… and, moreover, capable of some genuine surprises. The standout from this perspective is undoubtedly Moslems in Britain - Cardiff, one of four Moslems in Britain documentaries made by the COI during the early sixties. The aim of these shorts was to target the Arabic-speaking countries and promote Britain as the place to come for work and excellent living conditions. Indeed, the air of the Cardiff film is intensely propagandistic, with each of the interviewees uniformly agreeing that their wages are superb, likewise their integration into the community and the unhindered maintenance of their religious lives. Of course, this also means that we should take it with a pinch of salt - it is, after all, intended as a “recruitment drive” (to quote Katy McGahan’s liner notes) not an objective documentary portrait of the lives of immigrants circa 1961 - but then the rare glimpse the film affords also offsets certain misgivings. Furthermore it’s intriguing to find this rarity contained within a fairly standard documentary set-up; remove the Muslim focus, the overwhelming endorsement of immigration, and the fact that the entirety of Moslems in Britain - Cardiff is in Arabic, and you have a conventional piece that interweaves interview material with the travelogue. No surprises from a technical standpoint, but undoubtedly so from a subject matter perspective.
Immigration (and multiculturalism) also figures in Dateline Britain: Look at London, another short intended for a non-Brits, in this case Australian and Canadian TV audiences. Made in 1958, and hosted by the Canadian-born but UK-resident Bernard Braden, this piece starts with the clichés - the “tourist’s paradise” of Piccadilly Circus and the Tower of London - but soon gives way to the “Londoner’s London”. In other words it has no interest in offering up yet another travelogue glimpse at the capital complete with all the usual sights and suspects, but rather tries to go a little deeper. As those familiar with Braden courtesy of the Now and Then interviews which have cropped up on a number of BFI discs will know, he can be an engaging presence and an intriguing interviewer. Here he chats with a policeman, a publican, a tailor, an immigrant, a group of schoolchildren (in a sequence pre-figuring Michael Apted’s Seven Up!) and Harry Secombe. He mixes the banter with the more serious concerns and throws out some serious questions. From a 2011 perspective there’s also interest to be had in some of the more antiquated elements on display, most noticeably the licensing laws held over from World War I and the Defence of the Realm Act 1914.
Unsurprisingly the whole of Portrait of a People is suffused with such nostalgia-inducing elements or retro thrills. There are the students who populate Oxford (1958) with their duffel coats and pre-hippie beards or the youths in Looking at Britain: National Parks (1961) camping out in Snowdonia to a benign jazz score. There’s the equally harmless English village of An English Village (1956) which plays up to seemingly every possible stereotype (the local bobby is “more of a friend than a policeman”) yet does so in an exceedingly charming way. Fast forward to the end of the sixties and we have Don Levy’s commentary-free Opus (1967), commissioned for Expo 67, complete with Marat/Sade, modern art and Mary Quant, all to a psychedelic score and pulsating editing rhythms. From the same year Speaking of Britain, which is slightly more cagey in embracing in all that is new and exciting despite its commentary declaring “so much is changing in Britain”. It indulges in some acts of hip-ness, but only if it can also include traditional folk dancing and a trip to the pub. The COI seem a little unsure of the youth explosion happening around them (it’s hardly surprising to discover that they hated Opus and its experimental ways and means) and so only tentatively dip their toe into the waters. Never more so is this apparent than in The Poet’s Eye, a 1964 tribute to Shakespeare, which cuts away from a youthful rock band to Desmond Dupré playing the lute: something more traditional, more reassuring.
Such a disconnect needn’t be viewed as a flaw as long as we acknowledge its presence. In a way each of the films on Portrait of a People has a inherent problem insofar as they were all the results of a government commission and intended to fulfil a fairly narrow remit. They were made to inform and educate their audiences and in as positive a light a possible. Not only were they aware of the stereotypes, they were also reinforcing them. (Although I was surprised by the comparative lack of tea drinking throughout!) Certainly, in a handful of cases we find films - such as The Poet’s Eye and its visual representation of Britain as accompanied by Shakespeare’s “word pictures” or Portrait of a People - Impressions of Britain from 1970 which does a similar job to various quotes by Keats, Churchill and so on - which are somewhat freer of these confines, but nonetheless the view given is of a country without problems, making continual progress and populated by communities that are democratic, inclusive and enlivened by a terrific spirit. This doesn’t make them worthless as social documents, but as with Moslems in Britain - Cardiff, we do need to be aware of this misbalance between the message and the reality. The social insights and indicators are there, albeit oftentimes buried beneath the propagandising and perpetual smile these documentaries present.
However, it is possible to argue that such considerations pale somewhat when placed within the context of overall cinematic quality. Whilst watching Come Saturday, for example, I was completely swept away by its wonderful portrait of a day in the life of resting Britons and as such had little issue with that portrait containing the usual combination of cricket, bowls and bandstands. Despite Ralph Richardson occupying the final credit as narrator he crops up only at the very start and very end, this 1949 short - my personal favourite of all Portrait of a People’s inclusions - simply lets the images do the talking. In some respects it plays out like one of those ‘city symphonies’ made a couple of decades earlier; both Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City contained sequences devoted solely to recreation. We take in everything from amateur boxing to ice skating to a child’s birthday party - a wealth of material that allows its brief 30-minute running time to be alternately cute, comic, charming and flamboyant. The humorous scenes, in particular, come off well, whether it be the harassed fisherman or the locals eagerly awaiting their pub’s 6pm opening. Nothing too overt, just little gags and observations that infuse Come Saturday with a wonderful appeal.
Less entertaining perhaps, but no less solid are Local Newspaper (1952), which maintains the usual unfussy high standards of the Crown Film Unit, and Oxford, which was produced by another key non-fiction production company, Greenpark, and offers up an early credit for Derek Williams, the subject of one of the chapters in the BFI’s excellent Shadows of Progress book as well as a number of shorts on its accompanying DVD boxed-set. Admittedly the film doesn’t quite match Williams’ later The Shadow of Progress, for example, but nonetheless demonstrates a particular talent and ably balances out its various needs. Oxford is part travelogue and part infomercial, both for the University itself and university in general. Yet Williams is determined to throw in the odd artful moment, show off some ambition and remain quiet when necessary: at times we get some wonderful compositions and striking tracking shots, at others we simply serve as a fly-on-the-wall, gaining an interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse at this institution. (It’s astonishing, for example, just how baby-faced a lot of the young smokers onscreen are.)
I’ve already mentioned Don Levy and he is arguably the ‘name’ director amongst the various filmmakers whose work finds itself on the set. (Other notables include Jim Clark, director of Speaking of Britain, who would go onto Rentadick and Madhouse with Vincent Price, and Anthony Pélissier, who had previously helmed The History of Mr. Polly and The Rocking Horse Winner prior to Portrait of a People - Impressions of Britain.) Levy was recently resurrected courtesy of the BFI’s Flipside release of his epic experimental narrative Herostratus from 1967, which came accompanied by a number of his outstanding short films. Opus is an interesting case inasmuch as it undoubtedly stands out amongst the other shorts on Portrait of a People given its more blatant experimental edge, yet arguably it’s a moderately weaker film than those which appeared on the Flipside disc. The cross-cutting between miniskirt-ed models, Rolls Royces and Francis Bacon certainly stands out the more conventional approach of Looking at Britain: Industrial Town (1962), say, but I couldn’t help but feel the message held it back somewhat. Of course this message is a simple one: promote the Britain of 1967 and all that is exciting about it, whether that be the Royal Ballet or David Warner as Hamlet. The COI had an issue with Opus as they felt its avant-garde scoring matched with extreme close-ups, stop motion and hectic cross-cutting was all a little too much. Conversely, I couldn’t help but feel that the COI’s remit held the film back and prevented Levy from going as far as he wanted to. For me it didn’t prompt the same level of astonishment as Time Is (1964), for example, or some of the Five Films (1967). What remains is nonetheless a fascinating time capsule, albeit not Levy at his best. With that said, I was impressed that, for all the subversion of usual COI practices, he still managed to include the red double-decker; perhaps this was specified in all London-set COI-sponsored films?!
Despite these minor misgivings, there’s a likelihood that many who purchased - and enjoyed - Herostratus will be tempted by Portrait of a People. Given the mention of Derek Williams and Shadows of Progress above, there’s a similar likelihood for those who invested in that particular set. Of course, there are also those who have been picking up each of the COI collections so far (click here for the others in the series) and, given the strong thematic link, those who are eager to see the Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow compilation and the Requiem for a Village Blu-ray. Essentially I’m saying what I’ve said in a number of BFI reviews over the past year: it’s all interconnected. Whilst each of these discs or sets offers up its own self-contained volume, or feature plus shorts, they’re also contributing to a much bigger picture which is slowly detailing many forgotten corners of British filmmaking. That may be a filmmaker such as Don Levy or a particular movement, style or era. And so whilst Portrait of a People stands out as yet another superb documentary release from the BFI, it also shouldn’t be ghettoised as simply being for those with a particular interest in non-fiction filmmaking or the theme at hand. The amount of crossover between the various compilations, Flipsides and volumes should be enticing potential buyers to sample across the numerous strands and releases. As examples of film history, social history and as films pure and simple, the quality is undoubtedly there.
Portrait of a People is being issued by the BFI in the standard fashion for the Central Office of Information releases. We find the films split over two dual-layered discs, encoded for all regions and generally looking as good as could be expected having utilised to best materials available. The titles from Come Saturday through to John Turner M.P. are all in black and white, with The Poet’s Eye onwards in colour. Aspect ratios are the original 1.33:1 in every case with original mono soundtracks also in place. English HOH subtitles are an option, with standard English subs available for Moslems in Britain - Cardiff (which is in Arabic).
As should perhaps be expected the films’ presentation improves as we progress through the years. Some of the earlier titles are in a reasonable condition, with those from Oxford onwards being mostly excellent. The colour shorts, in particular, are very impressive, though be aware that moderate damage is still present, though hardly to the point that could be called distracting. The soundtracks are in a similar shape, again with a gradual improvement from film to film. The earliest have the expected hiss and pops, which slowly lessen as we move towards 1970.
The special features consist of one on-disc addition and the usual high-standard BFI booklet complete with illustrations, credits and plenty of notes for each individual title. The on-disc extra is Shown by Request, Colin Dean’s 1947 documentary short about the Central Film Library (CFL) which distributed the COI’s output to sundry schools, village halls, workplaces and the like. As a piece of filmmaking it’s solid, straightforward and unfussy. As a documentary it’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the CFL and how these films were screened in an age before mass television usage. The film has been available to view on the National Archives website as part of their collection of public information titles, but obviously it looks much better on disc - and, as with each of Portrait of a People’s main shorts, also comes with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Come Saturday (1949, d. Leonard Reeve)
Local Newspaper (1952)
An English Village (1956)
Oxford (1958, d. Derek Williams)
Dateline Britain: Look at London (1958, d. Donald Kerr)
Looking at Britain: National Parks (1961, d. Gerald Cookson)
BONUS FILM: Shown by Request (1947, d. Colin Dean)
Moslems in Britain - Cardiff (1961, d. J Fares)
Looking at Britain: Industrial Town (1962, d. Norman Hemsley)
John Turner M.P. (1962)
The Poet’s Eye (1962, d. Gordon Hales)
Speaking of Britain (1967, d. James Clark)
Opus (1967, d. Don Levy)
Portrait of a People - Impressions of Britain (1970, d. Anthony Pélissier)
Last updated: 17/07/2018 14:39:46