The COI Collection Volume Eight: Your Children and You Review
Having previously dealt with such subject matter as health and safety, the armed forces and Queen Elizabeth II, the latest volume in the BFI’s on-going COI Collection turns its attentions to children and childcare. In this instance the Central Office of Information’s impressive back catalogue (estimated to include somewhere in the region of 9,000 individual films) serves as the source for explanations of the Education Act of 1944, instructional titles for new parents, calls for part-time foster carers and more besides. As has become the norm with this DVD series, the films are split across two discs and encompass some five decades – the earliest dates back to 1946, while the most recent screened in 1985.
Not that Your Children and You is quite so balanced as that may suggest. Six of its 11 titles date from the 1940s (including all of those found on disc one), with four of those being the responsibility of the Realist Film Unit. Between 1945 and 1951 the Unit embarked on a series entitled Your Children, each instalment focusing on a different aspect of childhood. One was called Your Children’s Teeth, for example, another Your Children Walking, and three are included here: the film which gives this volume its title plus Your Children’s Meals and Your Children’s Sleep. Despite shifts in personnel from one to the other, a discernible approach is easy to detect. The emphasis is on the voice-over, sensible but with room for humour, with the imagery a mixture of staged and more straightforward documentary footage.
Needless to say, the scenes of childhood remain timeless. There are some moments that date (most notably in the other Realist film, Children Growing Up with Other People, which features a pre-teen smoking, a golliwog and cut glass accents), but the moments of joy and anger and frustration are just as potent today as they were almost 70 years ago. Indeed, much of the instructional value passes the same test too. Equally striking are the more cinematic qualities and the invention their individual directors bring to the films. Alex Strasser, who had previously worked with Richard Massingham, borrows his former boss’ propensity for sight gags for Your Children’s Meals. Jane Massy, on the other hand, makes full use of the dream sequences in Your Children’s Sleep – the scene with the barbed wire is especially striking. Underpinning their talents are the ever-reliable likes of composer William Alywn and cinematographer A.E. Jeakins.
The Realist titles alone are enough to make Your Children and You worthy of a purchase – the five running times even combine to feature length – though there is plenty more across these two discs to get your teeth into. Sharing the same decade as these films are The Three A’s: A County Modern School, which comes with narration penned by Miles Tomalin (one of the co-writers of Paul Rotha’s Land of Promise), and Halas & Batchelor’s Charley Junior’s Schooldays, which brings nine minutes of Technicolor animation to proceedings. As the years progress, the range of subject matter diversifies: child welfare services in the sixties; an academic study in child psychology in the seventies; an insight into IVF treatment in the eighties. There are a host of issues and topics under discussion that some, perhaps, may not have expected given the volume’s overall theme.
One uniting factor, and among the more interesting facets to Your Children and You, is the heavy female presence among the various onscreen credits. (Admittedly not all of the films included list their producers, directors and so on, but there are enough that do to point up a pattern.) Margaret Thomson, who directed Children Growing Up with Other People and A Family Affair, started out as a maker of scientific films (she had a degree in zoology), but soon made childhood her specialist subject. As well as documentaries she was responsible for Child’s Play, a 1954 feature aimed at a younger audience, and also served as a coach to child actors at Pinewood Studios. Certainly, the footage captured in the two films on this set demonstrate her ability to get those in front of the camera at ease, the tussle over the tricycle in Children Growing Up with Other People especially.
Elsewhere, we also find Jane Massy, Janice Kay and Joy Batchelor all picking up directorial credits. Massy only had a short-lived filmmaking career, though she made further documentaries on a similar theme (including Teaching Young Children, a recruitment film for primary school teachers). Kay similarly seems to have been similarly active as a filmmaker for only a short period, and primarily for the COI. Batchelor was much more prolific, however, having set up Halas & Batchelor with her husband in 1940. The pair moved from advertisements to propaganda and industrial films to the first feature-length British animation (namely 1954’s Animal Farm) and eventually to television, with Batchelor variously earning credits as writer, producer and designer alongside director. In the case of Charley Junior’s Schooldays, she (and Halas) occupied all four roles.
There’s further depth too. Vera Linnecar, one of the animators on Charley Junior’s Schooldays, would later become a director in her own right. Gwen Baillie edited the majority of the Realist films included on Your Children and You. And the edition of A Woman’s Place, which Kay directed and which focuses primarily on Baroness Warnock, was made with a predominantly female workforce; the most notable of its credits being that of its narrator, the Oscar-nominated Susannah York. Such names add an extra layer to this volume making it, in part, a brisk survey on the role women have played in sponsored filmmaking. The BFI have been here before, making works from the likes of Sarah Erulkar and Ruby Grierson available on earlier compilations, though never to such a marked effect.
The presence of additional layers such as these has become typical of the various COI volumes and, for that matter, the BFI’s documentary output as a whole. Of course, the principal audience remains those enticed by the central theme, but it’s not an exclusive one. Across the two discs and 11 films which make up of Your Children and You (there are four additional shorts among the extras, which are discussed below) we also get the usual blend of social and cinematic histories plus some genuinely fine filmmaking. As said, it’s the Realist productions which stand out most of all, though the entire package shouldn’t be underestimated.
Your Children and You splits its contents, including extras, over a pair of dual-layered discs encoded for all regions. (Full contents are listed below.) Each of the films has been newly mastered in High and Standard Definition with the end results understandably varying owing to the different ages and levels of damage. Some, such as Children’s Thought and Language, look wonderful whereas others are in a lesser state. Nevertheless, each title remains watchable and their soundtracks similarly range from excellent to acceptable. Optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles are also available on all of the films and the extras where applicable.
As has becomes the norm for BFI DVDs, Your Children and You also comes with an attendant booklet, in this case totalling 28 pages. Individual notes and credits are provided for each of the inclusions as well as introductory essays and, of course, plenty of illustrations. On the discs, meanwhile, we also find four additional shorts (two per disc) which have been licenced from the Wellcome Library. The Library has devoted itself to film and video titles dealing with health and medicine, oftentimes in a semi-professional capacity and rarely for the consumption of the general public. In recent years initiatives to digitise the collection have been undertaken resulting in a number appearing on Wellcome’s official YouTube channel and this particular volume.
Essentially, the four additional shorts provide a counterpoint to the official government records provided by the COI. They don’t have the slickness of the Realist films, for example, but still manage to fascinate and intrigue given their subject matter. Maternity: A Film of Queen Charlottes Hospital is a 15-minute silent effort from 1932 and therefore provides a valuable insight into a pre-NHS era. Childbirth as an Athletic Feat (which demonstrates antenatal exercises) and Bathing and Dressing, Parts 1&2 were also made in the thirties and screened to expectant mothers; the latter comes with a newly created soundtrack by Dr. Felicity Ford in which she recorded the live reactions of modern day mums in order to recreate that audience feel. (The other two films come with Neil Thomas piano accompaniment.) The last of the additions is also the most recent, 1958’s Toxaemia of Pregnancy, was self-produced by consultant gynaecologist Jean Burton-Brown but manages to be slightly more hi-tech than the earlier films. It has its own soundtrack for starters, plus colour photography and even a handful of animated sequences.
Your Children and You (1946, d. Brian Smith)
Children Growing Up with Other People (1947, d. Margaret Thomson)
Your Children's Meals (1947, d. Alex Strasser)
The Three A's: A County Modern School (1947)
Charley Junior's Schooldays (1949, ds. John Halas & Joy Batchelor)
Your Children's Sleep (1948, d. Jane Massy)
A Family Affair (1950, d. Margaret Thomson)
Child Welfare (1962)
Children's Society: Aunts and Uncles (1960)
Children's Thought and Language (1971, d. Stefan Sargent)
A Woman's Place (Test Tube Babies) (1985, d. Janice Kay)