The COI Collection Volume Two: Design for Today Review

Volume two in the BFI’s collections of Central Office of Information films is a markedly different beast from the first. The set-up and remit remains: two-discs offering a cross-section of documentaries, spanning a number of decades, and on a specific theme. But it is the theme which proves most important. Whereas volume one, entitled Police and Thieves, took crime and punishment as its central focus, this particular release is more art orientated. As the Design for Today moniker suggests, here we find fashion and architecture as the main ingredients. And the effect this has on the films themselves is telling - overall we sense a greater element of adventure and invention as a means of matching the subject, the results being more akin to those films (and attendant shorts) which have received the BFI’s Flipside treatment as opposed to their excellent series of documentary releases.

This shift is best demonstrated by some of the names responsible for Design for Today’s assembled shorts. In contrast to Police and Thieves’ smattering of familiar British documentary names and units - Paul Rotha, John Krish, Basil Wright, the Crown Film Unit - here we find the likes of Hugh Hudson, Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman cropping up. This isn’t to say that the two releases lack any crossover in this respect: Richard Massingham, for example, serves as producer on one of the shorts; and there is, of course, the element that with so many of British documentary makers being little known it would, without undergoing major research, prove difficult to ascertain quite how indicative their work here is of their overall output and how it fits into the grander scheme. Nonetheless, you do still sense that if Design for Today attracted a significantly different audience to Police and Thieves then this would not be too surprising.

This lack of an immediate connection with the first volume, as well as the BFI’s various GPO, BTF, NCB and other documentary sets, has some interesting side effects. Whereas viewing Police and Thieves had me joining the dots with other British documentary films (placing Children on Trail in the context of the GPO and Crown Film Units, for example, or John Krish’s Snatch of the Day amongst the director’s other works), with Design for Today I was more inclined to view them simply as individual pieces. The result is that volume two’s shorts feel much more like time capsules than those found on volume one (and perhaps this is where I am drawing the parallels with the BFI’s Flipside discs). In part this may simply be owing to the cultural focus - fashions dating more readily than other aspects of society - but also, it would appear, due to these films’ own remits. A number of the shorts are designed, no more or no less, than to simply demonstrate a specific moment in time, a kind of travelogue for their given decade. The most obvious is Miniskirts Make Money, a minute-long and narrative-free look at ‘Swinging London’ and its fashions. Yet the same could be said for the longer form Design for Today and 60 Years of London, both of which work as illustrated lectures and simple showcases. Of these types of documentaries only Brief City, a contemporaneous look at the Festival of Britain, seems to be adding any attempt at comment and therefore upping the historical curiosity, noting how the flamboyant and adventurous architecture (here noted as “vulgar, even a little mad”) has turned the Thames into a “gigantic toyshop for adults”.

Of course, what this also demonstrates is the fact that a number of these shorts sought to advertise more than they did inform. It should perhaps come as little surprise that Design for Today was directed by Hugh Hudson, a filmmaker who went on to have a prominent, and award-winning, career in advertising before making Chariots of Fire in 1981. Yet Design for Today (the volume, not the film) strikes a good balance, interspersing these promo pieces with a number of differing filmmaking styles. The Joyce Grenfell scripted Designing Women is a delightful fictional concoction mixing consumer advice with quaint special effects, essentially a ‘makeover’ show decades before the concept become a television fad. Elsewhere we also find straightforward reportage such as the This Week in Britain segments The National Theatre and Men’s Fashions. Indeed, their inclusion also highlights the ‘magazine’ format of a number of these shorts; also present are films from the Insight and The Pacemakers strands. You could perhaps argue that Design for Today as a whole works in such a manner - with its pieces on particular fashions and particular practitioners (Terence Conran, Zandra Rhodes, Mary Quant) the discs become a kind of decade-spanning Culture Show, cherry-picking the key artefacts from the forties to the eighties and presenting them in easily accessible, bite-size chunks.

The Films

Disc One
Designing Women (1948)
Designed in Britain (1959)
Brief City (1952)
Design for Today (1965)
This Week in Britain 615: The National Theatre (1970)
The Pacemakers: Basil Spence (1973)
Insight: Terence Conran (1981)

Disc Two
Sixty Years of Fashion (1960)
Miniskirts Make Money (1968)
The Pacemakers: Biba (1970)
The Country Look (1971)
This Week in Britain 750: Men's Fashions (1973)
24 Hours: Men's Fashions (1973)
This Week in Britain 791: The Mary Quant Show (1974)
This Week in Britain 1111: Saville Row
Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981)
A Woman's Place: The Image Makers (1985)

The Discs

As with the Police and Thieves volume, Design for Today is split over two dual-layered discs and encoded for Region 2. The films’ presentations are, on the whole, very pleasing. Original aspect ratios are maintained and, for the most part, the prints are in excellent condition. The two exceptions are Designing Women and Miniskirts Make Money, particularly the former, though it should be noted that these shorts transferred by the COI themselves and in standard definition. Elsewhere, all of the other inclusions have been treated to new high definition transfers by the BFI using the best materials available. As such we really are seeing these efforts in as good a condition as possible and, moreover, should also note that many have remained unseen for years thus making them all the more desirable. Similarly, the soundtracks are in fine condition - again Designing Women comes off poorly in this respect - and optional English subtitling for the hard of hearing are also available. In a nice touch, two of the shorts - Designed in Britain and Design for Today - are also available with optional newly composed and recorded scores by Saint Etienne. Needless to say, these particular soundtracks are flawless in quality terms. And keeping with the alternative theme, the disc also includes the Mexican version of Men’s Fashions complete with different host. The only other addition is a 24-page booklet, yet this comes with a wealth of information on each of the films included (with complete credits), amongst them Hugh Hudson’s own recollections on the making of Design for Today.

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