A Technicolor tour of the Commonwealth.
In early 2008 the British Film Institute secured an agreement with the Central Office of Information to represent and manage their considerable collection of public information films. Exact numbers as to how many titles this entails are hard to come by (especially as the BFI are still going through the documentation), although a rough figure of 9,000 individual films is typically quoted. Since the arrangement was made the BFI have begun to issue various examples onto disc, primarily through their dedicated COI Collection range, but also as part of wider-ranging compilations (on the Shadows of Progress set, for example) or nestled among the extra features (Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, to name but one, is accompanied by Alice in Label Land, an educational animation from 1974). By my current count they must be well over a hundred of their titles released onto DVD by the BFI to date, with more on the immediate horizon. In just over a week’s time we’ll see the eighth volume in the COI Collection thanks to Your Children and You (containing 11 short films), whilst the next release in the Flipside range, John Krish’s Captured, will be backed by three of the director’s efforts for the agency, most notably H.M.P., his 1976 documentary on the prison service.
To complement the Collection and the various one-offs we now find the beginnings of a new series of COI-related titles from the BFI. Roundabout was a regular ‘cine-magazine’ produced by the British government between 1962 and 1974 on a mostly monthly basis and created entirely for an overseas audience. The aim was to communicate with the Commonwealth by highlighting industry, progress and the place of Britain in it all. The tagline was “People – Places – Events” and each instalment was filmed in Technicolor for that ultimate gloss. The very first didn’t emerge until May of 1962, so the BFI have waited until 1963 to provide a full annual round-up. In this case we find 11 ‘issues’ for each of the months except September which, as the eagle-eyed will have spotted, are now some 50 years old. As such it’s safe to assume that these Roundabout volumes will become annual affairs.
The cine-magazine format grew out of the newsreels of the silent era. Pathé’s Animated Gazette had been born in 1910 and the likes of the Topical Budget and Gaumont Graphic followed in quick succession. The first cine-magazine is generally considered to be the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette, which emerged in 1913 and, as the title suggests, also had colour at its disposal. Essentially, the difference between the two came down to subject matter, with the cine-magazines tending to shy away from anything too hard-hitting in favour of lighter concerns – the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette was devoted entirely to women’s fashions. Soon there were specialist series on all manner of themes – sports, cinema, travel and so forth – while industrial film units also got in on the act. The National Coal Board Film Unit produced the Mining Review, just as British Transport Films made their Cine Gazette (of which John Krish’s much-loved The Elephant Will Never Forget was one) and the steel industry had the Ingot Pictorial. You can sample a number of these of the BFI’s themed documentary collections, just as you can also find examples of the COI’s own Dateline Britain and This Week in Britain (which ran until 1980) on some of their dedicated volumes.
As time wore on the distinction between newsreels and cine-magazines began to blur. The former would incorporate lighter topics while the latter sought to inform and educate as well as entertain. The perfect illustration in the various shifts going on was the renaming of Gaumont-British News to Look at Life in 1959, in the process creating the best-known of all the cine-magazines. Indeed, it has recently served as the basis of an entire BBC4 television series, Britain on Film, a fine demonstration of the nostalgic pull these little fancies now hold. Certainly, their lightness prevails, but their window to the past is a fascinating one, especially in the case of Roundabout given its colonial emphasis. Its past is long-gone, taking in visits to Saigon and Phnom Penh before the escalation of the Vietnam War, to Sri Lanka when it was still called Ceylon and to Malaya at a time when it was still a country.
The cine-magazine label feels particularly fitting for the Roundabout films given the overall gloss. At times the individual ‘issues’ play out like a Sunday supplement come to life: a parade of governors, ambassadors, secretaries and occasional royalty at private and public functions; an ad for the British mini; a report from Ascot or a movie set (in this cast Val Guest’s 80,000 Suspects); and a major helping of exotic locations. All of which is wrapped up in an ever-present nationalist hyperbole, whether it’s highlighting aid to foreign industry or espousing the qualities of the British soldier. Meanwhile, the soundtracks – for the most part consisting of peppy lounge jazz – have a tendency to swoon whenever the Queen or Prince Philip appears on screen.
The glossiness is matched by the slickness, most obviously when it comes to the commentaries. On narration duties is Brian Cobby, later to become the first male voice behind British Telecom’s speaking clock, which should perfectly sum up his enunciative qualities. His ability to segue between sections is just as smooth. By simply stating “racing cars, family cars” he can shift effortlessly from the New Zealand Grand Prix in Auckland to the Vauxhall Motors factory in Cheshire. Similarly, he’ll finish a sequence on furniture production with a sentence that ends on the word “time” – the ideal cue for a cutaway to the clock tower in a Hampton Court Palace and a visit from the wife of the Indonesian Ambassador. It really is that simple.
Such ease of delivery creates a spirit and energy that is really quite infectious and means this entire compilation is over before you know it. Each Roundabout instalment had an average length of just nine minutes, though that proves more than enough to stop off at the British Mint or the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo or to watch some sheep shearing in Australia or the creation of silverware. It’s true that none of these are afforded much depth, but then that was never the cine-magazine’s intention. The aim was simply to provide a bright Technicolor tour of the Commonwealth in a manner that would be as appealing and no-nonsense (and exportable) as possible. In this respect Roundabout succeeds entirely, only with the added value of that 50-year viewing gap.
The 99 minutes which make up the total runtime of Roundabout’s 11 instalments fit quite snugly onto a dual-layered region-free disc. Each of the films has been newly mastered in high definition using the best available materials from the BFI National Archive and COI film collections. The soundtracks, in particular, are in excellent shape with the picture quality not far behind. At times the image can look wonderful, though do be aware that not all of the footage was newly recorded for a Roundabout ‘issue’. In June’s film, for example, there has been some borrowing from Seawards the Great Ships (available in full on the BFI’s Tales from the Shipyard set) while stock and library footage is apparent at times. Nevertheless, the Technicolor is suitably impressive when it needs to be and there have been no ill-effects in getting these titles onto disc – contrast and clarity are just fine with no technical issues to report. (There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.) Extras amount to the eight-page booklet complete with individual entries on each of the instalments plus an introductory essay by Linda Kaye, who is a research executive at the British Universities Film and Video Council.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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