Researching around these films is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw, but instead of a nice boxed set, what you’ve got is a bag full of jigsaw pieces, with no guarantee that there’s only one jigsaw in the bag, or that you have all of the pieces to any of them.
We have been doing a lot of research of late, largely in the National Archives and British Library. Obviously, each institute provides us with very different things. At the National Archive we look at original files and documents, filled with hastily-scrawled memos and typed minutes from dozens of meetings; at the British Library we see 80-year old books and modern dissertations alike. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile these various sources, to pull the useful information from them to form a cohesive image of things.
Take, for example, the earliest film in our catalogue – 1933’s So This is Lancashire. Whilst doing some research on the production companies involved in the British Film Institute’s TV & Film database, I came across two interesting listings – one for another 1933 film, Lancashire at Work, and the other for a 1935 film, Lancashire, Home of Industry. These last two films were both produced by TIDA (about which I’ll talk more in a minute), so it seems reasonable to assume that perhaps the later one is simply a revamped version of the first.
It seems unlikely to me, however, that two completely separate films would be made about Lancashire in 1933 – does this mean that there is a chance that So This is Lancashire and Lancashire at Work are the same film? I think it’s quite probable indeed. The only problem is that we can’t be sure until we’ve seen both copies.
But now you’re wondering how a film made by another company might be the same as one made by the British Council.
Sometimes, with this project, it’s the things that we don’t find that are the more telling. R. Low (Documentary & Educational Films of the 1930s) and P. Swann (The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946) both utilised similar sources to us (namely, the files in the National Archive) in writing their books. Yet they noticed something that we had not – that the documents relating to the British Council’s film department in the archives dated no earlier than 1939. Why is this? Because the British Council’s film department did not actually exist until October 1939, after the New York World Fair and the beginning of World War II.
When we started this project, our main source was a list of unknown origin, listing all the British Council films held in the British Film Institute’s archive. The films on this list date as early as 1933. We had rather assumed, therefore, that the British Council had a functioning film department from its inception, or that the dates on the films were a couple of years out. Neither of these things are true. It seems that the British Council had no funds at all for the production of films until 1939, but instead was limited to the selection and distribution of films produced by others. This was highlighted last week by our discovering evidence that the British Council had been distributing the famed 1936 film Night Mail. In fact, after a bit of digging, we have realised that the earliest twelve of our films were not produced by the British Council at all.
So why did anybody think that they were? They were all produced, it seems at this point, by the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA). TIDA was founded in 1929, and produced a good number of films until October 1939, when the entirety of its film-producing operation was taken over by the British Council. When this happened, the British Council not only gained some of TIDA’s staff (including Mr Primrose), but also, it seems, the rights to its films. The BFI’s database lists 36 films made by TIDA. Of these, half seem to have found their way into our catalogue. Why the other half have not, we do not know – it’s avenue of research that we have yet to explore. We also need to decide what impact this discovery has on the rest of the archive, but it might take a little more work before we can draw any valid conclusions on that front. In the meantime, at least we have another few pieces of the puzzle in place.