British Council's curated film screenings open a window into the UK during the World Wars

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

October 29, 2017 14:23:23 IST

The year 2017 had been officially marked as the UK-India year of culture by the (then) Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron back in 2015. It also marks 70 years of Indian independence from British colonial rule. As part of it, several renowned institutions from both the countries have hosted numerous events, celebrating the history and culture of these two nations.

British Council, UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, in association with Social, has been organising many British film screenings over the past few months. Recently, on 24 October, the British Council showcased specially curated short films based on the lives of people in Britain during the 1940s, at a time of immense social, political and cultural revolution. These films are part of a special collection from the national archive of the British Film Institute (BFI).

The films, slightly documentary-like in terms of treatment, chronicle a bygone time in history. However, they do not feel dated as they celebrate the human spirit — to endure hardships during times of war and yet make every moment worth living.

Here's a brief synopsis of all the short films that were screened:

London 1942

Chronicling London during the midst of World War II, London 1942 illustrates the changes in the daily life of people brought about by the pressures of war. It shows how in terms of adversities, people from all walks of life come to terms with it and start leading their lives in as a normal way as possible. The men, the women and the children — all find a way to make their lives better, and at the same time contribute their best to serve their country in terms of calamity; everyone had a job to do.

The film is also a delight because you get to see the old London and the people of that time — how they lived, how they appeared, what they did — and learn so much about English history. Being shown in an audio-visual format, the learning happens to be much more effective than a plain reading of life and times of that era.

Morning Paper

Morning Paper follows the production of an issue of The Times during the Blitz, from the daily editorial conference to the printing presses. It chronicles, in a very chronological manner, how a newspaper sees the day's light — from reporters typing down (using a typewriter) news from across the globe, senior editors planning the broadsheet's structure and at the same time checking the drafts with a hawk's eye, the art department working on the advertisements that need to be accommodated in the next day's paper. While all this is happening, the city is under attack and there are gunshots, dropping of bombs etc — but the newsroom never stops. All that matters to them is getting the paper printed and delivered on time. A point to remember: Those days there were no computers, hence no spell check, no photoshop and no design tools. In short, every inch of the newspaper was a testimony of the acumen of the human mind.

The most striking part of the film is the scenes of the printing press, where we see printing blocks manually set, letters after letters, all stacked together to form a news story. Seeing that, one is bound to get transported into the realms of old-world charm. One often tends to wonder, how, today, we have become so dependent on computers to do the most basic of our tasks.

The Man on the Beat

The Man on the Beat depicts the training and principles of police officers, their duties whilst on the beat and their role within the community. It starts with the admission tests and examinations that candidates have to go through in order to be a part of the police force in London, during those days. Be it physical strength, mental presence, compassion towards the needy and an overall strict disposition that commands adherence to law — makes for a policeman.

The film particularly chooses a single policeman and follows him on his daily patrol, thus giving an individualistic feel to it. We see him taking an oath when he embarks upon the journey to safeguard citizens and since then he is seen doing several tasks exhibiting his knowledge, courage, great memory, quick decision-making skills and humanity. He enforces the rules made by the community in his interest, but he remains a member of the community he serves.

Island People

Island People is more of an educational film that demonstrates Britain's geographical, economic and social structure. It starts with laying across a map of the UK converting to a bird's eye view of the island which is 700 miles long and 200 miles wide. The film travels from the farms of eastern England; sheep and meadows of the midlands — Wales and Scotland; fruit orchards of the southern and western part of the region and the dairy farms of the central plain. Then it also shows the industrial side of Britain with cities like Glasgow, Manchester and London.

In the second half, the film presents a cross-section of how various people across Britain live on a Saturday — the day divided between work and recreation. From being out in open — picnic, swimming, football, cricket, clubs etc, to being in their cosy homes — gardening, sewing, knitting, playing cards etc, the place has a variety of things to offer.

The People's Land

The People's Land is a Technicolor guide to some of the coastline, countryside, and properties preserved by the National Trust. In the film, we get to see various pictuesque locations in the UK whose beauty accentuates even further due to the colour print. Some of these locations include The White Cliffs of Dover; St Andrew's Church, Alfriston, East Sussex; Bodiam Castle, East Sussex; The Bridgewater Monument, Ashridge Park; Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire; West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire; Dovedale Valley, Derbyshire.

Watching this film, one would tend to think what would be the present landscape of these regions. Are they still this beautiful? Or have the blows of capitalism, industrialisation, modernisation and urbanisation marred the beauty and serenity of these enchanting places?

Queen Cotton

Queen Cotton is a Technicolor introduction to the manufacture and design of both woven and printed cotton fabrics in England. We see huge bales of imported raw cotton enter and at the same time packed cartons of finished goods being exported, at the docks of Manchester, the city of textiles. Cottons from across continents come in — America, The West Indies, India, Egypt, Brazil, Peru and Africa. Of course, there is always the homegrown Lancashire cotton. Then this raw cotton is processed and treated with chemicals and woven into beautiful cotton fabrics which are then dyed. The film also shows the wide-scale manufacture of printed cotton fabric, usually in floral designs with vibrant yet restrained hues.

The film also featured fashion line-up of those days where the finished products are presented in a stunning fashion show that exhibits a myriad range of clothing for women in multiple designs and colours.

Royal Road

Royal Road takes a look at both the public-facing activities of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) during the Second World War, as well as showing a glimpse of the royal family’s private life in the gardens at Windsor. It features the younger self of the present Queen, Elizabeth II and her sister Margaret.

The film shows the connect that the then King and Queen had with the citizens of England. Not just the civilians, they were always present motivating and encouraging the military forces in the wake of the war. The film, again, has a very documentary feel to it, although it is reported that King George VI "had taken a considerable personal interest in the film" and special arrangements were made to make the film aesthetically appropriate during the war-struck times in London.

Even though the films are about England and English culture, history etc; they stand as testimonies to universal changes that have metamorphised cities, culture, people, lands and society since the time of the war.

Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 14:23 PM