‘A million minutes of filmed history’ – someone in the communications team of the AP Archive must have been mightily pleased when they came up with that tag line for promoting their release online of the entire British Movietone newsreel archive onto YouTube. For that is what the have done. Apparently every story from every single issue of the British Movietone News newsreel, which ran twice-weekly in British cinemas between 1929 and 1979, has been published online. The AP press release says that it covers footage from 1895 to the present day, implying that Movietone was around for all those years, but its pre-1929 footage came from other collections (notably that of collector George Henderson), while the post-1979 material must come from AP (Associated Press) themselves, since Movietone since 1979 – aside from a few commissions here and there – has existed as a footage library, trading on past glories.
This release is tremendous news for anyone interested in film history and history itself. British Movietone was a highly professional outlet whose newsreel exemplified all that was best (and worst) about the newsreels that were a part of every cinema show in the UK for much of the twentieth century. It was founded in 1929 as the British offshoot of the American Fox company, and was the first British newsreel to be issued regularly in sound. Proud of its audio accomplishments (the newsreel’s slogan was ‘It speaks for itself’), it became renowned for the plummy-toned but cosily familiar commentaries of Leslie Mitchell. It was also the last of the British newsreels, enduring somehow to the end of the 1970s and into the era of Jaws and Star Wars.
The Movietone archive has in fact been online for well over a decade, via its own www.movietone.com site, but it has never had the same profile as its flashier newsreel cousin, British Pathe, whose archive was digitised in the early 2000s with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and which has continued to enjoy a high profile: firstly through making all of its library available online, then by making a good deal with the BBC so that its footage is used frequently as historical illustration in a whole range of programme, and then in 2014 by making all of the footage available online via YouTube.
Movietone never had public monies to digitise their collection, but they have followed Pathe, first by having the films available on a dedicated site, and now by issuing them on YouTube, where they will become shareable, will impact on new audiences, and will assist greatly in boosting the Movietone name.
British Movietone News’s review of the year 1940, with powerful commentary by Leslie Mitchell. Issue 603A, release date 26 December 1940
There is tremendous material there, particularly for the Second World War period, when the newsreels were at their height and spoke most closely to their British audience, understanding its hopes and fears. I’ve particularly valued Movietone for its sports coverage – it was probably the best of the newsreels for filming cricket, and its coverage of the 1948 Ashes series is superb. Here, for instance, is their coverage of the Oval test, with the archetypal England batting collapse and Donald Bradman’s final innings in the UK:
Oval Test Shocks, British Movietone News issue 1002A, release date 9 August 1948
AP have also made efforts to humanise the archive. after years of Movietone not being terribly good at promoting itself outside the narrow world of the footage industry. Jenny Hammerton, formerly the lead cataloguer at British Pathe and now with AP, is issuing a series of videos introducing some of the quirkier items from the collection, as in this piece on The Kinks and their haircuts:
Original film from ‘What’s the Difference?’, British Movietone News issue no. 1828A, release date 18 June 1964
One word of warning however. The films have detailed descriptions but appear to have no release dates or issue numbers (the essential means for identifying any newsreel story). Without these they lose all historical specificity, at least to the casual browser. Newsreels are precious for the study of history not least because they were released on a regular basis with a meticulously-maintained numbering system, so that the films can be pinned to events in the same way that reports in a newspaper can. Without dates, history is turned into mere spectatorship.
In fact you can find the original metadata for the Movietone release, including release date and issue number, but only by following a link at the bottom of each YouTube description which tells you how you can licence that story through AP Archive. That’s fine once you have found the story and if you are a footage specialist and know to look for these things, but how would you locate the film in the first place? (Just try and find those 1948 cricket matches, for instance.) And how many non-specialists would ever think to look follow such a link to find more information? (I protested about the absence of a catalogue link when British Pathe released all of their videos via YouTube last year, but their films do usually have the year of release after the video’s title, at least)
‘Signs Multiply of Better Times Coming’. A remarkable British Movietone News item released at the time of the 1931 General Election, with a style learned from the emerging documentary film movement (note the absence of commentary, which were not introduced until 1935). From issue 123A, release date 15 October 1931.
Newsreels are important because they were the means by which the mass audience saw much of its news during much of the twentieth-century. They contain huge amounts of footage documenting every aspect of our modern history, much of it unique and of course all of it irreplaceable, since we cannot go back in time and shoot it all again.
Such films profoundly informed people’s understanding of the world about them, which makes them of paramount importance to historians. They continue that job by informing us of how the past looked through their use in broadcast programmes and now online. Of course it is a selective and partial picture, one that needs to be interrogated with care by the scholar. But through such interrogation comes appreciation and a deeper learning.
The connection to history through a specific date is so important. It tells us that these things really happened. It is how we properly connect with the past. Bravo to Movietone and AP for having much such an important archive available for all to discover. Now could you add the dates to the descriptions or titles, so that discovery can be that much better?
- The Movietone catalogue with digitised videos can be found at www.movietone.com (requires registration)
- The full one million minutes of video are available through two channels – British Movietone and AP Archive
- A thorough catalogue record for British Movietone News can be found at the essential News on Screen site, together with a history of the newsreel