The news that the entire British Pathé newsreel archive has been published on YouTube has made a huge impact. There have been news broadcasts, web news and newspaper reports, and the story has spread widely across social media, which is very much was British Pathé wanted. 85,000 videos, or 3,500 hours of film ranging from the 1890s to the 1970s has been made freely available on YouTube via http://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe. This is very good news, of course, but for researchers it is good to know some of the background history, and to ask some questions about what we have in the form in which we have it.
The Pathé Frères company was formed in France in 1896 by the brother Charles and Émile Pathé. Initially marketing sound and motion picture products, the company gradually became dominant in the world film business before the First World War. It set up many subsidiaries, including a British office established in 1902, which turned to newsreel production in 1910. Pathé in France had come up with the idea of a reel of news stories, issued on a regular basis, much like a newspaper, in 1908. The British version was called Pathé’s Animated Gazette, then Pathé Gazette, continuing under that title until 1946 when it became Pathé News, under which name it continued until its demise in 1970.
Newsreels were a common feature of cinema programmes in Britain from the 1910s to the 1950s, when they started to die out on account of the competition from television. Alongside Pathé, there were British Movietone News, Gaumont-British News, Universal News and British Paramount News, as well as several other, shorter-lived newsreels. They served up British and world news, with a strong emphasis on entertainment through subjects such as sport, celebrity, royalty and the quirky side of life, though they could treat politics and social issues with a deft populist touch. They were hugely influential in how the twentieth-century mass audience understood its changing world.
The newsreels were issued twice a week, so between 1910 and 1970 Pathé produced over 6,000 issues of its main newsreel, as well as several ancillary magazine series such as Pathé Pictorial and Pathétone Weekly. It also served as a distributor for films made by other companies, and all of these films ended up in its archive. There were other branches of Pathé, involved in feature film production and distribution, but they were separate from the newsreel operation, and their films are not held in the archive.
When the newsreels ceased to be a viable concern in the cinemas, they turned into footage libraries, serving the television market, in particular history programmes. This is a precarious business, particularly for a company no longer producing new films, and with a shrinking market for black-and-white footage. The archive was bought and sold several times, being owned by EMI for a time, then by the Daily Mail and General Trust, acquiring the name British Pathé in the process. It is now owned by an independent media company operating under the name British Pathé.
Review of the Year (Pathé News, issue 46/104, release date 30 December 1946. Pathé issued annual reviews of the year. This one for 1946 gives a good idea of the newsreel’s typical content and has the added bonus of a sequence showing British newspaper editors who helped make the selection of stories for the review
In 2002 the British Pathé archive was digitised and made available online for free thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supplied half the funding necessary. The deal was that the archive would remain freely available online for three years (including the facility to download low resolution copies), before the company could decide to charge if its wished, but in practice that didn’t happen and its has remained free ever since. The entire archive has been available online to all for the past fourteen years, via http://www.britishpathe.com, so although the YouTube announcement is great news, there is nothing new that it being offered in terms of content. It is simply British Pathé opening up its existing online collection through a new platform.
British Pathé has been imaginative in how it has kept interest alive in its collection and ensured its relevance. It has done a special deal with the BBC for use of its footage, so that Pathé clips have become a regular occurence on BBC news and magazine programmes, and BBC4 produced a much-repeated four-part series The Story of British Pathé, which explored the history revealed by the British Pathé archive. Most recently it has made dynamic use of social media, with a strong Facebook and Twitter presence. The YouTube development will further spread their brand and use of the collection, making Pathé shareable, embeddable, relevant and fun. What was viewed as a quaint medium from cinema’s past towards the end of the twentieth century now finds itself at the heart of communications in the twenty-first. There has been some very smart thinking going on.
However, there are some problems. The British Pathé collection has been around for over one hundred years, and has seen many changes. Its footage has been re-used, reissued, re-edited at times. Films have been lost. Films have been acquired which had nothing to do with Pathé but ended up in the collection anyway. Catalogue records have not always been kept, and where re-cataloguing has taken place (British Pathé had a major re-cataloguing programme in the early 2000s) the results have been variable, and not always historically informative. In short, the archive has been developed as a film library, not as a resource for historians or other academics.
World Cup Final – England v West Germany (Pathé News, issue 66/61, release date 31 July 1966)
It is therefore necessary for the serious researcher to treat the British Pathé archive with some caution. Every newsreel was issued on a particular date, with an issue number, and that is how to identify a Pathé newsreel. Individual stories always came with a title (which appeared on screen), so one might identify a typical newsreel story as, for example, World Cup Final – England v West Germany (Pathé News, issue 66/61, release date 31 July 1966).
But not all films in the British Pathé archive come with such details, particularly for the First World War period, for which records of issues of the newsreels do not survive. So while many of the films from 1914-18 exists, it is often difficult to put a precise date to them, which dilutes their value as historical record. Then there are the many films from this early period which are in the British Pathé archive but which were never produced by Pathé. How can one judge the provenance of these? Often British Pathé itself has no idea where the footage came from. It is in their archive, so they use it.
Take this clip for example. It is a compilation of First World War films. Some of it may have been filmed by Pathé at the time, but not much of it. There are clips from the 1916 documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (certainly not produced by Pathé) mixed with dramatised recreations of trench warfare filmed in the 1920s for films which Pathé may have distributed. The films are all silent, so they have added music and a commentary by John Humphrys, further altering the films from their original context. It has some value as an emotive depiction of the horrors of war, but for the historian its provenance has been shot to pieces, and its use is nil.
Of course British Pathé is a business, not a resource built for historians, and the tools for the serious researcher do exist to help them pinpoint Pathé’s archive in time and place. The News on Screen database of the British Universities Film & Video Council lists most Pathé news stories 1910-1970 with correct titles, dates and issue numbers, crucially linking the stories to others released in the same issue (the British Pathé site itself often has the release data but doesn’t bring together the separate stories into the form in which they were released). News on Screen also links the records to digitised production documents (such as commentary scripts) and to the films themselves on the British Pathé site. Regrettably the same links are not available for the YouTube versions, and there is no link back from the YouTube versions to the British Pathe site (the YouTube description merely reproduce the British Pathé catalogue description without further identifiers).
So the British Pathé archive is going to enjoy a much higher profile, and its films will be discovered and enjoyed by many more people now that they are on YouTube. But the link with their historical reality is being diminished, as they are separated from their catalogue, and indeed are not easily searchable as a discrete archive unless one leaves YouTube and goes to News on Screen or the British Pathé website. Historians must therefore look that little bit further and make use of the tools and data available. These will demonstrate that the British Pathé archive is of great and illuminating historical value, even if questions must be asked about the veracity of some of what is on display. It is as relevant now as ever it was when it played in cinemas across the land to an audience of millions, when its news was not history but news.
- Ian Aitken (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film (Routledge, 2006)
- Anthony Aldgate, Cinema and History: British Newsreels and the Spanish Civil War (Scolar Press, 1979)
- Jenny Hammerton, For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathé Cinemagazine 1921-1933 (Projection Box, 2001)
- Rachael Low, Films of Comment and Persuasion of the 1930s (George Allen & Unwin, 1979)
- Luke McKernan (ed.), Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (BUFVC, 2002)
The post was originally published on the British Library’s The Newsroom blog on 23 April 2014. It is reproduced here with small amendments. The First World War compilation video mentioned is no longer available on YouTube or the British Pathe site.