It speaks for itself

movietone‘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?

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  1. AP has acquired the British Movietone archive from the Australian business Newsreel Archive. Here’s the press release:

    http://ap.org/Content/Press-Release/2016/AP-acquires-historic-British-Movietone-archive

    The Associated Press today announced that it has acquired the historic British Movietone film archive collection from Newsreel Archive. Spanning almost a century of international events, the archive represents one of the world’s most significant and important newsfilm collections. The addition of this outstanding collection of historic video to its own extensive archive ensures AP’s position as the leading global supplier of contemporary and historic news video and photography.

    Originally shown in cinemas twice a week, the British Movietone archive is the first newsreel to have sound and then color film. It is renowned for containing the first recorded speeches of leading personalities such as Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw. The archive’s many historic highlights also include:

    The rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II

    Over 6,000 stories covering World War II between 1939 and 1945

    The Beatles’ conquest of America, Beatlemania and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, featuring the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who

    The Korean and Vietnam wars

    Extensive royal coverage, including the Edward and Mrs. Simpson story, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the only footage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding filmed in high definition on 35 mm film

    Visits to the UK by leading historical and iconic figures, including John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali

    Technological change, including advances in medicine and the origins of information technology and telecommunications

    Popular culture, including fashion, music, film and the arts

    As TV news began to take the place of cinema newsreels in the 1950s and ’60s, British Movietone’s hard news coverage was increasingly accompanied by features on social issues, entertainment, lifestyle, sports and quirky, lighthearted stories that struggled to find a place on mainstream TV news but resonated with cinema audiences. This has left the archive collection with films that provide a social commentary on decades of history where society’s values changed at an unprecedented pace. The mission of British Movietone was to bring the world to movie audiences and, with its extensive international and British coverage, its legacy is a stunning global archive resource.

    Gary Pruitt, AP’s president and CEO, said: “The British Movietone archive is a gem of visual heritage and an incredible resource for content creators. For AP to become its new custodian is a true privilege and it perfectly complements AP’s own extensive archive collection.”

    While the majority of the archive’s film assets have been fully digitized and available for licensing, around 15 percent of the collection has never been seen before and remains in its original 35 mm format. Documented on thousands of individual record cards, this unseen footage represents either the films that failed to make it onto the bulletins or were restricted by censors during World War II. AP hopes to catalog, digitize and release these films over time.

    Alwyn Lindsey, AP’s vice president of sales for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with responsibility for video archive sales for the AP, said: “By acquiring British Movietone, we are cementing our position as the foremost supplier of news and historical video.”

    For the past five years, AP has partnered with Newsreel Archive to make the British Movietone collection available internationally, including a freely accessible YouTube channel where anyone can browse a wide selection of British Movietone films. AP clients will continue to be able to access the digitized British Movietone films, the equivalent of 2,200 hours of footage, through the AP Archive platform. Having completed the sale of the British Movietone Archive, Newsreel Archive PTY will now act as AP’s exclusive archive distribution partner in Australia and New Zealand, offering their customers both AP and British Movietone footage.

    Matthew Miranda, Newsreel Archive’s CEO, said: “Through our many years of working with AP, we appreciate how the British Movietone archive collection will benefit from being further integrated within the vast AP network and made even more widely available than it is today. We look forward to continue working in close partnership with AP in Australia and New Zealand.”

    About AP
    The Associated Press is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. Founded in 1846, AP today is the most trusted source of independent news and information. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from AP. On the web: http://www.ap.org.

    About Newsreel Archive
    Newsreel Archive Pty Ltd represents one of the largest collections of news footage and newsreel films in Australia and New Zealand. The exclusive distributor in Australia and New Zealand for AP Archive and British Movietone, and globally for the Nine Network news and current affairs archive, Newsreel Archive is a highly comprehensive resource of factual, social and historical content from 1896 to the present day.

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