Proof positive of things as they are

Screengrab from The Deliverance of Lille By Haig’s Men (1918), via BFI Player

I’m continuing to look through the files at papers I wrote which were published but are no longer available, or which were never made available in the first place, with the aim of publishing them on this site, in the hope that this is useful to someone. One paper that falls into the never made available in the first place category is ‘Proof Positive of Things As They Are: British Newsreels and Official Propaganda in the First World War’.

I wrote this back in 2004 at the invitation of someone who was putting together a volume on film and the First World War. I don’t think that a contract was ever signed, and when – for whatever reason – the publishing project fell through, I was left with a finished 7,000-word essay that had nowhere to go. It has sat on a hard drive ever since. It’s an essay on what was a favoured topic of mine back then, the role of newsreels during the First World War, particularly the story of Topical Budget, a humble British newsreel which weas taken over by the government and run for two years as a propaganda vehicle. It was the subject of my first book, Topical Budget: The Great British News Film (1992) and twelve years on I didn’t have much to say that was new, but twenty years on from that it reads OK and says things that I still stand by. So I’m publishing it now.

The title comes from a review of The Deliverance of Lille by Haig’s Men, part of issue no. 374-2 of Pictorial News (Official), which was what Topical Budget was called in 24 October 1918 when the film was released. You can view it on BFI Player. It shows British troops entering the French town of Lille, and it is distinguished by entertaining images which partly show triumphal soldiers, such as the propagandists would have wanted, but also the people of Lille being quite as fond of appearing in front of the camera as they are of being liberated. The film was reviewed in the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 31 October 1918, with these striking words:

Down the centre comes a laughing, waving and gesticulating crowd. Everyone is smiling – smiling – smiling sometimes, it is true, through the sadness of the years of suffering, but smiling all the same. It is a picture which no-one could watch unmoved. Then the Liverpool Irish and the Lancashires marching in, laden with posies and all sorts of gifts, petits gamins, marching proudly in step. More flags, more delighted smiles – joy on every hand at the advent of the liberators. The look on the face of the officer who rides, erect, at the head of the column is a study. Each man’s face (which master-photography has reproduced with amazing clarity) tells its tale of suffering, both seen and experienced, and of pride in the glad honour of being among the liberators. The ‘place’ is thronged with a seething, swaying mass of townsfolk – arms, hats, handkerchiefs, flags, all fluttering on high. The men-folk are absent, but the women and children are there en masse to give the victors a greeting. The whole is a silent tribute to the glory, the worth, and, above all, the power of the kinematograph for the purposes of propaganda. The enemy may scatter broadcast his lying messages of reassurance and denial, but the kine-camera is there on the spot all the time – proof positive of things as they are.

Those last words are so rich in their ambiguity, while so sincere in their expression (certainly the newsreel propagandists would have nodded their heads in approval). I can remember the delight I had as a researcher when I stumbled across them. And I still feel so happy for the people of Lille.

Luke McKernan, ‘”Proof Positive of Things as They Are”: British Newsreels and Official Propaganda in the First World War’ (2004/2024)


View all posts by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *