The BFI has launched a new digital archive of Britain’s history on BFI Player.
Called Britain on Film, the project is part of an ongoing process to digitally document the hidden histories and forgotten stories of people and places from across the UK. Thousands of film and TV titles have today been made available to the public through the BFI’s VOD platform, BFI Player, giving free access to videos of where they live, grew up or holidayed as a child.
One of the largest and most complex archival projects ever undertaken, the initiative is part of the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme. When completed in 2017, thanks to £15m funding from the National Lottery and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will have been digitised.
Sources include everything from newsreels and advertisements to forgotten TV shows and films by government departments. Capturing the vibrant and diverse lives of those in the UK, and shining a light on isses and situations that continue to affect generations, many of the films have never – or rarely – been seen since their first appearance.
People can now search for videos by specific UK locations using an interactive map on BFI Player, which also allows viewers to share films with family, friends and communities. 60 films from all over the UK will also be released over 60 days, alongside special screenings and events around the country.
Titles now available to stream include The Passmore Family Collection, the world’s earliest known surviving home movies (1902), which feature 10 films of the family on holiday in Bognor Regis and The Isle of Wight and at home in Streatham.
Michael Passmore, the filmmaker’s grandson, still has his grandfather’s original camera purchased in 1900 and now lives in Kent.
“I am very proud of my grandfather’s films,” he says. “They have such a lot of movement and are never boring. I am delighted that they will be able to be shared with the rest of the country and hope they will continue to give pleasure to anyone interested in the history of home movies.”
For Scottish viewers, a 1927 video captures an Old Norse Viking Festival, featuring folkloric rituals with locals dressed as Michelin Men, walruses, sheep and Vikings. Another, from 1961, captures the preparations and final procession of Glasgow’s last tram in glorious colour.
From Wales, The Story of a Valley (1965) is a film made by local schoolchildren of the controversial flooding of Capel Celyn and Tryweryn Valley to make a new reservoir. In Northern Ireland, a film from 1962 shows the huge crowds that came to the harbour every summer for the Prawn Festival Kilkeel & Lord Mayor’s Show – now known as the Kingdom of Mourne Festival.
In Northern England, a police officer playing Davy Crockett rides through the city of Hull in 1955 to get a road safety message across to children, while 1976’s The Bradford Godfather is a heart-warming documentary about the founding father of Bradford’s Pakistani community.
From the Midlands, Evidence (1935) is the first film used in an English court of law to prosecute an illegal gambling ring in the town of Chesterfield, with an appearance by – naturally – three circus elephants.
In Southern England, there is footage of fun and frolics and Brighton Swimming Club – the oldest in England – and in Eastern England, there is rare footage of George Bernard Shaw at home in Ayot St Lawrence, Herts.
While researching the project, Heather Stewart, Creative Director at the BFI, discovered her great grandmother, grandmother and mother together on film in scenes from Children’s Excursion (1952), featuring Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway, the village she grew up in.
Heather comments: “I’ve never seen my family on film before so it was a wonderful surprise to discover three generations together. There’s a perennial joy in location spotting; couple this with the emotional power of film and Britain on Film has the potential to touch everyone in the UK.”
The BFI has also commissioned Penny Woolcock to create a short film inspired by the mammoth archive. Titled “Out of the Rubble”, it will explore issues of housing, poverty and immigation and be released later this summer.
“Britain on Film changes the film and TV archive landscape forever,” adds Stewart. “It’s vital that the UK’s film and TV archives – Britain’s national collection – can be enjoyed by everyone, and now they can.”