Films by the past office

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
A change for the better? britain in the 1930s, Videotape, workcards and teacher's notes Pounds 15. Warwick Arts CentrePost Office.

In 1933 the GPO set up a film unit to produce documentaries about changes in the pattern of everyday life. It was a good time to choose, with Victorian slums finally coming down and the Slump closing the shipyards and factories and throwing men on to the dole in larger numbers than ever before: a documentary-maker's dream.

Usually we see the results of their work in small clips fitted into modern documentaries, which quickly date, but here you get three films in their entirety, four lengthy excerpts and three cinema advertisements. It represents serious value for money.

There is no introduction or voice-over: with original narrators like Ralph Richardson and Laurie Lee, and music by Benjamin Britten, these gritty social documents speak for themselves as clearly now as when they were made.

Coal Face, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti in 1935, is a moving tribute to the men working in the coal industry, from the miners at the underground seam to the coalmen selling sackfuls from their carts (remember those?). The mixture of striking images and Britten's music creates an almost romantic sense of power and excitement, underscored by the bold assertion with which the film begins and ends: "Coal mining is the basic industry of Britain."

The film was a reminder to cinema audiences of just how much they owed to an industry then in serious trouble; it is a sobering thought that anyone who made such a film today would be suspected of preparing the industry for privatisation.

Despite the appalling problems the films show, the overall tone is essentially hopeful. Housing Problems, made in 1940, begins with some appalling testimonies from people trying to live decently in Victorian slums, all the more effective for being understated. One man calmly mentions that one result of the damp and squalor has been the death of two of his children. But the message is that things are changing, with a new commitment to local authority housing schemes.

This sense of excitement becomes positively euphoric in News by Wire, a celebration of the wonder of electricity, whose plummy-voiced narrator alternates between glorious overstatement ("electric welding is the Aladdin's lamp of modern industry") and cringe-making sexism. I'm sorry, but I want to be there when a group of teachers first hear him announce that electric irons and Hoovers "turn drudgery into delight".

The supporting material claims that the video is suitable for key stages 2, 3 and 4, and for once this is not publishers' hyperbole. The films are quite long, but they were carefully planned for a mass audience, with a number of short, self-contained subsections, and they will hold children's attention just as effectively. The accompanying workcards suggest some discussion points and questions (with answers) about the films, while the booklet provides a good briefing for teachers on the historical background.

It is not often that a resource of this quality with such a wide range of applications comes at such a reasonable price.

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