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Reel History of Britain: Selecting the films

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Robin Baker Robin Baker | 11:50 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

It's perhaps not surprising that I became a film curator.

I come from a family who documented their lives through home movies over a period of almost 60 years.

Every few years we hold a grand screening, projecting the films onto a sheet at the bottom of the garden.

Melvyn Bragg inside the mobile cinema

Melvyn Bragg inside the mobile cinema

When I watch them now, the pleasure is not just about seeing my parents when they were young, but the way the films connect our lives so potently to the times in which they were shot.

That's what I love so much about Reel History of Britain.

It uses film to tell very personal, individual stories, but connects us all to the monumental history of the last 100 plus years.

The series came into being through a happy coincidence.

BBC Entertainment Manchester were looking to develop a people's history of Britain.

At the same time the BFI - working with Britain's other national and regional film archives - was completing work on an epic undertaking to safeguard our film heritage and to make it available to people no matter where they live.

Reel History of Britain, commissioned by BBC Two daytime controller Liam Keelan, is one of the first steps towards ensuring that this access happens.

The BFI looks after the national collection of film and TV.

It's a remarkable collection of almost 1,000,000 titles - from the original negatives of Alfred Hitchcock's silent films made in the 1920s to The King's Speech.

But many of the stars of the collection are not the famous features, but the non-fiction films - the newsreels, documentaries, travelogues and home movies that capture life in Britain over the last 116 years.

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Melvyn Bragg looks at films of the World War Two evacuation.

I work with the BFI's team of curators and, led by my colleagues Jan Faull and Simon McCallum, we selected hundreds of films that were shortlisted for use in the series.

Among my favourites that made it to the final cut is the brief, but evocative footage of the 1895 Derby (the oldest surviving British film); SS Olympic (1910), a spectacular film about the building of the Titanic's sister ship and We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), a groundbreaking documentary focusing on the lives of a group of working class teenagers in south east London.

Seeing the boys reunited for the series 52 years later is remarkable and emotional - their lives having moved in directions that their teenage selves could never have guessed.

It is this connection between the films and the original participants that makes the series so compelling for me.

The sequence that I enjoyed the most was from the episode celebrating the British seaside holiday.

Here we see extracts from Holiday (1957), an exuberant portrait of ordinary people enjoying the kiss-me-quick pleasures of Blackpool.

On board the rollercoaster at the beginning of the film and screaming for all she's worth is a teenage girl, clearly making the most of her 15 seconds of fame.

I've seen the film a number of times over the years and for some reason the young woman's face stuck in my memory.

Remarkably, the production team managed to track her down.

The screaming girl is Sandra Burslem (now Dame Sandra) who grew up to become Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University and even has a building named after her.

Sandra was not planning to ride the rollercoaster that day.

She was out for a walk in Blackpool, spotted by the director and asked if she'd pose on the rollercoaster for the camera.

You get the impression that screaming was really not Sandra's style, but that was what the director wanted, so that was what Sandra did.

And very convincing she was, too.

It's only a brief and seemingly insignificant moment, but it tells us a lot about filmmaking: don't believe everything you see.

Even if a film purports to be factual, it will be riddled with little fictions.

Robin Baker is the head curator of the BFI National Archive.

Reel History of Britain started on BBC Two on Thursday 5th September at 6.30pm and continues at the same time every weekday.

For further details, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have one question where is the archive ?part from the Lambeth boys film of which there was about 30 secs at most . i know the BFI have great archive so why isn't it used ?it seems like a massive waste not to use it !

  • Comment number 2.

    I particularly enjoyed the sequence of the footage. Andrew Tilsiter

  • Comment number 3.

    Making films from the archive accessible remains one of our biggest challenges - firstly the very high cost of telecine and digitisation, but also due to the fact that the BFI controls rights to only a handful of the films it looks after. However, the BFI has already made thousands of films from the Archive available through a variety of routes.

    Over 2000 complete films are now available to view for free via the BFI Mediatheques - http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_around_the_uk/mediatheques
    Over 3000 complete films and extracts are available for users in schools, colleges and libraries through Screenonline - http://www.screenonline.org.uk/
    Almost 450 films are now available through our YouTube channel - http://www.youtube.com/user/BFIfilms
    Over 2000 non-fiction films are available to students through InView - http://www.bfi.org.uk/inview/
    And more titles are available through the Colonial Film Catalogue - http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/

    There are also thousands of screenings of films from the archive at cinemas across the UK and internationally each year, and many films from the collection are released on our DVD/blu-ray label - http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/BFI_Filmstore_DVDs_35.html

    And we have just launched a new section of our website that ties in with Reel History of Britain offering complete versions of films seen in the series, including We Are the Lambeth Boys - http://beta.bfi.org.uk/reelhistory

    I hope you enjoy watching them.

  • Comment number 4.

    I was a teenager in the 1950's so I particularly enjoyed the programme on that decade but I consider it to have been far too narrowly drawn. Not all of us were besotted with Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and musical nonentities such as Marty Wilde and Wee Willie Harris. My friends and I showed our rejection of our parents' values by embracing jazz. Our heroes were Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck, if youn were a modernist, and Humphrey Lyttleton, Ken Collyer and Freddy Randall, if you were a tradionalist. In the 1950's Birmingham Town Hall was a regular venue for jazz concerts and it was always full. Any review of that decade which does not include the emergence of jazz as popular entertainment is necessarily incomplete. Perhaps, when the present series of enjoyable programmes is finished a second series can be filmed which might look a little deeper into the lives of the people of this country.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is disgusting that that woman is still trying to get medals for her ?great uncle who died during WW1 and was refused them because he was black.

  • Comment number 6.

    I watched the 'Soldier Soldier' programme with interest. The programme included glimpses of the spectacular Accrington Town Memorial at Oak Hill Park. Its also interesting to note that one of the panels of names had been stolen. As the film pans across the memorial you can see the empty space. Just another incidence of War Memorials in Danger!

  • Comment number 7.

    Reel History: Melvyn Bragg: How could you get it so wrong. Firstly package holidays started in the 60s NOT 75. Q: were you on one of the first package holidays from Bristol Airport? yes they replied. NO the first package holidays were from Luton Airport (others followed) to Majorca. The cost £20/25 return including accommodation and breakfast for a long weekend away. How do I know? I was on the Luton Town Airport committee ( the airport owned by Luton Council) In fact I went across to Majorca many times sitting in the bucket seat forward in the cockpit on trips to see how the customers were received at Palma Airport.

    And sorry to say the first Airport Tax also came from Luton Airport in the sixties. The crowds turned up in their thousands, parked cheaply in the car parks went away without spending money in the town and on return straight down the M1 home. Locals were complaining about airport noise. The first charge was £1 per head producing £1million in a few years. Some of the profits were put into double glazing for some on the flight path. Now that was a way to run an Airport!

    So come on Mr Bragg get your facts right

    Now Plymouth

  • Comment number 8.

    What a brilliant concept and series. Only one critisism that we dont see enough of the achive footage that the guests see. Otherwise the programe is great.

  • Comment number 9.

    Concerning tonight's programme about Schools and failing the 11+, the feeling of failure has lived with me all my life not just my school days and even now after a degree and two MAs, it is not totally dispelled, but that I somehow managed to fool those in authority. I was comforted by the fact that others felt the same on your programme. The word has extra painful meaning when applied to other areas of my life, and knowing I was deemed not to be worth a grammar school place when all the rest of my family were, really did damage my sense of self worth. I was told if I'd been a boy money would have somehow been found to send me to private school which would be the answer to any family with resources not dependent on state education, but it wasn't worth spending money educating a girl. The bitter disappointment and outraged reaction in my family when I failed can still make me squirm with embarrassment!

  • Comment number 10.

    Was the incidental music specially written & if not what is it please?

  • Comment number 11.

    I've watched a number of episodes now and I have to say that the series seems like a missed opportunity. I agree with Angelo that it would be great to have seen some more of the archive films. I also find the tone a bit patronising. I know that most of us watching at 6.30 are retired, but it doesn't mean that we're all stupid! I wish that the series was less about empty nostalgia and more about real history. Would have liked to have seen more from the historians, too.

  • Comment number 12.

    i have watched every episode of this series and rarely have i ever been so moved by a Tv programme. every episode was fantastic. As someone who was born in the late 1950's I found the programme informative, entertaining and truly magical. My parents who were born in the 1920s also thought so!!! It in my opinion, clearly represented a Britain we no longer have.....a country and its people who despite all the odds were able to gel as a nation, value the important things in life, treat materialism for all its worth ( very little!!!) and really show a caring attitude towards each other. Clearly we live in a very different, selfish kind of world now. The days of leaving open your front door are gone.....The days of being happy with a cake once a week are gone....the days of children enjoying a natural free childhood are well gone. The programme clearly represented a country that we will never sadly know again in my lifetime.

  • Comment number 13.

    This truly amazing, challengin g and wonderful series managed to do 4 things simultaneously and with great panache. (1) film of a lost time was shown beautifully restored and presented, (2) the showings were witnessed by contemporary members of society connected personally to the film shown (3) the resulting programmes showed us the human aspects of times we never knew and (4) enabled us to share in the re-experience of times buried deep within ourselves.

    I cannot congratulate everyone involved enough. well done!


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