Reel History of Britain: Selecting the films

Tuesday 6 September 2011, 12:50

Robin Baker Robin Baker

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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.

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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.

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  • rate this

    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 !

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I particularly enjoyed the sequence of the footage. Andrew Tilsiter

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    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 -
    Over 3000 complete films and extracts are available for users in schools, colleges and libraries through Screenonline -
    Almost 450 films are now available through our YouTube channel -
    Over 2000 non-fiction films are available to students through InView -
    And more titles are available through the Colonial Film Catalogue -

    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 -

    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 -

    I hope you enjoy watching them.

  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    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.


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