British Council announces digitisation of unique film archive

Over 120 films providing fascinating snapshots of the UK’s cultural, sporting, industrial and political heritage have been launched online to the public today thanks to funding from Google and the British Council.

The films are from the British Council’s own film archive which dates back to late 1939 – and give an insight not only into a bygone age, but also serve to capture how cultural relations has changed. For several decades, the Council was an enthusiastic commissioner and distributor of documentaries, designed to showcase Britain to the outside world and promote democratic values at a time when fascism was spreading across Europe. The films were largely shown at embassies, consulates and to students and schoolchildren around the world.

Many of the films are the work of talented filmmakers who went on to carve out hugely successful careers in the film industry. For the last thirty years this remarkable collection of films has been preserved in the BFI National Archive yet rarely shown.

Highlights include:

1) Border Weave – Film shot in glorious Technicolor film by Jack Cardiff (who went on to work with Powell and Pressburger) showing the industrialised manufacture of Harris Tweed. Explores how the modern mechanisation of the industry it is still very much rooted in a classic tradition.

2) Morning Paper – Illustrates in fascinating detail how a daily newspaper (The Times) is produced on old Fleet Street – the men and machines nobly serving the public appetite for news during the Blitz.

3) Man on the Beat – Shows the rigorous training necessary to become a police constable. Our man on the beat documents the scene of a traffic accident, helps the general public, keeps the peace and occasionally fights crime.

4) Hospital School – Shows the care, treatment, and education given to children with long-term illnesses at Lord Mayor Treloar Cripples Hospital in 1945. Features the Observation Ward, X-ray Department, Operating Theatre, and the Massage and Exercise Room, as well as showing the children in their beds on sunny terraces.

5) English Criminal Justice – A fantastically dramatised documentary, directed by Ken Annakin (Battle of the Bulge) that depicts the various workings of the English legal system – including a striking scene of a murderer being sentenced to death.

6) Life Cycle of the Onion – Using time lapse photography and some incredible close-ups – very state-of-the-art for the time – we see the life cycle of the onion – from seed, to leaf, to flower, to harvest, and to seed again. Directed by Mary Field.

7) The Great Game – Beginning with the teaching of football to children, it moves on to follow well-known teams to the 1945 Football League War Cup Finals at Wembley and Stamford Bridge, attended by King George VI and commentated by Raymond Glendenning.

8) Julius Caesar / Macbeth – Two famous scenes from Shakespeare, the ‘Forum Scene’ and ‘Murder Scene’, played by classic English actors of the era including Felix Aylmer, Leo Genn, Catherine Lacey, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Wilfred Lawson.

9) City Bound – A patriotic look at the daily commute into town faced by Londoners in 1941. Particular attention is given to buses, trains, and the Underground network to highlight the busy atmosphere of London, despite the war.

10) London River – Starting at the Docks of East London our cargo makes its way up-river towards the Houses of Parliament via a bustling Covent Garden market.

The films are now available to the public to stream and download for the first time at

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