REPORT: BRITISH LIFE ON FILM: HISTORY AND THE FILM ARCHIVE SYMPOSIUM, 11 MAY 2019, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON

Stephen Morgan, King’s College, London (KCL)

17 June 2019


The flourishing of digital resources in recent years has undoubtedly transformed the practice of film scholarship, especially the work of film historians. Digital access to archival records, as well as repositories such as the Media History Digital Library, the British Newspaper Archive, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove Newspapers collection (amongst many others), have greatly increased our flexibility in drawing upon disparate sources to shape more rounded understandings of the past, and have arguably allowed for a much greater sense of the media and cultural ecosystems within which film texts emerge at particular historical moments.

Alongside these resources – and running in parallel to the rise of mainstream video streaming services such as Netflix – has been the increased access to archival films afforded by institutional websites and social media. In Britain, this has been led by the BFI Player, which draws not only on the national collection, but also from the collections of regional film archives across the UK. Digital platforms such as these have become a primary way of engaging with archival film, and many scholars and creative practitioners – whether casually browsing or searching with intent – have found such resources shaping their work in a myriad of interesting ways.

These engagements with digital archival resources – particularly the BFI Player’s Britain on Film portal – formed the basis for British Life on Film, a one-day symposium hosted by Lawrence Napper at King’s College London. Across a full day of papers, speakers were invited to consider the impact of these repositories in helping to shape, or re-shape, our approaches to film research, practice, and pedagogy. In doing so, the symposium was consciously picking up the baton of recent thinking about ‘useful cinema’, which aims to move the focus of film scholarship beyond the sacrosanct world of the theatrical feature film as entertainment and/or art. As a result, the day also shared considerable terrain with the recent British Women Documentary Filmmakers symposium held across the Strand at LSE.

Screenshot from Amateur Talkies (Sid Douglas, 1956). Source: BFI Player

Drawing together film historians, media scholars, educators, programmers, and archivists, the day provided a fascinating and stimulating range of papers, all sparked by – or directly relevant to – this recent proliferation of online archival film, and associated digital technologies.

The day began with a panel focused on the use of archival film in various forms of practice. Angela English kicked things off with a discussion of her work engaging local audiences from ‘new towns’ with films from regional archives, and a consideration of some of the ‘microhistories’ this opens up. In a paper that combined some heavy theorising with some equally mesmerising imagery, Marc Bosward (University of Derby) outlined some of the approaches that underpin his PhD in creative practice, for which he draws upon the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales and some digital wizardry to create stunning works of ‘realist collage’.

More technical wizardry was required to facilitate the final speaker of the first panel, Alberto Gerosa, who introduced us to Think Young LAB’s Deep Memory Pier project, which aims to consolidate a sense of identity and community in the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood of Hong Kong through shared memories and experiences. The outputs of this fascinating project include a collaborative sci-fi film (inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetee), and the simultaneous creation of an ‘amateur’ moving image archive that documents the everyday realities of life in Asia’s ‘global city’.

Teaser for Deep Memory Pier (ThinkYoung LAB, 2018)

After a well-earned coffee, the day’s second panel began with Lucie Dutton, whose stellar work in reviving the reputation of British film director Maurice Elvey has taken her down some rather interesting, often fruitful, research routes. For this paper, Dutton treated us to the virtues of archival streaming as investigative tool, ably demonstrating how a newsreel allowed her to highlight a key detail in the making of Elvey’s ill-fated masterwork The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918).

Also on the second panel were two papers demonstrating the importance of regional archives in helping to uncover overlooked contributors to amateur film collections. Zoe Viney (Wessex Film & Sound Archive / University of Southampton) outlined her PhD project, which seeks to look beyond the ‘man with the movie camera’ by exploring questions of gender and class that arise within the amateur holdings of WFSA. This was followed by a part presentation, part-reminiscence, led by filmmaker Martina Attille, who introduced us to the work of prolific Teesside-based amateur filmmaker Betty Cook, via the reflections of Betty’s son Martin Cook and the work of the North East Film Archive.

Screenshot from Teeside Inaugural Procession (Betty Cook, 1968). Source: North East Film Archive / Yorkshire Film Archive

The lunch break allowed for much needed reflection on a morning packed with stimulating papers, and a brief respite before another fascinating panel, this time shifting the conversation to the place of archival film in pedagogy and programming. Kulraj Phullar (King’s College London) proposed a shift away from the standard view of British Asian cinema, and one that places great importance on the greater integration of short films and television – much of which is available via the BFI Player – in helping to reorient ourselves towards a specifically anti-racist vision of British film history. This direct challenge to the established canon was further underscored by the work of SUPAKINO founder, Ranjit S. Ruprai, whose searches of online film archives have helped shape his curatorial practice, and given added impetus to his Turbans Seen on Screen project. In the final paper of this panel, Shane O’Sullivan (Kingston University London) highlighted his Archives for Education project, a pedagogical resource that seeks to open up the digital archive to creative re-use, and provides an illustrative case study of how archival film can enhance the teaching of documentary film practice, whilst also engaging students with local and national histories.

Kulraj Phullar on ‘British Asians and Anti-Racism: In and With the Archive’

The potential for archival film to help disrupt the canon was also central to the final panel of the day, which contained a trio of papers highlighting the intersections between political, activist, and instructional filmmaking. Stephanie Cattigan (University of Glasgow) offered an account of the work of the Scottish Film Council’s Industrial Panel, and how film’s use as a promotional and instructive tool shaped its very production and circulation in post-war Scotland. George Legg (King’s College London) drew upon several films – including Chris Reeves’ 1980 documentary H-Block Hunger Strike – to help articulate the importance of monotony and control in the incarceration practices employed during the Northern Irish Troubles. Finally, Hannah Hamad (University of Cardiff) sought to place the Leeds Animation Workshop’s Give Us a Smile (1983) in its precise historical context, demonstrating its role in making sense of persistent cultures of misogyny in post-‘Ripper’ Yorkshire.

Extract from Give Us A Smile (Leeds Animation Workshop, 1983)

Despite a packed day of stimulating papers, one of the disappointments of this symposium was that the inclusion of such a broad a range of topics inevitably left relatively little space for discussion and debate. This was particularly evident during the rather truncated closing roundtable, which nevertheless allowed for both summarising remarks and some brief provocations.

As Head of Non-Fiction at the BFI National Archive, Patrick Russell queried the nature of academic engagement, or the perceived lack thereof, with archival film. A longer roundtable may, perhaps, have got around to debating persistent issues of access, with the contention that academics are ‘finally’ engaging with archival film having a lot to do with legacies of inaccessibility, especially for scholars who were not within easy distance of physical archives. Other questions of access, meanwhile, spoke to the public’s engagement with online archives, and thus to their ‘usefulness’ for the general public.

Likewise, the question and answer sessions after each panel consistently threw up questions of ethics, not just in terms of production, but also the role of memory and the creative reuse of archives. Indeed, among the persistent themes of the day were the political implications and applicability of archival films, not only as texts themselves, but also in terms of the institutional systems and structures that govern what is made available and when.

Regardless of academia’s history of engagement with archival film, British Life on Film: History and the Film Archives highlighted the growing importance of online archives in our ongoing intellectual engagement with British cinema, and its intersections with social, cultural, industrial, and political histories. In drawing together both practitioners and academics – many of whom are current or recently graduated doctoral researchers – this symposium went some way to demonstrating that such engagements should occur not just in the supposed ‘ivory towers’ of elite institutions, but within the public sphere in which these archival films are being given a new lease of life.


Dr Stephen Morgan is a film and cultural historian, programmer, and occasional moving image archivist. As well as teaching film studies at King’s College London and the University of Greenwich, he is the screening coordinator for the Menzies Australia Institute (KCL) and assistant programmer for the London Australian Film Society. (www.drsmorgan.com)


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