The film raw stock shortage in the British zone of occupied Germany and its impact on the film industry after 1945

Hanja Dämon, independent scholar

24 September 2021


This blog post engages with one of the biggest material obstacles in restarting film production in the British Zone of occupied Germany (one of four zones established following the Allied victory) after the Second World War: the shortage of film raw stock. It was essential for newsreels, for making copies of feature films to be exhibited in German cinemas, as well as for making new documentaries and feature films. Indeed, films were supposed to assist in steering the Germans away from National Socialist ideology, and to teach them about the outside world from which they had been supposedly cut off during twelve years of dictatorship. In this vein, the British feared that without raw stock ‘the whole scheme of re-education will be in danger of collapse’, and looked for ways to secure the provision of this sought-after material for non-fiction and feature films alike.[i] Yet this task was not always easy, as archival sources from the UK National Archives in Kew Gardens reveal. They testify to the fact that insufficient raw stock provision significantly impacted on German film production after 1945.

National Socialism’s defeat in May 1945 and Germany’s division into US-American, British, French and Soviet zones of occupation had initially brought German film production to a standstill, only to be re-established according to the respective agendas of the respective occupation authorities. In the western zones the main goals of the occupiers included  denazification, democratisation and decentralisation of the German film industry, which should not be concentrated in one place (to lessen the chances of state interference). In the Soviet Zone one central studio (DEFA) was established. Although  no new German films were produced for more than a year, re-establishing the film industry was considered essential across all zones for economic and psychological reasons. The Allied powers aspired to give the German filmmakers the tools of self-expression for the purpose of democratisation, although during the first years of occupation Allied supervision and control would seek to ensure that the resulting films would not propagate fascism and militaristic values.

One major obstacle in re-starting film production in the western zones was the shortage of film raw stock, at least in the Western zones. In August 1945, Major General Bishop from the British Information Control Section informed the international press, that ‘as soon as raw-stock supplies make it possible, Germans will be granted permission to produce their own films’, thereby indicating that the lack of raw stock played a role in delaying the reconstruction of the industry in the British Zone.[ii] A year later the Public Relations/Information Services Control (PR/ISC) Division explained as to why up to this point only two production companies had been licensed in the British Zone: the available amount of raw stock was ‘insufficient to allow for further commitments’ regarding the founding of additional production units.[iii] Also in the US Zone, the raw stock shortage was described as ‘one of the main problems’ in reconstructing the German film industry.[iv]

FO 1046/409/9: Raw stock procurement (The National Archives)

No raw stock producing factory existed in the Western zones of Germany, which is why it had to be imported from the Soviet Zone or from other countries. As the relationship between the British and their Soviet Allies became more strained, a member of the British occupation authorities, G.W.E.J. Erskine, began to harbour doubts in September 1946 that one could continue relying on the Soviets for raw stock provisions, for ‘the Russian character and international trends make this a source on which undue reliance should not be placed.’[v] He warned that ‘the dependence of the British Zone for its main supplies of rawstock from the Soviet Zone is capable of producing a sudden crisis at any moment if for any reason supplies were cut off’.[vi] And indeed, deliveries from the Soviet Zone were not always consistent with initial arrangements and in 1947 even stalled for months.[vii] Michael Balfour of the British Information Services Control Branch wrote on the 12th of May 1947 that he was ‘getting a bit alarmed over the raw stock position’ and, while his concern also included the dubbing of films into German, ‘German production is beginning to need rawstock acutely and there is none left.[viii] The shortage of raw stock was therefore certainly a contributing factor in why the German film industry took longer to re-emerge in the Western zones of occupation compared to the Soviet Zone.

Owing to better infrastructure and more decisive actions on the parts of the Soviets in getting the film industry restarted more swiftly, the Soviet-licensed film Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Amongst Us, D: Wolfgang Staudte) was the first German new film to premiere in post-war Germany in October 1946. It was, however, closely followed by the British-licensed film Sag die Wahrheit (Tell the Truth, D: Helmut Weiss) in December 1946, filmed in the Tempelhof studios in the US sector of Berlin. Sag die Wahrheit recycled the script of a film that had been in production at UFA-Studios during the war, which  had remained unfinished. It was an escapist comedy that made no allusions to the post-war present, which made this film an unusual offering compared to all other British-licensed films of the early post-war period that were generally set in the present or the recent past. The British had the power to select which projects could be realised via licensing only those they found suitable, and usually rejected film scripts that were regarded as merely “escapist”. Yet this criteria was apparently not as relevant at the time when Sag die Wahrheit was allowed to go into production.

The raw stock shortage might, in fact, have played a direct role in  the British decision to license Sag die Wahrheit. The material was not only needed for making new German films, but also for making copies of old films, and in autumn 1946, a memo expressed the desire to have a new German film made. It stated that it would be ‘sad if we had to use raw stock to make fresh copies of old films because we have not enough films to circulate’.[ix] Hence, to finally have a new German film available, the British might have allowed Sag die Wahrheit (D: Helmut Weiss, 1946) to become the very first film to be made in their zone, as this project promised a quick production. After this first film, the British tended to license films that at least attempted to deal with contemporary issues, and begun to pre-censor film scripts with this criteria in mind.

The British based their argument for the necessity of pre-censoring of German film scripts directly on the lack of raw stock: pre-censorship was thought ‘essential in view of the extreme shortage of rawstock not only in Germany but all over the world and is to avoid wastage of stock on film production, which, when finished, would have to be rejected on political grounds’.[x] In July 1948, a series of articles in the Hamburger Freie Presse started to ask what kind of films were considered politically desirable by the British authorities. Were films required to spread optimistic messages in the British Zone, as one author of these articles assumed? The Film Section reiterated that pre-censorship was necessary in light of the limited availability of raw stock, furthermore claiming it was too precious to allow the making of ‘pure entertainment films’, confirming thereby that instead of escapism the British privileged films with a message suited to post-war circumstances.[xi] One proposal that was indeed rejected by the British Film Section because it was regarded as nothing more than ‘quite a nice story’ was German director Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s plan to make a film about a young and poor aspiring dancer, entitled Tanz in die Welt (Dance into the World).[xii] Apparently different standards were applied to subsequent film projects than to the first film made in the British Zone, Sag die Wahrheit.

Raw stock was also needed for export copies of new post-war German films, in order to be able to send prints to potential buyers abroad. Once the first films had been made, considerations to export them meant that even more raw stock would be needed in addition to  existing requirements. The British film adviser and documentary filmmaker Arthur Elton deemed it necessary to import additional raw stock  for this purpose. Elton highlights in a memorandum how short supply of raw stock  might hinder the export chances of new German films.[xiii] The material constraints, then, were posing significant obstacles to get the German film industry up and running again.

Lastly, the lack of raw stock also determined what British films were shown in the British Zone. The British producer J. Arthur Rank at first provided raw stock free of charge that was used for dubbing British films into German, but in 1946 he signalled unwillingness to continue this arrangement. It was at this point that the idea arose to allow Rank to set up a distribution organisation in Germany, in order to secure the import of raw stock.[xiv] An initial plan of the Finance Division to make British distribution companies pay a ‘good-will’ fee to the German state when operating in Germany – money intended for the use of re-building the German film industry – was abandoned to accommodate Rank and to guarantee his future cooperation.[xv] Unlike Rank, other British companies did not have the means to distribute their films in post-war Germany because they were financially unable to provide the raw stock for copies of their films, which was a prerequisite for showing them in Germany.[xvi]

The link between material issues – such as the lack of raw stock – and post-war German film production is a topic where the archives can reveal more than was previously known about the German film industry’s re-establishment in the British Zone. I researched the holdings in the UK National Archives to learn more about material obstacles such as the raw stock shortage as well as to explore how the British supervised and controlled German filmmaking in the immediate post-war years. I also consulted personal documents of German filmmakers located in German archives that reveal more details about film production in the British Zone after 1945. My forthcoming book that will be published with Peter Lang will present my findings on British film policy in occupied Germany in more detail.


[i] FO 943/549 Film, 1945-1948.

[ii] FO 371/46702 Control of Propaganda in Germany. Code 18. File 3. “British control policy for Newspapers, books, radio and entertainments. Transmits copy of statement made in Berlin by Major General Bishop to the international press on August 10th”.

[iii] FO 1056/86 PR/ISC Meetings and Reports. “Minutes of the Seventh Meeting held in Berlin”, 1 Aug 1946.

[iv] Military Government of Germany. U.S. Zone. Information Control. Bi-Monthly Review 24 (1 Jul 1947-30 Jun 1947).

[v] FO 1056/39. G.W.E.J. Erskine to the Office of the Deputy Military Governor, C.C.G (British Element), 6 Sep 1946.

[vi] FO 1006/216. G.W.E.J. Erskine, “Films in the British Zone of Germany”, 6 Sep 1946.

[vii] FO 1056/74. Public Relations/Information Services Control Group, “Minutes of the Thirtieth Meeting held in Berlin”, 3 July 1947.

[viii] FO 946/69. Michael Balfour to R.S. Crawford, Foreign Office (German Section), 12 May 1947.

[ix] FO 1056/86. Public Relations/Information Services Control Group. “Minutes of the Thirteenth Meeting held in Berlin”, 24th October 1946. See “Appendix A” of document.

[x] FO 1056/114: Draft of “Film Policy Directive”, to be approved by Chief, ISD, 14th May 1948.

[xi] [‘für den reinen Unterhaltungsfilm zu schade’.] ‘Und was sagt die Film-Section?’, Hamburger Freie Presse, 10 Aug 1948.

[xii] Adk: Liebeneiner 93. Handwritten note on exposé for Tanz in die Welt.

[xiii] FO 946/8. Arthur Elton, “Memorandum on Export of German Films”, 19 Nov 1947.

[xiv] FO 943/162 Film Production in the British Zone of Germany 1946.

[xv] FO 1056/39 Films: Policy and General. Chief of PR/ISC Group to Headquarters, C.C.G. (British Element) Distribution of British Film in Germany, 26 Jun 1947.

[xvi] Gabriele Clemens, Britische Kulturpolitik, p. 167.


Hanja Dämon has studied History at the University of Vienna and then obtained her PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis project on the German film industry after 1945 was sponsored for three years by the European Research Council (ECR)-funded project “Beyond Enemy Lines: Literature and Film in the British and American Zones of Occupied Germany, 1945-1949”. Dämon’s monograph on British film policies in post-war Germany will be upcoming with Peter Lang.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Masks, Mirrors and Paper trails: Anton Walbrook and the archive

James Downs, University of Exeter

25 June 2021


Research for my biography of the actor Anton Walbrook (Anton Walbrook: a Life of Masks and Mirrors, published by Peter Lang in December 2020), took over ten years and made extensive use of archival sources. While this is not unusual, the notion of writing Walbrook’s biography itself came from the profound impression made when confronted with a collection of archival material; during the course of research, I was forced by necessity to seek out and acquire (over several years) a substantial collection of my own that includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films. The process of writing and researching this biography thus began with an archival encounter, made extensive use of archives in the UK and Europe, and has itself resulted in the creation of an entirely new private, amateur archive (the future of which remains to be decided.)

In this blogpost, I want to share some discussions about these three ‘archival encounters’ in order to explore the relationship between archival research and life-writing, focusing on how the material aspects of the archive can shape perceptions of the biographical subject, and how much the concept of the ‘star body’ is itself embodied in the physical artefacts of the archive.

Adolf Wohlbrück/Anton Walbrook in a typical 1930s promotional postcard

For those unfamiliar with the actor’s career, he was born in Vienna in 1896 as Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück. While still in his teens, he began studying under Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, although his theatrical career was interrupted by military service during the First World War. After spending time in a POW camp, he returned to acting after the war and made his name on the stage in Munich, Dresden, Düsseldorf and Berlin, with roles in over 200 productions. Although Wohlbrück appeared in a few silent films, it was only with the coming of sound that he enthusiastically engaged with cinema, where his good looks and rich sonorous voice quickly made him arguably the most popular film star in 1930s Germany. He moved to Hollywood in 1936 for an English remake of one of his films, changing his name to Anton Walbrook. Instead of returning to Germany, however, he sailed to Britain in 1937 where he was cast as Prince Albert in two lavish biopics about the life and reign of Queen Victoria. During the war he was an outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazis, taking on heroic roles in patriotic wartime films as well as playing the matinee idol in romantic melodramas. There was also a darker element to his acting, and some of his best work during the 1940s was done in a series of films he made in collaboration with both Thorold Dickinson and the creative duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Walbrook returned to Germany after the war but, despite a number of successful theatrical performances, found it harder to establish himself in the film industry there. Even though he had taken British citizenship in 1947, he did not seem to feel quite at home here either, and his postwar life appears slightly rootless, with constant alternating between Britain and the continent and a series of itinerant journeys hopping between minor television films, musicals, operettas and the occasional flashes of brilliance on both stage and screen. He died in Germany in 1967, after having collapsed on stage with a heart attack.

The First Archival Encounter

Although I had heard of his name and seen a few of his films, Walbrook’s life and work was only vaguely familiar to me until one day in 2009 when I was working as a volunteer at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, part of the Special Collections Department of the University of Exeter. Among the materials I was given to catalogue was a small assortment of Walbrook material that had clearly been put together by a fan or collector.

Some of the Walbrook ephemera in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

This consisted of pre-war material from the period when he was known as Adolf Wohlbrück and included postcards, film booklets, cinema programmes, cigarette cards, several issues of Illustrierte Film Kurier featuring Wohlbrück’s films and other ephemera. As I spread it all out on the table before me and began to sift through each item, there were two things that struck me:

Firstly, there was the strong sense of what one might call ‘fan power’. Clearly, Wohlbrück was regarded highly enough to have all this material produced about him and made available for fan consumption, and someone had taken the trouble to acquire all these items and keep them together for several decades.

Secondly, there was evidence of Wohlbrück’s star status. This can be gathered from examining the way in which he was described, the language used about him, where his name was positioned on the printed page, the number of times he appears on the front cover, the prominence accorded references to him or portraits in relation to those of other stars.

Working with this material started me thinking about the blank spaces between the Wohlbrück represented here and the Walbrook I knew from his British films. How did he get from 1930s Germany to wartime Britain? What was that process like for him? What came beforehand, what came after? I thought this would be an interesting narrative to read up on, but when I went in search of some substantial writing about him, I found there was very little available. I need to begin my own research.

It is worth emphasising that the deep impression made by this first ‘archival encounter’ relied upon the fact that all this material had already been brought together previously and I just happened to be exposed to it in its entirety. Had this pre-existing archive already been donated and catalogued, I would still have had access to every item and been able to request to see each one, but this would not have had the collective impact that it did. It is important not to underestimate how much our engagement with archival materials is shaped by the way in which they are presented to us, how they are catalogued, stored, digitised or made physically accessible to users of museums and libraries.

The Research Process

Once I began researching Walbrook’s life, I soon realised that this was a formidable task, with challenges including the paucity of primary archival material, the scattered location of small clusters of documents in European archives and – perhaps most crucially of all – the actor’s passionate insistence on absolute separation between his private and public lives and his family’s alleged destruction of personal papers relating to his sexuality. What would be the consequences of this situation for the writing of a biography?

Some examples of mask and mirror imagery in Walbrook’s films
 

The title of the biography, A Life of Masks and Mirrors, is partly a reference to recurring imagery in Walbrook’s films but also reflects these challenges I faced in pinning down his identity. Like any biographer, I wanted to try and get beneath the surface of my subject, to reveal something of Walbrook’s inner personality and tease out elements for my readers that they might otherwise have missed or struggled to understand. However, this is no straightforward matter, and it is essential to consider the complex relationship that exists between the separate aspects of Walbrook as a biographical subject – his onscreen star persona (including both acting performances and the image portrayed in promotional material), his offscreen life as a private individual, and the archival records in relation to both.

When writing about artists, it is always a temptation to blur the distinction between their creative work and their individual personalities – biographers are forever seeking autobiographical elements in the work of poets or novelists, and for a film actor it is tempting to conflate their onscreen roles with their personal lives. In 1955 Walbrook stated that he had not done any film role since 1935 that he had not chosen himself, and we might therefore concede that there is justification for arguing that his onscreen roles were of personal significance. Many of his films include the use of doubles, mirrors, masks, concealed identities, or characters who have a trouble relationship with their own past – often symbolised by a changed name.

The reasons why this might resonate with Walbrook are not hard to fathom – as a homosexual with Jewish ancestry it was a matter of survival that he learned to conceal his personal life from public scrutiny while living in Nazi Germany, and once he became an exile outside his country, his natural shyness became a defence mechanism, a protective barrier between the émigré and the ‘otherness’ of the alien world around him. Many of his screen characters were exiles, such as Paul Mallen in Gaslight, Peter in 49th Parallel who declares ‘our Germany is dead’, Prince Albert – struggling to establish his own identity as Prince Consort in a country that remained hostile to his foreign background and dismissive of his personal talents – or the ‘good German’ Theo in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the Polish airman Stefan Radetzky in Dangerous Moonlight, both of whom flee fascism by emigrating to England but struggle to reconcile their past and present lives.

Walbrook also frequently played characters who possess a strong outer shell, loners who remain aloof and detached from the world around them– such as Boris  Lermontov in The Red Shoes and Herman Suvorin in The Queen of Spades, or the Master of Ceremonies in La Ronde, who interacts with others while appearing to exist on another plane altogether.

If there is indeed a correlation between Walbrook’s personal life and that of his onscreen performances, in terms of a tendency towards secrecy and concealment, then perhaps we might hope to find a more objective record in the archives? There are, however, many challenges in this too. First of all, it seems that a large amount of Walbrook’s private papers were destroyed after his death, allegedly by the family of his partner Eugene Edwards. There is no ‘Walbrook archive’ existing anywhere. Instead we only have small groups of letters and papers held within other collections across the world. The star’s ‘archival body’, if you like, is fragmented and dislocated, allowing us only to glimpse Walbrook through secondary perspectives, as he is reflected in the eyes of others. Even in interviews, Walbrook insisted on an absolute separation between private and public, warning journalists explicitly that certain questions were getting too close. Is it going to be possible for any archival sources to help a researcher to penetrate this wall?

The Archival Record: Practical Challenges

During the years of archival research, one of the most intriguing things to emerge was how little of the conventional narrative regarding Walbrook’s emigration was straightforward. It reminded me of a line in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when Walbrook’s character admits to his interrogator:

‘I have not told a lie. But I have also not told the truth.’

Prior to my biography there was a standard synopsis of Walbrook’s career that was circulated in a number of biographical dictionaries and film encyclopedias: namely, that being Jewish, gay and fiercely opposed to Hitler, Walbrook had secretly left Germany for America under the pretence of making an English-language adaptation of one of his films, hated Hollywood, and then moved to Britain. This is not a lie, but neither is it the whole truth.

Archival discoveries in letters, diaries and contemporary press cuttings revealed that the situation was far from being as clear-cut as it appeared. Options for returns to Germany and Hollywood were being entertained or discussed at almost every point, and Walbrook’s reputation as a staunch anti-Nazi was far from clear – so much so, that many German émigrés in Hollywood suspected him of being a Nazi spy, and Jewish groups threatened to boycott his films.  While there is no reason to question Walbrook’s opposition to the Nazis, the archive revealed letters that he had signed ‘Heil Hitler’ and there was even a promotional card on which his portrait was adorned with a swastika:

While modern accounts of Walbrook’s emigration from Germany emphasise the danger he was in due to his mother being Jewish, there was no evidence from contemporary interviews that this was a concern, and indeed genealogical research revealed that his Jewish ancestors had embraced Catholicism at least a generation previously.

The reliability of the archival record often had to be questioned on different grounds. Could the detailed biographical information about his Lutheran and Catholic grandparents that he submitted to a Nazi questionnaire in 1933 be trusted, or were these fictitious statements meant to deter further investigation into his Aryan credentials? A wartime letter from his friend and secretary Alexander Bender contained comments about Walbrook’s feelings about Hollywood which contradicted what the actor was telling journalists in British film magazines. There was in fact a great deal of conflicting information about much of his life, his ancestry and his movements around Europe, not all of which I was able to reconcile by the time the biography was ready for publication. It seemed that the archives contained just as many ‘masks and mirrors’ as those that characterised his film work and personal life.

Fandom and the archive

In trying to acquire enough information about these various issues, I became an avid collector of Walbrook memorabilia as well as literature and ephemera relating to the worlds of cinema and theatre. As an avowed fan of Walbrook’s films, it was perfectly natural to take an interest in such material acquisitions, but as my collection grew and grew over the decade of research, I did begin to wonder if the enthusiasm of a fan or collector was really compatible with the rigorous detachment expected of an academic scholar. Is there a point at which the acquisition of material, or certain types of material, can become counter-productive in the work of writing and research? It is not hard to explain these great sense of satisfaction that is felt from owning Walbrook’s original Prince Albert costume, as worn in Sixty Glorious Years (below), but it less easy to pinpoint how it improves my analysis of his performance or adds to our understanding of 1930s British cinema.

One thing that the collector soon has to recognise is that the collecting never ceases. This is partly a comment on the addictive nature of collecting, but also an observation on the process by which collections can retain a ‘life’ of their own. Many scholars have written in recent years about the idea of  the ‘archive as process’, highlighting the many subjective choices and prejudicial biases that shape how an archive is built up, arranged, catalogued, described, defined, preserved and made (in)accessible, and noting that what is excluded is often as important as what is included.

Although I may sometimes refer to my collection as my ‘Walbrook archive’ it is nothing of the sort – it is an archive of my research, reflecting my specific tastes and interests, my financial wherewithal (or lack of it), cultural background and geographic location. Just like the fan collection I mentioned at the start – now absorbed into the holdings of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum – so too my own collection has already absorbed earlier collections, such as scrapbooks compiled by a 1930s film fan in the UK and a German admirer from the 1950s:


Fan activity can throw up some interesting insights – one of the scrapbooks included a letter from a fan in Turkey who was exchanging a Walbrook postcard for one of Deanna Durbin, which provides some evidence about the relative values accorded celebrities at a particular place and time. At some point in the future, when my own material remains are dust and ashes, this archive may be broken up and dispersed, or it may be part of another, larger archival collection elsewhere. Archives continue to evolve, they may absorb previous archives and in turn be themselves absorbed into others. They may be reduced in size through weeding, sale or dispersal, or increase in size through the focussed acquisition of new material. In 2013 an exhibition was held, Anton Walbrook. Star and Enigma, that incorporated items from both my own collection and that of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, as well as newly-created artwork by Dashiell Silva. Material created especially for the exhibition subsequently found its way into both my personal collection and the holdings of the Museum. My own research, which began with an archival encounter in the Museum, has now generated its own archival collection. In pursuing a paper trail of clues that I hoped would lead me to a greater understanding of Anton Walbrook, I have incidentally left my own paper trail of ephemera and correspondence, including archive and book request slips from various institutions, letters to and from other fans and scholars, and outlines of my biographical research that were printed up on conference papers and publicity material. In these days of digital databases, emails and virtual technology, it is a commonplace to lament how much we have lost in terms of personal interaction and physical engagement with archival material, and yet my own experience of researching A Life of Masks and Mirrors has always felt deeply personal, not just in the relationship between the biographer and subject, but also in the numerous human encounters, collaborations and intertwined narratives that have formed such a vital part of this labour. This is in part due to the physical nature of archives, and the way in which they provide a tangible link to the past – and hopefully this lively sense of connection can be found in the biography’s portrait of this most private and enigmatic of actors.

Anton Walbrook: a Life of Masks and Mirrors is available direct from the publisher, Peter Lang, as well as the usual booksellers and retail outlets: https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/72298?format=PBK


Dr James Downs is an archivist in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections Department, also home to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, where he previously worked for almost a decade, and curated the 2013 exhibition ‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma.’ In addition to teaching film adaptation and cataloguing archival material relating to other German émigrés, he has written and presented conference papers about Walbrook on several occasions, published three books and over thirty articles on a range of topics relating to the history of film and photography, visual culture and religious history. Since 2018 he has been the editor of the magazine Photographica World.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… Media Archive for Central England (MACE)

Kat Pearson, University of Warwick

7 April 2021

[print-me]

I am a PhD student at the University of Warwick, and my work on Cities of Culture (linked to Coventry’s year in 2021) is co-supervised by Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media, and also by Dr Clare Watson the Media Archive for Central England (MACE). This collaborative way of working has given me a unique perspective on the work that MACE do. I encounter the archive both as a researcher (using the archive for my PhD thesis) and as a kind of representative for MACE because I am engaging communities in Coventry with the archive’s collections.

Founded in 2000, MACE is the charitable regional film archive and strategic lead organisation for screen heritage in the Midlands. The archive is based at the University of Lincoln but the area it covers is vast, stretching across twelve counties and regions in the East and West Midlands

Because I live in Birmingham, have previously studied in Birmingham and Leicester, and am now based at the University of Warwick – which is actually in the Coventry suburb of Canley! – I am fairly familiar with a lot of MACE’s geographical area. Before the pandemic I made a number of trips to MACE, spending days with their staff and collections to see and understand their work which was fascinating and really beneficial in understanding the inner workings of a media archive. However, rather than only talking about what I’m doing with MACE, I also spoke to Dr Watson (Director of MACE), to find out a bit more about how they work with the research community. She told me that, ‘MACE is proactively engaged in supporting the research environment in many more ways than beyond a simple repository.’ MACE is very interested in collaborating with researchers and students, for instance on research projects and through academic networks, and my Collaborative Doctoral Award comes out of that. In terms of more traditional access, MACE’s collections are available for research, and researchers have access to viewing facilities which can also be used to view external BFI content. Two recent research projects that have used MACE’s collections are Dr Christine Grandy’s article, “‘The Show Is Not about Race’’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show,”[i] and Dr Rachel Yemm’s “Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election.”[ii]

Supporting access, MACE Senior Curator Phil Leach is an invaluable resource for projects which have public engagement outputs: for example, my supervisor Professor Helen Wheatley’s ‘Ghost Town’ project focussing on Coventry’s screen heritage. All this is to say that MACE’s role extends beyond preservation it is an active and engaged partner foracademic research and can help to translate outputs to the public.

Something that really highlighted to me the importance to MACE of the collections being used and engaged with was the experience of my friend Andy Howlett who produced Paradise Lost,[iii] a film about Birmingham Central Library. MACE worked with him to find footage of the library that fitted with his film and to organise rights clearances. I asked Andy about his experiences of working with MACE to get the filmmaker perspective and this was his response:

When I first searched MACE’s online catalogue for material pertaining to the modernist rebuilding of Birmingham, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content. It was difficult to know where to begin so I got in touch and explained my needs and they very kindly invited me to come visit the archive to see the footage in person. When I arrived they had everything set up and I spent a fascinating few hours viewing everything from regional news footage to construction firm propaganda to polemical documentaries. The formats ranged from 16mm film to VHS and I got a real sense of the materiality of the archive and the incredible level of technical know-how required to maintain and operate it. It was like being given a glimpse inside a treasure trove and I came away with a much clearer idea of what I needed for my film and how to proceed with the licensing process.

Use of archive footage in this way usually attracts licence fees. Unlike some private collections, however, MACE tries to support non-commercial uses of its collection through reduced fees. In Andy’s film the archive footage is an important feature, adding historical context to a building that (at the time of making) was under-threat, controversial and familiar to many as a neglected part of Birmingham’s built environment. When constructed, the building looked and functioned differently, so the footage from MACE helps to contextualise the building and the ethos of planning in the city at different points in time. In support of MACE’s mission ‘to make film, video and digital materials of the region as accessible as possible,’[iv] the archive is very happy to work with film makers, local organisations and researchers like me to make sure that their archives are not only preserved but ‘discovered, watched and enjoyed.’ If you are interested in using material from the MACE collection within a project, just contact the team with your brief and they’ll be able to assist with research, access and that all importance copyright clearance. You can find out more about how to license footage on the MACE website.[v]

As part of my research, I was recently awarded a small grant to run a collaborative project and screening in Foleshill, a community suffering from economic deprivation just outside of Coventry city centre. Due to the impact of Covid-19 the screening was reconfigured to a small socially-distanced event hosted by the Foleshill Community Centre and Social Supermarket with an accompanying online version.[vi] Both events featured the same films from MACE’s collection focused on the local area and on food and drink in Coventry. We also included an introduction on the work that MACE does and the variety of material that exists within their collection. Although we were limited in number of participants and room layout, we even managed to facilitate a socially distanced group discussion afterwards. Having worked on this for over eight months (including a visit to Lincoln and then countless Zoom calls and planning meetings) it was really exciting to hear people’s opinions about these films which had become familiar to me, and which Phil and I had worked so hard to curate. Because these films really showcased Foleshill and Coventry, this screening brought home to me the importance to people of seeing their communities and histories on screen and the fact that this was obviously a very new experience to most of the people in the room. This was made even more obvious by people highlighting the communities and people who weren’t visible in the films that we had chosen and asking for future events to redress this absence.

While it is not often possible to bring people together to watch archive footage in this way, MACE’s collection is very easily searchable on their website[vii] and over 7,000 of their videos are available online. Over the years MACE’s cataloguers have done an impressive job of making the text associated with the films available as part of this search tool, so you can search via various criteria, like date ranges, key words and even whether the films are in colour or have sound. If there are films which you would like to view but which aren’t digitised then you can contact MACE and arrange an appointment for viewing. Depending on the format of the footage you want to view you will either need the help of MACE staff (for example if celluloid film needs to be viewed using the Steenbeck machine) or will be able to view it on your own.

MACE is based on the University of Lincoln campus around a 10-minute walk from the train station and overlooking Brayford Pool. Should you (in non-pandemic times) wish to visit MACE to view their collections, or to view BFI material (which is arranged through the BFI but MACE act as a screening facility) then you will find yourself in the heart of the city. You might also want to visit some of the sights of Lincoln such as the medieval Cathedral, the castle and my personal favourite Steep Hill. I recommend Coffee Aroma on Guildhall Street for excellent coffee and cakes, and the Tiny Tavern if you like a micropub, but as I learned when I stayed in Lincoln for a few days, the city centre pubs and restaurants are strangely quiet in the evenings, especially for a university town.

While I have used MACE for my research and for public screenings, I have also spent hours just browsing their collections online and finding videos which made me think and/or smile. This really short introduction reel which showcases things about Coventry from MACE’s collection gives you a sense of the variety of things they hold, as demonstrated by this short film put together about Coventry’s film history.

MACE’s collection was originally formed around the ATV regional television archive so features a lot of news footage, but now includes a wider range of materials and I have really enjoyed trying to understand Coventry’s history, heritage and different communities through this lens. I considered the fashion trends (and sexist attitudes) of the 1970s while watching this piece about a milkman looking for a wife[viii] and enjoyed seeing some much loved (and now slightly neglected) Coventry architecture in the context of modernity and forward-thinking.[ix]

MACE’s collection has also provided me with opportunities to understand more about Coventry’s history of industry and industrial action. There are lots of moving films about people in various trades especially striking miners and automotive workers, but one of my favourites is a more light-hearted film about a strike over the amount of tea given to workers which both the presenter and a striking worker take great delight in calling ‘a storm in a tea-cup’.[x]

In 2020, while thinking about Black Lives Matters protests across the country, Coventry as a City of Sanctuary, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, I have looked at the MACE archive to reflect on the history of race in Coventry. I watched films ranging from this difficult to watch 1966 vox pops clip capturing public responses to the first black policeman,[xi] to a film about racial tensions in the 1980s[xii], but also to a celebration of the 2-tone scene and the importance of the ‘Coventry Sound’ to a new generation of Coventarians.[xiii] All of these examples demonstrate that even if the collections at MACE don’t seem to fit with your research at first glance, it is an excellent resource for understanding aspects of socio-cultural histories captured on film.

As I’ve been writing this, I have become increasingly aware that I am essentially composing a love story to MACE! Perhaps because I have spent pretty much all of the last year in the West Midlands, I have found MACE an invaluable resource not only for my work but as a way of encouraging myself to look at the region through fresh eyes.


[i] Christine Grandy, ‘‘The Show Is Not about Race’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show’,  Journal of British Studies, 59: 4 (2020) 857–84.

[ii] Rachel Yemm, ‘Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election’, Contemporary British History, 33:1 (2019) 98-122.

[iii] Paradise Lost: History in the Unmaking http://paradiselostfilm.uk/ [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[iv] MACE, About MACE, https://www.macearchive.org/about-mace [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[v] MACE, How to License Footage, https://www.macearchive.org/how-license-footage [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[vi] Vimeo, MACE Archive- Foleshill Community Centre Screening, https://vimeo.com/468531427 [Accessed 19 October 2020].

[vii] MACE https://www.macearchive.org/ [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[viii] MACE, ATV Today: 05.02.1970: Coventry milkman looking for a wife, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-05021970-coventry-milkman-looking-wife [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[ix] MACE, Midlands News: 01.05.1962: Opening of Rebuilt Coventry station, https://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-01051962-opening-rebuilt-coventry-station [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[x] MACE, ATV Today: 13.07.1972: Coventry Tea Strike, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13071972-coventry-tea-strike [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xi] MACE, ATV Today: 08.02.1966: Vox Pops on Black Police Officers, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-08021966-vox-pops-black-police-officers [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xii] MACE, ATV Today: 06.05.1981: Coventry Racial Tension, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-06051981-coventry-racial-tension [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xiii] MACE, ATV Today: 13.12.1979: The Coventry Sound, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13121979-coventry-sound [Accessed 16 February 2021].


Kat Pearson is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Warwick studying television and UK Cities of Culture.  Because Kat’s work is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, partly supervised by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), archival television is central to her research. Kat’s thesis will use television programming and archives to look at the two previous UKCoCs (Hull and Derry) and at Coventry’s year in 2021 and evaluate the role of television in placemaking and reputational change. Alongside, and feeding into- this research, Kat is working with MACE to create and run outreach events (including one in Foleshill which was reconfigured due to the pandemic https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/tvhistories/blog/foleshillscreenings). These events aim to take the archive out into the community and during Coventry 2021 will hopefully also provide opportunities for new material to be added to the archive. Another strand of Kat’s PhD is working with Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media (an independent production company) who have been commissioned to make an archive focused documentary about Coventry Cathedral which will be screened in 2021.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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