Working For The Common Good

Wednesday, February 9 2011
Working For The Common Good

It has drawn acclaim for its groundbreaking work with documentaries about British life and 20th century history viewed through a lens; on the eve of the latest large scale documentary project, we talk to the BFI about its ongoing collections chronicling a bygone era…

With multidisc box set releases, theatrical tours, accompanying books and paraphernalia, the BFI’s collections charting the social and industrial history of (predominantly) life in Britain throughout the last 100 years or more, to the are nothing if not ambitious.

And while these collections – the latest, Tales From The Shipyard, the second part of the This Working Life series, a planned trilogy – are an essential part of the BFI’s remit and adored by critics and writers everywhere, they are also proving to be popular and perennial sellers too.What the BFI appears to have done is tap into a public desire to see our nation’s modern history as told through the eyes of film-makers.

Our British Transport Film releases, released as nine 2-DVD volumes and as an 18-disc collection, as well the box sets Land Of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950 and Shadows Of Progress: Documentary Films In Post-war Britain 1951-1977 have consistently sold well and garnered a great deal of critical praise,” says the BFI’s James Blackford. “But our General Post Office box set volumes have performed well, too, and our ongoing series of Central Office of Information films produce better and better sales results as the series progresses.  It seems that there is a real appetite out there for collections such as these which deal with British industrial heritage and social history.”

As noted above, and reiterated by the BFI’s head of video Sam Dunn, these series, and the This Working Life one, are an essential part of the BFI’s remit. “In many ways, these collections sum up some of the BFI’s core aims,” Dunn says. “They present films which haven’t previously been published on DVD, and tell new and fresh stories about the history of Britain and British film.  The extra features and booklets contextualise the films and help people to understand more about how, when and why they were produced.  Crucially, in almost all cases, the films that are presented on these documentary collections are preserved by the BFI National Archive, and through restoring, remastering and publishing the films, we are provided essential access to the holdings of the National Collection.”

They’re not easy projects to put together, however, as Dunn explains. “A comprehensive, ground-breaking release such as Shadows Of Progress represents about three years’ work for many individuals across a range of departments within the BFI. The first issue to be dealt with was that none of the films on the set were well known in the public sphere, due to the fact that they were produced by industrial sponsors, government departments and charities for limited use, and so there was a huge amount of primary research to be done.

“The work involved making technical selections, comparing film elements, screening materials, contacting licensors, researching the filmmakers, restoring archival materials, creating new HD transfers, curating the collection for its various outputs (theatrical, touring, DVD, etc.), and commissioning experts to write the essays which were compiled for the accompanying 100-page book.”

The BFI pools its respective experts from all its different arms to work on these projects. “The scale and ambition of some of our releases, and the workflows involved in producing our DVD and Blu-ray collections (which often feature films that have remained unseen for decades) mean that it is essential that we work well and communicate effectively inter-departmentally,” says Dunn. “Luckily, the enormous amount of expertise that there is within the BFI is enriched by an incredible enthusiasm and passion for the films and subjects we work with, and so the many specialists, curators, technicians and producers who are involved all share a collective sense of purpose and achievement.”

So where does Tales From The Shipyard, fit in? “Tales From The Shipyard is the second DVD in the BFI’s ‘This Working Life’ series celebrating Britain’s industrial heritage on screen, begun with the acclaimed Portrait of a Miner two-disc set in 2009, and so fits into an ongoing strand,” explains the BFI’s Blackford. “It features 23 films made between 1898 and 1974 and is accompanied by a season of films at BFI Southbank and in cinemas in Belfast, Glasgow and Newcastle. With more than five hours of material, the DVD set draws together unique and fascinating footage of Britain’s leading shipbuilding yards and the men who worked there.  Essentially, it is a history of Britain is the 20th century that takes in historical site visits from Monarchs, the impact of two world wars, international trade agreements and the advent of air travel, as well as exploring the role of trade unions.”

And, equally pertinently, who’s buying this kind of programming? The BFI is, in part, appealing to often ignored sections of the community. “In much the same way that the British Transport Film collections are primarily targeted at train enthusiasts, so too is Tales From The Shipyard primarily targeted at shipping enthusiasts –(both audiences are very significant and hugely dedicated,” explains Blackford. “This, though, the appeal of a collection like this is potentially massive, since it explores a century of British culture and regional heritage on a massive scale, and includes rarely seen footage of royalty, a previously unreleased film directed by Sean Connery, entitled The Bowler And The Bunnet, along with a previously unseen archival interview with Connery in which he discusses the film.”

There’s more to come too – the next This Working Life will look at the once great British steel industry, while there will be more Central Office Of Information films, the eagerly-anticipated Great White Silence, and works looking at more recent documentary makers, such as Molly Dineen.

In the meantime, here’s the official trailer for Tales From The Shipyard…

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