This film is held by the BFI (ID: 12077).


St. James's Park and its environs.

Opening LS view of St. James's Park, Piccadilly; traffic passing Marble Arch (92). Entrance to the Mall; Waterloo steps; Carlton House Terrace; the Mall (131); pan of buildings bordering St. James's Park; the Foreign Office (176); the Admiralty (189); the War Office (210). Horseguards; Downing St. (225); Colonial Office and Dominions Office (291): Australia House (273); New Zealand House (284); Canada House (307); South Africa House (327); Clive of India Statue and India Office House (346); Big Ben (364); Birdcage Walk (384): St. James's Park - children playing the bridge, ducks and pelicans, people feeding the birds, the cafe, and flower beds (385-496). St. James's Palace (498); the Mall; the Victoria Memorial: Buckingham Palace; horseguards, on parade for the King's birthday (680ft).



During the 1930s Marion Grierson, the younger sister of John Grierson – generally considered the leading presence in 1930s British documentary – ran the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA). Initially affiliated to the Empire Marketing Board and then the GPO Film Unit, in 1935 it became closely connected to the Strand Film Company (headed by Grierson’s husband Donald Taylor). Film historian Rachael Low noted that Grierson had filmed in London in 1933 with cameraman Bill Shenton, and that the material was used in several productions, including the silent GPO film, St James’s Park(1934). This film formed the basis for ‘its sound counterpart’, Heart of an Empire, one of a series of travel documentaries produced by Grierson – for example, The Key to Scotland, Beside the Seaside– showing scenes of British life (Low, 1979, 76, 98).

While the TIDA films were primarily intended to encourage tourists to England, and thus played predominantly overseas, Strand made particular efforts to exhibit its films theatrically in England. Indeed, Monthly Film Bulletin in its review of Heart of an Empire noted that its purpose, at least initially, was ‘theatrical exhibition’ (MFB, 1935, 154). The BFI holds four versions of this film, seemingly dating from 1935 to 1942. These are edited to accommodate two different monarchs and three Prime Ministers, prompting archivist Catherine Pyle to suggest that the films were re-edited and updated for schools. Certainly, the re-edits suggest that the film continued to play non-theatrically throughout this period, schools probably being its primary market.

Film historian Paul Swann, in his account of the British Documentary Movement, noted a further influence on the film’s production. He listed Heart of an Empire – along with other Strand films including The Future is in the Air (1937), Air Outpost (1937), Wings over Empire (1939), and African Skyways (1939) – as a film sponsored by Imperial Airways. Strand was, along with the Realist Film Unit, the leading pre-war independent documentary unit, and its documentaries sponsored by Imperial Airways served in part to ‘”bring alive” the different outposts of the Empire’ (Swann, 1989, 106). Gordon Pirie, in his study of British aviation films, cited Airport (1934) and Heart of an Empire as examples of Imperial Airways ‘cinematic exercises in mass persuasion’ (Pirie, 2003, 124). The Imperial Airways films illustrate the linking together and mapping of various peoples and places, through this new means of transport. As the most direct descendants of the EMB, these Strand films promoted technological and humanitarian advances throughout the Empire, highlighting the economic and technological networks connecting the colonies and Dominions.

Monthly Film Bulletin, in its review of Heart of an Empire, suggested that the film would serve as an educational title in teaching ‘courses on London and its history, and particularly its importance as a centre of the Empire’ (MFB, 1935, 154). Sight and Sound further noted that ‘the Heart of an Empire is not, as one might imagine, London, but rather the heart of London itself – St James’s Park and its environs’ (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1935, 128). The filmic representation of London as an imperial centre was subsequently reaffirmed by a number of films produced by the Colonial Film Unit during the 1940s, such as An African in London (1941), and African Visitors to the Tower of London (1949). These CFU films, while intended for African audiences, sought to emphasise, through the iconography of London, both Britain’s primacy and her acceptance of Africans within this imperial establishment.



The Heart of an Empire offers little discussion of the Empire itself or of the countries therein, but serves as an example of the way in which film positions London – its history, and the grandeur of its buildings – at the physical and ideological centre of the Empire. The Heart of an Empire differs from the subsequent CFU films – for example, it does not show colonial subjects within London and moreover it played primarily to domestic audiences – yet it does highlight the importance of London within imperial discourse.

The film’s title effectively serves to position St James’s Park within an imperial context. The commentary reinforces this, for example stating over a shot of the exterior of the War Office, that this is where staff direct ‘British troops in all parts of the Empire’. The camera then pans to show the exterior of the Colonial office and Dominions office. ‘Here are the twin centres of imperial administration’, the commentator announces, ‘but the Dominions have their own representatives in London too’. The film makes no reference to the African or West Indian colonies, instead focussing on the dominions and India.

Shots from London are then intercut with brief scenes from the dominions, as the film highlights this direct relationship between London, as an administrative centre, and the overseas lands. For example, a shot of Australia House is followed by one of sheep, as the commentator explains that Australia House serves as an ‘enquiry bureau for everything about the Commonwealth from cricket to sheep’. New Zealand butter is unloaded at London’s docks, highlighting imperial trade, while a bus drives past in London advertising ‘New Zealand butter and cheese’. Canada House in Trafalgar Square is said to provide ‘London’s link with the great North American wheat fields’, while South Africa House is described as the ‘shop window of the Empire’s fruit garden’. The film maps the Empire primarily according to its economic links to Britain (a common feature of EMB film). It finally shows the statue of Clive of India and the India Office, yet once more there is no broader discussion of Empire.

The film defines London through its stately buildings (‘St James’s Park stands surrounded by the key buildings of the Empire’), its history (‘memories of London’s historic past’) and its pageantry, as it shows the King’s birthday parade (‘the most brilliant of London’s pageants’). Yet, alongside the more formal and stately elements, it highlights the peace and natural beauty of the local parks. The film concludes with this romanticised and poetic image of London as a ‘lovely place of trees and flowerbeds and green velvety grass’. This image is then once more related to the Empire through the commentary, as the voiceover adds that this provides ‘a place for pelicans and children at the heart of the Empire’.

Tom Rice (April 2009)


Works Cited

‘Heart of an Empire’, Kinematograph Weekly, 2 January 1936, 28.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1929 - 1939: Films of Comment and Persuasion of the 1930's (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979).

‘Heart of an Empire’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1935, 154.

Pirie, Gordon, ‘Cinema and British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-1939’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 23:2 (2003), 117-131.

Pyle, Catherine, ‘Heart of an Empire’, short essay accompanying the film at the Mediatheque, accessed 10 June 2009.

‘New Documentary Films’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1935, 125-128.

Stollery, Martin, Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000).

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
750 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
SHAW, Alexander
Imperial Airways
GILLIAM, Laurence
Music Performed by
43rd Light Infantry Band
Music Performed by
Production Company
Strand Film Company