British Instructional Films

From humble beginnings working out of an old army hut in Elstree, British Instructional Films (BIF) established itself during the 1920s as Britain’s foremost producer of geographical, scientific and nature films. Harry Bruce Woolfe, who founded the company in August 1919 with a capital of £3,000, sought to produce pictures which were both broadly educational and generally entertaining to non-specialist audiences. Particular successes included the Secrets of Nature series (1922-1933), which spawned almost 100 films by the end of the 1920s, and lengthier military re-enactment films, from The Battle of Jutland in 1921 to The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands in 1927. A spell of sustained growth saw the company move to Surbiton in 1924, after it was bought by Stoll for £20,000, and then to newly-built studios at Welwyn Garden City in 1928 (by which time it had been bought by A. E. Bundy and floated as a public company). Despite some prestigious productions, most notably by Anthony Asquith, the conversion to sound equipment led to long delays in production and left BIF ‘seriously short of working capital’ (Low, 1979, 121). In 1931 BIF was absorbed by British International Pictures, who adopted a more ‘brusque and commercial approach’, moving away from the educational documentaries favoured by Bruce Woolfe (Low, 1979, 122). A dissatisfied Woolfe resigned in 1933 and became head of Gaumont-British Instructional.

The history of BIF is simultaneously, however, a history of imperial film in the 1920s, as BIF was at the forefront of film’s engagement with the British Empire throughout the decade. During its 14-year existence, BIF produced films for trade and state, and within different generic frameworks, that projected an image of the Empire back to British audiences. These films largely endorsed the dominant government attitudes by highlighting British primacy, the social and industrial development of the colonies and the critical import of imperial loyalty. Historian John MacKenzie refers to the ‘fervent empire loyalism’ of Bruce Woolfe, and this was manifested not only in the films produced but also in the company’s broader policies (MacKenzie, 1984, 193). As a member of the Film Producers’ Group it promoted the trade of British films within the colonies, linking, as Priya Jaikumar argued, ‘national pride to a robust trade of British film in the Empire’ (Jaikumar, 2006, 48). Furthermore the publicity materials of BIF and its distributor New Era Films emphasised, to exhibitors and the public alike, the importance of supporting their films in order to reclaim a British cultural imperial identity (Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19). In promoting its patriotic and ‘British’ productions, BIF also exploited fears of American cultural imperialism, promoting itself within a distinctly British film industry, ready to challenge its dominant American rival.

As a producer, BIF brought scenes from the colonies back to British audiences. First, it produced films of Royal and imperial tours for the Admiralty, starting with Britain’s Birthright in 1924 (which recorded the Empire Cruise of the Special Squadron) and The Prince of Wales Tour of Africa in 1925. Then in October 1924, BIF secured the rights, as well as a three-year distribution deal with New Era Films, to produce a series of shorts that would incorporate the huge collection of films that was currently playing at the Empire Exhibition in Wembley. Representatives of the Colonial Governments participating at Wembley had met earlier in the year to discuss a proposal for a series of 52 short films that would continue the ‘publicity and educational work’ of the exhibition. Graham Ball, a film expert attached to the Department of Overseas Trade, explained that he hoped to book in 400 theatres and make a total booking of £250 on each film, while further representatives suggested that theatres could show one film a week throughout the year, before showing them in schools or overseas in other parts of the Empire (CO 323/919/11). Sir Edward Davson, a prominent figure on numerous imperial trade committees, had earlier suggested using the films shown at the exhibition for the ‘development of Empire trade and the encouragement of emigration to the Dominions’. Davson argued that the films would serve to ‘educate our people… in an appreciation and knowledge of our Dominions and Colonies, of their scenery and the life of their people, of their industries and products’ (The Times, 10 October 1923, 11).

The plans for the series thus reveal a desire to use film to educate and teach British audiences about the colonies, to promote imperial trade and emigration, and to exploit commercially the widely viewed films of the Empire exhibition. The decision to award the films to BIF reflected the close links BIF had now established with the government and cemented its position as the pre-eminent producer of educational, and imperial shorts. A memorandum from the Imperial Institute in 1927 acknowledged that the ‘productions of British Instructional Films are in every way superior to those obtained from other sources’, adding that the company had ‘succeeded most happily in introducing little scenes of native life, recreations, native types and customs into nearly all of their films’ (CO 323/985/23). The completed series, under the title ‘The Empire’, was released theatrically in three sets of 12 films in November 1925, February 1927 and August 1928, and promised to show the ‘peoples, homes and habits’ of the British Empire (KW, 19 November 1925). While consisting mainly of scenes from Africa, it also included individual films on Hong Kong, Iraq, Malta, India, Fiji, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Canada and New Zealand.

The Empire series was, however, a complete commercial failure. The Crown Agents noted in July 1927 that ‘The venture has not been a success as regards the cinema theatres and the amount so far received on behalf of the participating colonies is negligible’ (CO 323/985/23). The commercial failure of the series may reveal a shift in the generic framework for theatrical colonial subjects. The Crown Agents argued that ‘Experience with the Empire series would appear to indicate that purely propaganda or educational films are not the type to succeed commercially’, suggesting instead that Palaver (1926), which ‘combined fiction with a background of local customs… would appear to be the type of film which is most likely to appeal to cinema audiences in this country’ (CO 323/985/23). Palaver shared much in common with The Empire Series, in terms of personnel, its close links with colonial governments, and in promoting itself as an authentic study of African life, yet it reflected also an increasing move to re-contextualise these imperial studies within a fictional framework. This was seen in later BIF productions like Stark Nature (1930).

The commercial failure of the series also suggests a move towards non-theatrical markets for imperial documentaries. By 1927 British Instructional explained, with reference to The Empire Series, that it was ‘now concentrating on making the films available for educational purposes’. The Imperial Institute’s cinema, which opened in 1927, showed films from the series and BIF discussed with the Institute ‘the need for a central bureau for distributing Empire films’ (CO 323/985/23). Britain’s Birthright, another commercial failure, had been promoted as a film of ‘the greatest educational value’, which would provide schoolchildren with ‘a wide vision and a better idea of the extent and possibilities of the Empire than any number of books’ (Bioscope, 12 March 1925, 50; KW, 12 March 1925). By 1928 this was advertised, along with The Prince of Wales’ Tour and many titles from the Empire Series, for non-theatrical hire through British Instructional’s Education Department (which was set up in November 1925).

BIF also began looking to present its films overseas within the colonies. In the discussions surrounding the introduction of the Quota Act of 1927, reports had recognised the ‘lamentable record’ of distribution for patriotic pictures within the colonies, noting for example that Britain’s Birthright was ‘refused by all the Dominions’ (The Times, 24 May 1926, 14). In 1928 BIF signed a deal in Australia with British Dominions Proprietary Ltd. to ensure that its existing productions could be exhibited in Australia and New Zealand, and agreed a similar deal in South Africa, through its distributor, with Kinemas Limited (The Times, 26 January 1928, 10; 23 January 1929, 14). In 1930, a Colonial Films Committee was established to ‘promote the better distribution of British films in the colonies’ and to supply films of an ‘educational value to the native races’. Reports noted that BIF already ‘send instructional and interest films to places so far distant as the West Indies, Nigeria and the Gold Coast, the Malay States, India and New Zealand for exhibition in places other than those of entertainment’ (The Times, 9 April 1930, 14).

BIF produced further short films on imperial topics in the latter half of the decade. In 1927 it made West Africa Calling for the Conservative Party, and after seeking commissions from Colonial Governments to produce films ‘of an educational character demonstrating local resources and development’, filmed the opening of Takoradi Harbour for the Gold Coast government (CO 323/985/23; Roberts, 1987, 198). Further films included the lengthier Benguela Railway (1928), and a handful of titles from Kenya (including Up Country with the Settler, 1930). The company requested exclusive rights to film in the colonies, in 1927, but this was rejected by the British Government.

In later years BIF increasingly branched out into feature film production. In 1928 Bruce Woolfe traveled to India to oversee the production of Shiraz, a BIF co-production with UFA, which was followed a year later by A Throw of Dice. Reports noted BIF’s plans to show these films ‘throughout the British Empire’ (Edwardsville Intelligencer, 18 January 1928, 8). In 1929 Bruce Woolfe contacted the High Commissioner in Southern Rhodesia and explained that he was working on a script with the Conservative MP and novelist John Buchan about the life of Cecil Rhodes. The High Commissioner, F.J. Newton, opposed the idea – ‘I confess the whole idea of a film incorporating Rhodes is repugnant to me… there are one or two episodes in his career which would make it difficult to treat the subject in a popular and, at the same time, truthful manner’ – and the film was never produced (Burns, 2000, 111). Woolfe and Buchan did work together on England Awake (1932), while BIF was also involved in the production of One Family (1930), a spectacular commercial failure for the Empire Marketing Board. It also filmed the Court Treatts’ expedition to Sudan, which was released at the turn of the decade as Stampede, Africa in Flames and Stark Nature.

The end of BIF came in 1933, when it was absorbed into Associated British Picture Corporation. Throughout the previous decade, BIF had worked with Governments at home and overseas, as well as the Conservative Party and industrial sponsors, highlighting the economic and political significance of the Empire, and imagining both the colonies and a broader notion of ‘the Empire’ to British (and subsequently colonial) audiences. BIF operated at a moment when the form, function and exhibition context for imperial film subjects was still being negotiated, and through a study of BIF we can see the formation and establishment of many of the practices that would come to dominate imperial filmmaking, distribution and exhibition over the next thirty years. While 1933 may mark the end for BIF – its name did reappear on occasion, most notably after the War when Pathéset up the unit to ‘make films for schools once again’ – much of its work was continued by Gaumont-British Instructional (Daily Film Renter, 19 July 1945, 10). Established by Woolfe and using many of the staff from BIF, GB Instructional continued to produce films on imperial subjects with support from colonial governments and commercial sponsors. These films were now promoted primarily as educational pictures for schools and highlight, with the establishment of the Empire Film Library in 1935, the codification of a distribution and exhibition network for imperial shorts, that was first negotiated through the Empire Series and the work of British Instructional Films.

Tom Rice (November 2009)

 

Works cited

‘Britain’s Birthright’, Bioscope, 12 March 1925, 50.

‘Three British Films in Three Days’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19.

British Instructional Films, Catalogue of Films for Non-Theatrical Exhibition (1928).

Burns, James, 'Biopics and Politics: the Making and Unmaking of the Rhodes Movies', Biography, 23:1, 2000, 108-126.

‘Pathé– BIF to make School films’, Daily Film Renter, 19 July 1945, 10.

‘Mother India Book Spurs Film Men to make New Film’, Edwardsville Intelligencer, 18 January 1928, 8.

Jaikumar, Priya, Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).

Britain’s Birthright’, Kinematograph Weekly, 12 March 1925, 62.

Kinematograph Weekly, 19 November 1925.

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

Mackenzie, John, Propaganda and Empire: the Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).

‘Memorandum by Graham Ball on the Suggested Scheme for a Series of Empire Films’, accessed at the National Archives (CO 323/919/11).

‘Letter from Crown Agents to the Under Secretary of State, Colonial Office’, dated 11 July 1927, accessed at the National Archives (CO 323/985/23).

‘Encouragement in Production of British Films’, accessed at the National Archives (CO 323/985/23).

Roberts, Andrew D., ‘Africa on Film to 1940’, History in Africa, Volume 14, 1987, 189-227.

Davson, Edward, ‘Empire Films’, The Times, 10 October 1923, 11.

‘Film and the Empire’, The Times, 24 May 1926, 14.

‘British Films. Agreement for Oversea Distribution’, The Times, 26 January 1928, 10.

‘The Film World: British Pictures for South Africa’, The Times, 23 January 1929, 14.

 
 
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