Gaumont British Instructional

While Gaumont-British Instructional (GBI) has not been afforded as much historical consideration as the apparently more socially conscious British documentary companies of the 1930s, such as GPO and Strand, it was a prodigious producer of short subjects (making over 400 films by the end of the decade) and helped pioneer the production of educational films within schools (Today’s Cinema, 15 July 1939, 1). Headed by the founder of British Instructional Films (BIF), Harry Bruce Woolfe, and joined by many of BIF’s staff, GBI shared its predecessor’s initial interest in ‘visual education’, while also retaining a particular interest in imperial subjects.

From its formation in November 1933 as a subsidiary of Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, GBI sought to ‘foster the growing interest in educational films’. To do so, the company worked closely with educationalists in producing films to show within schools. In outlining the initial plans for the company, Woolfe stated that it would make fifty educational films a year, but he also revealed plans for a few ‘subjects of a more ambitious type’. Amongst a first batch announced by Woolfe in 1934 was Rising Tide, a three-reel film produced by Paul Rotha (with whom Woolfe enjoyed an ‘uneasy’ working relationship) which dealt with ‘Empire Independence’ (Sight and Sound, Winter 1934, 131). This film is indicative of GBI’s interest in the Empire, and over the next two decades the company continually sought to present pictures of the colonies and dominions to British audiences.

In 1936 Woolfe sent Frank Bundy and two other cameramen to the West Indies on a six-month tour ‘with the blessing of the West India committee’ to take ‘approximately 70,000 feet of West Indian products and scenery’. The plan was to divide the films into 14 separate subjects, produced in two versions – one for theatrical use and one for schools – and the scheme was promoted as the first part of a broader Empire initiative (Daily Gleaner, 15 August 1936, 23). Bundy explained to the press that this was the first time Gaumont had sent a ‘film expedition to the colonies of the British Empire’. ‘If the project resulted in a success’, he continued, ‘and the indications all pointed to this, the effort will be carried out on a larger scale in other parts, and may be continued even in these colonies, which have been already visited’ (Daily Gleaner, 18 May 1936, 13). The Jamaican press reported that Gaumont intended to send expeditions to other parts of the Empire, ‘including South Africa, Australia, Canada, India and British East Africa so that eventually a complete film series will be built up showing the whole Empire as it is for the benefit of school children in various parts of the British possessions’. It further claimed that ‘roughly a hundred films would be produced’ (Daily Gleaner, 15 August 1936, 23).

The expedition, and the intended broader series of empire films, share much in common with BIF’s Empire Series (1925-1928) and illustrate Woolfe’s continued interest in bringing images of the colonies to British audiences. Working closely with colonial authorities, as well as with commercial companies – ‘the United Fruit Company has facilitated us in innumerable ways’ – GBI primarily sought to present the films within schools. Bundy’s completed films, which included Jamaican Harvest (1938), came with additional teaching notes, providing information about the local industries and suggested questions, and were approved by the Royal Empire Society. Alistair Weigall, the Chairman of Council for the society, in discussing its work with GBI, argued that a knowledge of the Empire is ‘essential if the British Empire is to survive in the world of to-day’. He further noted the ‘urgent need’ to present the story of the Empire to children, so that ‘as they grow older they have a reasoned foundation for their political faith’ (The Times,9 June 1938, 10). The company’s films and their educational policies thus mark a sustained attempt to embed the importance of the empire within the educational curriculum.

GBI produced other series from the colonies, most notably a set of four ‘Indian geography shorts’ in 1937 that dealt with ‘day-to-day life in Bikaner, Darjeeling, Katmandu and Udaipur’. The company again worked closely with educationalists on these productions – ‘Professor Cons, of London University, explained how the shorts had come to be edited’ – which were again ‘intended for use in schools and educational institutions’ (Today’s Cinema, 27 May 1937, 7). Yet, as noted by Darrel Catling, who was at GBI from 1935, the market for these educational pictures was ‘necessarily limited by the number of schools equipped with projectors (and at the time this was infinitesimal)’. Catling suggested that GBI came into existence to create a market for the projectors, ‘but at best it would be a long term game, as not many schools could afford projectors’ (Cine Technician, February 1955, 21). The Daily Gleaner noted that attempts by the educational department to introduce these films in Jamaica were also restricted by the shortage of places equipped to show film (Daily Gleaner, 15 August 1936, 23).

There is little to suggest that the pictures from India or the West Indies were widely seen, but Woolfe still retained an interest in bringing pictures of the Empire back to British audiences. In July 1939 he spoke once more ‘of his desire to make a series of films of the Empire, in spite of a discouraging lack of support from those who should be most interested in such a policy’ (The Times, 15 July 1939, 10). ‘Much of this type of film’, he added, ‘ has been propaganda, designed to attract the tourist. We shall aim for more vivid and objective two-reelers with the idea of dispelling the thought that the Empire consists mainly of wheat and apples’ (Today’s Cinema, 15 July 1939, 1). The proposed series was to be directed by Mary Field and based upon a ‘new teaching method’, while thematically the films were based around the oceans (’The Empire Round the Atlantic’, ‘The Empire Round the Pacific’, ‘The Empire Round the Indian Ocean’). It also included three films made in South Africa by Leon Schauder, which played briefly in the West End under the title ‘Focus on the Empire’ (Sight and Sound, Summer 1939, 55-57).

The advent of war brought short film production almost to a standstill and, according to Woolfe, ‘the industry faced as bleak an outlook as at any time in its chequered history’ (Swann, 1989, 85). GBI did nonetheless remain active throughout this period, producing instructionals and documentaries for the services, the MOI and the British Council, a strategy adopted by many independent producers of short films. In 1944 however, GBI faced a further change as Woolfe resigned for ‘reasons of health’ (although he remained in a ‘consultative capacity’) (Daily Film Renter, 19 July 1944, 3). Donald Carter, who had been Woolfe’s assistant for the past 16 years, took over as head of production, and soon traveled to Africa in response to a request from the Southern Rhodesian government (Daily Film Renter, 29 August 1945, 3).

The Southern Rhodesian government was making plans for ‘film publicity’, primarily to attract potential tourists and settlers to the country (Sight and Sound, Spring 1948, 7). In May 1946 a GBI unit travelled to Salisbury, and towards the end of the year Gaumont-British (Africa) was formed in South Africa. Proposed films included an elaborate production entitled ‘There Lies your Hinterland’, which was never completed even though Sir Godfrey Huggins, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, was reported to have recorded an epilogue at the GBI studios at Elstree (Burns, 2000, 116; Today’s Cinema, 24 March 1947, 12). The unit did produce a number of films for the government, including Southern Rhodesia: Is this Your Country? (Mangin, 1998, 17). It also produced films for commercial companies (for example Chisoko the African for the Roan Antelope Copper Mines), films on geographical subjects ‘for school purposes’, pictures on mission life (for example, Pitaniko, 1948), and a number of films for Mary Field’s Children’s Entertainment Films, including Basuto Boy (1947) and Trek to Mashomba (1951).

Aside from its African productions, GBI also made films on other parts of the Empire in the post-war period, including Singapore: A Study of a Port (1951) and Focus on the Nile (1952). The company continued to work closely with educationalists. For example, when discussing a planned film in 1946 outlining ‘how the British Empire is constituted’, GBI explained that ‘the script is being prepared in collaboration with Professor V. T. Harlow, M.A., D. Litt., Rhodes Lecturer on Imperial History at London University’ (Daily Film Renter, 3 June 1946, 16).

The film industry slump of the 1950s had an enormous impact on GBI. First, Children’s Entertainment Films was closed down and then in 1953, a year after being renamed ‘Shorts and Sponsored Film Production Department’, GBI was assimilated into its parent company, as part of J. Arthur Rank’s ‘tidying up’ process. Today’s Cinema reported that ‘it’s as well to make clear that the disappearance of GBI does not mean the end of educational and documentary film making. Donald Carter and his colleagues, erstwhile GBI, are doing precisely the same work today under the banner of Gaumont British Specialised Film Unit’ (Today’s Cinema, 28 May 1953, 5). However within two years, this new unit was fused with two other parts of the Rank Organisation – Theatre Publicity and Screen Audiences – and Donald Carter was running a film company in Canada. This marked the end of a production history, spanning over 35 years, in which first British Instructional Films and then Gaumont-British Instructional had worked with colonial governments and commercial sponsors in bringing scenes of the British Empire to predominantly non-theatrical British audiences. Imagining film’s potential as a pedagogical device to teach children and adults about the geography, customs and history of the Empire, the units had, for the most part, promoted British imperialism and endorsed government policy. While the demise of these educational production companies can be explained by industrial changes and shifting commercial demands, it is perhaps appropriate that a company, imbued with the conservatism of Bruce Woolfe, and invested in the promotion of British imperialism, should fade during the last few years of the British Empire.

Tom Rice (November 2009)


Works cited

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

Catling, Darrel, ‘Life and Death of G.B.I.’, Cine Technician, February 1955, 21-23.

Connolly, Brian M., ‘Southern Rhodesia: Is This Your Country?’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1948, 7-9.

‘H. Bruce Woolfe’, Daily Film Renter, 19 July 1944, 3.

‘Rank’s Emissary to Southern Rhodesia’, Daily Film Renter, 29 August 1945, 3.

‘G.B.I. Unit Leaving for Rhodesia’, Daily Film Renter, 13 May 1946, 3.

‘G.B. Film on the Empire’, Daily Film Renter, 3 June 1946, 16.

‘Jamaica and Other British West Indian Colonies to Get 100,000 Feet of Film Publicity’, Daily Gleaner, 13 March 1936, 10.

‘Film Men Off to Picture Other Places’, Daily Gleaner, 18 May 1936, 13.

‘Filming the Caribbean for the Classroom’, Daily Gleaner, 15 August 1936, 23.

Gaumont British Instructional Film Handbook, ‘Regional Geography. The West Indies: Jamaican Harvest and Grape-Fruit’ (1938).

Mangin, Geoffrey, Filming Emerging African: A Pioneer Cinematographer’s Scrapbook – from the 1940s to the 1960s (Cape Town: G. Mangin, 1998).

Schauder, Leon, ‘South Africa, I Presume!’, Sight and Sound, Summer 1939, 55-57.

‘British Educational Films’, Sight and Sound, Winter 1934, 131.

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

‘New Instructional Films: Empire Series Planned by Gaumont-British’, The Times, 15 July 1939, 10.

‘Entertainment into Instructional: G.B.I.’s Indian Geography Shorts’, Today’s Cinema, 27 May 1937, 7.

‘GBI Complete Five-Year Plan: New Films in Colour’, Today’s Cinema, 15 July 1939, 1.

‘Premier’s Film Prologue’, Today’s Cinema, 24 March 1947, 12.

Today’s Cinema, 28 May 1953, 5.

Weigall, Archibald, ‘To the Editor of The Times’, The Times, 9 June 1938, 10.

Browsing: Production Company / Gaumont British Instructional
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Everyday use of asphalt for roadmaking and roofing are followed by a description of the Pitch Lake at La Brea, ...


BASUTO BOY (1947)has video enhanced entry

A short story for children about a Basuto-boy herdsman and his adventures in dealing with cattle thieves.

The second reel (of ...


BIKANER (1934)has video enhanced entry

INSTRUCTIONAL. Opening shot of a map of India. An arrow indicates the Deccan States and then the Rajputana States and ...



Life in a town in Rajputana is shown, with shots of temples, markets, busy streets and means of transport. Closing ...


CHISOKO THE AFRICAN (1949) enhanced entry

The story of an African boy born in a village in Northern Rhodesia that is revolutionised by the growth of ...



The beauty of Southern Rhodesia, its expanding agricultural and industrial development and the opportunities it offers for pioneers of today; ...



A film in three parts looking at the process of extracting copper ore from waste rock and smelting the refined ...


DAY'S WORK (1946)

Instructional film, showing daily life in Palestine two thousand years ago.



The Ground Nut Scheme in Africa by the United Africa Company.


FOCUS ON THE NILE (1952) enhanced entry

The importance of the life-giving waters of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt with property depending on the success of ...


FOOT-HILL TOWN (1937) enhanced entry

The town of Darjeeling, showing its life and work. Re-edited material from DARJEELING (Secrets of India series).

Censor certificate (18). ...


FROM FEAR TO FAITH (1946)has video enhanced entry

The film describes how a mission-trained Africanboy returns to his home village, having been at the mission school since a ...