The way we were

Some things change – others stay the same. Antonia Charlesworth speaks to the people behind a new film archive allowing people to explore their heritage online

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When a Salford woman spotted herself in footage she didn’t know existed earlier this month she was able to share with her daughter a part of her heritage that she thought was lost forever.

In the 1967 video Angela Southerland lies in her coach-built pram while her mother sits sewing on the front steps of her terraced house.

“It took me back to being a child again to see that warmth, that laugh and that smile,” she told the BBC. But despite the nostalgia the scene was far from rosy at the time. The film, by Mike Goodger, documents the grim exterior of slum housing in the city. Rows of condemned terraces with sagging roofs, decaying brickwork and rotting window frames suggest they are unfit for habitation but inside the houses are well cared for.

Goodger, then a student at Salford University, documented the huge programme of slum clearance in the 1960s in Salford. Streets of condemned terraces were replaced with new homes and tower blocks. Parts of the footage, never before seen, are now available to watch for free on Britain on Film, a new project that reveals hidden histories of people and places from the UK’s key film and TV archives.

“We’ve had to delve into the vaults and start to pull out the titles that really give a sense of place, people and identity”

Southerland’s is an example of how the British Film Institute, which is behind the project as part of a wider Unlocking Film Heritage programme, hopes the videos will be used by the public. The films can be searched for by location or subject through the BFI Player’s interactive map.

By working with regional film archives the BFI has made a huge variety of films from across the north available, some dating back over 100 years.

One of the oldest is a one-minute clip of Bradford Town Hall Square. Shot in 1896 it is believed to be the earliest surviving footage of the city. The unknown filmmaker captures the movement of people and traffic across the bustling square. You can see a marching band, a young girl selling flowers, horses and carts, a tram and a clear distinction between young working lads in flat caps and gentlemen in bowler hats with canes.

“We’ve had to delve into the vaults at York St John University and start to pull out the titles that really give a sense of place, people and identity,” explains Graham Relton, archive manager at Yorkshire Film Archive. “We know what resonates with people – they want to see where they lived, grew up, worked and played.”

Relton and his team have spent three years selecting footage for the archive. One of his highlights is a road safety film made for Humberside Police entitled Davy Crockett.

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“One of the police officers dressed up as Davy Crocket, jumped on a horse with a gun, and went round the streets of Hull teaching road safety. When we did a screening of the film in Hull a chap called Tony Devonshire recognised himself in it – he was the little boy pretending to be knocked over.

“He told a wonderful story of how all his friends went and told his mum that he had blood all over him. It was pig’s blood for the film but she was worried sick and he had to go home and explain what had happened. Since it was made in 1955 he’d not seen it.”

Quirky public information films like this can be seen across the map but Relton says the real gems are made by amateur filmmakers.

“These were enthusiastic passionate hobbyists. They love the medium of film but what’s apparent in their films is that they love the subject matter, which is usually their homes, communities and their friends and family.

“It paints a moving portrait of Yorkshire and together with rest of the archive, of the north and of the UK, really does show what life was like”

“It presents Manchester as a tolerant place offering a happy, prosperous life to its existing Muslim community.”

Robin Baker, head curator for the BFI, agrees the regional archives offer what its central archive does not. “There’s a far greater richness of home movies in the regional archives, as opposed to professional footage in the BFI archives, and that was a key point of this project – to gather together that wealth of material and prioritise funding for everyone to be able to digitise their collections.

“On a very personal level I go to those films from where I was born and bred. There’s one called Historic Chester from 1921 and it’s striking how much it really hasn’t changed.”

But while Chester’s history is still largely visible Baker says a big focus of Britain on Film was to uncover hidden histories. He points to Moslems in Britain – Manchester 1961 as a fascinating example of how things do change. The film was one of four films commissioned by the government to encourage people from Arabic-speaking countries to come and work in Britain’s industries. It presents Manchester as a tolerant place offering a happy, prosperous life to its existing Muslim community.

“The film is intriguing because it was never intended for a British audience. It shows almost a complete opposite picture to today – it’s saying ‘come to Britain, we’re lovely people’. And of course it was a time we needed labour in the UK.”

Possibly Baker’s favourite of the films is from Blackpool – Holiday 1957. The cinematographer of the film, made for British Transport Films, went on to win an Oscar for Out of Africa.

“By sheer coincidence I interviewed David Watkin about 10 years ago and asked him about this film because for the 1950s some of the shots are quite daring,” Baker explains. “He said ‘we tried to get away with whatever we could’, which is just so appropriate for Blackpool. It’s got that naughty kiss-me-quick feel to it.”

Ones to watch


Nursery School Activities (Burnley) 1965/66, Milk in glass bottles and playing in the rain
Activities of the Bury WVS, 1956, Members carry out their valuable work
Whitehaven Street Scenes 1902, Only identified by The Anchor Vaults pub
Bradford FC, Boxing, and Walking Race, 1946, The re-start of the football league post-war
Liverpool 8, 1972, Racial tension predating the Toxteth riots
Manchester Street Scenes 1901, Bustling Market Street before tram route

From August to October Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal in North Yorkshire and Lyme Park in Cheshire will host Britain on Film screenings. In Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester highlights will be shown on outdoor screens. The North West Film Archive and the Yorkshire Film Archive are open to the public, host screenings and welcome submissions
From Britain on Film Available at BFI Player

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