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7 October 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:07pm

Discovering the hidden gems of the Britain on Film archive

From some of the earliest surviving home videos to revealing social commentary from the Sixties and Seventies, there are exciting finds waiting for you.

By Ryan Gilbey

Last night, I lost a few hours to the Britain on Film archives available on the BFI Player. “Lost” is wrong; it felt more like a gain. At the start of July, the BFI began to make available online the first fruits of its ambitious archival project digitising thousands of films shot in the UK. The initial 2,500 selections range from the Victorian era to the early 1980s; others added over the next three years will raise the total to around 10,000. Several firsts have already been highlighted, including the first example of police surveillance footage to be used in court (film of illegal betting in Chesterfield in 1935) and what may well be the earliest surviving home movie, from 1902.

My dip into the archives began with a startling short film, Top Dog Rules Ok, directed in 1978 by James Marcus (who is better known as an actor – he played Georgie, one of the droogs in A Clockwork Orange). Following a black teenager, Top Dog (Winston Weston), as he struts around his home turf in Deptford, south London, the film is a dynamic blend of social realism and stylised drama; a forceful voiceover, which serves as the glue holding together shots of Top Dog adrift in a landscape that now seems unrecognisably grim, finds him reflecting on his own future, which holds the promise of dole or prison. The film is fascinating as a period piece, but that isn’t to say it feels dated. On the contrary, the tension between the energy of the black-and-white cinematography and vocal delivery, and the resignation in the future that Top Dog envisages for himself, gives it an urgency that hasn’t waned.

I was also fascinated by a one-minute film from 1929 showing porters in Covent Garden market balancing baskets on their heads – stacks of them, piled higher and wonkier than a Pisa tower, until you are compelled to shout at the screen: How did they get them so high? Within those sixty seconds we get rich social history (the pipes, the caps, the eerily empty cobblestoned thoroughfare) and daring experimental angles, with the camera mounted at one point on the highest basket, so that we are looking down at the porter, far below, who is bearing it aloft. The shot then switches to the ground: now we’re gazing up at one of these magnificent men with elongated headwear. It puts sharply into perspective the living statues who now pass for street performers in the cities of the world.

Any time spent rummaging (“clicking” doesn’t sound quite right) through the archive is a lucky dip. But even in those first few, London-centric hours I turned up quite a haul: an hour-long documentary on 1970s arts initiatives in Hackney, an early-1960s tour of the South Bank, and Michael Whyte’s brilliantly clear-eyed 1974 documentary Scream Quietly Or the Neighbours Will Hear, which profiles the inhabitants and organisers of a women’s refuge. At the time of filming, 66 people – women and their children seeking sanctuary from violent partners – are crammed into the modest property in Chiswick. The interviewees are regarded with compassion but not pity; their plain, unsentimental testimony, as they recount stories of everyday torture matter-of-factly while their children clamber nearby, is its own act of strength and defiance. I had forgotten even what led me to click on this work, but that is the nature of wandering this digital library, and I was glad and nourished to have found myself there. It won’t be the last time.

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