Sound and vision blog

14 posts from March 2010

12 March 2010

Dual Blu-Ray/DVD editions from BFI

DVD and Blu-ray. Both fine formats. But which is best? There's only one way to find out ... release them in dual format editions. This non-fighting solution has been announced by the BFI, which from April will be issuing selected releases in which both the DVD and Blu-ray versions of a film are available in a single package. The initiative starts off with two marvellous offerings: Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) and Early Summer (1951), to be released on April 26th, priced £19.99. Ozu's Late Spring (1949) will follow in June, and the plan is to issue a total of 25 releases in this dual format form.


It's an ingenious initiative, clearly aimed at those hovering between formats and uncertain whether to make the plunge into Blu-ray. The figures for Blu-ray show that the format is catching on all the more with the general public (after a sluggish start following its victory over HD-DVD in the format wars), but there hasn't been quite the great rush to switch formats in the way that there was from VHS to DVD. But 2010 has been designated the year of HD in many quarters, so many waverers are going to feel bombarded by messages that say fine as their viewing experience was before they are going to have to pay out more to make it finer. The cheapness of the dual format editions will also help them dip their toes in the water.

Those of the promised 25 releases announced so far make an eclectic bunch: the Quay Brothers' Institute Benjamenta (1995); Tony Garnett's Prostitute (1980); Guy Hamilton's The Party's Over (1965), Gerry O'Hara's The Pleasure Girls (1965), and Mike Sarne's Joanna (1968). More information from DVD Times.

09 March 2010

Editing out the Fascists


'Nazi Congress', Pathe Gazette, released 17 September 1936, from

The National Archives recently issued some declassified MI5 files which cast an intriguing light on one corner of British film history. An MI5 dossier says that Sidney Bernstein, owner of the Granada cinema chain, a founder of ITV, and later Lord Bernstein and a fellow of the British Film Institute, was a Soviet informer. As The Times report puts it,

Sidney Bernstein, later Baron Bernstein, helped the Soviet Embassy to vet journalists applying to go to Moscow and provided funds for a Czech-German agitator named Otto Katz, said to have been Marlene Dietrich’s first husband. He was known for persuading Hollywood stars to contribute to the Anti-Nazi League, a Communist front.

What particularly caught my eye though was this line from a 1936 Security Service report on Bernstein:

Sidney Bernstein is now reliably reported to be an active secret Communist ... He always cuts the news films in his cinemas so that Fascist scenes etc which might make a favourable impression are removed. Items about Russia are given prominence.

Now this is fascinating - but was it possible?

British newsreels were notoriously conservative in politics and supine towards authority. Firmly established as a part of the entertainment package that was the cinema programme, they delivered a ten-minute package of news stories that kept audiences informed but favoured royalty, sport, tradition and the upbeat. In the 1930s there were critics on the Left who derided the newsreels' political attitudes, and in particular felt that their treatment of the Spanish civil war at times revealed a Nationalist, or quasi-Fascist, bias.

Whether that is entirely fair or not as regards the newsreels is a moot point. Some might argue that they were more facetious than fascistic, but they undoubtedly aroused passions in those who felt that the Republican cause was being overlooked, and that the newsreel's avowed impartiality was hiding political truth from British audiences.

But did Bernstein edit the newsreels in his cinemas to counter this insidiousness? It is intriguing to think that he could have done so, but hard to believe that he actually did. Granada was a relatively small circuit - Bernstein controlled 30 or so cinemas by 1939 - and the way that newsreel distribution worked was that one print would service several cinemas through a system of what were called 'runs', whereby the older the print (and hence the older the news), the cheaper it was to rent (newsreels were issued twice-weekly). One could estimate that a few as half-a-dozen prints could serve all Granada cinemas, though there were five newsreels series on the market at that time - Pathe Gazette, Gaumont-British News, British Paramount News, British Movietone News and Universal Talking News, which would have added to the complexity. But even if stories might conceivably have been cut, giving extra prominence to other stories was not possible unless a new commentary was added, which simply not technically possible. Moreover I have not come across any evidence which remotely suggests that Bernstein - or any other exhibitor of his prominence - tampered with the newsreels. One feels that the story would have had to have leaked somehow - not least by prints with the missing or altered stories being returned to the newsreel companies who were most particular about how their product was treated.

Though it is appealing to think that Bernstein - who had strong socialist sympathies, though there is no evidence that he was ever a communist - could have got his own back on the newsreels by cutting out stories that he felt were pro-Fascist, the Secret Service report is most likely a product of rumour or fantasy. Bernstein became a film adviser to the Ministry of Information, and went on to enjoy a notable career with Granada television, ending up a revered elder statement for the industry.

If you are interest in British newsreels, the first place to look is the BUFVC's News on Screen database, which is a near-comprehensive record of all British newsreel issues 1910-1979, including thousands of digitised commentary scripts. Newsreels themselves are easy to view. The whole of the British Pathe archive 1896-1970 is freely available online, as is the British Movietone library (1929-1979), though the latter requires registration. Those in the UK university sector should check when their institution is signed up to the JISC's NewsFilm Online, which includes a large proportion of the Gaumont newsreel library from the 1920s-50s, while much of this content anyone can find for free (as low resolution copies) on the ITN Source website, under its New Classics series.

The best study of British newsreels in the 1930s (there aren't many) is Anthony Aldgate's Cinema and History (1979), which is particularly strong on the newsreels and the Spanish Civil War. For a more general account with some key original texts on the production and reception of the newsreels in the 1930s, see Yesterday's News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) - edited by yours truly.

Recording of the Week: edible frogs

Edible Frogs dominate this afternoon atmosphere. Their delightful rubbery croaks are joined by the songs of nearby birds and an occasional plop can be heard as an individual moves under the pool's surface.

Soundscapes 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Soundscapes collection by Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive. The recording was made by Ian Todd in north-eastern Poland in late April 2001.

07 March 2010

YouTube goes Olympic


Ski cross at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, from

YouTube has launched an Olympic Games channel. Badged as being official (with the Olympic rings to prove it), the channel chiefly has clips from Vancouver (2010), Beijing (2008) and Torino (2006). However it clearly has ambitions to extend things further, as there are playlists for Games going back to 1928 - curiously they are all Winter Games apart from Beijing. Most of the playlists have just the one video so far, and the content is rather on the bitty side, with no attempt to indicate provenance. Better will follow, we must hope. It has been produced by the International Olympic Committee, but interestingly the site is not available in the USA where the moving image rights are held by NBC.

Olympic film comes in many forms - official films, television broadcasts, newsreels, background documentaries, web broadcasts - in a history which stretches back to 1906 (the earliest Games to be filmed). The IOC jealously guards its moving image heritage and include many film clips on its own history pages, plus there is the Olympic Television Archive Bureau which officially licenses Olympic footage, but what is available to the researcher online remains slim and not always that illuminating. It will be interesting to see if this latest venture can grows to become a real research resource, the nearer we get to the London Games in 2012. Time will tell.

No embedding of the videos is allowed, more's the pity.

04 March 2010

A glimpse of India

A Glimpse Of India from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

The Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University has released online a collection of almost 300 films showing life in India and other parts of South Asia during the final days of the British Empire.

The remarkable archive comprises around fifty different private collections made by people who lived and worked in India between 1911 and 1956 and which were originally gathered together in the 1960s. The Centre has been able to digitise the collection and publish only for free access - not only to view, but to download and reuse in education (the films are in QuickTime and you will therefore have to have QuickTime Pro software loaded to be able to download them - it costs £20.00). Each video comes with the message "These images may not be used without licence", but what that licence might be is not stated. But elsewhere it says that you are "free to use this material in the classroom".

The films were all shot silent, by amateurs, so they are the home movies of the British in India. When home movies started to become common in the 1920s and 1930s, with the appearance of non-flammable small gauge 16mm (i.e. smaller than the 35mm film used in cinemas), the cameras and filmstock were still expensive, and it tended to be that such films were taken by the wealthier classes - including those who made up the British Raj. So such films tend to privilege the privileged, though the collection overall is very varied in what it shows and includes scenes shot during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, images of labourers working on railways, dams and farms, tribal dances and days at the races, children at school and playing, and pictures of the funeral of Lord Brabourne, a former Governor of Bombay and Bengal, in 1939. Colour came to home movies in the 1930s (here on 8mm film), and many of these films reveal a picture of life in India that the monochrome commercials newsreels and travelogues of the period cannot match.

Dr Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, describes the films thus:

It's one thing to get an understanding of a place by reading about it or visiting 60 years later; to be able to see people at the time and watch events such as partition actually taking place before your own eyes is quite another. The films are the equivalent of modern-day home videos. This makes the collection particularly valuable because it shows some of the things which aren't recorded in documents or books - like the interactions between people, or the way that the British behaved towards their servants. It's a fascinating resource for analysing how these two societies, British and Indian, worked - or perhaps didn't work - together.

What you see is India through British eyes - it appears that no films made by Indians exist in the collection, as the names of the families who donated the films indicate: Christie, Hunter, Mackrell, Stokes, Williams, and so on. No information is given on the filmmakers and their personal backgrounds, which is a shame, because such information contextualises what we see and increases the films' value for the social historian. When viewing personal films, it is important know the person just as much as what the person filmed, because there is no such thing as the objective film record. The scholar needs always to ask why one is able to see what one is seeing, to understand the process of mediation. (More background information is promised for later this year)

The films each come with a brief synopsis, plus technical information and indication of location. To view individual films you click on the thumbnails provided. They are utterly engrossing, and the collection will undoubtedly open up South East Asian studies into areas that textual sources just don't cover.

The Centre of South Asian Studies is now seeking funding to link the film collection with its oral history archive, which contains more than 300 recorded interviews and was released online last year.

02 March 2010

Opening up the BBC


The BBC Archive site, which is making available increasing amounts of radio and TV programmes, documents and photographs in themed collections

The news today has been full of the BBC's strategy review, with the planned cuts to BBC 6 Music, Asian Network, a 25% cut on spending on BBC Online, and the promised increased concentration on quality programming grabbing the headlines.

But for the researcher, the most interesting section of the review document (which now goes out to public consultation) may be section 5, 'Guaranteeing access'. Here the BBC outlines its intention to move ever more into Internet-connected television through Project Canvas and the like, and to boost catch-up services, but also to open up its current and future programme library.

Access to BBC archive content has always been greatly sought by researchers, and to a degree systems exist to provide access for the dedicated. The British Film Institute serves as an onsite access service for BBC television programmes, and the British Library likewise for BBC radio. Many UK universities maintain BBC television programmes recorded off-air which they can make available to their students, and the British Universities Film & Video Council provides a back-up television recording service for the UK university sector. The content is there - at at least some of it - if you are in with the right people, know where to look, and are patient.

But in this day and age we demand more, and the digital revolution is making increased access an imperative. This has been coupled with a welcome rise in the profile of archives generally within the BBC, so that archive is not somewhere where programmes end up at the end of their useful life never to be seen again, but is becoming integral to the whole production process. This change in profile has led to much thinking about how to increase access to match future demand, while having to face such huge issues as third party copyright, film and video preservation on a vast scale, and the costs of digitisation. That thinking has fed into the BBC's strategy review.

The strategy review does not go into specifics, but it promises much. Its mission is to 'liberate' its programme library, which will be a long-term but inexorable and beneficial process, as the document says:

At the heart of the BBC’s access strategy is an ambition to liberate its programme library — not just covering the archive of the last 88 years, but the daily accretion of hundreds of hours of new BBC programming and all the supporting materials that go with them. This will be a gradual, long-term project, and will need to be delivered through a mix of public service and commercial activities, with strong partnerships in both areas. The benefits to the UK as a whole will be significant, with the potential both to create a substantial and growing educational and cultural resource for citizens, and to stimulate new forms of creativity and commercial activity.

There are a number of key phrases that are important to note. It stresses that it does not own or even control all of the content in its archive, so going forward it will need to "partner with rights-holders and commercial providers if it is to keep as much as possible of its output available to audiences". So the archive of the future is to be built on foundations where on-going access is expected.


Mark Thompson and Lynne Brindley signing the BBC/BL memorandum of understanding

Also, the BBC does not see the process of increasing access to archive content as something that it is doing alone. It stresses that it wants to position

the BBC and its archive as part of a large and growing set of public archives made available by UK institutions, acting as an enabling force to link and support them in an increasingly common network.

Improved access to archives through shared services and common networks is something that public institutions in the moving image field are looking at very seriously. Among the BBC's partner archives are the British Library and the British Film Institute. The review states:

The BBC already has agreements in place with several key public archive partners. For example, it is working with the British Library on a wide-ranging project spanning the management, storage and distribution of archive content. It is partnering with the British Film Institute (BFI) to support key projects including Screen Heritage UK, and with Arts Council England to explore the potential of increased digital access to arts content.

There will be more to report on the British Library's Memorandum of Understanding with the BBC in due course. Also of interest to us, and the researchers we serve, is the stress the BBC places upon making its news archives accessible:

First is the content which comprises the definitive and impartial journal of record of the UK as a whole and its engagement with the world: over eighty years of BBC journalism in the form of daily news bulletins, broadcasts and scripts, together with the live broadcasts of key events. This unique and irreplaceable collection of content would be made available to audiences as a national resource, searchable and available for syndicated use by the BBC’s public service partners as well as by schools or other educational institutions.

The floodgates are not going to open overnight. These processes will take time, as the BBC warns, and the hurdles that must be overcome are huge. But the principle has been laid down, and from that everything else must inevitably flow.