This is Britain 

1 Jan 2002 0 tbs.pm/1693 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

Robin Carmody watches a film showing post-war Britain frozen in time

An unusual and memorable promotional film, “This is the BBC” simply follows the corporation’s activities for a day in 1959. Yet, this is simple description belies an extraordinary film.

The Britain of “This is the BBC” now seems so indescribably distant that it is hard to believe that people who are now only of middle age lived there. This past Britain is one of intense formality and overriding politeness, an era of a semi-official national culture dominating pretty much the entire media. It’s the UK at its most institutionally monochromatic and neo-Victorian, where a drone of plummy-voiced BBC producers solemnly debate the “broadcasting of music anonymously” and one brays “for once, I agree entirely with the Head of the German Service”.

It’s a nation where the BBC’s national producers link round the country to see which region can help with televising the start of a Royal Tour, a country of city-centre stock footage where all the producers, apart from one in Wales, respond in the same Received Pronunciation. This Britain is the very definition of One-Nation Conservatism.

It’s a land where impossibly complicated cable systems, teleprinters and switchboards are used to conduct transactions which could now be instantly achieved, but where these means of communication are used with a palpable sense of wonder and a clear nervousness about their unreliability and apparent hair-raising working arrangements.

It’s a time where the day’s news agenda is written on a blackboard in chalk by a well-spoken woman impossibly subservient to her master, where the role of women generally is largely confined to being secretaries, answering phones, being typists, and (for the older ones) cleaning the floors.

It’s also a time where Arthur Garrett, presenting a live schools’ programme, could stumble over his words and where the BBC Television Service’s in-vision announcer has a backdrop of a sheet. It’s a period when the London and south-east local newsreader has a backdrop of wallpaper festooned with flowers and plants, like a suburban living room of the time.

This Britain was already dying in 1959 or, at the very least, the greyness and austerity that runs through the film was rapidly being usurped by a new affluence of a calm, gentle kind very different from what was to follow in the 1960s. It was every bit as conservative as the previous society, but a very different kind of Conservatism in Harold Macmillan’s socially-inclusive, unifying optimism ruled.

This changing society was epitomised and defined by the original ITV big four, especially ATV and ABC. The BBC seemed to be falling behind at the time – certainly a day in the life of ATV would better reflect the innate optimism of 1959 rather than, as this film does, the institutional conservatism of five years before. The BBC was ossifying in the mid-late 1950s, and it needed the arrival in 1960 of the modernising Sir Hugh Carleton Greene more than it has ever needed any other Director-General.

We get a hint of the aesthetic brightness and lightening-up to come with the superb “BBCtv studios” and “BBCtv Theatre” signs at Lime Grove and Shepherd’s Bush. The film was made before the new “BBCtv” branding had entered onscreen presentation or the Radio Times, and references are still made to “the BBC Television Service” or plain “BBC Television”. The signs anticipate a wonderful, if short-lived, early 60s optimism that seeped into BBCtv presentation in October 1960. There’s a sense of elation when the film bursts into colour on its conclusion, with the experimental colour transmission that ran soon after closedown and again before the next day’s start up.

Oddly, most people in this film seem incredibly self-assured – there seems to be no suspicions or fears that their world would begin to disintegrate very soon after, then before too long crumble completely. This is what gives the film its poignancy and historical importance – it captures the old British establishment just before its self-confidence was interrupted, then destroyed.

There is more fascination in this documentary than in any number of supposedly authoritative historical textbooks written by those only with second- or third-hand experience. It has to be seen and should be cherished as a time capsule of British broadcasting and wider social history – for in such unassuming films are the hopes, dreams, visions and aspirations of post-war Britain.

Robin Carmody

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