Hollie Price introduces her 2017 Being Human event – a recreation of a wartime film show originally created by the Ministry of Information (MoI) which was responsible for government publicity and propaganda during the Second World War. It will be held at Senate House, former home of the MoI and the very building in which the scheme was launched.
In 1940, the Ministry of Information launched a mobile film show scheme nicknamed the ‘celluloid circus’ by its organisers in the Ministry’s Films Division, which was responsible for commissioning and making wartime propaganda movies (as dramatised in Their Finest, the war comedy-drama released earlier this year).
These mobile shows were used to bring films to people beyond the cinema – to audiences in village halls, clubs, schools and factories. And the aim of the scheme was to deliver information on the war effort, provide advice on home front issues and provoke discussion of ‘the country’s wartime problems’. (Thomas Baird, ‘Celluloid Circus’ in Documentary Newsletter, September 1941 p.170).
The mobile film units consisted of a projector, a collapsible screen and copies of the films transported in a van that made stops in villages and towns across the country. In 1941, Thomas, the Films Division director, described the scheme as: ‘Out from the Ministry of Information a year ago went a fleet of mobile film units. Since then they have travelled thousands of miles, setting up their equipment each night to show their films in the village halls of Britain. It is a business of “one-night stands” and then on to the next village the next day.’
Based on my archival research for the Ministry of Information project, which is based in the Institute of English Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, the event I’m planning for the Being Human festival will recreate a wartime film show in the former home of the Ministry (and the very building in which the scheme was first launched with a press show in October 1940).
Entitled ‘The lost film shows: screening films on the home front’, it features a selection of information films and documentaries that would have been shown using the mobile film units, and discussions about the variety of contexts in which the films were seen, the groups involved in organising shows and the scheme’s promotion of voluntary activism. Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online – www.beinghumanfestival.org/events)
The event will particularly highlight the thousands of film-shows organised for voluntary groups and societies such as the Home Guard, Working Men’s Clubs and Women’s Institutes (WI). A considerable number of shows were given for WI groups who were already engaged in a wide range of activities for the war effort. As WIs ‘were called upon to keep the infrastructure of the countryside intact’, these included jam-making, salvage collecting, and the distribution of cod liver oil for children (Jane Robinson, A Force to be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute (London: Virago Press, 2012). P.160).
From 1940 to the end of the war, WI groups hosted film shows for members, which often took place as part of normal meetings, and also invited their wider communities to screenings. For instance, in 1941, under the auspices of the Meadvale Women’s Institute in Surrey, a show of MoI films was given to an audience of 90, a third of whom were children.
They ranged from Britain Can Take It – a documentary on London during the Blitz, an instructional film on oatmeal porridge – ‘giving particulars of new ways of cooking this universal breakfast food’, and a film on the training of RAF air crews which, according to a local newspaper report, ‘found full favour, especially with the children’ (‘Britain at War: Ministry of Information Films at Meadvale’, Surrey Mirror, January 1941).
‘The lost film shows: screening films on the home front‘ aims to uncover the Ministry’s film shows, by exploring the environments in which films were shown across the country during the war and by drawing attention to the ways that they relied on voluntary, associational culture. In doing so, it will also celebrate the present activities of voluntary groups and societies.
WI members have been invited to attend and the event is supported by the North London-based Gothic Valley WI. The Gothic Valley group’s July 2017 meeting included a screening of The Countrywomen (an MoI film from 1942 about the WI’s wartime work), which was followed by talks about the organisation’s history of campaigning and their own recent projects. This event continues their celebration of the past and the present, as part of the Lost and Found theme of this year’s festival.
Dr Hollie Price is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Advanced Study. She is working as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded MoI project, which is reappraising the communications work of the Ministry of Information in wartime Britain. Her research focuses on the MoI’s Films Division and its work in film distribution, cultivating audiences for official films in the cinema and beyond.
- The lost film shows: screening films on the home front
- The films will be followed by tea and cake, and 1940s dress is encouraged. Please book your tickets here
- Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online
- MoI Digital project