Britain at Bay

Dir: various various


86 mins


Britain at Bay is a programme of films from the BFI National Archive, some rarely screened, others rightly celebrated. They vividly capture the transition from optimism to high alert as the nation faced up to another momentous conflict.

For many, British life in the inter-war years was characterised by a forward-looking idealism, an age in which tradition was celebrated and new ideas embraced.

Despite the trauma of the Great Depression, the 1930s became the era of Mass Observation, an attempt to capture the minutiae of everyday British life, and the ‘Machine Age’, which saw developments in industry, consumer products and public amenities enabling the population at large to enjoy improvements to every aspect of work and leisure. Yet just as progress beckoned, the government had to prepare its citizens for the worst as war with Germany shifted from distant threat to grim reality.

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Around the Village Green

Evelyn Spice & Marion Grierson | 1937 | 12 mins

As well as picturesque scenes of village life in Essex, this film offers insight into the changing economic and social history of village life in the late 1930s such as bus services – essential for the young to get to work in the towns. Expectations are also rising amongst this new generation. Running water rather than a communal well are now the order of the day. Hooray for one villager refusing to move with the times who declares “I haven’t got a bath but I’ve got a river down the bottom of the garden so I can have a good bath when I want one.”

English Harvest

Humphrey Jennings | 1938 | 9 mins

Focusing on an August harvest the old makes way for the new as the trusty old scythe bows down to the horse drawn binder and plough. Hard work, flat caps and pipes abound as we see the workers downing midday ale for sustenance and taking a break at 5 to sit in the fields for a cup of tea brought to them by their wives. The ‘playground of the town’ and ‘workshop of the country’, alias the great British countryside, has never looked better.

Sam Goes Shopping

Harold Purcell | 1939 | 6 mins

Sam has a remarkable moustache and a talent for forgetting things. Recounted in this tuneful ditty is the time he arrives at the local Co-op store just before closing time remembering only that what he came in for begins with a ‘D’. Helpful shop assistants bend over backwards and offer Sam everything from doormats to dominoes. They even miss their dates – a very young looking Terry Thomas pops up as the forgotten boyfriend patiently waiting in the car. This early advertisement is a jolly reminder that if it’s impeccable service you’re after, head for the Co-op because whatever you want, they’ve got the lot.

Spare Time

Humphrey Jennings | 1939 | 15 mins

Encapsulating the poetry of the everyday with the sheer diversity of hobbies from pigeon racing to amateur dramatics, this mini masterpiece, directed by the great documentarist Humphrey Jennings, takes a look at what coal, steel and cotton workers do in their spare time.

War Library Items 1, 2 and 3

1939 | 10 mins

Produced by the GPO, these films demonstrate the consummate efficiency of the essential services.

War Library Items # 1 Who Are You?

Commentator Herbert Hodge gently reminds us that “they’ve got us all safe now, provided we don’t lose our identity cards”, whilst enumerators across the country record the names of 13 million householders during the national registration of 1939.

War Library Items # 2 Standing By

Darts and knitting don’t just pass the time, they are essential because if enemy aircraft reach our shores, these doctors and nurses need to be physically and mentally fit.

War Library Items #3 Where’s the Fire?

“The second fire of London is now blazing, in theory that is.” Being a volunteer fire fighter wasn’t the easy way out as this footage of an Auxiliary Fire Service drill on the Thames shows.

If War Should Come

1939 | 9 mins

War was a reality by the time this public information film was shown in 2000 cinemas across the country in the week of 18 September 1939. The listing of civil defence precautions for householders – do build a steel shelter, don’t panic buy – was meant to reassure and ready Britons for war. However a local policeman in a gas mask waving a hand rattle accompanied by the alien sounds of an air raid siren may have had quite the opposite effect.

The First Days

Pat Jackson, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt | 1939 | 22 mins

Chamberlain’s declaration of war echoes around the streets of London as this GPO film documents the first days of the capital preparing for invasion. Barrage balloons rise above the Thames, old masters removed from The National Gallery and three quarter of a million children evacuated to the country. From filling sandbags to reinforcing the walls of Scotland Yard, every Londoner is seen to be performing his or her civic duty. Produced shortly before the GPO was subsumed into the Ministry of Information (to become the Crown Film Unit), The First Days is one of the earliest wartime documentaries.

Britain at Bay

Harry Watt | 1940 | 7 mins

Britain at Bay juxtaposes instantly resounding landscape images: green and pleasant, dark and smoky. Big Ben is defiant even when filmed behind barbed wire, and Dover’s white cliffs are not yet clichéd. Shots of sea and sky complement narrator J.B. Priestley’s invocation of a national history so old it brushes eternity.

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