British Pathe – part two

British Pathe logo

Some while ago I posted an item on the British Pathe website, concentrating on the silent fiction films that unexpectedly can be found there. Now here comes the follow-up post, on the newsreels and other non-fiction films to be found there.

In 2002 British Pathe, owners of the Pathé newsreel library, put up the whole of its collection, thanks to a grant from the New Opportunities Fund‘s NOF-Digitise programme. It was a controversial decision, because a commercial company was being given public money to do what some felt the company might have done for itself, but others welcomed a new kind of public-private initiative. The result for the public was 3,500 hours of newsreel footage from 1896 to 1970, available for free as low resolution downloads. Later 12,000,000 still images were added, key frames generated as part of the digitisation process. It was, and remains, one of the most remarkable resources on the net, and a major source for those interested in silent film.

Charles Pathé established the Société Pathé Frères, for the manufacture of phonographs and cinematographs, in 1896. A British agency was formed in 1902, and its first newsreel (which was the first in Britain), Pathé’s Animated Gazette, was launched in June 1910. This soon became Pathé Gazette, a name it retained until 1946, when it was renamed Pathé News, which continued until 1970. These newsreels were issued twice a week, every week, in British cinemas, and were a standard feature of the cinema programme in silent and sound eras.

Pathé also issued other films. It created the cinemagazine Pathé Pictorial in 1918, which ran until 1969. Eve’s Film Review, a cinemagazine for women, was established in 1921 and ran to 1933, while Pathétone Weekly ran 1930-1941. There were other film series and one-off documentaries.

All of this and more is on the site. Pathé were distributors of others’ films, some of which turn up unexpectedly on the site. For example, there are some of the delightful Secrets of Nature natural history films made by Percy Smith in the 1920s. There are also actuality films from before 1910 which Pathé seems to have picked up along the way, though not all of them are Pathé productions by any means – for example, assorted films from the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

Page from British Pathe site

For the silent period, researchers should note that the collection is not complete. For the First World War and before (what British Pathe calls Old Negatives) the surviving archive is patchy, and the cataloguing records less certain with dates. For the 1920s, the record is substantially complete – indeed, there is unissued and unused material as well as the standard newsreels. These of course show events great and small throughout the decade, with an emphasis on sport, celebrity, spectacle and human interest. Look out in particular for the women’s magazine Eve’s Film Review, a delightful series with an emphasis on “fashion, fun and fancy”. For silent film fans, there are newsreels of Chaplin, Valentino, Pickford, Fairbanks etc. There are all sorts of surprise film history discoveries to be made, such as a Pathé Pictorial on feature film production in Japan in the 1920s.

You can find the British Pathe collection (the company doesn’t use the accent on the e) at other places online. British Pathe is now managed by ITN Source, one of the world’s major footage libraries, and all of its films can be downloaded from that site in the same manner. You can also find many of them on the British Universities Newsreel Database, which is a database of all British newsreels and has substantial information about each of the Pathé newsreels, the people who worked for them, and histories of newsreels and cinemagazines in Britain in the silent and sound eras.

There are also versions of the Pathe delivery for schools – Beyond Pathe, Teaching & Learning with the British Pathe Archive, and Shapes of Time.

It’s a hugely important resource, and it’s all still free, though it’s now beyond the date British Pathe agreed with the New Opportunities Fund to keep the collection freely available to all. Long may it continue to be so.

Chaplin’s camera

Got £90,000 spare? Charlie Chaplin’s Bell & Howell camera is being auctioned by Christies in London on 25 July, and is expected to fetch a price between £70,000 and £90,000. The silent Bell & Howell 2709 model camera was bought by Chaplin in 1918. It was used by Chaplin throughout the 1920s (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus etc) and into the 1903s for City Lights and Modern Times. It continued in use up to the 1950s for animation work and shooting titles. It’s part of a motion picture equipment sale, and will be on view at Christies’ showrooms from 21 July.