Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Southampton: Arrival of Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks, Gaumont Graphic, 21 June 1920, from http://www.nfo.ac.uk

Quietly launched this week (with an official launch due in October) is Newsfilm Online. This is 3,000 hours of UK cinema newsreel and television news content, dating 1910s-2000s, all of it taken from the collection of ITN Source. ITN is the UK’s largest commercial footage library, (if you don’t count the BBC as such), and doesn’t just own ITN news programmes, such as News at Ten and Channel 4 News, but most of the UK’s newsreel archives (Pathe, Paramount, Gaumont, Universal). The 3,000 hours (about 2% of the ITN news collection) have been digitised and made available for free downloading and re-use, so long as you are a member of a subscribing UK institution of higher or further education. Sadly that’s going to leave out a lot of you, but the project was funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee, which exists to support UK HE/FE (as we call it in the trade), and the conditions under which the newsfilms were digitised stipulated that they would be available to HE/FE users only.

But despair not, because although you may not be able to see the films, the catalogue records are searchable and browsable by all. And for the silent era, there are 1,241 news stories from the 1910s and 5,091 from the 1920s, making this a marvellously rich resource for historical study, even without the films themselves – not least because you get thumbnail images, like those of Doug and Mary illustrated above. It’s supposed to be every example of the Gaumont Graphic newsreel held by ITN, and shopws how alert the newsreels were to the stories, concerns, fads and personalities of their era. The thumbnails alone excitingly bring the 1910s and 20s back to vivid, varied life.

Remarkably, the publication of Newsfilm Online means that the majority of British newsreels (I’d guess between 80-85%), 1910-1979, are now digitised, encoded and available on the Web in one form or another, albeit with restricted access in some cases (the Paramount and Universal newsreels are the big gaps). That’s a sensational thing to be able to report, achieved in little over five years by a mixture of public money (around £3.5M, at a rough guess, though the £2M that Newsfilm Online cost was for TV news as well as its Gaumont newsreels) and private (no idea how much). The four main sources (with the silent newsreels that they include) are:

  • British Pathe – including Pathe Gazette, Eve’s Film Review, freely available (low resolution)
  • British Movietone News – Movietone itself was a sound newsreel, but the site include a rag-bag collection of silent actualities, freely available (low and middling resolution)
  • Newsfilm Online – includes Gaumont Graphic, movies available to subscribing UK educational institutions only
  • Screenonline – the BFI online ‘encyclopedia’ has many examples of the Topical Budget newsreel, movies available to UK schools, colleges and libraries only

What a fantastic achievement. Having played a small part in making NfO (as we call it in the trade) happen, I’m just a little bit chuffed to see it published at last. For a record of most British newsreel stories in one place, I warmly recommend the British Universities Newsreel Database (still has some gaps to fill for silent newsreels), which also lists other digitised newsreel collections around the world (Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden – America, alas, lags seriously behind).

Let’s have every newsreel around the world available online – it can be done; it would delight and benefit so many if it could be done.