100 years of newsreels in Britain

Frame still from Pathé Gazette’s The Movie Cameramen’s Derby, released 7 September 1922, which shows a race between British newsreel cameramen (with their cameras) – available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=19541

One hundred years ago, give or take a few days, a new kind of film appeared for the first time on British cinema screens. The Bioscope of those days took note of this interesting new development with this report:

There is no mistaking the smartness of Messrs Pathé, and their latest achievement — the production of a weekly cinematograph paper, The Animated Gazette — has just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]. The daily Press has been devoting considerable space to it, with the result that curiosity has been aroused, and people are now busily discussing the latest thing in moving pictures.

Briefly the idea is to incorporate the usual journalistic methods of writing into filming, and to portray, in lengths of about 80 odd feet, the chief items of interest that have happened during the week. Thus the illustrated newspaper is being superseded by The Animated Gazette, which depicts the actual scenes of contemporary history in living and moving reality.

Mr Valentia Steer, a well-known journalist, is editor of this moving picture periodical, and he has a staff of photo-correspondents, who are stationed in all the big cities of Europe, besides another staff at home. Last week’s news consisted of pictures of the cross-channel flight, Oxford University Eights’ trial, Peary at Edinburgh, Roosevelt at Cambridge, besides many interesting ‘glimpses’ from home and abroad.

This week’s contents bill announces motor-racing at Brooklands, the manouevres at Salisbury Plain, the departure of the Terra Nova, Chinese mission in Paris, quarrymen’s strike, Caruso in the street, Modes in Paris, and other ‘newsy’ films.

That the idea will catch on is undoubted, and it is perhaps not looking too far into the future to anticipate the time when the weekly Animated Gazette will become an indispensable ‘daily’.

The Bioscope, 9 June 1910

This piece announced the arrival of the British newsreel, in the form of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, edition no. 1 of which appeared at some point in the first week of June 1910. It wasn’t the first newsreel in the world – that honour generally goes to Pathé Fait-Divers (later Pathé Journal), launched in France in 1908. There has been film of news events ever since films had been invented, but they weren’t newsreels. Newsreels meant regularity of service, and that was dependent on a network of cinemas and an audience which could be guaranteed to come back to the cinema week after week. Before cinemas started to appear – the first ten years or so of film history – a film might be made of a news event, but it seldom could be presented as news, that is while the event was still current and with the report being understood as being part of a regular, always updated filmed news service. Cinemas supplied the loyal audience, and it is the audience that makes the news, because what is news to one person isn’t necessarily news to another – it all depends where you are, and where that news is coming from.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title card from 1915 (with British Pathé spoiler). Note the boast that it was reaching 20 million people (5 million is more likely for the UK) and the line about having been passed by the British Board of Film Censors – only in wartime were British newsreels subject to censorship

Pathé’s Animated Gazette was immediately recognised as an exciting innovation. It was a product of cinema, yet it had a clear relationship with newspapers. It gave a new social purpose to cinema-going. This new film form was called by a variety of names – animated newspapers, topicals etc.- but not as yet newsreels (that term didn’t begin to catch on until 1917 or so), and Pathé’s model was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (1910), Gaumont Graphic (1910), Topical Budget (1911), Eclair Journal and Williamson’s Animated News, all before the First World War. In the US there was Pathé’s Weekly (1911), Gaumont Animated Weekly (1912), Mutual Weekly (1912) and Universal’s Animated Weekly (1912); France added Gaumont Actualités and Eclair-Journal; Germany had Tag im Film (1911), Eiko-Woche (1913), Union-Woche (1913) and Messter-Woche (1914). Russia had Zerkalo voiny (Mirror of the World) (1914); Australia had Australasian Gazette.(Note by the way how the newsreels all emulated newspapers by taking on names like Gazette and Journal)

The form spread around the world, often as off-shoots of the French parent companies of Pathé and Gaumont. Filmed news became a product of the early film multinationals, and through means of international exchange, world news was screened in cinemas across the globe, though the time taken to transport film internationally lessened its value as news, and audiences expressed a strong preference for local news, on subjects that were news to them. ‘Foreign’ news often wasn’t news at all, in its timing or in how the audience viewed it.

The newsreels were released at regular intervals to match the pattern of cinema-going that people in their millions were starting to adopt. In Britain newsreels were very early on issued twice-weekly and stayed that way for five decades. In the US the distances were greater and so news tended to be issued weekly. Newsreels had become firmly established as part of practically cinema programme by the start of the First World War, and newsreels were to play a key part in informing audiences about how the war was progressing. Such was their importance that the British, French and American governments each took over or created a newsreel to act as a means to deliver officially sanctioned footage (i.e. propaganda) – respectively War Office Offical Topical Budget, Annales de la Guerre and Official War Review.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visit Britain, from Pathé Gazette issue 679, released 24 June 1920. Available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=27815

In the 1920s newsreels built on these strong foundations and became an essential and popular element of the cinema programme. The average newsreel in the silent era ran for some 7-8 minutes and contained anywhere between four and eight stories, eached introdued by a title card with the story title and a short comment, and sometimes with further titles cut into the story as the newsreels increasingly sought to add commentary even before sound gave them their voice. The newsreels rapidly gained a repuation for light-hearted items, stunts and gimmicks, with a fascination for sport, royalty, pageantry, tradition and sensation. Oscar Levant notoriously summed up newsreels as being “a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show”.

That’s unfair. Anyone who has looked at newsreels in any sort of depth will soon find that there was a lot more too them than fashion shows. The newsreels were acutely aware of what were the current topics of conversation (they were released after the daily newspapers, so the news agenda had been already set for them) and picked up on the personalities and issues of the day that audiences wanted to see covered with an astute eye. This propensity for the topical makes them an excellent barometer of contemporary social concerns, albeit usually sugared with that lightness of tone that the newsreels deemend necessary because they were, after all, in the entertainment business, and their audience had come to the cinema to be entertained.

The newsreels entertained, and that ultimately became the noose around their necks that condemned them. That however was in the future – our concern is with the silent era, and in the 1910s and 1920s the newsreels reigned supreme, and we cannot understand what silent cinema means if we do not take them into consideration. Indeed no other area of silent cinema is so well represented online as newsreels (such is their continuing commercial value).

Fortunately there is amply opportunity to consider them. The newsreels may have faded away in the 1950s and 60s, but their libraries live on, selling footage to television programmes. In the UK there are five major newsreel libraries and a great deal of what they hold has been made available online, either available to all or free at point of use for educational users. They are:

  • British Pathé
    Pathé operated a newsreel in Britain between 1910-1970. Its entire archive (3,500 hours) is freely available online, albeit with low resolution copies
  • ITN Source
    ITN holds the British Gaumont (1910-1959), Paramount (1929-1957) and Universal (1930-1956) newsreel libraries. A substantial amount of this is available on its site, included among other footage managed by ITN – go to the advanced search option and select ‘New Classics’ to narrow searches down to newsreels. The entire Gaumont collection is available in download form for UK higher and further education users only via Newsfilm Online
  • British Movietone
    The entire British Movietone News collection 1929-1979 is available for free, alongside non-Movietone silent material going back to the 1890s
  • BFI National Archive
    The BFI owns the Topical Budget (1911-1931) newsreel, examples of which are available on its Screenonline site (accessible to UK educational and library users only) and on its YouTube channel
  • Imperial War Museum
    The IWM holds service newsreels from the First and Second World Wars, a number of which are available through Film and Sound Online (UK higher and further educational users only)

These services has been covered by the Bioscope before now (see links below). As it is Pathé’s centenary, let’s finish with a few words about them. First of all, happy centenary! the Bioscope sends its congratulations on having achieved such a major milestone and still a significant commercial moving image presence. Pathé has changed hands several times down the years. Until a couple of years ago it was owned by the Daily Mail newspaper; now it is managed by venture capitalists.

http://www.britishpathe.com

For anyone who cares about newsreels, the British Pathé site is a mixed blessing. It is a wonderful window onto the past, the digitisation of the films having been originally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but kept on as a free service long beyond the original agreement with the HLF. But on the other side it has of late become a little soulless, disfigured by front page advertising, and dominated by an idea of news as gimmick and sensation, a lucky dip into the quaint ways in which our ancestors behaved rather than showing what the newsreel fundamentally was – a vehicle for the news.

One cannot get a sense of the Pathé newreels as newsreels i.e. as a set of stories released on a single reel, and for that it is necessary to cross-refer to the BUFVC’s News on Screen site (formerly the British Universities Newsreel Database) where you will find an almost complete record of issues for all British newsreels 1910-1979, together with background histories, biographies of those who worked in the newsreels, digitised documents, and links across to the British Pathé site. It is place to go if you appreciate newsreels for what they mean to the study of society and history. Newsreels matter – and the more we understand them the more we will get from viewing them.

Finding out more
These Bioscope posts have covered British newsreel collections and the use of online resources: British Pathe part one, British Pathe part two, Revisiting Pathe, Movietone and Henderson and Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Pathé editor P.D. Hugon wrote an informative booklet Hints to Newsfilm Cameraman (1915) with much information on how newsreels operated at that time. The online text has an important introduction by Nicholas Hiley.

British Pathé has a lively Twitter feed, drawing attention to exciting novelties they discover in their collection.

I’ve written lots about newsreels in the past. My history of the Topical Budget newsreel (1992) is long out of print (but you can get it dirt cheap second-hand), but there’s Yesterday News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) which tells the history of British newsreels through texts contemporary and modern, and most recently I’ve an essay on newsreels in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson’s Using Visual Evidence (2009).

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