Film archivists know the real treasures in their collections, and while they continue to cater those who wish to see the better known and more obvious classics, it is often the less familiar titles that nevertheless demonstrate the special power of the medium that find favour within the archives. So it was that during my time at the BFI, one of the films that we frequently held us as being the greatest in our collection was Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931).
Never did a great film have so unprepossessing a title, but in the 1920s and ’30s Bermondsey council in London was at the forefront of public health propaganda (in the best sense of the word) and the use of film. At a time before the National Health Service, when many in London’s poorer district suffered from preventable illnesses caused by poor living conditions, the council’s Public Health Department undertook a bold programme to improve public health and to make the people of Bermondsey and Southwark aware of the need for and the opportunities for following a healthy lifestyle. Driven by husband and wife team Alfred and Ada Salter (he became Bermondsey’s MP, she its Mayor, the first female mayor in London), and with films mostly made by H.W. Bush, the Department made or sponsored some 33 films over the two decades, screenings these for free in any space where people might gather, including street screenings, employing cinemotor vans which came with portable projection equipment.
The films include such titles as Where There’s Life There’s Soap (1933), Health and Clothing (1928), The Empty Bed (1937) and Maternity and Child Welfare (1930). All were made silent, for economic reasons and ease of exhibition as much as anything else. All are imbued with a palpable sense of purpose and dedication to a good cause. You derive a real sense of the goodness of people, as well as a sense of shame at the conditions in which people were living well into the twentieth century (though the emphasis is on good work done rather than bad things that needed to be eradicated). Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council Itself is so compelling to watch, not merely for its account of the public health programme, but for its unadorned images of ordinary life in the city (just the views of streets with which the film opens have a special thrill, simply because such views on film are so rare for this period).
Cinemotor, designed for exhibiting films or lantern slides, from the Wellcome Library
The films that survive are preserved by the BFI, with copies held at the medical charity the Wellcome Trust, and it is the Wellcome which has put some of the film on its YouTube channel and on its own site to accompany an exhibition entitled Here Comes Good Health, on the wotk of the Bermondsey Public Health Department. The exhibition runs at the Wellcome (on Euston Road, London) 22 February-3 June 2012, and you can read about the Council’s work, see films and photographs on the exhibition website.
If you are interested to find out more, there is a particularly handsome new publication by Elizabeth Lebas, who has been researching British ‘municipal’ films for some years now, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980. There is more information on the exhibition, the Public Health Department and its films, with plenty of links to other resources, on the Wellcome Library’s blog.
I also recommend an engrossing account by composer Felicity Ford (on her blog The Domestic Soundscape) who is writing a soundtrack for a related municipal film, Bathing and Dressing (1935), made by the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare and Carnegie Welfare Centre, Shoreditch. She describes her research process, including locating contemporary sounds and oral history interviews from the British Library, that bring the people and the times back to life as much as do the films.