I often talk about the fact that there are places where history exists in layers, where you can physically feel the weight of the past on the present. Battle Abbey in East Sussex is one such place. The importance of what happened here in October 1066 is still palpable nearly one thousand years later, for this is the site of what we now know as the Battle of Hastings – one of the most crucial moments in all of English history.
It all began (and ended) with the death of a king, as these things so often do. And, as is also so often the case with medieval history, that’s where it all gets a bit complicated. On 4th January 1066, King Edward (‘the Confessor’) died. He had no children and thus no direct heir. As a result, his death was likely to leave something of a power vacuum in England.
This was a problem in the making, since the English throne was among the most desirable in all of Europe due to its significant economic and military strength at the time. Unsurprisingly, amongst all the interested parties there were a number of claimants sniffing round the throne (although who claimed or promised what to whom will never be known with any accuracy now), with three in particular having perhaps the most legitimate claims to the English crown at the time.
Today’s election-related film is a bit different. It comes from the British Council film archive and is a short documentary explaining the processes involved in conducting the 1945 General Election from the perspective of one constituency – that of Kettering in Northamptonshire. The film offers the viewer a guided tour around Kettering as the various candidates (including the incumbent Tory MP John Profumo – yes, that John Profumo) valiently attempt to win their contituents’ votes, showing how their campaigns are run and reported and how the votes are cast and counted. Little has changed in this respect – much of what the viewer sees will still be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the way an election is organized in recent years.
Held in July 1945, this was the first General Election in ten years as a result of the Second World War and the results took some time to come in due to the huge numbers of the electorate who were still serving overseas in the armed forces, whose votes had to be returned to Britain from vitually every corner of the globe. This is also mentioned in the film and was, to a cetain extent, probably a factor in the end result – because the 1945 election is one of the most important of the twentieth century, as it returned a large and unexpected Labour majority for the first time.
This came as a real shock to the Conservative Party, who had expected to be carried into power on the back of Winston Churchill’s record as war leader. However, the nation thought otherwise and made their views very clearly known. The impact of this election result has echoed down the years following 1945 – indeed, modern Britain still owes a huge debt to this groundbreaking Labour government, as it was they who introduced the NHS and the welfare state.
Today’s newsreel footage comes from the General Election of December 1923 and features a remarkable FIVE politicans who had been or were to become prime minister in the first half of the 20th century: Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Herbert Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill (again! He randomly popped up yesterday too…) – plus Austen Chamberlain, senior politician and half-brother of the late 1930s prime minister Neville Chamberlain.
This election was a hugely momentous one in that the result gave Labour their first ever stab at forming a government (with the support of the Liberals, for whom it was the last time they would win over a hundred seats and more than 25% of the vote – although they came close with the Liberal Democrats’ controversial result in 2010 with 22.1%). This minority government only lasted until the following year, but it was the first time that the traditional two-party system had genuinely been threatened in an electoral context.
If you’d like to find out more about the BFI’s National Archive, you can visit their website here.
Some of you might remember that in the run-up to Christmas I posted some seasonal film snippets from the wonderful BFI archive YouTube channel. Since it is now election week, I was pleased to discover they’ve uploaded some bits and pieces of newsreel footage relating to various 20th century General Elections – so I’ll be posting a particularly interesting example every day until Thursday’s crucial ballot…
Today’s choice is very brief snapshot of one of the two elections held in 1910 (January and December – this film is probably from the January one), showing footage of the Labour MP Will Crooks and his Tory opponent Major William Augustus Adams on the hustings at Woolwich in London, plus a glimpse of the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill.
The results of both of the 1910 elections had been ridiculously close and very tense, with Asquith’s Liberals being separated from Balfour’s Conservatives by a matter of only two seats in January and a mere one in December. These deadlocked elections were particularly significant for being the last elections to be held until after the First World War. They were also significant for being the last elections to be held over a period of days, unlike the single polling day we are used to now – this, in many ways, was the beginning of the modern electoral system.
If you’d like to find out more about the BFI’s National Archive, you can visit their website here.
This is Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. From the photographs, you can clearly see that it’s a pretty spectacular construction. Indeed, it looks like the kind of castle immortalised in books and films as the type of defensive military stronghold we all associate with knights and soldiers, sieges and battles – “everyone’s idea of what a medieval stronghold should look like”, as the guidebook puts it.
It certainly has all the outward trappings of a classic medieval defensive building, although now ruined inside: thick stone walls and tall towers with battlements, a wide surrounding moat, a rare 14th century wooden portcullis, arrow slit windows, murder holes in the ceiling of the gatehouse (and even a much later piece of defensive kit in the shape of a World War Two-era pill-box) – all the things you’d expect to see in such a castle. Ostensibly, it is such a castle, and it has the kind of history you might expect from that too.
We are now approaching the final hours of 2014, so as an added bonus, here’s a last blast of seasonal strangeness from the BFI’s National Archive for you all. The only thing I know about it is that this odd little film was shown in British cinemas in late 1949. I can find no other information about it, although some thought has clearly gone into it, and some of the special effects are really rather fun. Despite this film being more than sixty years old, it must be said that it’s still better than most of the tat British TV broadcasts on New Year’s Eve these days…
On a more personal note, thank you so much to everyone who has read, commented, liked, shared, suggested things, written guest posts and sent me stuff in 2014 – your interest and intellectual contributions keep Another Kind Of Mind (and me) going in more ways than one. I am incredibly lucky to have such a great bunch of readers!
Wishing you all much light, luck and love for 2015 – and a very Happy New Year!
No, the date in the title of this post isn’t a typo. This final festive selection from the BFI National Archive really is a rare and unusual late Victorian film short, which uses some extremely clever and – for the time – groundbreaking special effects to show a Christmas Eve visit from Santa Claus to two excited young children. Made by G.A. Smith (1864-1959), an ex-magic lantern operator, hypnotist and one of the pioneers of British cinema, this is, in the words of Michael Brooke at the British Film Institute, “one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then”. Aside from that, it’s also an endearing and rather sweet encapsulation of the thrill of a childhood Christmas Eve, all distilled into less than a minute and a half…
For more from the BFI National Archive, visit their website or their excellent YouTube channel. You can also find more BFI festive goodies (and numerous other seasonal posts) on Another Kind Of Mind here.
And a very Merry Christmas to one and all!
This seasonal wartime propaganda short was produced for the American market and has since become a minor classic of the genre, also being nominated for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar in 1942. Written and narrated by the London-based US journalist Quentin Reynolds (1902–1965) (whose distinctively intimate voice can also be heard on the previous year’s now-iconic London Can Take It!, also aimed at American cinemagoers), this film tells the story of Britain during the Christmas of 1940, when the country was quite literally under fire.
Wearing its propaganda colours firmly on its sleeve right from the off (the opening shot tells us this is a ‘Ministry of Information film’), this film knows exactly which buttons to press in order to get an emotional and visceral reaction from the average American viewer. As a result, there are vivid images of the way the war has had an impact on what Reynolds sees as the timeless peace of British life – so there are shots of shelterers in the London Underground, children playing at soldiers, troops watching out for enemy planes or manning guns in British cities and countryside, and bombed-out shopkeepers in what remains of their premises, declaring ‘business as usual’.
One of the earliest surviving adaptations of Charles Dickens’ work on film (and certainly the earliest surviving film version of A Christmas Carol), this is a remarkably ambitious piece of film-making for the time – for a start, it attempts to cram an eighty page story into a mere five minutes, which, for anyone who knows the source text well, seems quite an achievement!
Sadly, the only known remaining print is incomplete, but enough of it is left to demonstrate magician and director W.R Booth’s (1869-1938) creative approach to special effects (watch out for the scene where Scrooge’s doorknocker turns into Jacob Marley’s head, and the initial appearance of Marley’s ghost himself), some of which even now are pretty impressive.
In the first of this week’s seasonal offerings from the British Film Institute’s National Archives, we’re visiting an Edwardian cracker factory, probably somewhere in east London, where we see the process of making these now-traditional Christmas essentials by hand and with the aid of machines. Next, we are transported to a cheerful and festively decorated living room, where we meet a family in the process of celebrating Christmas. They pull a giant cracker and a very special guest arrives…
This is an interesting film for a number of reasons. Its production was sponsored by Clark, Nickolls & Coombs, the company who were responsible for making the crackers, and it shows that their workforce was almost entirely made up of women. These working class women stand in distinct contrast to the middle-class family shown enjoying the fruits of such factory labours around the Christmas tree – suggesting this was a form of advertising and possibly education, demonstrating both the processes of manufacture and that the company sold (or at least aimed to sell) their products to an aspirational middle-class market. The idea of consumerism and consumption at Christmas is clearly not a new one!
For more seasonal posts on Another Kind Of Mind, see here.