Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Their states and ours: the BFI wins again

I thought I'd have a lot of time to kill at BFI Southbank last Wednesday. But I suddenly remembered the existence of the Atrium, and in the end I only just got the last train that goes west of Poole. What had caught me was a succession of films made within my own lifetime, which made me think anew about the nature of the society I live in - and, specifically, whether some kind of balance could have been found, in the former Communist countries and, in a different way, here, between economic and financial security for the mass and the rights and freedoms of the political dissident.

The BFI's masterstroke has been to show "official" films promoting the activities and commemorations of the Soviet and East German states in the early 1980s. We're used to 1950s Communist propaganda, from the height of the post-war ideological battle which climaxed in Cuba, but in many ways these later films are much eerier and more compelling to see now, because they come from an era which has only just become recognisable as proper history, and because they evoke a world of absolute certainty and stability (and, yes, I am well aware of how much repression and restriction they conceal, none of which I defend) which was to collapse dramatically, unthinkably soon afterwards. The sight of ordinary Soviet citizens at the 1983 Victory Day commemorations, blissfully unaware that the "great power" they thought they were living in was already economically unsustainable and living on ghosts, is reminiscent, for a British person, of nothing so much as the sight of the Coronation revellers of 30 years earlier, genuinely convinced as they were that Britain had entered a new age of global political significance on its own terms and concurrent cultural self-sufficiency, and utterly immunised from the fact that both these things were on borrowed time, and in a different way of the heartbreaking 1978 National Coal Board films, none of whose makers or audiences could have foreseen what was to come.

My statement above about the uneasy balance any society, but especially those societies, must find between stability of the mass and freedom of the individual, and about the unsettling way that we now feel that everything that seems appealing about so many past societies, in terms of a consensus on nationalisation and full employment, was bound up with a marginalisation and ghettoisation of "non-conformists" which we now obviously find repulsive, could of course apply as well, if not even better, to the mixed-economy Britain that created the likes of British Transport Films and the NCB Film Unit, and the strange thing that strikes you when you see these films now is how similar they are stylistically, making you feel that the post-war consensus in Britain gave us many of the best things about Communist countries without most of the worst excesses (our worst excesses were different kinds of worst excesses).

Just as the 1959 Report on Modernisation, an extraordinary, quasi-fetishistic BTF hymn to working with fire and steel resembles a more benign, Macmillanite version of Soviet propaganda of that time, so does a 1983 East German film on the country's housing development resemble in some ways the official products of Britain in the declining years of Butskellism (interestingly, wildly different interpretations of excerpts from Bach's Toccata and Fugue - BTF hushed organ, DDR funk-lite library music - link them both). Obviously no "official" British film would have contained direct references in its commentary to Marx and "the working-class party" - our consensus was rather the product of a cross-class trade-off which began to die when those who had hidden their Marxist loyalties for the sake of a stake in management could hold them back no longer, and provided the platform for a Tory reaction - but there's little else stylistically to tell the East German Housing Problems from, say, the Magnus Magnusson-narrated early 1970s paean to Cumbernauld (also available in the BFI's Mediatheque). For all that what was lost there was far less defensible than what was lost here, the references to "the next ten years" and "1990" made me think instantly of Partners in Prosperity referring, genuinely convinced that BTF's ethos might survive those decades, to "the 80s and 90s". You see both "our" films and "theirs", and you learn things about both "us" and "them" in that era - and, by extension, now - that you never thought you would.

While the versions of the Soviet films released in English-speaking countries seemed disconnected from the politics that had inspired them by their American voiceovers - the voice of capitalism, however much some would love to pretend American English is culturally neutral in the rest of the world - the East German effort had what sounded like an impeccably RP voiceover, eerily akin to those in BTF films, with some residual German pronunciations, and I imagined that it might have been one of the by-then elderly German broadcasters and actors who developed near-perfect RP voices in their youth, the better to fit within Hitler's admiration of the British Empire (a fact which should itself make those who fetishise Anglospherism as the antithesis of Nazism ask themselves some serious questions), and who had been used on the propaganda broadcasts to Britain and fake BBC bulletins, who had happened to be born in what became the Soviet sector and so later had to fit in with another kind of ideology. The connections make me ask as many questions of myself as I could have imagined, and provide no simple answers.

As always, you wonder how both "us" and "them" could have retained what was best about our former societies while getting rid of the bad bits. As usual, thoughts of In Place of Strife, Heath winning in '74 and Labour reforming without going neoliberal, Callaghan in '78, Bernard Nossiter's Britain: A Future That Works actually coming true, detente holding ... we have gone through it so many times, and it only makes us hurt all the more. What I can say without hesitation, though, is that anyone who can get to the South Bank this March really should see these films (along with the Cumbernauld and Thamesmead ones in the Mediatheque, and those in the Shadows of Progress DVD set), and that they might know both their own and others' past, present and future better once they've seen them. Films that were, in their original context, wholly unassuming and unremarkable can do no more.


  1. That's an excellent, thoughtful piece.

    I have watched several things from "Shadows of Progress" - a masterful selection of films, covering a lot of ground: comprehensive education, women's rights, working-class London pub-life, growing ecological awareness...

    Callaghan ultimately paid for his own role in defeating "In Place of Strife". Crucial, as we must remember that Labour actually polled more votes in 1979 than in either 1974 election; without the WoD, Callaghan would have likely been able to win a slim victory - he was personally much more popular than Thatcher even *after* the WoD, let alone before it.

    It is often forgotten that he had potentially much wider appeal than Harold Wilson, certainly with older, more socially conservative voters, and he could be a very commanding (if at times patronising!) speaker.

  2. Indeed.

    The first two 'Reports on Modernisation' from 1959 & 1961 really should have been released on DVD while the BFI were mining (no pun intended!) the BTF archive; certainly, they deserve to be made public in far better prints than the pathetic ones released on VHS twenty years ago, and when you look at some of the wonderful restoration jobs the BFI have done on other films from that era ... did I copy those two Reports for you c. 2006/7, Tom? I should have done.

  3. I'm not sure, I'll have to check...