Britain’s Moving Image

Film and Historical Memory in London

By Henry Robinson


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n summer evenings, a noisy peace pervades London’s South Bank. Chatter from restaurant patios spills out into the street, clustered bookstalls sell everything from Jane Eyre paperbacks to 18th-century magazines, and Big Ben clangs drowsily in the distance. Farther down the Thames, the jagged skyscraper known as the “Shard” looms over the financial district, surrounded by cranes and sleek constructions of glass and steel.

This is a meeting-point between the “old” and “new” London, where ancient, storied institutions coexist (at least for the moment) with the forces of urban gentrification. Even some of the city’s most historically overlooked neighborhoods are being rapidly taken over by condo developments and rising rents. Wherever the past shines through, it is as a storybook façade amidst rampant modernization.

David Milne, curator of the historical-immersion museum known as the Dennis Severs’ House, sees nothing to celebrate in this. “I think it’s an alienation from our Britishness,” he says. His museum, which is located steps from the glitzy high-rises that dominate the city’s skyline, is designed to recreate the home of an 18th century family of silk-weavers. “The great important buildings of government and monarchy, they all still survive—but all the human stuff is being swept away.”

Every state has to confront and interpret its history. Understandings of the past—however genuine or artificial they may be—inform the standards by which policies are implemented, cultures shaped, and societies structured. For Britain, this cuts deeper than just architecture or gentrification. Already, differing approaches to the problem have exposed deep ideological divisions within British society, and are drawing in players from the cultural as well as political spheres.

One such player is the British Film Institute (BFI), poetically headquartered in the heart of the South Bank neighborhood, which is currently running an immensely popular series called “Britain on Film.” The project is one part festival, two parts exhibition–it involves screenings at venues across the country of never-before-seen films depicting life in Britain through the ages and the online release of thousands more. Included in the lineup are some real gems, such as the oldest surviving home videos in existence (The Passmore Family Collection, 1902) and rare footage of George Bernard Shaw (1949).

Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive and a major architect of the project, was particularly concerned that it deals with people rather than historical events. “If you have a human story, and you can empathize with that person in some way, or you are intrigued to find out the story behind that person, it creates that emotional connection,” he says.

This is humanism at its most inclusive. Of the many goals of “Britain on Film”—some artistic, some political—perhaps none is more urgently significant than the representation of British society’s most historically marginalized members. One of Baker’s favorite films in the collection is Springtime in an English Village (1944), which depicts a young black girl being crowned “Queen of the May” by her white peers during a wartime ceremony. More recent additions include Somewhere in Hackney (1980), an hour-long film that deals with street art, feminism, and urban community pre-gentrification; and Home From Home (1976), whose protagonist is a Pakistani bus driver struggling to adapt to Welsh life.         

With this project, the BFI is making an institutional foray into heated controversy. Far-right nationalism is surging across Europe, and Britain has been swept up in the tide—the UK Independence Party (UKIP), once a fringe conservative movement, saw its membership swell by over 12,000 between 2012 and 2013, and its share of the vote in European elections has gone up by 11 percentage points since 2009. This ascendancy is thrusting more insidious understandings of heritage to the fore. UKIP has made a name for itself by espousing the idea of “Britain for the Britons,” promising to return the country to its traditional values. This political ethos—set out in its glossy manifesto—relies heavily on lumping immigrants and minority groups into a collective “other,” on stoking xenophobia and nativism in a quest to recreate a sanitized version of Britain’s past.

This viewpoint is worryingly popular. The question of who owns heritage, whose stories get preserved—everyone’s, or just those of a privileged few—is coming to a boil, and cannot go long unresolved. UKIP and the BFI are offering two disparate perspectives—the one proposing rosy-tinged reverence and cultural reaction, and the other renewed examination of lives and experiences long kept out of the limelight. The British people will have to decide which answer they prefer, and it may be one of the most important decisions they ever make.


Henry Robinson is a freshman in Silliman College. He can be reached at