Following the success of the Second World War in Colour series, TWI/Carlton have produced three hour-long documentaries charting the history of the British Empire. The prospect of viewing the spectacle and grandeur of at least some of the history of the British Empire in full glorious colour is one that I welcomed warmly. However, I was also nervous about the quantity and quality of colour footage available. The Second World War is one thing - where at least colour technology was available for the entire duration of the war even if it was not regularly employed. The British Empire, on the other hand, was an institution spanning several hundred years, the majority of which were in an era with no motion cameras whatsoever, let alone colour ones. Basically, I was concerned to see how much the colour footage available would lead the history that was told.
A couple of minutes into the first of the three programmes and I was spell bound. It showed colour footage of Britain in the 1920s: Coal mining communities, busy dockyards and a London that was a sight to behold. It is hard to say exactly why colour images make as huge an impact as they do. A dispassionate historian should know that colour is the natural state - it is just that black and white film was the norm. And yet, it is still visually stunning to see imagery that you normally associate in shades of grey being shown in glorious colour. What should have been rather mundane shots of buses driving around the streets of London were transformed into a feast for the eyes - billboards, posters, clothes all jumped out at you and demanded your attention. I was constantly drawn to this background paraphernalia. You would have thought that modern-made films set in the 1920s or 1930s would have satiated our senses for these everyday items. Props departments are amazingly adept at recreating materials from yester-year. But what these films lack is a sense of scale and scope. Panning shots of street after street or of an industrial landscape, or of ships leaving or entering harbour is all beyond the ability of any modern film crew. From the micro to the macro, this documentary forces you to re-evaluate your own view (literally) of the past.
The film makers have also managed to find some incredibly interesting and previously unseen footage. I was particularly taken with the footage of the 1911 Durbar in India. I had never come across this footage before. Again, the sheer scale of the event is incredible. There was also some delightful footage of inflated bullock skins being used to ferry people across a river. It was quite delightful and quite unexpected. It is little gems such as these that made the documentary such a pleasure.
One other thing that strikes you is the sheer quality of the colour film. It is excellent. In many cases, it seems to be of a quality comparable to anything that we see on TV today. In fact, it often surpasses the quality of today's home videos. I do not know a great deal about the technical aspects of colour cinematography, but I do know that the technology is in fact older than most of us realise. It was possible to create colour films from virtually the beginning of cinematography itself. It certainly beat the technology of sound by some considerable margin. As far as I can recall, the reasons preventing the widespread use of colour film was that of the cost of the technology and the bulkiness of the equipment. With those excepted, colour has been available to us for quite some time. Of course, the all but prohibitive cost meant that most of the colour footage filmed was done by wealthy amateurs or by governmental organisations covering important events. In fact, the first imperial related filming of any kind (it was black and white) was the filming of Queen Victoria during her diamond jubilee. In governmental terms, events do not get much bigger than that. As always, the historian should be aware of who his sources are and why they created those sources. As long as you remember that, this documentary has a great deal to offer.
And what of my concern of the colour footage directing the history that was told? Well, obviously the film makers have been constrained to the history that they can tell. For instance, it would have been impossible for them to tell anything of the story of the Rise of the British Empire - there was simply no cinematography available then. No, this documentary could only ever chart the Fall of the British Empire. That is the film that is available to them. They have tried to release themselves from their shackles through clever use of the spoken word as overlays to the film. For instance, they read people's memoirs or letters or the public records of an event. So, the film makers are trying not to be too tightly bound to the story that the footage would otherwise force them to tell. They have also tried to be reasonably even handed. They do give opposing views to some of the more contentious periods of history e.g. UDI in Rhodesia and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. In just three hours it is not possible to delve too deeply into the historical reasons and problems of certain actions. In such a limited time frame, the film makers have made a sincere attempt at maintaining a semblance of historical accuracy. They have managed to avoid the temptations of falling into claustrophobic nostalgia or to the other extreme of a tirade of politically correct anti-imperialism. They do manage to strike a balance of sorts.
Notwithstanding the fact that perhaps a better title would have been the British Empire in the Twentieth Century or The Fall of the British Empire, this is a wonderful addition to the imperial historian's library or to that of anyone interested in this fascinating period of history. My only suggestion is that you rush out to buy the DVD rather than the video. This is not because it has lots of extras not found on the video, but rather it will allow you to stop the footage with your freeze frame button so that you can view the myriad of wonderfully colourful background images that we just take for granted. We often think that history took place in black and white. It did not. Colour should be the norm and this documentary helps to remind us of that fact.
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