BFI releases thousands of unseen films‏ for free in Britain on Film project

By Richard Moss | 07 July 2015

The BFI launches Britain on Film - featuring thousands of films about life in the UK - for free on its BFI Player

a screen showing black and white and colour film stills with the words Britain on Film our life stories
Britain on Film © Photo Richard Moss
Britain at its most vibrant, diverse and eccentric; the BFI’s ambitious project to unlock its vast archive of documentary and amateur films about life in the UK has been launched today,

Britain on Film, which can be experienced for free via the BFI Player, is a major film digitisation project making thousands of fragile reels of celluloid from the organisation’s state-of-the-art archive available at the click of a mouse.

By 2017, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the BFI says 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will be digitised.

In a collection that spans the length of Britain, the digitised treasures include the world’s earliest known surviving home movies, the Passmore Family Collection, dating from 1902, which document family holidays in Bognor Regis and The Isle of Wight and at home in Streatham, London.

Footage of the Old Norse Viking Festival in Scotland, from 1927, features a village full of Vikings and the lighting of a Viking long ship, as well as a posse of men dressed as walruses crawling across the rocks of a beach, among other strange folkloric rituals.

Elsewhere, newsreels, advertisements, home movies, forgotten TV shows and films by government departments all offer surprising insights into British life in the 20th century – some of them drawn from the collections of partner organisations including regional screen archives and the Imperial War Museum.

a flim still of a woman with a smooth wooden sculpture
Barbara Hepworth captured in one of the films at St Ives © Photo Richard Moss
With the accent on regional treasures and local history, the collection has been arranged to make it searchable by region with the help of a Film and TV Map of the UK which also enables people to share films with their family, friends and communities.

BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart has already discovered footage of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother in a film called Children's Excursion (1952) featuring Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway, the village she grew up in.

She believes her experience of seeing locations, friends, family and acquaintances from the past is one that will be shared by many others. 

“I’ve never seen my family on film before so it was a wonderful surprise to discover three generations together,” said Stewart, who was able to see the house of her birth and several members of her family in the charming film of the village trip to Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.

“There’s a perennial joy in location spotting; couple this with the emotional power of film and Britain on Film has the potential to touch everyone in the UK,” she added.

The vast archive includes the films of early British documentary pioneers Mitchell and Kenyan, whose work offers a window into the Edwardian world, while the diversity of British life throughout the 20th century is revealed by professional and amateur footage of vanished landscapes, urban and rural communities, historic traditions and folklore, people at work and at play, and British characters in all their unique glory.

As well as offering up the archive for research, education and fun, the BFI has also been has been exploring innovative uses of it by artists and musicians.

Following on from successful collaborations with bands such as Public Service Broadcasting, who performed their take on Humphrey Jennings’ superb documentary-propaganda film about the London Blitz, London Can Take It, for the opening, the BFI has invited artist Penny Woolcock to explore and respond to the archive.

Woolcock previously collaborated with the BFI on the acclaimed documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond – Britain's Coast on Film, with a soundtrack provided by British Sea Power. She has now created a powerful short documentary called Out of the Rubble, which explores issues of housing, poverty and immigration. It will be released later this summer.

A photo of Public Service Broadcasting playing on a stage before a large screen with a film still of children sleeping in an Underground Shelter
Public Service Broadcasting helped launch the project at the BFI© Photo Richard Moss
Visit and use the hashtag #BritainOnFilm.

A series of events will take place to promote the archive across the UK

  • The BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) will be staging 85 screening events in 46 locations from Belfast to Canterbury and southern Wales to Inverness. Highlights include:
  • Glasgow – pop-up cinemas will show feature films set in Southside including Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and David Lean’s Madeline (1950) in Pollok House alongside regionally specific archive footage
  • Kent – Georg Hoellering’s Murder in the Cathedral (1951) screened in Canterbury Cathedral – as part of the Canterbury Festival on 27/28 October
  • Belfast – Culture Night, 18 September, will screen curated programmes of short archive films shown at the places where they were originally shot, or where there is a strong thematic link
  • London – an outdoor screening of Made in Dagenham at Parsloes Park, Dagenham, alongside a programme of archive film showing the urban history of the area.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see film history in:

The current exhibition, Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits, marks the 75th anniversary of the Blitz during the Second World War and uses archive film to show visitors how people lived through one of the most challenging times in British history.

The Imitation Game: The Exhibition features costumes and props from the film, including a German Enigma machine, a replica of the prototype Bombe machine and many more behind-the-scenes gems.

National Media Museum, Bradford
The BFI Mediatheque offers personal viewing stations with more than 2,500 titles available to watch for free. There are two special collections: the TV Heaven Collection and God's Own County: Yorkshire on Screen.

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