Considering where my interior excursions have taken me of late, it probably won’t come as a great surprise to learn I spent some of the weekend watching the ultimate visual alternative to the media here and now, i.e. BBC Interlude films from the 1950s. Most of them are on YouTube, and I wandered into their comforting embrace totally unplanned, albeit probably driven by the kind of subconscious craving for unusual escapist options that has become the norm over the past year. As these curious little films predate my lifetime, they’re something I’ve always found quaintly intriguing ever since I saw a few repeated during the BBC’s 60th anniversary in 1982. Although British television had yet to morph into a 24/7 landfill site in 1982, the launch of breakfast TV the following year pointed the way forward, so it now feels as if 1982 was the last year in which television could get away with putting its feet up for a while; and what better way to do that than the Potter’s Wheel?
The Interlude films, ranging from five to ten minutes, hailed from a time when virtually all television went out live; this seems an important point. For example, should the evening’s showcase programme be the broadcast of a play staged at Lime Grove, it would naturally follow the same pattern as in the theatre, with an interval required for scene and costume changes as well as giving the actors a breather; therefore, a short Interlude would plug the gap for viewers, providing a barely moving image on a static camera if one wanted to watch, but a visit to the privy or the boiling of a kettle could be attended to without fear of missing any action; return to the room and nothing had changed.
These famous fillers, which appeared to have achieved iconic status even during the era in which they were broadcast, have a unique period charm that serves as quite a sedative in 2021; I guess their original purpose wasn’t too dissimilar, but some of the subliminal messages inherent within those seemingly innocuous images are now so redundant that their antiquated appeal is considerably enhanced. Of all the ones I’ve chilled out to over the past couple of days, perhaps the ones that appear to embody a particular ‘this is what we fought the War for’ vibe are the ones that could just have easily been immortalised as patriotic propaganda on canvas as on the television screen. The Interlude featuring an old lady at a spinning wheel has an almost-‘Whistler’s Mother’ ambience; I should imagine even in the early 50s use of the spinning wheel had become something of an eccentric choice in the age of the sewing machine, but the fact the old lady is also sat outdoors lends the vision an even greater Olde World potency, as though she represents a gentrified impression of a pre-industrial rural idyll of the kind evoked in a song like ‘There’ll Always Be an England’.
Similarly feel-good nostalgia permeates the Interlude of the windmill in Bury St Edmunds and the lady sedately engaged in embroidery by the fireside. However, maybe none quite spell out these sentiments with such elegiac serenity as the Interlude of horse-drawn ploughs slowly plodding along the field. In reality, the tractor had already all-but replaced this ancient agricultural sight – indeed, one of the earliest storylines on ‘The Archers’ (which began in 1951) concerned the retirement of two Shire horses as the farmers of Ambridge moved into mechanisation; but this archaic Interlude is effective. It makes one think of the wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and the enduring mythology of Merrie England’s green and pleasant land, both the nutritious womb of the nation’s diet and the scenic Arcadia of the Romantics. It’s a step back to a gentler pace of life in that uncertain interim between the horrors of the Home Front and the white heat of the Swinging 60s. I suppose it could also be looked at as a subtle reminder for the everyday trials of a 50s audience that an evergreen England will still be there when austerity and rationing are finally over – that garden beyond the bombsite which proved immune to the jackboot.
Many of these Interludes boast a Light Programme-type soundtrack, whereas some simply feature the melody of nature, whether rolling waves on a distant Jamaican beach or the sounds to be found rowing along a quintessential British river; those belong to the ‘landscape’ variety of Interludes, of which there are several. Some of the more ‘domestic’ indoor Interludes reflect a nation of animal-lovers, particularly the one in which the camera fixes on the inhabitants of a tropical fish tank and the one starring a characteristically animated white kitten romping around what looks like a middle-class drawing-room. The latter is perhaps the liveliest of all the original Interlude films, unless one includes the famous fast-motion ‘London to Brighton in Four Minutes’ short in the Interlude list, which plenty often do.
Generally, however, the Interludes were not necessarily designed to stimulate the senses; on the whole, the opposite was the intention. Lest we forget, the Britain that produced these films was one in which a day like Sunday forced its citizens to take it easy, to relax with a pipe and a paper because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do; an Interlude therefore mirrored the mood in most post-roast households. Although they seem to typify the pre-ITV, so-called ‘cosy’ British TV experience of the 1950s as much as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, BBC Interludes appear to have made it into the brave new world of the 1960s, though the test card began to claim the majority of downtime hours as the decade progressed.
One of the last Interludes I’m aware of dates from the mid-60s and was quite a contrast to its more soporific predecessors in its dynamic style and tone. Titled ‘Toy Fair’, it features a range of children’s prized playthings from the period, such as clockwork cars, toy soldiers, train sets and dolls that have all been wound-up into life. It also shows the encroachment of tie-in merchandise onto the Christmas shopping list and into the nursery as toy Daleks make an appearance, unsurprisingly cast as the villains in this enjoyably melodramatic vignette that bears little relation to the old lady with the spinning wheel; in its own way, however, it shows the country was moving in another direction, a long way from horse-drawn ploughs and potter’s wheels.
Bar the occasional impromptu Interlude I faintly recall stumbling upon when manually channel-surfing in the 70s – perhaps bridging the gaps between acts on a BBC2 Shakespeare production – Interludes disappeared unless dusted down for a repeat outing during BBC anniversaries. In recent years, the arrival of what has been labelled ‘Slow Television’, which has periodically infiltrated the BBC4 schedule, shows that the spirit of the old Interludes can be refigured to suit contemporary mores and sold as novel innovation. The examples of Slow Television seen on British TV tend to span several hours rather than several minutes, promoted as programmes in their own right as opposed to unlisted fillers; but they are undoubtedly welcome breathers that there should always be space for. When one considers the brain-mashing guff that constitutes so much mainstream TV today – not to mention the current desire to lose one’s self in somewhere that isn’t here – the occasional presence of Slow Television, even for five minutes, is something this licence fee-payer wouldn’t object to.
© The Editor