They may have been produced as ten-minute fillers to be screened between the support film and the main feature back when a night at the flicks wasn’t restricted to a solitary movie preceded by a hundred annoying ads, but the likes of Rank’s ‘Look at Life’ series now serve as a portal to a lost world arguably more fascinating than the films they propped-up. Running from 1959 to 1969, the ‘Look at Life’ shorts were shot on top notch 35mm film in crystal-clear Eastmancolor and show a Britain we’re more accustomed to seeing through a murky monochrome lens; as a result, they make the era come alive and are a unique archive of everyday life in the UK at the time. Like the rival series, ‘Pathé Pictorial’, there’s a hangover from the old cinema newsreels in that each short is accompanied by an RP voice-over and a jaunty, jolly soundtrack in the Light Programme fashion; but this merely adds to the period charm. By the late 60s, audiences becoming used to the grittier documentary techniques of television no doubt found them rather antiquated in style, though the visual record they left behind is increasingly invaluable.
From the dawn of talking pictures to the beginning of the 1970s (when the small screen had more or less completely taken over the format), documentary shorts of this ilk were a staple diet of cinema-going, though many of the ‘instructional’ variety eventually found an unlikely home on TV as ‘Trade Test Colour Films’ during the early years of colour television, when they were broadcast on BBC2 in the barren daytime hours. Unsurprisingly, as an established cinematic sub-genre, the documentary short wasn’t entirely in the hands of Rank and Pathé; several other studios specialised in producing them. British Transport Films was another company that provided endless behind-the-scenes profiles of industries and trades a well as focusing on the day-to-day experiences of Brits. One such British Transport short is 1962’s ‘All That Mighty Heart’, the title lifted from the celebrated poem by Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. This 1802 ode to London at the crack of dawn is recited at the film’s opening as we see the sun slowly rising over the city and follow the morning rituals of those whose professions necessitate an early start.
The London the film portrays is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ladybird book; indeed, the colourful clarity of the capital on a summer’s day uncannily echoes the vivid illustrations to be found in such pages. Bright red Routemaster buses are in abundance, as are the Times crossword-studying gents commuting on the Tube and proper Bobbies in the Sgt Dixon mould; even the fact that the first act of the geezer whose alarm clock signifies his day begins at 6:45am is to reach for a fag and cough his guts up is as much a distant sign of the times as his missus collecting the milk bottles from the doorstep. I myself recently re-cut many of the film’s scenes for a video of my own, accompanying its day-in-the-life narrative with theme tunes and snippets from mainstays of BBC Radio that had been the aural wallpaper for a generation by this time. The likes of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Music While You Work’, ‘Listen with Mother’, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. ‘The Archers’ and ‘In Town Tonight’ all feature, along with snatches of the Third Programme and Network Three before the day draws to a close with the forecast for coastal waters. I guess nobody who appeared in the film could ever have imagined a day without such signposts, yet even though a small handful of those mainstays cling on into the present day, most are museum pieces in the 21st century, distancing now even further from then.
But we don’t simply visit the usual tourist haunts and famous streets in ‘All That Mighty Heart’; we also observe sporting venues like Lord’s and Wimbledon as well as London Zoo. We also see the suburbs as a pretty young housewife’s progress from her newly-built estate to a newly-built shopping precinct is tracked. She waves off handsome hubby to work from the doorstep as the two of them resemble one of those impossibly-innocent kissing couples on the sleeve of a Sinatra Capitol LP. Then she’s shown beginning the washing before dolling herself up to catch the bus and excitedly anticipating the consumerist ceremony sneeringly described by The Rolling Stones in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ – ‘So she buys her instant cake/and she burns her frozen steak’ – doing so in the sparkling supermarket that constitutes a vital element of the Modernist master-plan of the suburban shopping precinct, one which looks like it was seamlessly transplanted directly from the corporation architect’s drawing-board.
The sight will be familiar to anyone who can recall ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, the turn-of-the-70s pre-school children’s show that depicted life from a child’s perspective in one of the high-rises of that brave new world; everything is so spotlessly immaculate, from the materials that comprise the houses to the manicured lawns and verges surrounding them. There isn’t a sprinkling of litter or ugly graffiti to be seen. This optimistic portrayal of the ‘homes for heroes’ ideal that characterised the first quarter-century of redevelopment after WWII is never better illustrated than in a film from the dawn of the 60s, a time before corrupt councillors were bribed by bent builders to cut corners and erect their shoddy Brutalist tributes to Le Corbusier prior to their multiple faults being exposed to unfortunate tenants via rising damp and mould, or them simply collapsing of their own accord. Within less than two decades, most were bulldozed from the landscape and the great post-war dream of a Utopian Jerusalem in concrete was erased from the history books as an embarrassing episode we don’t talk about in front of the children. How unimaginable all that is in ‘All That Mighty Heart’ – a long way from the few surviving estates degenerating into the crumbling sinks we avoid today.
It goes without saying that it’s an idealised version of Britain, one that consciously overlooks the grinding poverty and social injustices that many members of the country’s population were experiencing at the time it was produced; but it’s not a film intended to highlight such issues, merely to present the aspirational lifestyle that the incoming age of social mobility was to make within the reach of thousands before the window sealed-up again at the end of the 20th century. In its own way, it apes the similarly idealised images of the American Dream that characterised Eisenhower’s USA of the 50s; those images also obscured numerous uncomfortable truths, but proved enduring as a selling point to outsiders looking-in, and as many of the British cinematic shorts of the 60s were exported to the colonies, it was important to uphold a positive image of the mother country.
In my own edit, I inserted clips from a contemporary public information film that encourages a nascent Neighbourhood Watch approach, as a shifty character in a shabby suit is spotted on one of those shiny new estates whilst he tries a few doors of houses with hubby at work and his wife at the shopping precinct. A vigilant housewife dials 999 and a chain of events is set in motion that concludes with the opportunistic thief being apprehended by a police patrol car before he’s even exited the estate. This in itself is as much an image of a vanished Britain as anything in the original film and offers curious comfort that if crime should be noted and reported it will actually be dealt with. Besides, is the vision of Britain as seen in the likes of ‘All That Mighty Heart’ any less idealised than the vision of Britain as espoused by someone like Sadiq Khan, which likes to portray the nation as a kind of permanent multicultural Pride parade? Both visions contain grains of truth, but neither can be said to accurately reflect the attitude of the country as a whole; therefore, we can look back at ‘Look at Life’, ‘Pathé Pictorial’ or ‘All That Mighty Heart’ and genuinely mourn what we’ve lost, because we have lost something, even if it was merely an ideal.
© The Editor