When Britain Really DID Keep Calm and Carry on; Fed Up with the Way People Whinge at Every Little Set-Back? A Cache of Lost Propaganda Films Magically Evokes a Very Different Era
Byline: by Philip Norman
WE MYTHOLOGISE World War II perhaps more than any other conflict in our history. The Dambusters ... the 'armada of little ships' at Dunkirk ... the Desert Rats ... young Spitfire pilots waiting for the scramble with their deckchairs and wind-up gramophones ... all are bedded deep in the consciousness not only of people who took part but also the generations whose freedom they ensured.
Just as much do we mythologise those on what was called the Home Front; the civilians who endured six terrible years, from 1939 to 1945, with such extraordinary resilience and were an integral part of what Winston Churchill rightly termed this nation's 'finest hour'.
Recent times have given us a flavour of that grainy monochrome Britain, 70 and more years ago. For in 2012, we, too, cannot completely escape the fear of bombs and sudden death, we have to submit to draconian regulations in the name of security and stay paranoiacally on our guard against an 'enemy within'.
We, too, have had to watch our young soldiers shipped home from faraway battlefields, dead or horribly maimed. We, too, are constantly badgered by government to tighten our belts and remember 'we're all in this together'; indeed, we have been only narrowly spared from having to carry World War II-style identity cards.
And in our growing economic Blitz, in the absence of a Churchill, what was the message that carried most reassurance? It was a Ministry of Information slogan, issued on the war's outbreak in 1939, but with centuries of stiff upper lips behind it: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.
Strongly as we may identify with World War II Britons, however, we know we could never truly emulate them. For they seem to have possessed a stoicism, unselfishness and public spiritedness that our own soft, spoiled, rampagingly egotistical society totally lacks.
Yet that mythic 'Blitz Spirit' has not been created by long-distance nostalgia, as one might suppose; it was being busily manufactured by Britain's propaganda machine while the war was still raging.
Between 1941 and 1945, the British Council, the body which projects Britain's culture overseas, commissioned a series of film documentaries to show that, despite the firestorms of Hitler's Luftwaffe, the country remained intact and unbowed -- that everyone was, indeed, keeping calm and carrying on.
The films were not intended to be shown in Britain, but in Englishspeaking overseas countries that believed we were finished, or might themselves have caved in to Hitler.
Since the war's end, the whole archive of more than 100 titles has been stored away at the British Film Institute. But now, they have been digitally restored and, as of this month, can now be watched online. And what a revelation they are.
Some consist of cinema newsreels -- in pre-television days, the only regular source of news on film -- culled from Britain's five, normally competing newsreel organisations. (Here I must declare an interest: my grandfather, Frank Augustus Bassill, went through both world wars as a cameraman for the best-known company, Pathe Gazette, so some of the footage was undoubtedly shot by him.)
But the jewels of the collection are self-contained films which, despite being official propaganda, have all the qualities of Britain's greatest documentary era and feature legendary talents such as director Ken Annakin and cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
And was ever propaganda so seductive -- perhaps even more today than when first released? For it depicts a Britain which, while highly dangerous, also has a certainty as clear-cut as the old black-and-white film stock; where good and evil are instantly recognisable to all; where people work together, and endure together, to a common purpose, everyone manages to look cheerful and the sun always seems to shine.
In reality, the country's vital war production was often disrupted by strikes. …