History of the reel gets virtual

March 31, 2000

The history of the 20th century, as seen through cinema newsreel, is documented in a CD-Rom and website launched yesterday by the British Universities Film and Video Council.

Historians and students of film can search an electronic catalogue of almost 160,000 newsreel stories released in the United Kingdom between 1910 and 1979.

The BUFVC also hopes to sell the Pounds 95 CD-Rom to researchers in the television industry, who will be able to search all three surviving newsreel libraries simultaneously for material on specific people or events. Educational institutions belonging to the BUFVC can buy the CD for Pounds 65.

The work of cataloguing British newsreels was begun in 1969 by the director Thorold Dickinson, then professor of film at the Slade School of Fine Art. Over the past four years, the BUFVC has completed Dickinson's work with the help of a Pounds 0,000 grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The money came from Hefce's programme of non-formula funding for specialised research collections in the humanities.

BUFVC director Murray Weston said that the database was "a record of what the newsreels released, not necessarily what has survived". Luckily much has survived. The newsreel companies, which often used library footage to fill awkward gaps in a topical story, maintained their libraries carefully.

Television killed off the cinema newsreel but ensured the survival of newsreel libraries, which became a key resource for makers of historical documentaries during the century's closing decades.

Newsreels were generally optimistic and uncontroversial, with upbeat music and an avuncular narrator. Their producers faced difficult choices in wartime when most of the news was bad.

In the next four years the database will be extended with the addition of further records of newsreel and cinemagazine issues, camera operators' biographies, commentary scripts, dope sheets and other documentation. The next stage of the project has won Pounds 400,000 funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Details: www.bufvc.ac.uk

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