Our home movies deserve another look
– as priceless historical treasures
by Richard Morrison
Published in The Times newspaper
Saturday 20th February 2010
As a boy, my heart always sank in the first week of September. Of course, the new school year loomed like a dismal black cloud. But that was also the week when my uncle – the proud and indeed boastful owner of a priceless luxury item know as a “cine-camera” – would put on a film show, for which he would command the attendance of the entire Morrison clan plus any neighbours not quick-witted enough to have a prior engagement. Unfortunately, his films were invariably interminable, fuzzily focused chronicles of his annual holiday in Torquay. (Actually I do him a disservice. Sometimes he went to Paignton). They seemed entirely unedited. Every seagull in Devon had its moment in the frame. Ever since then I have shuddered involuntarily at the very words “home movies”.
Yet home movies have often captured fantastic, momentous or terrifying incidents that professional camera crews missed. Just as important, they provide a unique record of changing social trends over the past century. Or they would do, if the nation’s collective mountain of reels, cassette-tapes and (more recently) computer hard-drives could be properly sifted, catalogued and preserved.
This week the Heritage Lottery Fund announced a £440,000 grant to help an organisation to do exactly that. The Media Archive for Central England (MACE), based at the University of Leicester, has devised a project called Full Circle – a name that pithily captures its purpose. MACE hopes to persuade ordinary people in the Midlands to dig out dusty reels of videos that record significant local events. These will be assessed for historical importance, processed, and returned to the community in a form that can be easily accessed for study or entertainment.
MACE is one of eight such archives in the English regions dealing with moving images. All aim to connect people with their screen heritage. Unlike the British Film Institute, which holds 300,000 films of national significance dating back to the dawn of film in 1895, these regional archives concentrate on films with local connections. Even so, they are treasure troves of historical material, much of it quirky and surprising. The oldest in MACE’s collection, for instance, is a little French film called Alpine Adventure, dating from 1897 (it happened to be unearthed in the Midlands). It also has footage of troops leaving for the Boer War. Such material is as valuable for bringing school history lessons to life as for reviving memories among older generations.
It is admirable that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which most people associate with ruined castles and archaeological digs, has become involved in preserving the equally important heritage of film and sound recordings. Over the past 15 years it has poured £26 million of lottery money into 65 projects in his field. That sounds a lot. But those are one-off grants for specific, high-profile tasks such as Full Circle. The challenge is to keep the collections open, day by day, on a tiny sliver of public funding – less than £5 million a year, shared by all the film archives of England, Scotland and Wales. Because Hollywood movies regularly boast squillion-dollar budgets, people imagine that the film world is awash with cash. As far as the unglamorous but vital task of preserving old film is concerned, that’s certainly not the case. We need to put our priceless archives on a much firmer financial footing.
But we also need to cherish the digital films being made by ordinary people today as lovingly as previous generations cherished their own flickering movies. It’s a strange paradox that the oldest moving –picture medium – film reels- should be the best preserved, while videos storied on computers are often erased or lost when people upgrade their software or buy a new PC. “Perhaps VHS tapes and computer hard-drives don’t have the magic of the old film reels” says James Patterson, the director of MACE.
That has to change. Future generations will be enthralled by films of everyday life in early 21st century Britain, just as today’s television audiences lap up the Edwardian movies of Mitchell and Kenyon that were rediscovered in the 1990s. But first we have to preserve our movies for them. Scour your family collections now, and get the best stuff to an archive near you! But, please no seagulls hovering over Torquay.