Leo Enticknap, University of Leeds
In his Philosophy of Audiovisual Archiving, the only full-length work to have been written dealing specifically with the ethics of moving image archiving, Ray Edmondson defines the ‘ultimate ethical issue for the audiovisual archivist’ as ‘discouraging or suppressing access to ‘politically incorrect’ and ‘inconvenient’ material’ (p. 46). Last summer it emerged that the British Film Institute (BFI) has had to address that issue for the last four decades, in the form of a documentary directed by the firebrand leftist filmmaker Ken Loach in 1969, commissioned by the charity Save the Children (STC) to promote its work.
STC doubtless thought at the time that the broadcast of the resulting film planned by London Weekend Television would prove a PR coup and boost donations. However, when its executives screened the answer print, they were in for a shock. Far from a cuddly, feel-good hour celebrating the life-enhancing work of a brand instantly recognisable on collection tins across the country, they were given a vintage Loach, tub-thumping Marxist broadside – with both barrels. His film, which opens with a quote from Engels and closes with a condemnation of capitalism, accused Save the Children of presiding over child abuse at an orphanage in Essex and of ‘exporting colonialism’ to a school in Kenya, in which pupils were forced to speak English and banned from using their native language. The film elicited, as Loach put it, ‘steam coming out of the ears’ of its sponsors, who stormed out of the preview screening and immediately sued his production company for breach of contract.
After a protracted legal wrangle, a judge ordered that the original film would, be, in the words of its producer, ‘put in aspic at the BFI forever’. The BFI was and remains the NGO responsible for Britain’s largest public sector film and television archive. Under the terms of the court order, it was charged with preserving the film, but prevented from granting access to anyone, in perpetuity, without STC’s permission.
It seems reasonable to speculate that at the time, the BFI had little hesitation in complying in the pragmatic belief that within a generation or two the fuss would have died down, the controversy dissipated and the title would become just another in their vast television non-fiction holdings. If so, they were vindicated. When the BFI approached STC for permission to show it, both parties were at pains to stress in their press releases that it was granted without hesitation. The film was screened at the BFI’s National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank in a 2011 Loach retrospective and accompanied by a discussion.
STC’s encounter with Ken Loach was just one episode in the sometimes stormy history of sponsored filmmaking in Britain. The genre was essentially an offshoot of the public relations industry that emerged in the 1920s. It was a sort of compromise between advertising pure and simple, and the public service ethos that was espoused by John Reith’s BBC and John Grierson’s ‘Documentary Movement’ of political filmmakers. The idea was that major corporate entities (mainly, but not exclusively, private sector) would commission filmmakers to produce documentaries, educational or training films, or, rarely, full-scale feature films, related in some way to their areas of activity. In the same way that corporate sponsorship of art exhibitions, classical music and sporting events seeks to portray the sponsor as an ethical and/or socially conscious business through the association of its corporate identity with what might loosely be termed ‘good works’, so the screening of sponsored films in classrooms, community centres, church halls, film societies, and later on television and given away on home video media, was envisaged as a cheaper and more ‘worthy’ alternative to the bogstandard commercial.
Sponsored filmmaking has gone on in Britain since the 1890s. One of its earliest proponents in Britain was the soap manufacturer Lever Brothers. The company commissioned a documentary in 1919, Port Sunlight, to promote the model village on the Wirral peninsula built to house workers at its nearby soap factory. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Royal British Legion became arguably the first charity to use the cinema for fundraising purposes. The earliest significant production in which it was involved, Remembrance (1928), told the story of a disabled serviceman’s attempts to find work and rebuild his life in the aftermath of the First World War, emphasising the charity’s support. Interestingly, given what would eventually happen with Loach and STC, Remembrance received largely negative reviews and a poor box office reception, and was not shown widely. The sponsored film sector grew significantly during the Second World War and into the 1950s, with both commercial and public entities sustaining a small army of independent, small scale documentary production ‘units’, nicknamed the ‘Boys of Soho’ within the film industry.
Probably the main distinguishing feature between a sponsored film and an advertisement is that, in the case of the former, an unwritten rule is that a sponsor will give a filmmaker a large degree of editorial freedom. If the filmmaker being commissioned has a reputation for controversy, it’s a case of caveat emptor: the sponsor is buying an association with a prominent cultural figure, but part of the price is acceptance that he or she may choose to articulate some inconvenient truths. In the case of Loach, STC must have known what they were potentially getting themselves into. Loach had made his reputation with Cathy Come Home (1966), a hard-hitting and much celebrated television drama that criticised public policy toward homelessness; and Poor Cow (1967), his debut feature film about a teenager who runs away from home, marries a petty criminal and descends into prostitution. Presumably STC were keen to harness Loach’s growing prominence as a social commentator, having looked to a tradition that had emerged over the past three decades in which an uneasy alliance had formed between big business, the establishment, and a group of firebrand leftist filmmakers that had begun with figures such as John Grierson and Paul Rotha. This phenomenon was elegantly described in Brian Winston’s book Claiming the Real as ‘right-wing money, left-wing kudos and films of dubious social worth in the middle’, and it was one into which Loach seemed an ideal fit.
What made this case highly unusual is that STC were not willing to allow their filmmaker the same degree of editorial freedom as had been the case previously. There are precedents in some aspects of the issue. In 1939, the owners of The Times commissioned Paul Rotha to make a documentary about the newspaper’s history. The Fourth Estate was shelved and never shown publicly, the reasons for which are disputed: Rotha claimed that it was because his film implicitly criticised The Times as the mouthpiece of a sinister political establishment. In the last decade, a major oil company refused permission for environmentalists to use footage from a 1970s promotional film made by its in-house production unit in a campaign video, and threatened legal action if they went ahead by invoking the clause in Britain’s copyright law that permits the ‘fair dealing, for purposes of criticism or review’ of material in cases where the copyright owner has denied permission for its re-use.
Having ended up as the involuntary custodians of Loach’s film, the BFI’s management were clearly mindful of their unsolicited responsibility to the public as well as the depositor and the court: its creative director, Heather Stewart is quoted as stating that permission for the 2011 public screening was only granted ‘after many years of trying’.
One of the fundamental principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution is that no parliament shall bind its successor: in other words, that the government should never make a policy decision that is intended to be inherently irreversible. By ordering the taxpayer-funded preservation of a record that those taxpayers might never have access to, the judge was indeed binding the BFI archivists’ successors, and in effect mandating taxation without representation into the bargain. Should not either the filmmaker and/or its sponsor have been obliged to foot the bill? After all, even in the case of sensitive and restricted government documents held by the National Archives under the 100-year rule, there is a clear understanding between taxpayers and their elected representatives that the evidence of the latter’s activity will enter the public domain eventually.
In this case, all was well that ended well. The immediate controversy was defused, the film was preserved and, as the judge probably intended, the ideological climate has now shifted to the point at which the film can be screened without the originally feared consequences. But it might not have ended that way. There are a lot of much older films that also fit Edmondson’s definition of politically incorrect. It is likely, therefore, that a scenario whereby a public sector archive is caught in the middle between a film that is perceived to portray its producer or original owner in an unflattering light, and the imperative that public records should be freely available from taxpayer-funded archives without prejudice, is one that will be repeated.
The author wishes to thank Patrick Russell at the British Film Institute for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.