Over the past ten years or so, with the advent of DVD and the growing interest in popular history, there has been an opportunity to rediscover an all-but-forgotten prodigious genre of 20th century British cinema - the documentary short. The bulk of releases so far have been drawn from the BFI's archive of government-sponsored and corporate material such as the British Transport and GPO Film Unit collection and, as such, have been aimed more at the special interest cinephile or social historian than the casual viewer. Network has joined the fray by gathering together examples from Rank's more populist Look At Life series. These short films (all between 8 and 10 minutes in length) were produced between 1959 and 1969 as programme fillers to be shown prior to the main feature in Rank's cinemas. There is an excellent technical precis of the series on wikipedia which can be found here.
Network, in common with the BFI's earlier releases, has chosen to issue the films thematically. This collection has a military theme and 45 films in all are included in chronological order. Details follow the trailer below -
Most of these films date from 1959 and 1960.
The Black Arrows
A look at the RAF aerobatic display team of the 1950s, the predecessors of The Red Arrows.
A documentary about the training of a Grenadier Guardsman with a Jim Caviezel-lookalike showing he's a real soldier and not just a decorative figure in a busby.
Life in Germany for the men of the Tank Regiment and their families.
Under the Rocket
Daily life on the missile testing range at Woomera in Australia. The emphasis is very much on the day-to-day life of the base personnel and their families rather than on the military hardware.
Thunder in Waiting
An examination of the hardware of the RAF nuclear deterrent including the V-force bombers and the Thor ballistic missile.
'A Piece of Cake'
Another documentary on training for the Parachute Regiment.
Return to Arms
The work of conscript German mountain troops in NATO.
Life aboard the Royal Navy submarine HMS Narwhal.
The Rocket-Age Lancers
A look at the 245-year old 9th Lancers prior to their amalgamation with another regiment.
A reassuring piece on NATO's international effort to protect the skies of Europe from foreign aggression.
Deck operations on the Fleet Air Arm's then-new aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.
How ships and aircraft are refuelled on the go.
Thinly-disguised recruitment piece for the Women's Royal Naval Service (the Wrens) showing the variety of jobs available for women in the Royal Navy.
The development of survival techniques in the lab and in the field.
This doesn't have much to do with the military as it's all about physical fitness and body-building 'in these mechanised times'.
These films date from the early-60s.
Action this Day
The Royal Marine Commandos showing just how double-hard they were in the 60s before namby-pamby Health & Safety regulations took hold. Includes free-climbing sheer cliff-faces in everyday clothes with only 'rubber-soled boots, patience and nerve' to keep them there rather than any kind of safety kit.
Char and Wad
The role of the NAAFI at home and abroad, with emphasis on women's duties.
A look at the work of 'Jim Dell' a test pilot on the RAF's ultimate fast jet of the 60s, the Lightning. His other car is a crappy old Ford Consul.
The work of bomb-disposal units which was still very relevant in the early 60s because of the vast number of wartime devices lying around the place.
The Last Battleship
The last voyage of HMS Vanguard to the breakers' yard and its dismantling for recycling.
A look at the varied civilian uses for ex-military DUKW amphibious vehicles including one owned and driven by a monastic order in Wales!
An unusually critical account of helicopters and other rotorcraft in civil and military use.
Plumbing the depths
The hydrographer's work in drawing up naval charts.
A 1964 film celebrating the 50th anniversary of the RAF.
The Black Watch
The Queen Mother attends a ceremonial parade by the Black Watch in Perth. Cue a history of the regiment.
Girls of the air
This time it's the RAF's turn to recruit the ladies.
The sky's the limit
A look at aerobatic skills both military and civilian.
The life of the modern infantryman.
Doctor on call
Looks at a flying doctor service in North Malaya in which a civilian doctor, ferried around by the RAF, tends to the 'simple people' of the jungle. The tribal women all sport suspiciously new-looking identical bras...
Celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Royal Marines by examining the work of modern marines in the jungles of Sarawak.
It's the late 60s now. Skirts are shorter and we have a new title font.
Under one umbrella
Describes the unification of overall command of the British forces under the new Ministry of Defence. Almost the least interesting film in this set with Lord Mountbatten boring us for Britain.
The Price of Valour
A celebration of the Victoria Cross and its holders.
The Jet Folk
A celebration of the continuing presence of the US 3rd Air Force in the UK and their integration (or otherwise) with the local communities.
Drummers of the Queen
Another recruitment puff, this time for lads to join the Junior Guardsmen.
The flying soldier
Looking at the soldier pilots of the Army Air Corps.
The 11th Hussars visit Coburg in Germany, the home of their founder Prince Albert.
A rare treat for planespotters. A look at the work of the Kestrel Evaluation Squadron which tested the Kestrel VTOL aircraft prior to its entry into RAF service as the Harrier.
A celebratory account of a minor RAF operation to fly fuel oil into Zambia which was being blockaded by Rhodesia at the time.
Down to Earth
More fun and frolics abroad for the girls of the WRAF including jungle survival training. Cue swimwear and lingerie shots.
East of Suez
The logistics of supplying British troops patrolling the jungles of Sarawak.
School for skymen
A look at the RAF college in Cranwell.
NATO moves headquarters. Yawn.
With a title like that you'd expect it to be about parachuting. And it is. All about the RAF Falcons display team who pass the time before a jump by playing a rubber of bridge on the plane. Like you do.
Jumping for joy
A look at another RAF parachute display team, the Green Jackets, made up of part-time civilian reservists.
The Royal Navy's underwater bomb disposal unit at work in the seas off Malta.
Transfer and Sound
All of these shorts were filmed to the highest technical standards of the time. 35mm film was used in production and the restored source materials and transfer are exemplary. There is very little print damage and the colours are rich and well-balanced which is quite an achievement considering Eastman stock was used. The only way the image quality could be significantly improved would be a hi-def release. The mono sound is as clear as a bell, helped as always by the cut-glass diction of Tim Turner's voiceover (amongst others). My only quibble is that some of the films appear to have been transferred from a tape copy rather than the original film materials. There are slight issues with sharpness and colour balance which suggest this but that only applies to a handful of the films included here. I know this is a tired cliche but they are probably in better shape now than when they were projected in cinemas at the time. Speaking of which, the transfers for these discs appear to have been made in an open-matte 4:3 ratio which, for cinema exhibition, would have been masked top and bottom for projection. However, the title placement and image composition suggest there has been some cropping at the sides of the image but it's only noticeable occasionally.
None. As usual with Network there are no subtitles.
I have to admit I love these old shorts. They are quite unique and deserve to be be treasured. Because many of them cover quite specialised subjects they take us back to now-forgotten areas of British life in the 60s, most of which would only have been known to general audiences of the time through media like these. I imagine one key function of these shorts was to take the cinema audience out of their daily lives and show them what was happening to other ordinary British people throughout the country and around the world. Unlike modern documentaries with their highly redundant and repetitive formats, these films pack a helluva lot of information into their short running times. You really do have to pay attention. Also unlike modern documentaries with their overwrought presentation of anything remotely dangerous these films are so matter-of-fact that even when examining some of the most dangerous occupations on the planet - bomb-disposal, test pilot, flight deck crew - it's all downplayed. It's just another job that we plucky Brits undertake on a daily basis. Of course these films have to be viewed now through the filter of time and the casual sexism and patronising treatment of Johnny Foreigner throughout will be much more apparent nowadays but that shouldn't get in the way of enjoying them for what they are.
One small problem with grouping them thematically such as in this set is that the sheer breadth of subjects covered by the series as a whole can't be appreciated. I imagine that grouping them like this makes the DVD sets more attractive to potential purchasers but I would prefer to see the films grouped chronologically regardless of subject which would give a broader picture of the years in question. This set has 45 films in it which is roughly what the annual production rate would have been so it wouldn't be impractical to have sets grouped by years. However the downside to collected sets like this is that these shorts were all produced as what some would now call 'infotainment'. They were designed as light filler material for a night out at the pictures and certainly weren't meant to be seen back to back. Everything in the world of Look at Life is relentlessly jaunty and upbeat which is fine in 10-minute bursts. I like to think of sets like this as being like a big tin of Quality Street, best dipped into and enjoyed in small quantities.