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Britain On Film – Britain’s History and the BFI Film Archive

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By Cleaver Patterson. 

Britain as a whole has a history as unique as that of the four regions which constitute it—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that much of its story should have been captured on film. Since the emergence of the medium in the late Victorian area, until now during the first decades of the 21st century, many aspects of the nation’s vivid story—significant both nationally as well as on a more personal level—have been preserved on film for years to come.

As keeper of Britain’s celluloid history, the BFI—through its National Film Archive, augmented with help from regional and national archives as well as rights holders from throughout Britain—has launched the ambitious project Britain on Film which is setting out to obtain as many of these filmed insights into British heritage as possible and preserve them for future generations. Gathered from collections, both public and private, thousands of pieces of film and television footage spanning one hundred and twenty years have been brought together, repaired and catalogued to create a history through the moving image of the nation and its inhabitants, as they go about their daily lives involved in everything from events of national importance to things on a local and personal level.

Of course, one of the best things about the project, as with much done by the BFI, is that the resultant library, which will eventually be formed of 10,000 individual films, has been developed with access to the general public as a key priority. Through the medium of the BFI Player, anyone with access to the internet can search a database which provides an unparalleled view of Britain and her people at work and play in peacetime and at war.

Launching the initiative earlier this month, Heather Stewart, Creative Director of the BFI, and Robin Baker, Head Curator of the BFI’s National Archive, explained the importance of the new venture as filmic record of Britain. Alongside this they also showed how to log-on to Britain on Film on-line whilst emphasising particular features of the tool: they explained how it can be of interest not only to academics and students looking for means to enrich their research and studies, but also to the general public who wish to discover more about their local community or delve into the past of the area where they or their families come from. The result, as Stewart and Baker outlined, will form an organic and continually evolving document of a nation and its people for future generations.

Access to the Britain on Film archive is easy. Just log onto the BFI Player at http://player.bfi.org.uk, highlight Britain on Film on the home page section, and follow the instructions to search for films related to areas with meaning or interest to you.

Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. News Editor for the website Flickfeast, he regularly contributes to Rue Morgue magazine and the Film International website, where he has previously reported on events including the annual FILM4 FrightFest film festival and BFI London Film Festival.

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