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Essentially British?: Island People (1940)
In the Classroom


As example of wartime propaganda, Island People has a lot of potential in the History classroom. What clues are there that Island People is a propaganda film? Why do the filmmakers make no reference to World War Two? What appears to be the main aim (central message) of the film? Why does the film highlight Britain's status as an industrial nation? What methods do the filmmakers employ to persuade and influence their audience? What does the film imply about the British government's main aims regarding propaganda for a British civilian audience?

You might want to explore the differences between wartime propaganda by comparing Island People with From the Four Corners (1941) and/or Christmas Under Fire (1941). All three films were made for specific, very different audiences. How has this influenced the nature of each film (content, imagery, message etc.)? How might one of the films be adapted to target a different audience?

Island People can just as easily serve as the basis for a subtly different sort of source analysis: What can we learn about 1940's Britain from the film? How reliable is the film's portrayal of 'working Britain' or Britons at leisure? What are the limitations of the film as evidence of life in Britain during the 1940s?

If students have studied an earlier or later period in any detail, Island People might work as the starting point for looking at change and continuity over time. There are also some interesting points to be raised about the role of women, as put forward by the film. We meet Elizabeth Davies, a secretary, as well as Jane Martin, a doctor and psychologist. What do students know about the role of woman in the 1940s and the kinds of professions they worked in?

Useful films for comparison

  • Christmas Under Fire (1941): another propaganda film, made in the same year but intended for an American audience.
  • From the Four Corners (1940): an extraordinary propaganda film most likely aimed at members of the Commonwealth as well as British civilians.


Island People is a great starting point for Citizenship lessons looking at nationality and 'Britishness' or the changing economic, social, cultural and ethnic make-up of the UK. How far do students identify with the portrait of Britain the film creates? How has Britain changed socially and culturally since the 1940s? Is Britain still a world power with political and economic influence? If the film was being made today, what type of individuals might accurately represent the 'British' people and how might they differ from the characters we meet in Island People?

The title and the opening few lines of the film also throw up some interesting questions. Does our island status affect our sense of nationality and our attitudes towards Europe and the rest of the world?

Can we really talk of the 'British' as one 'people'? What about the differences between Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English? Do students' think there are clear 'British' characteristics or a set of unifying principles or ideas that unite people across the country as the film suggests? How does the film deal with regional identities? Does a person's geographical location and profession still have as large an impact on their identity as this film suggests was the case in the 1940s?

Useful films for comparison

  • I'm British But... (1989): for more on plural identities (regional, religious and ethnic).
  • Think of England (1999): on the north-south divide.
  • White Tribe (2000): as the starting point for thinking about the Britain of the future.