Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
British Petroleum films


Main image of British Petroleum films

As a source for high quality sponsored films, British Petroleum is slightly less well known than Shell, its long time competitor and sometime collaborator. This is probably down to three significant differences between the two.

First, BP was relatively later into the game. There are scattered instances of the company (under its early names of Anglo-Persian and Anglo-Iranian) having been associated with films during the 1920s and '30s. And the umbrella body, Shell-Mex and BP, set up to provide joint UK marketing and distribution for the two oil companies, directly sponsored some 100 films from 1932 onwards. But of the two competitors operating in their own right, Shell began its systematic programme of film production in 1934, while BP's large-scale sponsorship was a mainly post-war development.

Second, BP did not have its own production unit: all of the films were outsourced to independent production companies, bringing a greater variety to its film work, but also a less readily identifiable house style. And finally, the Shell Film Unit, with its associations with Edgar Anstey, Arthur Elton and Stuart Legg, is easy to relate to the core documentary movement, on which so much orthodox history of British documentary film is focused. Although the two cannot be rigidly separated, BP's work for the screen results mainly from collaboration with a slightly different (and less appreciated) world of commercial documentary production. Because BP's budgets came to be very lavish, virtually all the major freelance industrial film units at work in the 1950s, '60s and '70s turned out films for the company: to name just a few, World Wide Pictures, Greenpark Productions, Merton Park, Verity Films, Ronald H. Riley, Random Film Productions, Derek Stewart Productions, Anthony Gilkison Associates - even, on one project, the DATA cooperative and, for animations, Halas & Batchelor. Much of this work was channelled through the Film Producers Guild, the consortium body which farmed out industrial film commissions to member companies such as Greenpark and Verity.

That the resulting films were of frequently remarkable quality and high international popularity is demonstrated not least by the fact that BP is one of Britain's greatest Academy Awards success stories, with six nominations, winning Best Documentary Short Subject for Giuseppina (1960). Shell's technical films being pretty well unbeatable, BP's frequently went in other directions, with the general aim of presenting the multinational corporation's human face. Of course, there were films dealing in technical oil industry matters - the likes of A Modern Oil Refinery (1954) or Rig 20 (1952), a reconstruction of an oil industry fire which was considered one of the most impressive films on safety subject matter at that time. But more common were lush, sometimes poetic travelogues of both the UK (Draig O Dras, aka The Proud Dragon, 1970; Scotland, 1973) and territories with BP connections abroad (Persian Story, 1952; Alaska - The Great Land, 1971). Exploration was a common theme, often, of course, in search of oil - but BP also funded Foothold on Antarctica, the 1956 official film of the commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Many BP films also affect internationalist social concern, as in Three Roads to Tomorrow, a portrait of a changing Nigeria directed in 1958 by Greenpark head Humphrey Swingler, or Eric Marquis' Food From Oil (1970), as well as a number of environmentalist films made in the early 1970s. But alongside these were arty montage based pieces like Divertimento (1968), and even light purely fictional films such as The Cattle Carters (1962).

While many of the best industrial filmmakers found themselves on BP's books, at least two were not only particularly prolific but had distinctive styles of their own that were especially suited to the company's sponsorship. James Hill's expansive documentary The New Explorers (1955) and his whimsical fictions Giuseppina (1959) and The Home-Made Car (1963) were three of the company's most popular shorts. Derek Williams was a far more sober writer-director, his BP travelogues among the most thoughtful of the day, and his three BP ecology films The Shadow of Progress (1970), The Tide of Traffic (1972) and Planet Water (1979) still stand as powerful meditations on the fragile balance between humankind and the world, whether despite or because of their origins as oil industry contributions to the growing environmental debate.

As was the case with so many organisations, the pattern of BP's moving image work shifted with the decline of 35mm and 16mm film and their audiences. From the early 1980s, most productions were straightforward product commercials for the general public, the majority of other productions being training and staff magazine films produced and distributed on video formats within the organisation. Yet marking the centenary of Anglo-Persian in 2008, BP commissioned two impressive, large-scale documentaries looking at the company's origins and history: apparently, in part, a conscious attempt to emulate (and pay tribute) to BP's heritage as one of the world's leading sources of what was once termed 'prestige documentary'. Such films are aimed not at direct product promotion but at general improvement of an organisation's image through its association with fine craftsmanship.

There is scope for heated, political debate about the motivation and impact of such 'prestige' communication on the part of multinational corporations: different ideological starting-points are likely to dispose viewers to different conclusions. But the reasons that debate is worth having, in specific relation to the British oil industry, are two-fold. First, its films (both BP's and Shell's) were so superior, so often, to so much else in the field. Second, the place of oil in the British and world economies has long been great, if sometimes controversial. How one of the most important industries of the modern world has made use of its major communications medium is a subject well worthy of study.

Patrick Russell

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alaska - The Great Land (1971)Alaska - The Great Land (1971)

The history of Alaska, and its future following the discovery of oil

Thumbnail image of Divertimento (1968)Divertimento (1968)

Almost abstract, often beautiful film exploring the properties of oil

Thumbnail image of Giuseppina (1959)Giuseppina (1959)

A bored girl has to amuse herself at her father's filling station

Thumbnail image of Home-Made Car, The (1963)Home-Made Car, The (1963)

Wordless sponsored short in which a man builds a car from spare parts

Thumbnail image of Journey into the Weald of Kent (1959)Journey into the Weald of Kent (1959)

John Betjeman narrates a journey through south-east England

Thumbnail image of Living Woodland, The (1972)Living Woodland, The (1972)

Documentary about the ecology of European woodlands

Thumbnail image of New Explorers, The (1955)New Explorers, The (1955)

Conditions faced by a team of explorers looking for oil

Thumbnail image of Pitcairn People, The (1962)Pitcairn People, The (1962)

A portrait of the Pitcairn Islanders and their attitude to modern life

Thumbnail image of Shadow of Progress, The (1970)Shadow of Progress, The (1970)

Sponsored documentary exploring the downside of technology: pollution

Thumbnail image of Tower, The (1953)Tower, The (1953)

The operation of a distillation unit on the Isle of Grain

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Industrial and Corporate FilmsIndustrial and Corporate Films

The fascinating and surprisingly diverse world of sponsored film and video

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Jones, Geoffrey (1931-2005)Jones, Geoffrey (1931-2005)

Director, Producer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Shell Film Unit (1934-)Shell Film Unit (1934-)

Film Unit

Related media