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A newsreel was a collection of topical news films collected onto a single reel, and shown in cinemas as part of the general entertainment programme. In the silent era newsreels lasted around five minutes, and contained around five or six stories per issue. In the sound era they were ten minutes or longer and would have eight or more stories per issue.

The first British newsreel, Pathé's Animated Gazette, was established in June 1910; it was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle, Gaumont Graphic, Topical Budget, and others. Pathé, Gaumont and Topical dominated during the silent era; in the sound era, when newsreels acquired their familiar form of commentary and background music, there were five main reels: Pathé Gazette (later Pathé News), Gaumont-British News, British Paramount News, British Movietone News and Universal News.

The newsreels were a popular, entertainment medium. They avoided controversy, supported the political status quo, and always stressed the need to amuse rather than to challenge their audience. Given the minor place that the newsreel had in the cinema programme, and the need to keep exhibitors happy, the newsreels had little choice but to take a light, uncontentious route, but they were heavily criticized even at the time for trivialising the news.

Such judgments are unjust, however, or at least too sweeping. The newsreels could often engage very effectively with the issues of the day, and during the Second World War they found their voice and served as an important means of communicating vital news mixed with propagandist uplift.

Close study of the output of the newsreels, and comparison with the topical obsessions of the day in newspapers and other media, reveals the newsreels to have had an uncanny sense of what the cinema audience wanted to see and hear about what was of concern to them there and then. It is this quality that has made the newsreel libraries that exist today such a valuable resource for television companies making historical programmes.

The newsreels lost their validity with the rise of television in the 1950s, and most of them had closed by the end of the decade. The last of them, British Movietone News, soldiered on until May 1979.

Luke McKernan

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