Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
British Instructional Films (1919-1933)

Production Company

Main image of British Instructional Films (1919-1933)

Formed in 1919 by H. (Harry) Bruce Woolfe, British Instructional Films (BIF) started life in a makeshift army hut at Elstree, and soon established itself as one of Britain's more innovative production companies. BIF's early reputation grew from the success of its military re-enactment films, including The Battle of Jutland (1921) and Ypres (d. Walter Summers, 1925). This success was consolidated by the Secrets of Nature series; between 1922 and 1933 BIF released these single-reel educational films in 'sets' of around six titles, often taking months to perfect. The extraordinary attention to detail came courtesy of their creator Percy Smith, a pioneer of early scientific filmmaking and time-lapse photography techniques (see The Birth of a Flower, 1910). Blending nature photography with painstaking laboratory work, Smith and his team produced a steady stream of titles embracing nature's minutiae, from the life cycle of a sweet pea to the 'home-wrecking' tendencies of the cuckoo. Now regrettably overlooked within documentary history, BIF's Secrets of Nature series was described by Paul Rotha in 1930 as "the sheet anchor of the British film industry".

Following a move to more comfortable headquarters at Surbiton in 1924, BIF maintained its military-themed output, culminating in The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927), directed by BIF stalwart Walter Summers. The company also embarked on an interesting programme of feature production, mostly for distribution by associates Pro Patria Films; key personnel included Anthony Asquith, who shot the technically precocious Shooting Stars (co-d. A.V. Bramble, 1927). 1928 saw a further move for the company, this time into a purpose-built studio at Welwyn Garden City, signalling the rapid growth in BIF's status. Asquith remained on board, christening the new facility with The Runaway Princess and A Cottage on Dartmoor (both 1929), the latter a dark thriller co-produced by the Swedish Biograph company.

Despite the growing prominence of features, at its core BIF remained a documentary producer. It also maintained a steady bias towards patriotic fare with Asquith's Gallipoli drama Tell England (co-d. Geoffrey Barkas, 1931) and England Awake (1932), co-directed by Woolfe and the novelist John Buchan, a BIF board member. The Empire was well represented by the likes of Walter Creighton's eccentric One Family (1930) and the docu-dramas Stampede and Stark Nature (both 1932), featuring footage filmed in Sudan by the Court-Treatt party. At the quirkier end of the non-fiction spectrum, Secrets of Nature editor Mary Field contributed such delights as Deferred Payment (1929), a warning of the dangers of syphilis, and The Mystery of Marriage (1932), a hilarious comparison of insect and human mating rituals; Field also made her own short feature for BIF, Strictly Business (co-d. Jacqueline Logan, 1932), an early milestone in British female directorship.

With company finances deteriorating, British Instructional's tenure at the studios they had built would not continue far into the 1930s. A merger with British International Pictures (BIP) in 1931 bought Woolfe some time, but inevitably saw his control eroded, with Pro Patria dissolved in favour of BIP's distribution arm, Wardour Films, and promises of support for BIF's distinctive educational output overshadowed by the larger company's bias towards cheap feature production. With BIF's own features, such as Asquith's musical Dance, Pretty Lady (1932), running at a loss, the increasingly marginalised Woolfe resigned from the board of directors in 1933 and left Welwyn to set up British Independent Productions (later Gaumont-British Instructional), taking the Secrets of Nature series and BIF staff, including Mary Field and Percy Smith, with him. In future years, the BIF name existed mainly for use by Pathé in marketing its educational back catalogue.

Simon McCallum

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)

Visually impressive reconstruction of two First World War naval battles

Thumbnail image of Birth of a Flower, The (1910)Birth of a Flower, The (1910)

Beautiful and groundbreaking stop-motion film

Thumbnail image of Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)

Late silent feature by Anthony Asquith - a dark tale of thwarted love

Thumbnail image of Mystery of Marriage, The (1932)Mystery of Marriage, The (1932)

A comparison of various species' courtship and marriage rituals

Thumbnail image of Shooting Stars (1928)Shooting Stars (1928)

Anthony Asquith's first film, a satirical romantic drama set in a film studio

Thumbnail image of Stampede (1930)Stampede (1930)

Story of a nomadic tribe seeking water in North Africa

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Secrets of Nature (1922-33)Secrets of Nature (1922-33)

Groundbreaking early natural history film series

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)

Director, Producer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)

Director, Producer, Photography

Thumbnail image of Summers, Walter (1896-1973)Summers, Walter (1896-1973)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of British International Pictures (1926-33)British International Pictures (1926-33)

Production Company

Thumbnail image of Welwyn StudiosWelwyn Studios

Film Studio

Related media