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New Worlds for Old (1938)

Main image of New Worlds for Old (1938)
35mm, 28 mins, black & white
DirectorPaul Rotha
Production CompanyRealist Film Unit
ProducerPaul Rotha
SponsorBritish Commercial Gas Ass.
MusicWilliam Alwyn

Narrator: Alistair Cooke

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The historic background of England's gas industries and their contribution to social and economic life.

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Director Paul Rotha later became a little embarrassed by his New Worlds for Old; his autobiography laments, "it was a cod film and I was in no serious mood when I wrote and made it". Yet both its technique and its subject were in deadly earnest.

The film's sardonic style demonstrates the degree to which Rotha had gained a mastery of the documentary form in his first seven years as a jobbing director. This manifests itself in virtuoso spoofing of several existing British documentary genres, a rather arch script, and some joke sequences. A score by William Alwyn acts in counterpoint to the film's humorous approach. The attentive viewer will spot sideswipes at The Smoke Menace (d. John Taylor, 1937), We Live in Two Worlds (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1937), Dinner Hour (d. Edgar Anstey, 1935), How Gas is Made (d. Anstey, 1935), Coal Face (d. Cavalcanti, 1935) and several more.

The film's most interesting feature in cinematic terms is its status as the first film to use Rotha's own invention, the multi-voice narration, whereby the film's themes are argued-out between several commentators. On a Rockefeller Fellowship to New York in 1937-38, he had witnessed the New Deal Federal Theater 'living newspaper' theatre shows, in which news stories were acted-out, often with a voice from the audience interrogating those on stage. He applied the idea in this film by having several voices interrupt Alistair Cooke's main narration.

The film is an extended comparison between the merits of gas and electricity, both then derived primarily from coal. Rivalry was intense in this period because construction of the national electricity grid had made it a real competitor with the older fuels for both industrial and domestic use.

As the film was made on gas industry sponsorship, it is little surprise that here electricity comes off worse. The treatment derived from the reports of Political and Economic Planning (PEP), a reforming organisation which, after the Depression hit the British economy in 1931, set out to analyse the factors affecting the state of British institutions and services. PEP was highly influential on account of their extended membership of experts, including biologist Julian Huxley and journalist Max Nicholson. Their interests ranged from the proper conduct of scientific research to the state of the health services, and their influence can be seen in several other documentaries, including Enough to Eat? (d. Edgar Anstey, 1936).

Tim Boon

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Video Clips
Production stills
Enough to Eat? (1936)
Rotha, Paul (1907-1984)