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BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)
35mm, black and white, 56 mins
DirectorStuart Legg
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducersJohn Grierson
 Stuart Legg
 Alberto Cavalcanti
ScriptStuart Legg
PhotographyGeorge Noble
 J.D. Davidson
 W. Shenton

Featuring: Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury, David Low, George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley and many others.

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An impressionistic survey of the BBC.

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The most ambitious film yet attempted by the GPO Film Unit, BBC - The Voice of Britain was heralded by one reviewer as "by far, the most important 'documentary' that has yet been made." It was also the most expensive documentary to have been made costing more than £7000 and it was probably the first GPO film to use synchronised sound. The impressionistic approach did not go down well with many contemporary critics, who were disappointed at the lack of detail about how the BBC really worked.

The film is very much a collaborative venture, rather like the picture of the BBC it portrays, however it is particularly Stuart Legg, with his roles as director, producer and editor, who was responsible for the inventive technique of the film. The montage-style editing suggests the influence of Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and the sharp editing is offset by the sinuous camera movements. The soundtrack is highly varied and elaborate, appropriately for a film about the radio service, and is skilfully edited in what was called a 'counterpoint' style.

Unsurprisingly, a relatively large production team was involved in the making of the film. Not all of these were credited, and Alberto Cavalcanti is a notable omission from the credits. Cavalcanti was famous for his experiments in sound and the distinctive soundtrack would support the claim that he contributed to the film. Likewise, Evelyn Spice is generally accepted as director of the sequence at one of the regional radio stations - and yet is uncredited.

The film is longer than other documentaries of the time and features appearances by many luminaries of the day, including H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley and George Bernard Shaw, as well as a memorable performance by Humphrey Jennings as one of the witches in a recording of Macbeth. There are delightful touches and odd moments throughout the film, perhaps epitomised by the dancing girls lined up in their skimpy finery putting on a dramatic visual spectacle - all for the radio.

Ros Cranston

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Addressing The Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1'.

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Video Clips
1. The executives (3:45)
2. The sound department (3:15)
3. Macbeth on the air (2:09)
4. Children's Hour (4:09)
5. Distinguished visitors (3:56)
Complete film (58:45)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)
McKinney, Nina Mae (1909-1967)
Reith, Lord John (1889-1971)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1935