1947 was a good year for British cinema. Two of the Top 100 British Films were released that year – Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock and Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus. Cinema audiences would also have seen regular newsreel items under headings like Britain can make it, but they would have been unaware that these were produced with government assistance and funding. They may also have seen comic shorts starring cartoon character ‘Charley’, telling them about national insurance, schools and the building of new towns. These cartoons were signed by the Central Office of Information, but they were made in the slick style of Hollywood and their propaganda content was not obvious to audiences who were used to being entertained by Mr Magoo and Daffy Duck but new to the use of such media for official purposes.
Both the newsreels and the ‘Charley’ cartoons were part of an astonishing experiment by the post-war Attlee government in the use of cinema. For, having pledged initially to abolish the Ministry Of Information and drastically cut information services costs, the government then embarked on the biggest film-making spree of any peacetime administration before or since. In its six years in office, it made more than 500 films – 433 of them in the years 1946-1949 alone.
There was some justification for this apparent extravagance. In the 1940s, cinema was the dominant form of mass entertainment, having grown dramatically over the previous decade. Around 300 new cinemas were built in the 1930s to satisfy demand and audiences flocked to see both feature films and newsreels. Cinema attendance rose by 50 per cent from 1939 to 1942, as people sought both entertainment and news of the war, and admissions continued to climb to a peak in 1946 with an astounding 1.6 billion visits that year – equivalent to every man, women and child in Britain going to the pictures 33 times. As well as cinemas, films were also shown in the workplace, in clubs and village halls.
A second reason for government involvement was that, although well-established as entertainment, film was still relatively new as a means of communicating official policies in peacetime, so it was partly an experiment to test its effectiveness. And most important of all, the Labour government was making dramatic changes in areas of life that affected everyone – changes that had to be universally understood and accepted. To ignore film as a tool of explanation would be like ignoring television today.
The Economic Information Unit set up under Herbert Morrison and headed by his PR chief, Clem Leslie, offered government film footage and subject ideas to the British newsreel companies – Movietone, Paramount, Pathe, Universal and Gaumont-British News. Most of them were evidently receptive to free footage and subjects offered by the government – just as they had been in wartime – because it could help keep their production costs down.
By October 1947, Leslie was already able to report to the Economic Planning Board that “a method of liaison is now in operation which enables the newsreels to draw fairly widely on official suggestions about material and enables departments and the Economic Information Unit to put their proposals forward effectively. In one week recently the newsreels contained eight different items on industrial and economic subjects, all originating from departments”.
Through Leslie’s Economic Information Unit, the Government was now able – without public knowledge – to insert stories into the commercial newsreels being shown to millions every week in local cinemas throughout the country without the source being revealed.