Film and the Historian

IUHFC: A Pioneer Organisation

The InterUniversity History Film Consortium (IUHFC) was founded four decades ago by two far-sighted historians at the University of Leeds, Nicholas Pronay and John Grenville. At a time when modern history was regarded within the profession as being mainly about analysis of written records, the Consortium’s aim was to promote the study of film, especially newsfilm, as source material essential for understanding twentieth-century history; and thereby to exhibit the defining role played by cinema in the moulding and mirroring of public opinion in the age of mass communications. It was a pioneering venture, and it has been vindicated by the immense expansion over recent years in university courses exploring the dynamic interplay between cinema and history in contemporary times.

The idea was to research the newsreel archives with a view to selecting material that could be presented in a format for school and university teaching, which before the advent of video in the 1980s meant film. This could be purchased, or more commonly in the early days, hired, from the British Universities Film Council (BUFC). The Consortium’s productions took two forms. Firstly, the Archive Series gathered together a selection, running to about half an hour in length, of representative news stories pertaining to a particular topic. For example, two of the early ones focused on leading politicians, Chamberlain and Baldwin. Each story was preceded by a visual caption, briefly indicating the theme and purpose of the selection. More detailed information was provided in a booklet, which established context, discussed general principles and gave commentary on each selection. Secondly, the Historical Studies in Film were documentaries, about an hour’s length, covering a broad topic; as, for example, the Consortium’s very first production, on the Munich Crisis. These mixed film material together with maps, photographs, charts etc, and had a voice-over commentary. An early decision was that these be spoken by professionals, rather than the academic authors; an interesting example being Neil Kinnock, who did the commentary for a production about the Great Depression. The arrival of video meant it was now possible to make productions in a more user-friendly format, switching the emphasis from hire to purchase. It was also a format with enhanced educational potential, as students could more easily work on their own, rewinding and reviewing material, thereby improving the value of the interactive experience. The early films, as well as the new, were transferred to this format, although some demand for films did persist, and the first video-only production was not until the 1990s. As video came under challenge from new formats, one later production, on the Cold War, was also made on an interactive CD-ROM. By then, however, the Consortium’s viability, in an era of cheap, easily available materials and proliferating new formats, notably DVD, was in decline. The last production, on the Labour Party, appeared in 1998.

Originally, before video, the Consortium historians carried out their research in the libraries of the newsreel companies, Gaumont British, Pathé and British Movietone. Later they were able to select material, which was put onto videotape, and viewed in the home university. One of the problems of the early research was recalling large quantities of visual material which could not easily be revisited, a difficulty which video, by bringing research to the door, overcame. A simple technique employed by early researchers was to make a tape recording of the soundtrack; this acted as a potent aide mémoire, as much of the message in the newsreels came from the music and the commentary; it proved, by this method, relatively easy to recall the visuals, and thus make the material selection for the final production. The Consortium could not have functioned in commercially viable form had it not been for the generous concessionary rates which, often via the medium of dedicated company librarians, rendered both research and royalty costs affordable. This was underpinned by an understanding that all IUHFC material be used solely for educational purposes, and only within the UK. The accompanying booklets, written by the author, or authors, of each production, were based upon primary study, not only into the newsreel archives, but also in specialist fields, reflecting cutting edge research; promoting publication in other directions too, helping prime the outstanding historical scholarship which has characterised British Universities over a generation. The IUHFC has sixteen productions to its credit, averaging two per year during its heyday. Nine of these are part of the series Historical Studies in Film. They cover the Munich crisis, the outbreak of the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Winter War, the Great Depression, Fascism, British rearmament in the 1930’s, the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture, and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The other seven, in the Archive Series, include Baldwin, Chamberlain, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Anglo-French alliance, the USA in the 1930s, and the pre-War Labour Party. They vary considerably in approach, reflecting individual expertise, and also general changes in the perception of historical film over the contemporary era. Thus, early productions, like the Munich film, sought essentially to broaden a topic, previously addressed primarily through written sources, by engaging also with the visual record, then a surprisingly neglected source within academia. They employ film to tell the historical story. Later productions, however, sought more specifically to address the film record itself: interrogating the original material, its purpose, how it was edited, and the usage of news film as political propaganda. This trend matched the rising interest in the history of propaganda and its relation to politics growing up in universities during the 1980s, itself driven by prominent members of the IUHFC, like Nicholas Pronay and Philip Taylor, members of the School of History at Leeds University, who founded the Institute of Communications Studies, dedicated to the study of international communications and mass media. Examples of productions which directly address propaganda themes are those portraying the newsreel image of France, and of the USA, in British newsreels, and the documentaries upon British rearmament, and the Soviet Union in World War II. Mostly, Consortium productions are based mainly upon British newsreels, though one, on Soviet collectivisation film, a collaborative venture with Moscow University, draws on Russian footage which had not been accessible until the fall of Communism.

The IUHFC was a self-financing, non-profit making organisation, devoted solely to scholarship, research and educational enhancement; and as such, dovetailed with the mission of BUFC. Member institutions contributed a small annual fee; this, together with sales constituted the sole working capital from which new productions were financed. Individual researchers’ costs were paid by the home university. The productions were advertised and distributed by the BUFC. Most were made at the University of Leeds. Funds were occasionally used to engage with other film-related organisations, such as the International Association of Media and History (IAMHIST), the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and the British Film Institute. It participated in, and helped sponsor, high profile film and media conferences such as: ‘The Story of the Century II’, the 2nd International Newsfilm Conference at the National Film Theatre in London, 1998, with the BFI, the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA), the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries (FOCAL), the IWM and the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC); and the IAMHIST Conference, ‘Television and History’, at Leeds University in 1999. Other conferences have included ‘Film and propaganda 1914-1945’; ‘Britain and the Cinema during the Second World War’; and ‘Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Cinema’. Since ceasing new productions in 2000, the Consortium has used its remaining funds to promote research into film, sponsor conferences and secure, through BUFVC, an on-line archive of its productions.

Over the years an impressive array of eminent names from the historical profession have been associated with the IUHFC, including James Joll, Donald Watt, David Dilks, Arthur Marwick and Hugh Thomas. The Consortium has had amongst its Chairmen, John Ramsden, Philip Taylor and Nicholas Pronay. Professor Pronay’s pioneering expertise in the newsreels was brought to a television audience during the 1970s in the series ‘Propaganda with Facts’. Indeed, the IUHFC has proved more than a consortium of universities―it has been a consortium of the finest minds in modern historical research. It is to be hoped that a new generation of historians will continue to exploit the immense research potential still inherent in the newsreels, continuing in the tradition of a remarkable pioneer organisation, the Inter-University History Film Consortium.

Dr. Peter Bell
Executive Secretary, IUHFC, 1996-2009