The AP, British Movietone and YouTube: a million minutes of world history online

British Movietone News
British Movietone News

If there was ever a week to emphasise the power of archive film, this is it. On the weekend, the Sun on Sunday released what appeared to be home movie footage from the early 1930s of Edward VIII apparently teaching the young Princess Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother to make Nazi salutes. Not surprisingly, those few frames of film have caused a media storm – with debates raging over whether Edward was not the only Nazi sympathiser in the family, or the footage should have been released at all. It seems to me that the princess is more interested in showing off her Scottish dancing moves than practising the salute – she is on holiday at Balmoral after all. And her young sister Margaret really isn’t in the least bit involved. But what do I know? This is home movie footage, of course, not intended to be scrutinised by the public, even if it may after all hint at some disturbing information in the public interest.

The fact remains, however, that this film is owned and still guarded, privately. If there is context to this clip, we are denied it, because all that has been released is a silent, heavily watermarked 17-second snatch on the Sun website. In the era of FOI requests (the Freedom of Information Act is 10 years old this year), post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, after MPs’ expenses and the Prince Charles letters, full disclosure and open access is where it’s at.

And it is in this climate of free access to information that the Associated Press and British Movietone have decided to release a monumental slice of their archive on to YouTube today, where it can be seen, shared and embedded by the public. There are two news YouTube channels as of today: one for the AP Archive and one for British Movietone. More than a million minutes of newsreel footage has been digitised and uploaded, creating what the archive call “a view-on-demand visual encyclopedia, offering a unique perspective on the most significant moments of modern history”. 

The YouTube channels will comprise a collection of more than 550,000 video stories dating from 1895 to the present day. For example, viewers can see video from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modelling the fashions of the 1960s

For silent enthusiasts, the fact that this upload includes the Henderson collection of news footage will be particularly welcome. In effect, this is not a release of footage (many of these films were always available to watch on the AP Archive site), but a way of liberating it. 

Alwyn Lindsey, AP’s director of international archive, says: “We are always astonished at the sheer breadth of footage that we have access to, and the upload to YouTube means that, for the first time, the public can enjoy some of the oldest and most remarkable moments in history.” According to the archive, this is “the largest upload of historical news content on the video-sharing platform to date”. Imagine if other film libraries were to follow suit …

“Making this content available on YouTube is a wonderful initiative from AP and British Movietone that will breathe new life into their footage and no doubt delight our global community – from students researching history projects to curious culture-vultures and the billions in between,” says YouTube’s Stephen Nuttall. “It’s an historical treasure trove that will give YouTube users around the world a moving window into the past and I can’t wait to explore it.

Right you are Stephen. I have already had a chance to nose around the British Movietone films that have been YouTubed this morning, and there are some gems in there – many from the cache of silent material called the Henderson Collection. British Movietone newsreels began in 1929, but the archive acquired a stash of silent-era material when it bought up the archive of one George Henderson, a travelling showman from Stockton in County Durham

This comprises most of the 1890s and 1900s material now on AP’s YouTube channel. While the titles and dates may often be approximations, there is much here to enjoy as you feed your newsreel addiction: from images of wars and royal appearances to WG Grace celebrating his 50th birthday in 1898:

The earliest piece of footage here reflects Henderson’s theatrical career: a simple hat act performed by two now ghostly clowns, dated 1895.

One of the most enjoyable clips is this parcel of scenes from the 1908 London Olympics:

And for Spurs fans, there’s enjoyment to be had watching them triumph in a London derby against Chelsea, whose goalie is seen here grumpily scooping up the ball from the back of his own net.

There are lots of actuality films, including some incredibly clear footage of British towns and cities at the turn of the century. I hugely enjoyed this ride on a Blackpool tram form 1896 (knowing I would make the same journey myself a few times, 90-odd years later!):

Some urban scenes are slightly more sophisticated, such as these scenes of the London Fire Brigade in action, with editing that is precocious for the attached 1896 date.

In this clip from 1911, shots are fired and building consumed by flames during the Siege of Sidney Streeteast London.

From the same year, this footage of the Liverpool dockers on strike includes a pan over the trucks of coal left on the quay when they down tools, as well as the temporary army camp nearby.

There is an impressive amount of material from the Boer War, including this curio: a dramatic re-enactment of a skirmish:

And these lengthy scenes of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are unexpectedly chilling:

But one of the most haunting British clips is this film of the launch of HMS Albion in 1898. Thankfully, you can’t see the terrible events in this clip, but as the boat launched, the wave it made capsized the jetty full of spectators, and 34 people were killed:

Following the Great War, this clip from 1919 shows the passage from France to London of the “Unknown Warrior”, and the first glimpse of the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

I have to leave you with some fun though. So first, here’s a lion in a California zoo tussling with his keeper at bath time:

And now, my absolute favourite thing (so far) in the archive: a paean to the daily newspaper in 1921, on the occasion of the Daily Mail’s 25th birthday:

Which reminds me. Yes there are even some scenes from Balmoral here, but Queen Victoria is doing nothing more provocative here than exercising her dogs:

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