When Worlds Collide #105: Exploring Twentieth Century Time Capsules with British Pathé

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 2 May 2014

Time travel is not a technological possibility – at least not yet. Right now, we can travel back and forth in time only in our memories and imagination, often with some help from photographic, sound or moving image recordings.

British Pathe archive logo

Last month, little ‘time capsules’ offering many frozen moments of the 20th century suddenly came within reach of anyone with Internet access. That’s when the British Pathé company uploaded its massive Newsreel archive on to the free video sharing platform YouTube.

All 85,000 of their historic films and footage can now be viewed, in high resolution, at www.youtube.com/britishpathe. Together, these contain some 3,500 hours of filmed history gathered from dozens of countries between 1896 and 1976.

Newsreels were short documentaries capturing highlights of current or recent events. They were typically shown before the main feature in cinemas in Britain, North America and across the Commonwealth until the 1960s, when television news succeeded the format. At their peak, several companies were involved in newsreel production.

British Pathé describes itself as “the world’s finest news and entertainment video film archive”. Its website says: “With their unique combination of information and entertainment, British Pathé’s documentaries, newsreels, serials and films changed the way the world saw itself forever.”

Until now, that archive was accessible only to researchers and film industry professionals. Limited footage was placed on their website (www.britishpathe.com) some years ago – a mere teaser of the vast repository built over decades and managed carefully for over a century.

Now, they have opened the archive doors to one and all. This is unprecedented for professional archives of audio, video and images. Even in this digital age, most still limit access and, understandably, seek to monetise content.

Read my Feb 2009 blogpost: Sharing archives: Will broadcasters (finally) put planet before profit?

Image courtesy  British Pathé

Image courtesy British Pathé

 Open Archive!

Their uncommon decision, British Pathé says, is part of a drive to make archive more accessible.

“Our hope is that everyone, everywhere who has a computer will see these films and enjoy them,” says Alastair White, General Manager of British Pathé. “This archive is a treasure trove unrivalled in historical and cultural significance that should never be forgotten. Uploading the films to YouTube seemed like the best way to make sure of that.”

British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, known for reporting current events in an informative yet entertaining style. The collection includes footage of socio-political events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, sport and culture. The archive is particularly strong on the First and Second World Wars.

Unlike many random videos, films and footage uploaded to YouTube, the British Pathé ones are properly captioned, annotated and keyworded (tagged). These make it easier for searching.

On a recent weekend, I spent many memorable hours browsing through (part of) the massive collection. Enter only with plenty of time to spare!

Of particular interest to us Lankans are the few dozen items tagged as Ceylon – though not all of them deal exclusively with our island (some only peripherally so).

The oldest I could find runs for only 42 seconds, and is simply titled “From Ceylon” (1916). According to its sketchy synopsis, it shows “a party of volunteers who travelled on the torpedoed ‘Ville de Ciotat’ arrive in London to enlist” (in the First World War). It has no sound.


Lipton’s Tea Film “L’industrie Theiere De Ceylan” (1934) also has no sound, but indications are that it once did (the silent era in movies had ended by then). In 10 minutes, it traces the process that grew and produced fine Ceylon Tea on the cool hills of the island. Towards the end, it shows this tea being shipped to London where it is packed and distributed worldwide. See: http://tiny.cc/Liptea


Eighty years on, it is interesting to see how some aspects of the tea industry have been modernised while others – especially the manual tea plucking – are still done exactly the same way.

Wars at home and away

The War Against Malaria (1942) is just over six minutes long, and captures what appears to have been a massive onslaught against the mosquito menace. The synopsis says “all shots appear to be taken at an Indian Medical Corps training camp in Ceylon”, but as the narration is missing, we can only guess about the specifics. http://tiny.cc/Malaria

Clearly, the struggle was one of life and death for the tropical island. Just a few years earlier, during the malaria epidemic of 1934-35, some 2.5 million to 3.5 million episodes were reported, and at least 80,000 people died of the disease. It was a defining moment for our public health – as well as leftist politics (the Suriya Mal movement took hold).

The same year, another newsreel titled Ceylon To-Day (1942) reminded the world how Ceylon was supporting the Allies in their war efforts. It shows forests being cleared to set up a new airfield (Koggala?), while the tea and rubber plantations were boosting production to meet increased demand.

The narrator (always a male!) notes how “tea pickers are nipping buds at double tempo, so that Britain’s stock of tea won’t fall short”. Although some Ceylonese soldiers and officers also served on the far theatres of war, our more decisive contribution was the ‘cuppa’ that really fuelled Bris at war. (Churchill had instructed that tea stocks be stored in different parts of the isles.) See: http://tiny.cc/Cey2Day


Of greater historical significance is Ceylon Gains Independence (1948) which runs into 1 minute and 19 seconds – just long enough to pack highlights of that day in February when the British handed back the administration to our elected leaders. See: http://tiny.cc/CeyInd1.


A longer assembly of footage from the same day can be seen as Ceylon Independence (1948) but it has no sound. This includes more general scenes from the new born nation – the land and (hopeful) people. See: http://tiny.cc/CeyInd2


Visual memory

Several subsequent independence celebrations – during the 1950s and 1960s — have been filmed and edited into short films. There also are moments from Kandy peraheras, major floods, royal visits and religious festivals. The Ceylon collection is thin on lifestyles, but I found one (in colour, 1955) showing how to drape a saree – in 44 seconds!


Some of these contain shades of the exotic and oversimplifications, but then, remember the context: these were meant for average movie-goers living far from our own realities. Many newsreels were made on the run (decades before 24/7 TV news started).

British Pathé currently shares the largest number of archival films online, but they are not alone. Huntley Film Archives, another large independent film library in the UK, has so far placed over 4,600 films on YouTube – including a few old Ceylon items. Explore them at: http://www.youtube.com/HuntleyFilmArchives

There is a more local – and far more detailed – docu film collection at the Government Film Unit (GFU), which has been capturing key moments of our island since the 1940s. That is probably the biggest repository of our island’s collective visual memory, but its preservation has not been a priority for successive governments.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Archives, Broadcasting, Ceylon, cinema, Culture, Documentary Film, Documentary films, Generations, History, Media, Movies, Photography, Sri Lanka, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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