Newsreels

Source: Extract from Len England, Mass-Observation File Report 215: Newsreels (June), 19 June 1940, reproduced from http://bufvc.ac.uk/wp-content/media/2009/06/mo_report_215.pdf. Original file report held at Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex

Text: Mention was made in the last report of the horrifying effect that some newsreel sequences had upon members of the audience. This effect is becoming more obvious. An observer in Streatham heard one elderly working-class woman say ‘Gertie and I cried all through the newsreel. Those poor boys out there in all that. The pictures were terrible’. In a Watford cinema another observer heard one girl say to her friend ‘I don’t think they should show you this, do you?’ at shots of air raid havoc. In the Picturegoer (15.6.40) a letter was published as follows:

There has been much criticism in the past on newsreels showing us the horrors of modern warfare in China, Spain, etc., and although we felt strongly about these presentations they did not strike near enough to make us protest publicly. But the war newsreel of to-day is horrifying us. This week we went to our local cinema to see ADVENTURE IN DIAMONDS and SPATS TO SPURS, a light programme calculated to make us forget what might be happening ‘over there’. But did we enjoy our programme? No, because we viewed it through a haze of tears and the horrible quickening of nerves as we saw our boys moving up to the Belgian front.

As the war continues in all its fury, are we to be subjected to further horror, are we to watch our husbands bombarded, are we to see the shattered limbs of our brothers lying on the battlefield, the anguished bodies of our sons carried in on stretchers? No, unless the film distributors realise that we cannot sit in a luxury cinema watching these ghastly things, unless they relegate the war newsreel to its proper place, the New[s] Theatre, we will stay outside the cinema for the duration. This is our resolve and there are thousands of mothers and wives who feel the same.

A further letter commented on the same thing:

Some of the recent newsreels have been in very bad taste; an outstanding example being the showing of dead bodies lying outside a bombed Belgian hospital. Cannot the censor prevent the issue of these pictures which can only bring pain and suffering to those loved ones on active service. After all, we go to the cinema to be carried away from our troubles.

The main response to these shots continues to be a very high degree of comment and signs of horror at the most unpleasant shots. There is no indication in this that the shots are popular but they still constitute the bulk of newsreels and are accompanied by such remarks as ‘There are other sights too grim to show you’. To shots other than of air raids the response is increasing. In the British Movietone News, 13.6.40, an item called ‘The Italian Assassin’ began with close-ups of Mussolini. Obs watched this reel twice and on each occasion there was an immediate and widespread outburst of hisses, boos, catcalls and laughs. Obs has never seen this on any other occasion though twice at least the newsreels have contained shots of Hitler himself. The outcry lasted for nearly a minute on each occasion.

Response to political and military figures has increased; Reynaud, Weygand and Gort have been clapped every time they have appeared though none of the three have been applauded at all before the last two weeks. There has been very prolonged applause for Churchill every time, and at a West End theatre where response is usually very low a man called out ‘Well done’ when the Prime Minister appeared and clapping followed.

The royal family, however, receive less applause than before. The British Movietone reel mentioned above was observed with two very highly responsive audiences; the last item was a fairly long sequence of the King presenting medals at Buckingham Palace; the Queen was watching from the balcony. At the first showing of this the King was applauded for 2 seconds — Reynaud had received 5 seconds applause a minute before — at the second showing there was no clapping at all. On each occasion the shots of the Queen were greeted in dead silence.

The most important newsreel item in the last few weeks has been the Dunkirk evacuation; shots of this were obtained by cameramen on the spot, and by others lining the train route from the coast home. They could not, however, be released immediately and there was an opportunity by skilful cutting to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the situation. Paramount and Movietone in the main let the shots speak for themselves and did not give them much commentary; GB produced a patriotic commentary which will be mentioned further; and Pathe blended the shots into a sequence that gained a higher response of applause than anything else yet noted by an observer. The sequence began with soldiers marching into Dunkirk; then came a word of congratulation to the Navy and the Air Force for their assistance, this being illustrated with stock shots; the actual embarkation; then compliments to the French army, to the nurses and other women helpers, to the wounded, finally shots of the landing, the train journey, and a few words from the troops. The whole item lasted about four minutes; for nearly a quarter of that time, that is, a full minute, there was applause. Hitherto the loudest applause had been 10 seconds for the survivors of the Altmark.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. Cinema-going was included among its social surveys, and during 1939-1945 it paid particular attention to newsreels. Data from the original observers’ reports were collated into File Reports, and all of the film File Reports were compiled by Len England. This particular report is on audience reaction to newsreels in June 1940. The newsreels referred to are British Movietone News, Pathe Gazette, Gaumont-British News and British Paramount News.

Links: Copy of full file report at News on Screen

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