British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

IUHFC: A Pioneer Organisation

Dr. Peter Bell

Executive Secretary, IUHFC, 1996-2009

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.