British Universities Film & Video Council

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Articles and Mass Observation Reports

Yesterday's NewsThis page includes a number of articles on newsreel and cinemagazine history. A number of historical articles appear in the BUFVC publication, Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (November 2002). Also included here are the Mass-Observation reports on newsreel audiences of the Second World War.

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Luke McKernan, Witnessing the Past Film historian Luke McKernan discusses the nature of newsfilm, its use and misuse, and argues that an understanding of its production can only increase its historical value. First published in The Researcher’s Guide to British Newsreels Volume III (BUFVC, 1993).

Nicholas Hiley, Hints to Newsfilm Cameramen Nicholas Hiley introduces and analyses Hints to Newsfilm Cameramen, an illuminating guide to newsreel production in its earliest years, written in 1915 by Pathe news editor P.D. Hugon. First published in The Researcher’s Guide to British Newsreels Volume III (BUFVC, 1993).

Nicholas Hiley and Luke McKernan, Reconstructing the news: British newsreel documentation and the British Universities Newsreel Project Hiley and McKernan describe the history and development of the British Universities Newsreel Database, and in particular its programme of digitisation of newsreel production documents and ways in which these might be used by the historian. First published in Film History vol. 13 (2001). Reproduced with permission.

Linda Kaye, Digitising History Linda Kaye, Project Manager of the British Universities Newsreel Scripts Project (BUNSP), assesses the problems, solutions and issues raised by the digitisation of 80,000 newsreel production documents. First published in Viewfinder no. 44 (October 2001).

Jeff Hulbert, The Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland The Newsreel Association represented the interests of the British newsreels between 1937 and 1960. This guide to its minute books reveals the rich amount of information about the way the newsreels operated, argued, collaborated and defended themselves. This essay is published, without its detailed annotations, in Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (BUFVC, 2002).

Judith Cowan, Women at Work for War! Women at Work for the Things of Peace Judith Cowan’s essay is a section from her dissertation for the MA in History of Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck College. It considers the representation of women in the British propaganda newsreel, Indian News Parade, which ran in India 1943-1946.

John Turner, Filming History: The Memoirs of John Turner John Turner enjoyed a remarkable career in newsreels, and his memoirs are being published by the BUFVC. Included here are two chapters covering Turner’s filming in India during Independence and the assassination of Gandhi, and the decline of the newsreels.

Peter Hopkinson, The Screen of Change ‘Film and Politics’ is a chapter from film-maker Peter Hopkinson’s as-yet unpublished memoir and historical study. Peter Hopkinson has generously allowed the BUFVC to publish this chapter from his work, which documents his thoughts and experiences on filming political issues, in particular documenting his work with The March of Time, the American news cinemagazine (it also ran a British edition) of the 1930s-50s which revolutionised the presentation of news and documentary material on the screen, and is most familiar from the pastiche in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.


Mass-Observation was a social research organisation founded in 1937, which monitored ordinary people’s lives by a system of reports produced by unpaid ‘observers’. Cinema-going was included among its social surveys, and during the period 1939-1945 it monitored the newsreels, producing an invaluable picture of cinema audience’s reactions to the newsreels in war-time, particularly for the early years of the war. Data from the original observers’ reports were collated into File Reports. All of the film File Reports were compiled by Len England (LE), and all of the File Reports on newsreels are reproduced here, by permission of the Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex. An article by Mass-Observation’s co-founder Tom Harrisson argues for the importance of the study of cinema audiences in wartime.

File Report no. 16, 7 January 1940 Len England reports on a subject of particular interest to him, the use of fakery in the newsreels. This report is also reproduced in Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader.

File Report no. 22, 28 January 1940 A detailed account of the newsreels from the outbreak of war to the date of the report, 28 January 1940. It covers the subjects and personalities featured in the newsreels, tabulating audience reactions, and includes a questionnaire on audience attitudes towards the newsreels. This report is also reproduced in Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader.

File Report no. 141, 27 May 1940 A report on the newsreels January-May 1940, covering subjects, personalities, developments over the period in question, and general tendencies. It notes the rise of stories on sport, home affairs and Dominion troops; the emphasis on the forces, particularly the Navy; the declining popularity of the royal family; and the political attitudes of the newsreels.

File Report no. 215, 19 June 1940 Report on the newsreels during June 1940, concentrating on audience attitudes towards ‘horrific’ material, and responses to public figures (notably Winston Churchill) and the Dunkirk evacuation.

File Report no. 314, 2 August 1940 The newsreels’ problems with insufficient war material at this time is noted, also their tactic of producing some longer films similar in style and tone of Ministry of Information shorts. Changes in trends over audience applause are noted, especially their preference for people who are seen to be ‘doing their bit’. This report is also reproduced in Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader.

File Report no. 394, 10 September 1940 A summary of Mass-Observation film work since the beginning of the war: newsreels, special surveys on particular films, Ministry of Information films, analysis of competitions, and the effect of air raids on cinemas.

File Report no. 444, 7 October 1940 Report covering the period May-September 1940, covering the attitude of the newsreels to the problem of news in war-time, audience responses to personalities in the news, and how the Services and air raids are covered by the newsreels. It also considers changes in commentary style and audience attitudes towards propaganda.

File Report no. 524, 11 December 1940 Report on the period October-December 1940, noting the continuance of policies on the selection of material, and audience reactions to personalities, nothing that the most popular figure was US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.

Tom Harrisson, Social Research and the Film In this article written originally for Documentary Newsletter (November 1940), Tom Harrisson, co-founder of Mass-Observation, reports in general on some of Mass-Observation’s research into film audiences, covering feature films, Ministry of Information shorts, and the newsreels. He calls for proper statistical and qualititative measurements of films and their effects upon audiences.

The Mass-Observation Archive is held at the University of Sussex. Its website includes a catalogue of its holdings, including the File Reports and Topic Collections (containing original Observers’ reports from which the File Reports were then compiled).

The opinions expressed in articles are strictly those of individual authors and do not necessarily represent views or policy of the British Universities Film & Video Council.