How to look for records of... Government film-making and the film industry
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
The National Archives has a significant collection of records relating to the production and regulation of film by government. However, it is unlikely to be the best place to start if you are trying to research film more generally.
This guide will help you to research:
- government as a film-maker for cinema and television
- government regulation of and support for the film industry
Most of the films made by the UK Government are held elsewhere – notably at the British Film Institute (BFI) and the Imperial War Museum (IWM). This is changing with the advent of digital film (see section 2.2).
Government has used film to educate, inform and influence populations at home and abroad. Some examples of areas covered by government-made films are:
- recruitment and training of armed forces personnel
- war-time propaganda
- public information – for example around health and child-care
- information about industry and agriculture
- promotion of Britain and the Commonwealth abroad
2. Government film-making bodies
Since the 1920s, a number of government bodies have fulfilled the government’s film-making remit. Most of them are described here.
2.1 Empire Film Unit 1926-1933
The Empire Film Unit was part of the Empire Marketing Board and shared its remit to promote trade across the Empire. The Film Unit employed some pioneering film makers such as John Grierson, Basil Wright, Harry Watt, Paul Rotha and Evelyn Spice.
2.2 General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit 1933-1940
The GPO Film Unit was established in 1933 as part of the Public Relations department. At that time, the GPO was the largest UK employer and was responsible for developing a national communications infrastructure. The films, such as the highly acclaimed Night Mail (1939), were a way of promoting understanding and good customer relations.
2.3 Colonial Film Unit 1939-1955
The Colonial Film Unit was part of the Colonial Office’s Public Relations department. Films contributed to the publicity and propaganda about the colonies in Britain and abroad.
2.4 Crown Film Unit 1940-1952
The GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information (MOI) in 1940 and at this point changed its name to the Crown Film Unit. The unit produced propaganda and information films during the war, and continued to use and develop the documentary format. When the MOI closed in 1946, the unit became part of the Central Office of Information.
2.5 Ministry of Information 1939-1946
The Ministry of Information (MOI) incorporated the Crown Film Unit and produced wartime propaganda and information films including Humphrey Jennings’ Words for Battle (1941) and Listen to Britain (1942).
2.6 Central Office of Information 1946-2011
The Central Office of Information (COI) was responsible for the production of numerous films looking at subjects relating to life in the United Kingdom and parts of the former British Empire.
3. Where you can see films produced by government
Government films produced by the Empire, General Post Office, Colonial and Crown Film Units, and the Central Office of Information have been collected and preserved by three main institutions. These are The National Archives, the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum, with the BFI holding the largest collection. Some films are available to view online from these organisations. The British Universities Film and Video Council has also made some government films available online.
3.1 The National Archives
Use our website and media player to watch a selection of public information films produced by the Central Office of Information between 1945 and 2005. They were part of national campaigns to increase public awareness of various health, safety, welfare, education and rights issues. Many of the films were aimed at children and were shown during breaks in children’s television programmes.
The National Archives also has some born digital films. To date, this is a small part of our collections but is likely to grow. Examples include:
- Films from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) in record series LOC 5
- Video evidence from the Iraq Inquiry in record series CHIL 2
- Video evidence from the Inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko in record series LITV 2
To find digital films in our catalogue, search it using the file endings MOV, WMV, MP4 or MPG as search terms, adding a date range to narrow your results. To search using all of these terms at the same time, copy and paste the Boolean search below into the search box in our catalogue, again using the date fields to help target the search:
“MOV” OR “WMV” OR “MP4” OR “MPG”
You can also use the advanced search page to construct searches. For example, you could use the ‘any of these words’ boxes to enter up to three of the file extensions as your search terms.
3.2 British Film Institute
The British Film Institute (BFI) has its own archive, the BFI National Archive, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. It holds a substantial collection of government films covering many aspects of life in Britain.
Some can be viewed in the BFI Free collection online. To see those not available online you will need to contact the BFI to make arrangements to view films for research. Alternatively, you can buy collections of government films on DVD from the BFI shop.
Some of the government films at the BFI archive are preserved and presented by the BFI on behalf of The National Archives (as opposed to being part of the BFI’s own collections). You can view descriptions of these collections in our catalogue, as follows:
- Public Information Films produced by the Crown Film Unit 1940-1952 in series INF 33. These include short information and documentary films, as well as longer drama documentaries. During the Second World War, films were used to inform and influence the public. Post-war films covered the British Empire, health and medicine, science, the natural world, arts and culture, and everyday life in towns and the countryside.
- Films produced by the Ministry of Information and Central Office of Information 1931-2011 in series INF 34. These films cover health and welfare, industry and culture, crime prevention, food and farming, and the environment.
- Films made by government departments and agencies 1900-2011 in series CD 1.
- Films produced by the National Coal Board and British Coal Corporation in series COAL 105. Includes the long running cinemagazine ‘Mining Review’ 1948-1992.
3.3 The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) film collection includes many government films, some of which can be viewed online. Search the IWM film collection using film title, director, production company or lead cast members. Otherwise, try searches for terms such as:
- Crown film unit
- GPO film unit
- COI (Central Office of Information)
- War Office/Army
- Air Ministry/Royal Air Force/RAF
- Admiralty/Royal Navy
3.4 British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC): Learning on Screen
The British Universities Film and Video Council website has over 600 examples of the cinemagazine production, ‘Roundabout’. These were made between 1962 and 1974 to promote Britain specifically to audiences in Asia.
4. Sources for researching government involvement in film-making
In this section of the guide you will find advice on how to search for records that document government involvement in film-making, including policy and regulation documents, contracts, commentary on films and so on. Here we help you focus your searching in record series and departments likely to produce the most fruitful and comprehensive results. However, it is also worth trying some speculative searches across our catalogue as records relating to film are scattered among many departments.
Try searching the catalogue using terms such as ‘film’ and ‘cinema’. You can focus your search by adding dates. On the search results page, use the filters on the left to select criteria to make your results more relevant.
If you’re looking for files on regulation you could add relevant department references such as BT for Board of Trade, FV for Department of Trade and Industry or T for Treasury.
Similarly, to find files relating to film commissioning and production from specific government departments, use the department reference to narrow down your search results – for example WO for War Office or FO for Foreign Office.
If you don’t know the department reference go to the catalogue advanced search option and in the section headed ‘Held by’, select ‘Search The National Archives’. This opens up additional search options. In the section headed ‘Records by government department creators’ you can enter the name of a department and find the relevant reference.
4.1 Ministry of Information and Central Office of Information
A number of series from the Central Office of Information and its predecessors contain references to film production and policy. In particular, the series below are useful. Click on the link in the list to get to the series description page in our catalogue. Then either click on browse to see descriptions of files in the series, or enter search terms to look for something specific from that series.
These cover a selection of the films made or commissioned by the Crown Film Unit, Ministry of Information and Central Office of Information. Some relate to films held at the British Film Institute and Imperial War Museum. Some files are rather bare, but others contain a wealth of useful information. They can include:
- commissioning letters signed by the writer or contractor concerned
- offer and acceptance of contract
- music licence
- music cue sheet
- shot list
- shooting script
- notification of completion
Names of well-known writers, artists and directors can appear in production files. During the Second World War, many now-famous writers and artists worked for the Ministry of Information and some well-known directors began their careers working on government-commissioned films. You might come across names of such people when consulting the physical production files, but they are unlikely to appear in the descriptions of files in our catalogue.
- Monthly divisional reports in INF 8
- Music scores from selected films in INF 15
- Empire and General Post Office Film Library Correspondence in INF 17
- Annual service reports in INF 18
4.2 Foreign Office and the Overseas Information Service
After the Second World War, the newly formed Central Office of Information (COI) worked with the overseas information services of the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Colonial Office, to produce films to promote Britain abroad. As television grew in popularity, films were increasingly made to be broadcast over this medium.
In particular, the cinemagazine format was used, consisting of ‘hard information’ such as political interviews and ‘soft information’ such as segments on fashion trends.
Cinemagazine titles included:
- This Week in Britain 1959-1980
- Calendar 1960-69
- Roundabout 1962-1974
- London Line 1964-1979
Selected production files from cinemagazines are in record series INF 6.
To find out more about the development of policy and practice in this area:
- Search our catalogue using search terms such as ‘overseas information service’ and ‘overseas television service’.
- Select records held by ‘The National Archives only’
- Apply dates to your search
- Refine your results using the filters on the search results page
4.3 The armed forces
The armed forces have used film for their own internal purposes such as training and recruitment, as well as for propaganda. The War Office was at times also asked to provide support for commercial films by loaning equipment and making personnel and locations available.
The First World War was the first time that film had been used for propaganda. In 1916 a War Office Cinematograph Committee was set up and operators were sent to combat zones to record events. These were made into newsreels as well as longer features.
The government also produced ‘film-tags’. These were short films – usually about two minutes long – for home audiences. They were attached to the end of longer films, and usually carried a message such as ‘Save Coal’ or ‘Buy War Loans’. It was estimated that film-tags were seen by about 10 million people.
To find files relating to the armed forces and film:
- Go to the advanced search of our catalogue
- Enter WO, AIR or ADM (the references for War Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty records) in the ‘search for or within references’ box
- Search with keywords such as film, kinema and cinema; combining ‘film AND’ with some of the following keywords may also prove worthwhile:
- provision (includes providing support for commercial films)
4.4 The British Council
The British Council was responsible for developing cultural and commercial links between the UK and other countries. To find records relating to the use of film in this area, search our catalogue using terms such as ‘British Council’ AND film.
4.5 The National Coal Board and British Coal Corporation
Coal mining was an important aspect of the UK’s industrial policy after the Second World War, and hundreds of thousands of workers were employed in the industry. The films created by the Coal Board were intended to inform and encourage support for the coal mining industry by the British public.
Search our catalogue with terms such as ‘Coal AND film’ to find records relating to the National Coal Board film-making policies and processes.
5. Sources for researching government regulation and support of the film industry
5.1 The Board of Trade
The Board of Trade files are a rich source of information about the regulation and support of the film industry. To get a sense of what you might find, try browsing through the Films subseries of BT 64.
Following the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, exhibitors and distributors had to use a percentage (or quota) of British made films. Search our catalogue for reference to the film quotas.
Board of Trade files include records of bankruptcies amongst directors and film companies, and cinemas going bust. Use the advanced search function in our catalogue to search within files from the Board of Trade (reference BT) with terms such as:
- film AND dissolved
- cinema AND dissolved
- director AND bankruptcy
- cinema AND bankruptcy
5.2 The Eady Levy and British Film Fund Agency
The Eady Levy was a tax on box-office receipts introduced to help the British film industry compete against American producers. It was voluntary when it was first introduced in 1950 but became compulsory under the 1957 Cinematograph Films Act.
Funds raised by the levy were managed by the British Film Fund Agency which allocated them back to exhibitors and to makers of ‘British-made’ films. To qualify as British-made, films had to be mostly shot in the UK or the Commonwealth with a largely British cast and crew.
To find files relating to the Eady Levy and British Film Fund Agency, search our catalogue using a date range and keywords such as:
- Film levy
- British Film Production Fund
- British Film Fund Agency
Alternatively, use the advanced search page and focus on collections from the Board of Trade (BT) and its successors, the Department of Trade and Industry (FV) and the Department of Trade (PJ). Enter your search terms and then add these department codes, (BT, FV, PJ) in the references search boxes to restrict your results to those departments only.
5.3 National Film Finance Corporation
The National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC) made loans to independent producers where there was a reasonable expectation of commercial success. The organisation was initially set up in 1949 with the intention of boosting the British film industry so that private investment would return. In the end, the NFFC continued to make loans until 1985 when it was wound up.
To find files relating to the NFFC, search our catalogue using keywords such as:
- National Film Finance Corporation
5.4 The Treasury and the Inland Revenue
The Treasury and the Inland Revenue played a part in supporting and raising taxes from the film industry. Use the advanced search option of the catalogue, and in the ‘search for or within references’ box enter ‘T’ for Treasury or ‘IR’ for Inland Revenue to restrict the search to records from those departments. Then search using keywords such as film or cinema.
5.5 The Home Office
The Home Office was sometimes drawn in to public debates around controversial films, particularly where they caused social disruption as with Rock Around the Clock in 1956.
Search record series HO 300, which includes files relating to censorship and licensing of entertainments, with keywords such as ‘film’ or ‘cinema’.
The Home Office Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship was set up in 1977 to review the laws concerning obscenity, indecency and violence in publications, displays and entertainments, and to review the arrangements for film censorship.
Record series HO 265 contains evidence and papers from this committee and is described in significant detail in the catalogue. To find evidence submitted by film related bodies and numerous other organisations and individuals that submitted evidence to the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, search within HO 265 using keywords such as film, cinema or cinematograph. Alternatively, try browsing the series.
Legislation has been used to:
- regulate licensing and safety issues in cinemas
- define suitable and unsuitable content for adults and children
- regulate production and exhibition of films, protecting the UK film industry from US competition
- establish support for the film industry with loans through the National Film Finance Corporation
Search our catalogue for files relating to regulation of the film industry using search terms such as:
- film regulation
- cinema regulation
- film quota
- film industry
- film tax
Search Legislation.gov.uk for the text of various Cinematograph and Film acts.
Search Hansard for the text of Parliamentary debates on film and cinema regulation.
Some of the key Acts that affected the industry are:
- 1909 Cinematograph Act – government’s first attempts to regulate the running of cinemas with an emphasis on fire safety due to the use of flammable nitrate film. The Act was strengthened to give local authorities greater powers to regulate safety following the 1929 Glen Cinema disaster in Glasgow.
- 1927 Cinematograph Films Act – for a 10 year period, cinemas were required to show a quota of British films; these were defined as films where 75% of salaries went to British Subjects including a British writer. Films produced throughout the British Empire were covered by the Act
- 1932 Sunday Entertainments Act – regulated Sunday opening for cinemas
- 1938 Cinematographic Films Act – extended the quotas introduced by the 1927 Act, but this time excluded nations in the British Empire.
- 1952 Cinematograph Act – prohibited children from watching ‘unsuitable’ films.
- 1957 Cinematograph Films Act – introduced the Eady levy which took a percentage of box office takings and invested them back into production including through the Children’s Film Foundation Limited
- 1960 Films Act – consolidated previous Acts from 1938 onwards and made it illegal for distributors to force cinemas to take poor quality films along with their blockbusters by putting them together in bundles
- 1985 Cinemas Act – the most current legislation regulating licensing and operation of cinemas. Repealed previous Acts and abolished quotas (which had been suspended since January 1983)
7. Further reading and other resources
Cinema and the State: the Film Industry and the British Government 1927-1984 by Margaret Dickinson and Sarah Street
The Projection of Britain: a History of the GPO Film Unit by Scott Anthony and James Mansell
Protecting the People: The Central Office of Information and the Reshaping of Post-War Britain 1946-2011 by David Welch
Projecting Britain: The Guide to British Cinemagazines edited by Emily Crosby and Linda Kaye
British Film Industry 1980, BFI Library Services leaflet available as a PDF
Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the preservation of the British Empire by Tom Rice, University of California Press, 2019
Empire and Film (Cultural Histories of Cinema) by Lee Grieveson and Colin McCabe, British Film Institute, 2011
7.2 Online articles
A Technicolor Ride Through the 60s and 70s by Linda Kaye (BUFVC website)
War Office Official Topical Budget newsreels BFI, screenonline.org.uk
Empire Marketing Board Film Unit BFI, screenonline.org.uk
GPO Film Unit BFI, screenonline.org.uk
Crown Film Unit BFI, screenonline.org.uk
History of the British Film industry parliament.uk
History of the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) bbfc.co.uk
Files relating to the production or reception of many mainstream British or international films, held at The National Archives compiled by Jo Pugh for Your Archives, available on webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk
British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – the independent regulator with responsibility for the award of film classifications.
British Council film archive – this website has a collection of over 100 short documentaries about wartime Britain, made by the British Council during the 1940s.
BFI National Archive – the British Film Institute promotes and preserves film making and television in the UK. The BFI collections database contains information collected by the BFI since 1933. It holds over 800,000 film titles – including television programmes, documentaries, newsreels, as well as educational and training films. You can search the database in different ways:
- in the simple search function, search for films by title
- in the advanced search function, select ‘Film and Television works’ in the ‘search in’ section and then enter terms like Central Office of Information or COI in the ‘production company’ section
- in the advanced search function, select ‘Persons and institutions’ in the ‘search in’ section and enter terms like Central Office of Information or COI in the ‘name’ section
British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC) – the leading resource for the study of newsreels and cinemagazines. The News on Screen database allows you to search for stories, production documents, cinemagazine series or people.
Colonial Film: Moving images of the British Empire – this website holds detailed information on over 6000 films showing images of life in the former British colonies. Over 150 films are available for viewing online and over 350 of the most important films in the catalogue are presented with extensive critical notes written by the project’s; academic research team.
The ‘spider’ man’s legacy in British animation by Jez Stewart and Andrew Janes
From Pinewood with love by Keith Mitchell
The Archivists’ Guide to Film: The Bridge on the River Kwai by Sarah Castagnetti
The NHS on film by Patrick Russell
The National Archives goes to the movies by Jo Pugh