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Revisit bygone Suffolk for free with BFI’s cinematic time machine

PUBLISHED: 18:47 06 April 2020 | UPDATED: 18:19 07 April 2020

Watching the fishing boats land on the beach during a family holiday at Thorpeness. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.

Watching the fishing boats land on the beach during a family holiday at Thorpeness. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.

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Being trapped inside four walls for weeks on end can drive you a little stir crazy. If you can’t escape outside, perhaps you can escape into another age. The BFI’s free Britain on Film collection can allow you to experience the world inhabited by our parents and grandparents

Benjamin Britten holding his dog Clytie in The Red House garden, Aldeburgh, late 1950s His home movies are part of the Britain on Film collection .

Photos courtesy of the Britten-Pears FoundationBenjamin Britten holding his dog Clytie in The Red House garden, Aldeburgh, late 1950s His home movies are part of the Britain on Film collection . Photos courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Sadly, the boffins of this great nation have yet to come up with a time machine. While many may not want to experience the Great Fire of London or risk upsetting Henry VIII with some ill-considered marriage advice, the chance to go back and visit the near-past – perhaps meet grandparents or favoured family members as youngsters – is sometimes rather tempting.

The early years of the 20th century are often depicted as a wonderful time to grow up – an age of endless summers captured in the works of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons or those ripping adventures undergone by The Famous Five.

It was a world that moved at a slower pace and some may say that life was a little gentler. Even those who grew up during the Second World War maintain that they had a wonderful childhood, certainly those who spent their time playing in the Suffolk countryside. While we may not be able to physically journey back into our recent past in our own personal Tardis, the BFI, (formerly the British Film Institute) have given us the next best thing, a window into our past called Britain on Film.

The project gathers together a wide selection of films, both amateur and professional, which capture daily life in the country – everything from county shows, to Royal visits, to home movies of holidays.

The whole project is free to view and is catalogued by date, place and subject. The archive throws open a wonderful window onto those early years of the last century, with films ranging in date from 1900 to 2009 and providing us with a rare opportunity to rediscover hidden histories and forgotten stories of people from across the UK.

Happily, Suffolk features quite prominently with 70 films from all over the county. The majority of the films date from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, the boom time for cine cameras, and you can get a very real sense of how people lived and what Suffolk was like 70 to 100 years ago.

Much of the material for East Anglia was contributed by the East Anglian Film Archive based at the UEA in Norwich. Among the local films on offer are a 1934 family wedding in Felixstowe, a civic procession in Ipswich in 1950, family holidays in Thorpeness in the early 1930s, footage from the 1963 Aldeburgh Festival, beauty contests at Butlins in Clacton in 1948, a family boating trip from Oulton Broad in 1929, Stowmarket Carnival from 1948, Ipswich Street Scenes from 1933, Sudbury’s bicentenary celebrations for Gainsborough in 1927 and the The Countryside Club film series takes a look at Suffolk villages in 1952.

The collection also houses Benjamin Britten’s home movies stretching from the late 1930s to his death in 1976. Footage is presented both in colour and black and white and with and without sound.

Helping to pull the fishing boats ashore during a family holiday at Thorpeness. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.Helping to pull the fishing boats ashore during a family holiday at Thorpeness. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.

Part of the fascination is that it presents you with a familiar world – the roads and buildings are remarkably unchanged – but at the same time it feels like you are observing some bizarre alternate reality.

The street scenes from Ipswich in 1933 are particularly familiar and yet the electric trolly buses give the scenes an other-worldliness. Certainly there appeared to be no rules governing the way the road was used with dozens of cyclists nipping in and out of the traffic, cars crossing on the opposite sides of the road and pedestrians just stepping out in front of vehicles and expecting them to stop.

It’s these everyday scenarios which provide a more immersive sense of stepping back in time than viewing a vintage TV report of a Royal visit.

If film of bicycle-filled, lightly trafficked streets emphasise the differences between then a now, footage of boats on the River Deben at Felixstowe Ferry and days out on the beach in Southwold provide reassurance that some things haven’t changed in the past 85 years – although I don’t think you’d be allowed to go cantering on horseback across Gun Hill today.

Cyril Catchpole, Ipswich Mayor and keen amateur film-maker, leaving Ipswich Town Hall for the 750th Charter Anniversary Procession in 1950. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.Cyril Catchpole, Ipswich Mayor and keen amateur film-maker, leaving Ipswich Town Hall for the 750th Charter Anniversary Procession in 1950. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.

While stepping back into the past via this cinematic time machine, the phrase: ‘the same but different’ keeps popping into your head. The fashions may change but the landscape and the buildings largely remain recognisable, touchstones between a bygone world and today.

The majority of films featured in Britain on Film come from the East Anglian Film Archive which provides a home for collections made by enthusiastic amateur film-makers like Ipswich-based Don Chipperfield, Cyril Catchpole, also from Ipswich and The Jenkins family who ran photography businesses.

They also preserve the promotional films produced by such large employers as Ransomes and Fisons. They also store the films made by About Anglia over the years.

But, it is the amateur films which show life as it was for ordinary people which have the most resonance. Film delivers to us some of the most accessible social history you could ever wish for.

A Felixstowe Wedding in 1934. Leaving St Peter and St Paul Church in Old Felixstowe. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.A Felixstowe Wedding in 1934. Leaving St Peter and St Paul Church in Old Felixstowe. Images taken from the BFI's online Britain on Film project.

For the film-makers themselves, it was clearly a very passionate hobby. The sheer number of films dating from the 1920s and 30s, shows it was a popular hobby and the early film-makers were really accomplished. Cameras were a big investment and they really thought about the films they made and how they were cut together. Many of them even created animated titles and in later years, particularly the 1950s and 60s, started putting soundtracks and commentary to the footage.

Britain on Film can be viewed on the BFI Player. Search for places or subjects and a variety of options will pop up on menus which can be the viewed free of charge. You can access the Britain on Film website


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