Film of the Month: Your children and you

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By | From the Collections

Your children and you is the name of a film made by the Ministry of Information in 1946 and also the title of a new BFI DVD  made in partnership with the Wellcome Library with 15 films about pregnancy, birth, parenting, childhood, child development, child psychology and school days.

Your Children and You DVD

Your Children and You. DVD cover

This collaboration entailed curating a small selection of films from the Wellcome Library’s Moving Image and Sound Collection relating to motherhood. These titles addressed both the pre-war and the pre-NHS story which was not in evidence in this volume of ‘official’ films, which were commissioned by the Central Office of Information, the successor to the Ministry of Information in the late 1940s. The Ministry of Information had nurtured the talent of a number of documentary luminaries such as Humphrey Jennings and Paul Rotha through the difficult war years when work was lean.  The creative roots of the organisation go back to the ‘godfather’ of documentary, John Grieson. However, the production office at the COI was laughingly called ‘The Half Crown Unit’ – the films were made on behalf of the Crown and fall within Crown copyright, but this was also a dig at their low budgets.  The 15 films, which studied as a cohort, provide no evidence that a lack of funding resulted in poor quality material – this ‘hidden cinema’ turns out to be rich in social and medical history.

A consideration for this venture was how to make the silent film titles really engaging to a modern audience. The films themselves have found a new online audience (the Wellcome Library films have been available online for some time both on our library catalogue, youtube channel and the Internet Archive), and the size of this audience has grown exponentially. The BFI has often commissioned musicians to create new scores for some of their archive material (see MisinforMation by Mordant Music); on Your Children and You, new musical accompaniments have been created by Neil Thomas for two of the films. With Bathing and dressing, commissioned sound artist Felicity Ford was keen to develop a soundtrack which would convey some of the rich social history of the film, and which would be sympathetic to its original reception. The commission endeavoured to articulate a contemporary audience’s thoughts and occupy the languors of instructional intertitles sandwiched between the footage.

This film would originally have been shown in civic spaces and at open-air demonstrations , and to evoke these public circumstances, Felicity recorded contemporary mothers watching the film, and incorporated their responses into the soundtrack. Contemporary audiences almost certainly respond to the film in a different way than the original audiences of the 1930s would have, and yet in their combination of sympathy, surprise, compassion, maternal experience and humour, the reactions of mothers to this early footage was intended to help traverse the chasm of difference between then and now.  Felicity’s aim was to soften the film’s didactic tone for contemporary sensibilities, and to evoke the important private chats that women have with one another about the health of their babies. Felicity also created field recordings of buildings with acoustics similar to the site where the original film was shot, as a way of evoking the huge difference in the soundscape of healthcare in pre-NHS facilities from the maternity clinics of today. The materials employed for bathing and dressing a baby over seventy years ago – enamel basins, castile soap and jugs of water – were all used to evoke the texture of post-natal care without modern plumbing and central heating. Finally, several helpful mothers and their tiny babies helped her to record the distinctive sounds produced by a very young infant, so that the little baby featured throughout Bathing and dressing now has a ‘voice’.

film stills from Bathing and Dressing

Stills from Bathing and dressing

The new synched version of Bathing and dressing is currently only available on the DVD release, but may yet get a cinematic airing. As part of the commission, the Wellcome Library negotiated rights to make the individual sound elements available to remix and re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Some of the sound elements have been processed to reflect the media from the 1930s and the piano music was improvised in time to the film. The effect was to create ‘the sonic documentary media equivalent of old film stock’. Felicity was inspired by  old home recordings from the 1930s and 40s sourced from the British Library’s Sound Archive. Other sound work generated by Ford includes a plethora of sound recordings relating to the domestic soundscape (her recording of cleaning a toilet is particularly evocative).

The Wellcome Library films featured on the Your children and you DVD are available on the Library player:

Bathing and dressing , 1935, Part 1 and Part 2 

Toxaemia of pregnancy, 1958

Maternity: a film of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, 1932

Childbirth as an athletic feat, 1939

They are also available on our youtube channel.

If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

Author: Angela Saward, curator for the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library

Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

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