From century-old home movies to a 1934 Oscar-winner, the BFI’S archive celebrates our enduring love of the coast
An archive of evocative films dating back to 1898 proves that we’ve always loved to be beside the sea
THE VERY NOTION of ‘the seaside’ evokes a degree of yearning and everyone has their own childhood memories. It’s a slightly misleading image, of course, in Britain – not so much sunshine and white sand as breakwaters, pebbles, rugs and teeth-breaking sticks of rock. But the BFI has assembled a catalogue of nostalgic films that celebrate the glory of the British beach.
It is an addition to its mammoth project – Britain on Film – which was launched a couple of years ago, a vast archive which the public can access via an interactive map. Now 600 newly digitalised films have been added for Britain on Film: Coast and Sea – bringing the total to 7,500.
The coastal films, which date from 1898 and span just over a century, originate from many sources and cover a huge geographical range – the entire UK coastline, in fact, stretching from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly. There is also a vast diversity in content, drawing on every type of film from newsreels to promotional travelogues to home movies.
What emerges from the collection is a feeling that although the technology and quality of filming has changed beyond all recognition, the focus remains the same – it’s just what we love about the beach. A long look back to the days when a holiday treat involved sandcastles, ice creams, donkey rides and fish and chips, when bathing costumes were designed to cover, not reveal, and the dads sported shirtsleeves and
straw boaters rather than tattoos and Speedos.
Some of the earliest in the collection are the short films of the Passmore family, which one of the curators, Patrick Russell, thinks is possibly the oldest surviving home movie collection in the world. Crackly black-and-white footage dating from 1902 shows the family frolicking on the beach in Edwardian attire. Then there are bonnets, parasols and boaters on Victoria Pier, Blackpool, in 1904, and by 1917 we have knock-kneed children shivering in the sea with their trousers rolled up, and soldiers wrestling in the sand.
In 1937, the technology was a bit more sophisticated and the costumes were knitted. By 1940 in St Annes, on the Lancashire coast, colour had come in, the shorts were shorter and the horseplay on the beach was quite fruity. Complicated men’s bathing costumes are on display in Holiday
Time in Clifton (1946), along with formal picnics involving teapots.
‘In terms of film-making, everyone now goes off on their holidays with their phones, capturing footage rather more cheaply and easily than you could with a film camera,’ says Russell. ‘But they will be filming a lot of the same things as these old films. The psychology of holiday film-making hasn’t changed that much.’
And nor has the activity. Behaviour might have been slightly better. The children were definitely skinnier. But despite the carthorses dragging boats up the sand, and changing fashions, there is
a timeless nature to the subject matter, and that is what these films pay tribute to.
Aside from the home movies there are some charming promotional films – such as Shipshape, made in 1947 by the RNLI, and
Bet ween the Tides (1958), made by British Transport Films, encouraging holidaymakers to take the train to the coast. ‘It ’s a brilliant example of soft-sell advertising,’ says Russell affectionately, ‘with excellent cinematography.’ There is even an Oscar-winner among them, in the shape of The Private Life of Gan
nets, a fascinating early natural history documentary from the 1930s, filmed on an island off the coast of Wales, in which you can spot a rudimentary version of many of the techniques and storytelling used in natural history programmes today.
Head curator Robin Baker describes the archive collection as ‘part Famous Five adventure, part Carry On film, part pure nostalgia’. What emerges most overwhelmingly, from the pensioners on the razz in Blackpool, to the sand- jumping competitions and donkey rides, is a feeling of joy that ’s hard to locate elsewhere.
Clockwise from far left Dune jumping at St Annes, 1940; early natural history film footage in The Private Life of Gannets, 1934; refreshments all round, Whitley Bay, 1940; simple pleasures on Filey beach, north Yorkshire, 1937
Right Broadway Cinema, Walham Green: Old Age Pensioners’ Seaside Holiday To Southendon-sea, 1938
Above A family holiday to Portrush is captured in Many Happy Returns, 1956