Amateur Natural History Films

Image: W. H. George, The Cinema in School (1935)

Natural history has long carried an association with the word “amateur”. As a kind of ‘all-rounder’ science, natural history gained a ‘mass’ following in the nineteenth century, precisely when science began to attain a “professional” status. But distinguishing between amateur and professional is often a tricky business, and both categories have shifted significantly in definition over the years.

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A ‘Secrets’ Pioneer? Rina Scott’s early films

Successive images showing the opening of a Fuchsia flower, taken by Rina Scott. Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, 32 (1907), pp. 48-51. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Histories of film, and especially nature and wildlife film, often begin by repeating a common origin story. They start, usually, with Edweard Muybridge’s chronophotography experiments from the 1870s, which recorded sequential images of a horse’s gallop. The Secrets producers, however, drew a different genealogy when speaking of the historical origins of their filmmaking practice. In their book See How They Grow (1952), J.V. Durden, Mary Field and Percy Smith mentioned Mubridge, but they viewed an unnamed woman as their earliest predecessor:

“The wife of an official of Kew Gardens set up her cumbersome plate camera, and made successive exposures of the growth of the flowers of the crocus. But it was left to a future generation to think of projecting such photographs as a motion picture. Nevertheless, we consider that to this lady should go the honour of being the first Ciné-biologist.

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Online Workshop: Intermediality

Along with Anin Luo and Miles Kempton, I’ve spent the past couple of months organising an online workshop which will hopefully bring together a broad church of scholars interested in the history of science and media. Although we initially thought of proposing something very open and broad, we decided in the end to focus on the question of “intermediality”, an idea originally developed in media studies but which has increasingly earned the attention of historians of science. The workshop will take place over two afternoons, on November 2nd and 3rd, 2021.

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The Nightingale (1932)

Picture of a nightingale, from Field and Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934)

I am glad to hear that six new ‘Secrets of Nature’ are nearly complete and will be released before long. They are the best films of their kind ever made, and no other short British films have been so widely successful… But the greatest triumph of this new series is that the nightingale has made its first talkie. This shyest of birds had to be followed into the depths of a Hertfordshire wood; weeks were spent on discovering a favourite tree and further weeks on overcoming its occupant’s suspicion of microphone and camera. At last its liquid notes were recorded, and ‘as though a window gave upon a sylvan scene’ audiences all over the world will be able to hear an English Nightingale in an English wood. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1932.

This quote, from a contemporary film critic, is characteristic of the association between the Secrets and a pastoral, idyllic sense of rural Englishness which was repeatedly evoked by commentators. The nightingale, afterall, was emblematic of this vision of rural England, inextricable in the eyes of many from romanticism and poetry – in this case, the critic chose to quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

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Secrets of Empire

Advert for Secrets of Nature, in The Bioscope, 10 September 1930. From the British Newspaper Archive.

The Secrets of Nature films were produced at moment in British history – the interwar period – which can be interpreted as both the height, and the beginning of the ‘end’ of the British empire. As Andrew Thompson argues in Imperial Britain: The empire in British politics, c. 1880-1932,

the inter-war years witnessed a deeper cultural penetration of imperial ideals. Post-war propaganda for the British Empire was bolstered by new institutions (like the Empire Marketing Board) and new media (radio, film) and it is in the 1920s that the apogee of mass phenomena of empire (shopping weeks, empire advertising, empire exhibitions, and Empire Day celebrations is to be found.

Andrew Thompson, Imperial Britain, p. 184.

In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the ways in which the Secrets films both reflected, and helped to create, the imperial moment of the interwar years. It would be impossible to cover all aspects of the Secrets and their relationship to the British empire in one post, so the points I will make here are very much a summary, and I hope to expand on them later. The aim of this post is to show how the Secrets are inextricable from the history of interwar imperialism. The first part examines natural history’s entanglement with empire. The second looks at British Instructional Films, the Secrets producers, and their attitudes towards empire. The third selects a few Secrets films which were overtly imperial in their content, and the fourth discusses how the Secrets were distributed across British colonies and dominions.

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London Visitors (1936)

Image from London Visitors (1936), from the British Newspaper Archive. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 24 January 1936.

Recently I came across this wonderful image from the 1936 Secrets of Life film London Visitors (1936). With films like this one, which have not yet been digitized, we will have to make do for the moment with published photographs like the one above. Luckily, however, I was able to watch a viewing copy at the BFI National Archives last year as part of my research.

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The Flight Machine (1930)

Watch The Flight Machine (1930)

The Flight Machine (1930) was one of the first Secrets of Nature films to be filmed using sound. One of the more unusual films from the series, it demonstrates how the natural history genre could serve for a wide range of purposes, in this case as an exemplar of ‘applied science’. The film compares the flight of a airplane to that of several birds, including golden eagles and seaguls: “perhaps there is only one flight machine better suited for general purposes, and that machine is nature’s. Birds have the advantage over aeroplanes all the time”.

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J. V. Durden and the Developmental Biology Film Series

Recently I have been updating some of the biographical sections on this site, and have been expanding the information on J. V. Durden, one of the key figures on the Secrets team in the 1930s, who directed many of the G.B.I. instructional films in biology. You can read the updated biographical page here, although please bear in mind that I’m constantly updating much of this information at the moment as I continue to build the site.

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‘The New Learning’

Recently I’ve been doing some writing about agricultural science films, and thought it may be interesting to write a post about one of my favourite Secrets of Nature primary sources. The New Learning: An Experiment wit Educational Films in the County of Devon is the name of a pamphlet published by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in 1932, which reported on a study into the reactions of rural audiences to the film medium. These types of experiments were common in the interwar period. Some of them aimed to address moral and social concerns over the influence of cinema on young minds, while others were conducted by enthusiasts of the medium in the world of education, who hoped that film would become an ordinary classroom tool.

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Science and the ‘educational’ film

Sight and Sound, Issue 2 Vol. 1, p. 39. Photograph by Stuart Black.

A headteacher attending a conference on ‘Children and the Cinema’ at the British Film Institute in 1946 observed that,

Here you have in the cinema a medium for mass entertainment as well as mass education, and I do not think you can separate those two much. They are so intertwined and linked with one another that you cannot see where entertainment ends and education begins. [1]

Secrets of Nature arguably contributed to this intertwining more than any films of the interwar period, rendering distinctions between ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ practically meaningless. Their scripts never missed an opportunity to produce laughter, and the advent of sound saw the Secrets adopt a light-hearted and jocular tone, accompanied by up-beat music and narrations. The fact that the films were frequently shown as part of conventional evening cinema programmes demonstrates that they were treated by many viewers as entertainment. Secrets were usually played alongside other light-hearted ‘shorts’ in advance of the main feature, and were often listed alongside Disney cartoons. The producers behind the Secrets films were not always consistent about how they envisaged the position occupied by their films on the education/entertainment spectrum. On the whole, however, they were seen as principally entertainment films. As Mary Field expressed it in 1941, ‘every film was alive and vital, full of drama, was utterly unscientific, and each carried out the originator’s aim — to interest people in the world of nature about them. In short, they were grand entertainment.’ [2] But the films also had educational potential – the production company in charge of making the Secrets, was afterall, called British Instructional Films, and showbiz only partly explains their popularity.

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