The Strangler (1930)

The Strangler (1930) is by far one of the more memorable Secrets films. It showcases perfectly the time-lapse technique and its ability to ‘capture the vitality of a living plant’, and it is one of the only films of its kind to include a clock in the picture to help viewers understand that the image has been sped-up. But it is also fascinating because its subject is a parasite – a ‘criminal’, as the film calls it – called dodder.

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The Cinema as Time Capsule

Filming at the Botanic Garden, Cambridge

It’s been a while since I posted here – I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been busy writing up my dissertation on natural history films and BBC broadcasts. But it’s good to be back again and I have plenty of things to share on here over the next couple of months. One of these is The Cinema as Time Capsule: using film to capture vanishing worlds, which was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to support creative projects during the COP 26 Climate Summit in Glasgow at the end of last year.

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Non-Theatrical Cinemas

Secrets of Nature films, like many other interwar shorts classed as ‘topical’ or ‘instructional’, were often played before the main feature film in cinema halls around the country. Whilst we know that their distribution was fairly widespread (see the interactive map), Mary Field and Percy Smith admitted that their films were often favoured in what they called “better-class halls”. In other words, they were more likely to be seen in ‘respectable’, ‘middle-class’ cinemas, something which reflects the series’ promotion by a section of interwar British society which sought to transform the cinema into an agent of social ‘improvement’.

But by the 1930s, the Secrets also found an audience in a more niche type of cinema that became fairly prevalent in the 1930s. Some cinema patrons worked out that audiences sometimes enjoyed going to the cinema not to watch dramas, romances or action movies, but to view newsreels and non-fiction films which were rapidly beginning to be associated with the word ‘documentary’.

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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 – that 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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