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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Welcome to Secrets of Nature

Schoolchildren watch The Frog (1930). Sight and Sound, Vol. 1 Issue 1 (1932)

This site is devoted to the natural history film series Secrets of Nature (1922-1934) and Secrets of Life (1934-1950). The Secrets were one of the most successful series of short films produced during the interwar period, inviting millions of viewers into the extraordinary worlds of plants and animals as viewed with the help of a camera lens. This website, which will be continually updated, is intended for anyone curious to know more about the Secrets.

The information presented here is part my PhD research into the history of science and mass media in interwar Britain, which focusses largely on the harnessing of film and radio as tools for scientific communication. The History section gives a brief overview of the chronology of the series, and will be expanded with more information in due course. The Films section contains a list of all the Secrets films I have managed to trace, as well as links to those films available online. Further films from the silent era are available to view in the BFI’s excellent DVD, which also comes with an information booklet. The Producers section contains biographical and other information about some of the individuals involved in bringing the films to life. Finally, under Resources you will find links to useful websites, a selection of primary sources, and suggestions for further reading.

This blog will serve to explore in more detail how the series were devised, produced and consumed, the individuals involved in making them, as well as discussing individual films. It will also touch on some of the wider themes relating to the history of science and film during this period.

If you have any comments or suggestions, or would like to write a guest blog post, please contact me at mel58 [at] cam.ac.uk.