Secrets of Nature was one of the most popular series of shorts produced during the interwar period in Britain. Consisting of more than 250 titles, covering everything from minuscule single-celled organisms to the habits of large zoo mammals or the growth of a plant in stop-motion, these films anticipated the phenomenon of natural history television embodied by modern figures like David Attenborough. The films were projected in cinema halls across the country, usually as part of a programme of newsreels and other short films which were shown before the main feature.
The Secrets were not, however, the first films to portray natural historical subjects on film. The use of moving images as a tool to observe or record the natural world stretches to the medium’s precursors in the nineteenth-century experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. One of the very first films ever to be screened in Britain, moreover, Rough Sea at Dover was presented at the Royal Photographic Society in London on 14 January 1896. Although not strictly a natural history film, its success was an early indicator of the potential public allure that even very simple images displaying natural features in movement could command. Film technology was seen early on by scientists as a valuable device for observation, as well as for technical instruction.
One of the first serious attempts to produce natural history films in a serialised format came from the Charles Urban Trading Company in the early 1900s. Urban was an American entrepreneur who arrived in London in 1897 and soon established an international film empire. He employed F. Martin Duncan, and later F. Percy Smith, in his ‘Unseen World’ and ‘Urban Science Series’. These films were often accompanied by a lecturer, which attests to the overlap between nineteenth-century lantern lectures and early film exhibitions. These films shocked audiences with highly realistic images of microscopic insects and plants, using techniques of magnification (micro-cinematography, or cinemicrography) and what was then referred to as ‘speed magnification’ (fast-motion photography), to show close-up and sped-up shots of nature in action.
Secrets of Nature (1919-1934)
H. Bruce Woolfe, the managing director of British Instructional Films, recalled that the inspiration for Secrets of Nature came to him after reading Gilbert White’s canonical text The Natural History of Selbourne (1789). Bruce Woolfe had made his name by producing a series of World War I films, collaborating with government agencies like the Admiralty. Bringing together a band of skilled naturalist-photographers who had honed their skills in the years before the war, such as Percy Smith and Oliver Pike, Bruce Woolfe began producing a series that aimed to educate and entertain in equal parts.
Mary Field, who joined the series in 1924 and became the overall Secrets director in 1929, was a pivotal figure not only in the history of the Secrets films, but of children’s cinema in general. Later in her life she would continue this work as Executive Officer of the Children’s Film Foundation. Field ensured that the series was a lasting success, paying close attention to details like storytelling and montage.
The Secrets were normally between 10 and 15 minutes long, and aimed to show unremarkable features of the natural world in ways that surprised and impressed audiences. Subjects ranged from the life-cycle of a moth, the growth of a nasturtium plant and the daily life of zoo animals, to films which compared the flight of birds and airplanes or showed the varied flora and fauna of a place or habitat. According to Field, the ‘golden rule’ of nature filmmaking was to ‘always start with the familiar, and never let members of your audience feel that they have strayed from the paths of their ordinary experience.’
Secrets were usually shown alongside one or two other ‘shorts’ in commercial cinemas, before the main feature. The series were generally approved of by elements of British society who hoped to ‘improve’ public taste and counter the influence of Hollywood cinema on the British public. They were used in multiple experiments which aimed to test to effect of cinema on its audiences, especially young cinemagoers, the most notable of which was the Middlesex Experiment in 1931. In 1930, the biologist Julian Huxley used several Secrets as part of a report into audience reactions to the cinema in East Africa.
The films were exported around the globe, including to the United States, several European countries and to British colonies. The Secrets were part of a wider project of promoting British imperial interests, which was intent on portraying British scientific and agricultural knowledge as pre-eminent. The films were praised by figures in the British documentary movement like John Grierson and Paul Rotha, and were part of the Empire Marketing Board’s film library. In 1927, attendees at the Imperial Agricultural Research Conference were shown The Life of a Plant, among a selection of agricultural films, while traveling on a train from Edinburgh to London.
In 1930, the first ‘talkie’ Secrets were released, with spoken commentaries by Victor Peers (later suceeded by E.V.H. Emmett) and original compositions by W.E. Hodgson. By the 1930s, the cinema had become one of the principal forms of public entertainment in Britain. In 1934, Simon Rowson estimated that there were 963 million admissions to British cinemas. Although Field and Smith admitted that it was only in the ‘better-class halls’ that their films were favoured, it is reasonable to assume that their films were viewed by millions of people every year.
Secrets of Life (1934-50) and G.B.I educational films
In 1934, when the Secrets of Nature team transferred to Gaumont-British Instructional, a new outfit designed specifically for educational output, Mary Field became the director of a sequel series, Secrets of Life, and the team increased their output of educational nature films alongside this. The reason for this was partly that, as Mary Field explained, ‘shorts, with the exception of Disney’s work, are not popular in the film world’. This was exacerbated with the introduction of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which ordained that a ‘quota’ of British-made films had to be included in every evening programme, but did not include shorts in this quota.
Partly because of this, and partly out of enthusiasm for the potential for film to transform the world of education, the Secrets producers began to make films which were intended principally for the classroom. Giving evidence to the 1936 Committee on Cinematograph Films, Bruce Woolfe was optimistic about the future of the non-theatrical market: ‘We anticipate that it will be a much bigger market than the theatrical market.’ This enthusiasm was reflected not only in the production of separate theatrical and non-theatrical Secrets, but also in the establishment of a new series of biology teaching films, which were supervised by Julian Huxley and H.R. Hewer. These films were mostly filmed by J.V. Durden, who was also responsible for much of the filming behind Secrets of Life. The Secrets also increasingly relied on committees of teachers who advised them on the production of films. Several of these teachers were experienced science educators, including Madeline Munro and Clotilde von Wyss.
In 1939, Bruce Woolfe announced a new series of Secrets of Life, which this time were shot in colour. However, these were received with mixed enthusiasm, and with the outbreak of the Second World War, film producers were employed in making public information films for the government. Although Secrets continued to be released during this period, soon after the end of the war the series ceased production. In 1945, F. Percy Smith passed away, following a long and successful career making minute creatures visible and bringing plants to life on screen. Mary Field focussed on child audiences, eventually becoming the executive officer of the Children’s Film Foundation. J. V. Durden emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, where he continued to work on agricultural films.
By this time television was beginning to take hold, and this presented its own new challenges and opportunities for presenting the natural world on screen. The Secrets of Nature films had a lasting impact on the public culture of science in interwar Britain. New personalities like Desmond Morris and David Attenborough would take nature documentaries into the televisual age, but the roots of the genre were established in the pioneering films made by Mary Field, Percy Smith and their collaborators.
References and further reading
Mary Field, ‘Filming through a microscope’, Radio Times television supplement, 22 January 1937, p. 5
Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934)
Evidence by Mr Bruce Woolfe, Board of Trade, Committee on Cinematograph Films, 30th June 1936
Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, BBC Wildlife Documentaries in the Age of Attenborough (2019)
Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (1984)
Simon Rowson, ‘A statistical survey of the cinema industry in Great Britain in 1934’ (1936)
National Union of Teachers, Sound Films in Schools (1931)
Rachael Low, History of British Film, Volume IV: 1918-1929 (1997)
Timothy Boon, Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008)
Luke McKernan, Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, (2015)
Mark Connelly, Celluloid War Memorials: The British Instructional Films Company and the Memory of the Great War (2015)