In MidCentury 09, John Grindrod, author of the book Concretopia: A Journey Around The Building of Postwar Britain describes his love of the public information films he discovered during his research. Take a look at some of the films he describes, and experience a trip around Britain’s new towns without having to leave your armchair.
Promoting Britain’s new towns
For the most part these films were made, like the new towns, between the 1940s and the ’70s. Development corporations used them to promote their towns as futuristic idylls to potential residents and businesses. They were usually shown before the main feature at local cinemas.
Charley in New Town
The first is one of the most charming: Charley in New Town, an animated film from 1948, has all the character of an Ealing comedy. It was made by the government to explain the ideas behind as yet unbuilt Harlow, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and Crawley. It’s in the patrician mould of Potato Pete posters or Popeye with his spinach.
Glenrothes: A New Town
By the time the new towns were making their own films, the world had moved on. In 1958, the era of skiffle and the Angry Young Men, we have Glenrothes: A New Town. It’s still comic, but here the comedy is of the Doctor in the House variety. “The medical centres of today look clean, efficient and attractive,” says the narrator. “And so do the nurses!” Cue a close-up of a nurse’s bust. You get the idea – this one really goes out of its way to be outrageously sexist at every possible moment.
Cumbernauld new town
The most peculiar of all was one new town’s decision to take their promotional budget and make a drama with it. The resultant Cumbernauld Hit from 1977 features Carry On’s Fenella Fielding as a megalomaniac bent on taking over the Scottish new town. There are flare-wearing henchmen accompanied by a soundtrack of wacca-wacca guitars, and even a helicopter-shot chase sequence around Cumbernauld’s most impressive feature – the town centre. This was one megastructure, containing everything from shops to flats, offices and a hotel. The closest you can get to experiencing the original dream is to watch Cumbernauld Hit and marvel at the excesses of both the film and the architecture.
Watching these old films was essential research for Concretopia. But it was as much fun sharing them on my blog with other similarly astounded viewers. If you ever fancy an armchair trip around postwar Britain, you could do a lot worse than checking out these development corporation films. They’re usually funny – sometimes even intentionally – and always utterly engrossing.
Read the full version of John Grindrod’s feature, New Town Glory, in MidCentury 09
Keep up to date with John’s latest archive finds on his blog Dirty Modern Scoundrel
Buy a copy of his book Concretopia here