Travelling Back in Time with Look at Life

May 21, 2021

Is time travel possible? Not yet anyway, says the science. But do you actually need to climb into the driving seat of a souped-up DeLorean or walk through the doors of a police telephone box to see the past up close? Occasionally something as simple as a roll of celluloid can hurl us back in time, giving us a tantalising glimpse of how life was lived all those years ago.

Look at Life was a series of eight to ten-minute documentary shorts produced by the Rank Organisation between 1959 and 1969. Usually run in cinemas as an aperitif before the main feature, these full-colour newsreels offered contemporary audiences a lighthearted look at the varied aspects of modern British life.

Looked at now, these shorts provide a thrillingly detailed and powerfully evocative look at how Britain lived in the 1960s. Lensed in needle-sharp, Eastmancolor 35mm, they feel as close to travelling back in time 50 to 60 years as anything Marty McFly or Doctor Who ever experienced.

Over 500 featurettes were produced over that 10-year period, covering an impressively diverse range of subjects including the Parachute Regiment, computers, the Chelsea Flower Show, coffee bars, the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner and potatoes. While the presentation now looks charmingly twee, it’s the minutiae of UK life that those filmmakers captured that make these newsreels so culturally invaluable. Whether it’s in seeing those clutterless streets, or those post-war Brutalist structures when they were still box-fresh, or simply drinking in the fashions and design aesthetic of the day, the Look at Life films give us a refreshingly unfiltered window into the past.

To modern eyes, these shorts barely pass as journalism, however. More humorous than hard-hitting, they’re usually narrated, not by reporters, but by actors. Tim Turner, who had voiced the title character in ITV’s The Invisible Man series in the late 50s, was their main voiceover man, though Carry On’s Sid James and This Is Your Life presenter Eamonn Andrew also lent their larynxes.

Network began its Look at Life releases in 2010 and, in many cases, this was the first time these films had been seen since their original theatrical run half a century before. Grouping the films together under umbrella titles – Transport, Military, Sport, Cultural Heritage, World Affairs, Science, Business & Industry and – the latest release – People & Places, each offers up a bewitching snapshot of life in 1960s’ Britain.

People & Places boasts over 100 digitally spruced up newsreels (that’s 1,036 nostalgia-wallowing minutes) from that period, casting its eye over such subjects as fitness, student nurses, dog walkers, traffic wardens and high rises. Often accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack, and a sometimes frivolous voiceover, their cheery, playful style clearly fed into the reporting approach of Nationwide, the BBC’s much-loved magazine programme of the 70s and 80s, which in turn influenced its noughties equivalent, The One Show.

What’s especially fascinating about the series, are the little oddments it occasionally throws up. Did you know, for instance, that actor Peter Cushing was into model figurines? “Meet one of Britain’s foremost collectors of models,” the narrator tells us. “He has 3,000 soldiers, enough to mount a fair-sized action. Peter has a small world all his own in a special glass-fronted cupboard, and, every now and then, he finds relaxation in laying on a private war.” Bizarrely, the documentary crew are happy to film one of the UK’s most celebrated actors crouched on the floor playing with his miniatures, but never think to actually talk to him about it. Still, it’s a privileged peek into the real life of this horror great, and it’s hard to think of any, more straightforward documentary including this kind of delicious trivia.

Though the greatest chunk of films here are whimsical and lighthearted, at times the Look at Life team would tackle something weightier, though the results are often screamingly funny. In their film about protesting, the narrator, sounding more like Harry Enfield than EVH Emmett, cautions the audience “whatever side you’re on, be careful how much hullabaloo you kick up about it.” The film High Tension, meanwhile, zeroes in on mental health, though the phrase clearly hadn’t yet been popularised in Britain, with the narrator informing us that doctors call it “emotional illness”. “What really gets people down,” we’re told, “is one unsolved problem after another.” Sometimes the tone is alarmingly judgemental. “Naturally there will always be some who will take the world’s troubles on their own shoulders, even when they can do nothing about them,” the narrator chuckles, before adding, “Some people take the easy way out – they take pills.”

Yet, it’s these quirks of the time that make these newsreels so special. All eight volumes of Look at Life allow us to explore a Britain that has long since vanished. But they’re more than mere nostalgia – they’re priceless cultural artefacts that delve deep into all the nooks and crannies of what our country was really like back then.

Look and learn.

Steve O’Brien

Order Look at Life: Volume 1 – Transport

Order Look at Life: Volume 2 – Military

Order Look at Life: Volume 3 – Science

Order Look at Life: Volume 4 – Sport

Order Look at Life: Volume 5 – Cultural Heritage

Order Look at Life: Volume 6 – World Affairs

Order Look at Life: Volume 7 – Business and Industry

Order Look at Life: Volume 8 – People and Places



Comments:1

  1. Paul Faulder Reply
    21/05/21

    Perfectly summed up by Steve O’Brien. The subjects are all very interesting in themselves but it’s those combined with seeing the era in sharp colour that makes you fully appreciate it actually existed and you could be there. Even crystal clear black and white still feels a step removed, fascinating though that is.
    To watch the vehicles of the time pass the shop windows of the age and then noticing the fashions of the era – there is far more to see in these films than there ever would have been at the time and all from the comfort of home.

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