AT LIFE VOLUME 3: SCIENCE
at Life existed in the 1960s gap between newsreels –
rendered pointless by TV – and the ‘full supporting
feature’ documentaries, travelogues and other shorts that
would drive cinemagoers to distraction in the 1970s, before British
production quotas were abolished and cinemas decided that they
could make more money by dropping double bills and B-movies entirely.
As such, these short (around ten minute) films are a curio by
themselves – a relic from a cinema experience that no one
under 35 will have any real memory of.
But the 45 films collected here, in the third of Network’s
exhaustive collections, are also fascinating artefacts of a bygone
age. With the theme of ‘science’ loosely connecting
them, they are remnants of a type of filmmaking now long gone,
of vintage social attitudes and – by their very nature –
of educational information that has been made irrelevant by progress.
In fact, the most interesting thing about these shorts is now
many of them could (just about) hold up as educational, even now.
While time has marched on, a lot of the subjects here are still
fairly relevant, something helped by the fact that the films don’t
exactly delve into the subject at hand, but rather offer a cursory
once-over, aiming more at entertainment than education. Add to
this the thoroughly British take on things, and less of this has
been made completely irrelevant than you’d think. Not that
I would suggest buying these as a way of supplementing your children’s’
Stylistically, these films will seem familiar thanks to old films
clips used on TV documentaries, movies etc – vivid colours,
a fast-paced series of scenes and a loud, almost strident narration
– occasionally by a well known name, but more often by a
more anonymous voice-over artist – that excitedly enthuses
about the subject at hand.
And what subjects! Here you can see the planning for the Channel
Tunnel (planning that dragged on for decades), advances in surgery
(squeamish viewers can relax – there’s no gore here),
rocket science, people who salvage metals for sale (plenty of
them still around, as anyone who has left broken electronics on
the street outside their home could attest), the battles against
pests (the animal kind), synthetic fur, the pharmaceutical industry
and the ever-present problem of ‘the brain drain’,
which just proves than many of the issues that our politicians
and media fret over today have long been with us.
More fun for those of you looking for kitsch appeal are invariably
dated studies of things like computers, miniaturisation, the British
space programme – as embarrassingly rubbish then as now
– and other things that have been rendered laughable by
progress. Some of the rather dated attitudes and situations will
raise a chuckle too – not only the stilted interviews that
sometimes pop up, but moments such as the narrator excitedly describing
a ‘gay scene’ in London during a film about combining
plastic and steel. The fact that this allegedly cosmopolitan street
scene, with two desperately fashionable women sitting at a grotty
table in the middle of an equally grotty looking street, is so
decidedly not gay in any sense of the word can’t
help but amuse.
These films are best consumed in short bursts – two or three
at a time, I’d suggest. Wading through any more, and they
start to wear you down, but in short bursts, they are hugely entertaining.
You could recreate yesteryear by watching one before settling
down to a feature film, perhaps. In any case, this gargantuan
3 DVD collection is well worth picking up for nostalgics, historians
and those of you with a taste for the unusual – as, I imagine,
are the first two volumes...
IT NOW (UK)