The Chron investigates how Northamptonshire helped in the rise of British Pathé

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IN the 21st century, news is everywhere we look. Not only do newspapers and TV bulletins supply us with daily doses of the latest in current affairs, but we now have social media too, so we can see mobile phone updates, catch up on Google alerts and tweet news flashes to our heart’s content.

It seems strange to believe there was once a time when people would have to visit the cinema to watch the news as well as a film. In fact, at one stage these short, informative and often amusing news bulletins would have been a major attraction.

From 1910 until about 1970, the company supplying these bulletins was British Pathé and, at its height, it was distributing reels of national footage twice a week to cinemas throughout Britain.

And a quick look at the firm’s online archive will show just how many of these strange, quirky and wonderful moments of film were shot in Northamptonshire itself.

BBC 4 is currently showing a weekly documentary series called The Story of British Pathé, which focuses on the company’s rise and fall, showing snippets from a huge archive of footage which helped shape what people now recognise as a ‘news bulletin’ today.

Alastair White, the archive’s manager, explained: “The archives stretch from 1897 to 1977 and the first package news reel was put together in 1910 and the last one was in 1970. There are 90,000 individual news items in the archive, 3,500 hours of stories. If you watched one a day it would take you 10 years.”

Pathé was originally set up in Paris by three French brothers, one of whom moved to London and started specialising in news.

Alastair explained: “The 1910 news reel was the first of its type and had never been done before. British Pathé became incredibly powerful and influential; they became the serial TV of their day. They distributed news reels to every cinema in the land.”

When the BBC came in during the 1950s, news bulletins had already been firmly established.

Alastair said: “The average length was three minutes and there was a mixture of quirky, funny and original news. In many ways they were the first people to package three minute news items and broadcast them.”

Of course during the world wars British Pathé had an important role to play in conveying censored news and morale maintaining footage to the public.

“News was very heavily controlled and British Pathé took that responsibility seriously,” Alastair said. “At best it was an opportunity to raise the morale of the people. We can see reports from back then verging on propaganda.

“After the war, in the late 1940s, they had a new news editor who brought a harder edge to the news. They addressed social issues, particularly education and crime.

“But people were going to cinema to see these items and cinema owners started complaining to British Pathé saying their customers wanted to be entertained.”

As news became more popularly available through TV and the radio, the need for cinema updates dwindled and died, with the final Pathé news reels shown in 1970. Nowadays that mass of footage accrued by film makers is simply used as an archive of social history for anyone who cares to look at it. The footage is all available to preview by logging onto www.britishpathe.com

Alastair said: “Nowadays there is no place for news in the cinema, we get it through TV and the internet. Now this footage is an archive and a record of how we used to live and how the news was covered.

“When British Pathé covered the Queen’s coronation that was a high point in its coverage. They had 20 cameras there, but paradoxically it was also the start of their downfall as the coronation was also covered by BBC news. The very last package news reel was made in 1970 and they carried on making productions for another seven years.

“The most popular films were things like the big street celebrations for the coronation or something like Winston Churchill’s funeral, or George’s VI’s speech.

“What people really enjoy doing when looking at the films is finding stories which are personal to them. We had someone who emailed us recently because she found footage of her mother dancing in the street on VE day; how wonderful would that be? That must have been a fantastic moment.”

Much of the wealth of footage shot by British Pathé was filmed within Northamptonshire. The Chron took a peak into the archive to track down some of the fascinating county stories recorded here.

To see Northamptonshire films, log on to www.bit.ly/o6w0kz

Anyone who has memories they would like to share about the stories behind these films can email anna.brosnan@northantsnews.co.uk