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Wellcome Film of the Month: Looking around, 1952

22 Jul, 2011

This film is the sole example of a cinemagazine in the collection. The genre is described by the BUFVC as “a periodically-released film series shown in cinemas”.

There are three short stories or items on the reel; Sealed in Resin, The naked mole rat (aka Heterocephalus Glaber) and Taballet.  

Taballet’ (a contraction of the words “tablet” or “tabloid” and “ballet”) is a charming film using stop-frame animation. It features a choreographed dance sequence of tablets set to jaunty music. This enlivens the scenes of drug manufacturing, which are something of a staple in industrial films of the period.

The film was produced by the Wellcome Foundation Film Unit after the department was transferred to the publicity division from the research unit in 1949/50. The small production team had been making films that reflected the Wellcome Foundation’s research interests such as D-tubocurarine, 1947. These films included recognisable patients and were restricted to medical audiences – still the case today.

Frustration was expressed that these films and others (mostly with a physiological theme), were merely “case history” films. The projected audience for their output was too small and, therefore, the films were too expensive. Memos raged that the unit “must produce films of first quality quickly”. There were a catalogue of obstacles explaining this apparent lack of productivity; the film unit had to share the use of the screening auditorium (which was being hired out commercially), there were post war shortages of film stock as well as processing chemicals together with the lack of staff time to develop scripts.

The magazine format, as illustrated by Looking around, was proposed in a speculative letter sent by Realist Film Unit, a production company with a pedigree of producing information films. In this post-war period, there was considerable interest in the potential for propaganda in the business world if film production could link up with sales campaigns. There is also a letter in the archives from the British Medical Association Film Committee at around the same time who wanted to canvass opinion on whether shorter films would be better received or would they undermine funding for longer, more scientific films?

There were no more cinemagazines made by the Wellcome Foundation Film Unit and, presumably, the matter was then closed. The film unit went on to improve their script content and develop its production roster and many of the films have become internationally recognised.

With our 75th anniversary around the corner, it seems appropriate to end with one of the jewels in the Unit’s back catalogue: the story of the Wellcome Foundation Ltd, 1955. This was originally conceived as a training film for new staff based in the factory at Dartford, and can be described as fulfilling the remit of being a “useful documentary record with considerable propaganda value at home and overseas”. It dates from the hey-day of film production and is on a magnificently broad scale, capturing the historical sweep of Sir Henry Wellcome’s beginnings as well as the organisation’s commercial, research and charitable interests.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film 

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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