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Wellcome Film of the Month: The fight against cancer

27 Jan, 2012

This month we highlight three films made by the charity British Empire Cancer Campaign. It was established in 1923 and merged with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 2002 to become Cancer Research UK. The Wellcome Library has recently been granted permission to digitise these films and make them available online. This is very timely as World Cancer Day is on the 4th of February, which focuses on the global effort to co-ordinate research to combat the disease. The films are illustrative of different creative approaches to fund-raising for cancer research in the 1950s, when cancer was a feared and often taboo illness. These films were made for cinema audiences; the cinematic language of the films very closely references both fiction and non-fiction movie making of the time.

The earliest film, Onwards to Victory, 1953, most closely resembles government war propaganda from the Ministry of Information and the newsreels shown during the Second World War. The film exploits the viewers’ patriotism and builds on the metaphor of science and technology’s contribution to Britain’s victory. The public are asked to give generously in support of the campaign to defeat the peacetime ‘menace’ of cancer.

The second film, The Modern Crusaders, 1958, celebrates the heroic struggle of the white-coated ‘mid-twentieth century crusaders’ against cancer. The voice-over, by an unseen male narrator, explains how much money is needed to cover the cost of the high-tech equipment shown. Despite the reassurance of scientific progress, the film communicates an urgent and ‘anxious’ appeal for funds. It was shot at the British Empire Cancer Campaign’s Chester Beatty Research Institute at the Royal Cancer Hospital (aka Royal Marsden Hospital), Surrey.

The Fight against Cancer: An appeal by Margaret Leighton, 1959, is an appeal by the British celebrity Margaret Leighton, who would have been familiar to cinema audiences during the 1940s and was critically acclaimed for her theatrical performances in the 1950s. Complete with her clipped accent, pearls and fur stole, she gives a very personal appeal to the public to contribute to the funding effort. The endorsement of charitable causes by famous but more accessible actors became more prevalent around this time: Harry Secombe appears in Penny Parade, 1964, an appeal on behalf of the Spastics Society, which became later became Scope, a charity for those with cerebral palsy, which also campaigns for equality for disabled people.

A trend in health communication is to have a more patient-centred approach and use the testimony of the patients themselves. Television and the Internet are much more intimate spaces – the emotional impact of these real stories can be more powerful. A compilation of Cancer Research UK’s television commercials can be viewed on their YouTube channel. A selection of videos made for patients about cancer, including testimonies, can be viewed on the NHS Choices website.

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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