In the face of an instantaneous, 24-hour, multi-platform media it is possible to forget that once upon a time we had to wait for our news. Before Twitter and Facebook, before even television, there was the cinema newsreel.
One of the most famous of the companies producing these films was Pathé. Originally set up in France in 1896, Pathé were soon capturing on film slices of everyday Victorian life as well as very public occasions such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations or the funeral of William Gladstone. By 1908 Pathé had developed the concept of the newsreel, with the first British one produced in 1909. Inevitably the rise of television eventually did for the cinema newsreel – Pathé put out its last edition of Pathé News in early-1970 – but in the intervening period they had captured many iconic moments and reported stories both big and small. Among these were the General Elections of the era, and in the lead up to this year’s election we look back at some of the Pathé footage connected to them.
The earliest election film comes from the 1922 election and reports Winston Churchill’s defeat by Edwin ‘Ned’ Scrymgeour who is shown, silently (sound wasn’t introduced to Pathé’s newsreels until 1930), addressing the camera.
Scrymgeour had indeed been ‘pegging away’, having contested the Dundee seat five times previously. Interviewed after his victory by The Daily Mail they found the new ‘dry’ MP well prepared – he had with him already his Prohibition Bill – and in determined mood: ‘I will tell you one thing: The House of Commons is not the town council of Dundee. Here you have lines on which to operate. They will respect your convictions. In the town council they tried to make a doormat of me, and I’ll not be made a doormat of by any man.’
Of his defeated opponent he was equally unawed saying of Churchill that he issued ‘an audacious poster, claiming that he was indispensable in office. Here we are without him now and yet we are managing to exist.’
The second film comes from the election of the following year and concentrates on reaction to the results as they are disseminated by The Daily Express’s ‘electric ribbon’ and – for the first time – over the radio to people in the comfort of their own homes.
For anyone who recalls the surreal moment that Jeremy Vine donned a Stetson and adopted an American twang to discuss the Liberal Democrats’ electoral performance, the final film (a ‘novelty that good humouredly epitomises the situation’) suggests that broadcasters have forever been looking for novel ways in which to get their message across.
After a nightmare inducing opening, the film shows the proclamation of the General Election. This is followed by footage of Ramsay MacDonald and ‘his much discussed motor car’ – much discussed as it had been part of a controversial gift given to the Prime Minister by the Chairman of McVite’s (and inventor of the digestive biscuit), Alexander Grant. The film closes with pictures of MacDonald and his Labour Party colleagues, most notably a rather jolly Sidney Webb and two of Labour’s women MPs, Dorothy Jewson and Margaret Bondfield. Bondfield would later become Britain’s first female Cabinet minister.
Matthew Bailey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham. He has published work on a variety of topics regarding British politics, in particular the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher’s election as party leader. Philip Cowley is a Professor of Parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham and is the co-editor of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box‘.