Review for Look at Life: Volume 7 - Business and Industry
What a treasure trove! I love the ‘Look at Life’ sets from Network and this edition, focussing on industry and business, is an absolute corker. It’s a veritable time-machine for those of us old enough to remember enduring these in cinemas in the sixties and seventies. Real people in real situations in streets and towns that transport you back in time.
This particular edition contains more of the films I remember than any previously released edition - with some absolute gems. In fact, there are sixty 10-12 minutes short films in this set, every one as intriguing as the last. What’s odd is that normally I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in bottle-making. But a Look-at-Life film seems to be able to lift even the most mundane subject matter into something positive and uplifting. Hurrah! We’re British and this is what we do.
They were produced in the 1960’s by the so-called Special Features Division of the Rank Organisation to screen in their Odeon and Gaumont cinemas to replace the Universal News, which had lost relevance and popularity due to the growth of television news.
Despite their low-budget, they are all well-crafted documentaries in their own right, beautifully shot on 35mm and cut to a usually upbeat voice-over (Tim Turner), although occasionally celebrities like Sid James, Raymond Baxter, and Eamonn Andrews would narrate. At the end of each film the caption "Take a Look at Life Again Soon" would appear on screen. Which usually meant next week for many Brits for whom a regular trip to the local flea-pit, regardless of what was playing, was all part of the routine back in the day.
I once had the great privilege of working with a cameraman who had worked on many of the 500 ‘Look at Life’ films and he was rock solid at hand-held stuff – almost to steadicam standards in the age before steadicam. Shot in colour they provide a perfect record of Britain in the 60’s. After all, this was in an age where even a still photograph seemed an extravagance and well before the ubiquity of video recordings we’re so used to today.
The set opens with an absolute gem focussing on markets in London (and comparing and contrasting these with the rise of the then fairly new concept of the supermarket). Narrated by Sid James, there are some great sequences showing Portobello Road, Farringdon Road (with its multiple book stalls) and Petticoat Lane. Some of the commentary will leave you gasping with incredulity at some of the acceptable views and opinions at the time. Like Sid James’ comment that ‘many of the coloured people in this area can get the same sorts of food they get at home’ as if this was not yet their home. Probably a perfectly innocent and well intentioned comment at the time but one which betrays the prejudices of the era. Or the fact the ladies wear make-up all over the world to please their hard-working men – and so on. Of course, there’s never a trace of anything other than upbeat positivity and it’s clear than no offence was ever intended. Again, a fascinating window to the world.
So with sixty films to watch, there’s no doubt that by the end of the set you’ll be far more knowledgeable about all sorts of things you’d never really know before. Like how and why we made money at the Mint, back in the day. Or how bottles are mass produced. Or how cars are designed, manufactured and tested. Or about the impact of the Romans on our City today. Or how many new gadget are used in modern agriculture. Or deep sea trawling, or hat making or growing tulips and so on and so on.
NOTE: EXTRACT FROM LOOK AT LIFE VOLUME 1
I’m unsure where the material was sourced from but much of it looks in remarkably fine shape. I seem to recall that they often looked a bit battered by the time we saw them in cinemas, often with scratches and missing frames. There’s precious little of that here. The Eastman colour 35mm looks better than you’ll remember it!
If, like me, you love archival footage of life in Britain during the 1960’s and enjoy a healthy dose of nostalgia, then ‘Look at Life’ is for you. Volume 7 may well be the best yet!