Bringing past to life for all to see

From the film Holiday 1957, shot in Blackpool at the outdoor baths. Britain On Film available on the BFI Player (British Film Institute)
From the film Holiday 1957, shot in Blackpool at the outdoor baths. Britain On Film available on the BFI Player (British Film Institute)
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It’s like stepping into a time machine.

A major project, which has already involved more than three years of work, is allowing people across the UK to delve into history and see the past come to life – through the use of modern technology.

Miss Blackpool competition, 1968, from Britain On Film

Miss Blackpool competition, 1968, from Britain On Film

Everything from children playing games in Burnley and people holidaying in Blackpool, to workers leaving factories in Nelson, and Preston North End football matches from years gone by, can be viewed in Britain On Film – the result of work by the British Film Institute (BFI) national archive and the UK’s national and regional film archives, and right-holders all joining forces.

The archives have now gone digital and are live online on BFI Player, giving people free access to thousands of film sand TV titles featuring where they live, grew up, went to school, holidayed as a child, or places of interest.

By 2017, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will be digitised.

The North West – and in particular Lancashire – is one of the most documented regions on film, especially in Edwardian times.

The white portland stone of the church of Our Lady Of Lourdes in Blackpool in 1958, from Britain On Film

The white portland stone of the church of Our Lady Of Lourdes in Blackpool in 1958, from Britain On Film

The rich amount and variety of footage is thanks largely to the prestigious Mitchell and Kenyon collection, released by the BFI National Archive, following its discovery in Blackburn in 1994. It offers an unparalleled record of early 20th century British life – much of which was recorded in the North West.

The project has included a sophisticated programme of data capture, cataloguing, copying to archival standards, meticulous preservation of original materials – through searching of archives across the country, new state-of-the-art equipment and digital storage facilities and the transfer of films to the BFI’s online video platform, BFI Player.

The newly accessible film footage – which includes material from the North West Film Archive – presents a Lancashire which is vibrant, diverse and eccentric, while shining a light on issues and situations which affect every generation.

Much of the footage has never – or rarely – been seen since its first appearance and can now be searched for by specific locations through BFI’s film and TV map of the UK, which also enables people to share films with their family, friends and communities.

Blackpool North Pier, 1903, from 'Britain On Film available on the BFI Player

Blackpool North Pier, 1903, from 'Britain On Film available on the BFI Player

Geoff Senior, archivist in live material at the North West Film Archive, based at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “It’s material which was made by people to be seen and it should be seen.

“In this digital age, with so many people online and using social media it makes things accessible to more people.

“The north west and in particular Lancashire, has some very interesting stuff – from nursery schools, to factories. It’s every day people and every day life.”

Robin Baker, head curator at the BFI, said: “For 120 years, camera have captured almost every aspect of life of the UK on film, but too often these have been inaccessible to all but the most determined of researchers.

“Now, Britain On Film is transforming access to films from the UK’s archives and giving them life to them by making them available – no matter where you live.

“It’s a huge project with some really intriguing footage.

“It makes history feel more immediate when you look at historical scenes on film.

“Lancashire had some extraordinary groups of people making films and has wonderful collections.

“The scenes from Blackpool, Preston, Chorley and Blackburn are just lovely.

“So many of the films are of ordinary people doing ordinary things, you see people just catching sight of the camera and waving, there’s even a cheeky boy in one film who makes a V-sign.

“One of my highlights is called Blackpool High Tide filmed in 1913, and it’s wonderful. I love the little details, like a billboard showing Blackpool Ladies Choir is performing Orpheus.

“Another of my favourites is the Open Road, made in 1925, filmed by film-maker and cameraman Claude Friese-Greene which includes a sequence in Blackpool.”

Among the highlights from Lancashire are Holiday in Blackpool, in 1957, which today’s Memory Lane front cover is taken from – filmed in part at the open air baths in South Shore.

The delights of 1950s Blackpool holidays are vibrantly revisited in a travelogue by John Taylor, produced for British Transport Film. By hiding his camera in a box, Taylor managed to capture a myriad of minor joys that constitute the typical British seaside break, evocatively captured in sunny Kodachrome cinematography.

It shows holiday-makers arriving on the train and features shots of hotels and guest houses, as well as the beach and the Miss Blackpool contest.

Blackpool, Harden and Grange-Over-Sands, from 1968, is a delightful montage of leisure activities enjoyed by families up North in the late 60s – following a colourful miscellany of footage, from both sides of the Pennines. Scenes of Blackpool in its heyday include the Miss Blackpool ‘68 beauty contest.

The extension of Blackpool Promenade, in 1905, is another interesting piece – which shows horses and carts being used to shovel earth and building materials for the construction work.

And Blackpool High Tide, 1913, features footage of the resort on a blustery Bank Holiday weekend – stormy seas and people playing ‘chicken’ with the sea, running up to the railings and darting out of the way of incoming waves at the last moment.

Fleetwood also makes an appearance – in a short film entitled The Venice Of The North, depicting scenes of the 1927 flood disaster. Residents can be seen punting through the town in all manner of makeshift watercraft. Ninety per cent of the town was left underwater and the flood claimed six lives. The postman can be seen still delivering the post – despite the difficult circumstances!

And viewers can take a wonderful trip on-board a local tram through Lytham, from 1903. Lytham Green and other notable locations feature in the short film, as well as people going about their daily business.