The Thirties In Colour, BBC4

by | Jul 17, 2008 | All

Did we like it?
A mostly fascinating journey in time back to an era rarely described with moving pictures. However, unlike the remarkable Lost World of Mitchell And Kenyon, which documented the almost alien world of the working classes, this was beguiling for precisely the opposite reason – it showed how little the upper classes have changed in the past 70-odd years.

What was good about it?
• The almost dizzy naivety of Rosie Newman, the daughter of an incredibly wealthy Bavarian banker, who was one of the first people (rich enough) to use the 30s equivalent of a camcorder.
• The way in which she carelessly filmed the world around her, mostly focusing on the opulence of the ruling classes whether in India, Egypt, Scotland or London, acted as an emblem of the disdain her kin felt towards those of a lower social standing.
• And the most distinctive trend in her films was how little her images differed from similar gatherings of affluence today, with the colour film often emphasizing the point.
• The rich still live in the stately homes that Rosie grew up in, built hundreds of years ago and updated in a barely detectable cosmetic fashion. While in India, she often filmed icons such as the Aga Khan or maharajas, dressed in exactly the same pseudo-ceremonial garb their descendants would don today.
• Of course, what glimpses of Bombay street life brought home how little life had changed for its indigent inhabitants; indeed, the name of their city has undergone more upheaval than their wretched sub-human existences. Another obvious mirror to the future was the instability of Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass.
• And this contrasted, inadvertently in Rosie’s eyes as she had neither the skill nor empathy to detail the poverty around her, with the world of the semi-autonomous regions of India, where local princes, puppets to their British advisers, competed to impress visiting British dignitaries with stunning palaces and gardens. Again the impression was that such places still exist and are in the hands of the social elite, not just in India but across the world.
• Still in India, Rosie filmed the senseless ostentation of ‘military’ parades of the princes’ armies – who were in reality bedecked in purely ceremonial uniforms and armed with antiquated weapons, useless in conflict. Today, simply imagine Trooping the Colour with darker-skinned soldiers and elephants in place of horses.
• The Raj even had its own parallels with the plague of contemporary grossly overpaid ruthless entrepreneurs who believe they can salve away all the misery their singular avarice has created with a few listless donations to charity (see Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway). “Although renowned for her charity work…” a sentence which is always the precursor to introducing a real bastard who escapes self-condemning perdition through a few charity balls, was in this case used to introduce Lady Willingdon.
• The tiger hunt that Rosie observed ‘led’ by the King of Greece from a position high and out of danger while Indian lackeys beat the bushes to flush the canine out. One of the informative experts who joined the dots of Rosie’s films, commented that it was beneficial to the local prince should the visiting noble kill a tiger as it made them more generous in their own gift giving. These days, royalty makes do with killing pheasants.
• The few times Rosie did venture out from behind the skirts of her background brought such images as the Afghan bandits who dyed their moustaches red to disguise the grey – this may sound bland, but it had the potency of Mitchell And Kenyon, however accidental. While elsewhere, in Edinburgh she argued with a harassed traffic policeman and patiently filmed a group of Neapolitan nannies.
• Rosie travelled to Scotland to spend time at the Highland Games and other social events. And, like India, there too the upper classes are in the grip of a cultural and social inertia. Men congregated to watch horse racing in top hat and tails for no other reason than to look different to the common herd; and golfers are pretty much identical as they strive to play a sport that suits their shared indolence. Apart from the blurred images, it could have been filmed last week.
• Rosie’s visit to Cairo in the late-1930s saw pictures from the fringes of the Souk that would scarcely be different today, were it Michael Palin in her place, only more focused and with a keener narrative edge. But there were some shots of ancient temples that have since fallen into ruin.

What was bad about it?
• It would be churlish to criticise Rosie for her amateurism behind the camera, simply because she was an amateur. Her films have value not for their artistry and grace, but because she was pretty much the only person with a colour film camera whose work survives today. She wasn’t aiming to chronicle history in the style of Mitchell and Kenyon nor aspire to be Alfred Hitchcock, she was just a wealthy holidaymaker filming her vacation in the way millions of people do today.
• But this did mean, and was recognised by the programme, that she sometimes was oblivious to history unfolding before her eyes or the chance to capture startling images. As she panned idly across a beach, she failed to focus on a gathering of men who were part of Ghandi’s campaign for change in India, while on another occasion she neglected to take in the majesty of Mount Everest.
• Rosie’s lack of skill was most apparent in her film of the Blitz. Despite braving the aftermath of numerous raids, her images hold only a perfunctory historical interest as they are as anonymous as any other similar film shot at the time – stark, powerful and distressing through their very nature, not the camerawork.
• Her ignorance of the world around her also dampened the impact of some of her film, such as the “quaint houses with barred windows” she noted in Egypt, unaware that this was where the local prostitutes were corralled.
• Some of Miranda Richardson’s dryly spoken narrative seemed to be rooted in the 30s and its burdensome elitist etiquette. “The brief and tragic reign of Edward VIII…” Why was it tragic? He may have had to abdicate the throne, but it was his choice to live with the woman he loved; there’s not much tragedy there.
• Ignorance too in the statement that Rosie’s films captured “the elite at play before the fall of the Empire”. However, the fall of the British Empire really didn’t have very much of an effect on Rosie and her peers, as to this very day they still live in very big houses, still are blessed with the Queen’s favour – Rose’s nephew is Sir Francis Newman – and still partake in senseless anachronistic rituals as if in defiance of the obliteration of the Empire.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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