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Crown Film Unit

Volume 497: debated on Monday 10 March 1952

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Oakshott.]

2.22 a.m.

I want to call the attention of the House to the work of the Crown Film Unit and its future. I propose to do so quite briefly because I hope there will be an opportunity for other hon. Members to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, notably the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis). But in any event, the point of view I am going to put forward tonight is not a party view, but one widely held among hon. Members of all parties. Indeed, the Financial Secretary has only to refer to the debate on the Cinematograph Film Production (Special Loans) Bill on 28th February to assure himself of that fact.

On that occasion the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter) said that the Crown Film Unit always worked with a minimum of cost and a maximum of intelligence. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) said that the Unit had probably done more for the prestige of British films than any other single body.

I think it is generally admitted that the Unit has done a remarkable job of work. Even to this day, I suppose, few of us recall the film "London Can Take It" without emotion, and certainly none ought to under-estimate the influence that film had, notably in the United States of America. Films like "Target for Tonight" and "Western Approaches" were as much an unforgettable part of the last war as in the first war were such songs as "Pack up Your Troubles" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary."

The work of the Crown Film Unit has continued since the war, and I have been looking, as no doubt the Financial Secretary has been looking, at the list of the films on which the Unit has been engaged, and what a pageant of enterprise it is. There is "El Dorado," a film about British Guiana; "Daybreak in Udi," a film telling this country about the fight against superstition in Nigeria; "Prevention of Cross Infection," a training film for nurses on the care of sick children; "It Need not Happen," a film about road safety, particularly appropriate after the tragedy at Chatham a few weeks ago. Then there is "Family Affair," which was designed to find homes for those children in our institutions who all too often lead a loveless life.

I do not think one can assess the value of films of that kind, although it has been estimated that one film, "Family Affair," was instrumental, by finding foster parents for children, in saving public funds something like £50,000 a year. I want to quote to the House the comments of the "Daily Telegraph" on these films. It said, on 3rd March:
"Films like these, by reminding us of things it is pleasanter to forget, make for a better world; they save lives; they remind foreigners that the nobler British traditions, medical and humanitarian, live still. Shown over most of the world, with commentaries in 20 languages, they do invaluable service politically by rebutting hostile propaganda about neglect of our poor at home and exploitation of natives in the Colonies."
It is not for nothing that the Crown Film Unit has been awarded what I think are called Oscars, on two occasions—that is to say, awards of merit of the American Motion Picture Academy. The Crown Film Unit has become a pattern for similar film units in the Dominions, and I saw a letter from America the other day which said that the British might as well sell the pictures from the National Gallery as do away with the Crown Film Unit, because of the important influence it has had in the United States of America.

In those circumstances one would think that only arguments of the most weighty kind could possibly justify abolition of such a unit. But it is not easy to find exactly what these arguments are. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) questioned the Financial Secretary about the savings to be made, on 28th February, the reply was that it was impossible to give any figures at present. The hon. Gentleman added that it is the Government's intention to make a definite reduction in the scale on which Departments make use of films as a medium of publicity.

It has been said that the unit has been costing an average of about £250,000 a year, but even that compares favourably, taking into account the amount of work of film production, with the cost of production at other units in this country. But the figure is a little misleading, because since then there has been a reduction in the expenditure of the Crown Film Unit. It is not possible to say exactly what the figure is today, but I would hazard a guess, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will correct me if necessary, that it is a very substantial amount lower than the average amount of £250,000.

It is being gradually reduced. Economies have been made, and without the very heavy burden of the big studios at Beaconsfield the cost could be reduced still further. I am informed on good authority that there is no reason why, during the financial year which we are about to start, the expense of the Crown Film Unit should not be reduced even below £100,000. Against that we ought to balance the commercial receipts of the unit. At present, there are between 29 and 30 films in commercial circulation in this country, while others are earning dollars in the United States.

It is apparent from answers given by the Minister during the past few weeks that Government Departments are continuing to make films, but instead of doing this through the Crown Film Unit they are making them through commercial channels. The Ministry of Health and the. General Post Office have announced in the House that this is their intention, and I understand that the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, as well, are proposing to continue to make films in that way. It really does seem a lamentable position to smash up a unit which has proved its worth.

It may well be that instead of these proposals saving the Exchequer money, they may cost money during the next few years. There are other arguments that we cannot assess in material terms. There is the effect of the unit in educating public opinion and in telling the world of the achievements of this country. Other nations are not squeamish of telling the world what they have done. We know from American films that America won the war in Burma and from Russian films that Russia invented the tractor.

It might be a good thing if, instead of cutting down on this publicity, we did rather more to tell the people of the world what this country and its people have achieved. Many of us in all parts of the House believe that the fight of truth against evil is even more important than the fight of arms against arms. At a time when we are proposing to spend millions of pounds to destroy men's bodies we are haggling over a few thousand pounds to save men's minds.

I do not think it is like the Financial Secretary to take decisions of that kind. I hope that he will be big and admit that the Government made a mistake in announcing this decision. If he does I will promise not to gloat. If it is any comfort to him, perhaps I can remind him that the previous Government made the lamentable decision to cut down oversea broadcasts. As a result of the response of public opinion they reversed the decision. I hope that like his predecessors in office the hon. Gentleman will be big enough to admit a mistake and announce tonight he is in a position to revise the earlier decision.

2.32 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has made his case with his customary cogency and I do not propose to go through, in criticism or agreement, the precise merits of the Crown Film Unit. But I hope my hon. Friend will be able to give us as much information as possible on the exact figures of saving that are likely, because on that I am at present extremely uninformed. We all understand that there is a crisis and that economies have to be made; that the economies fall where we do not like them to fall; and that it is not a sufficient argument to say that the economies are small, since all economies are small if we are going to economise at all.

The hon. Member for Rossendale gives the figure of £250,000. I thought the annual expenditure was £225,000. How much of that is really to be saved if we set against it, on the one hand, the receipts from the commercial distribution and, on the other hand, the amount of film making or other publicity that will have to take place by Government Departments and other interests if the Crown Film Unit is cut out?

There are two forms of Government economy. Sometimes the Government can stop doing something which otherwise would not need to be done at all. On other occasions, the Government stops doing something which will otherwise have to be done by someone else; and there are plenty of occasions where that is desirable. I wonder to what extent the work of the Crown Film Unit would have to be done by other Government Departments or, if not by them, then by some other interests.

My feeling is that little economy will be carried through by closing down the Unit, but a certain amount—probably more—could have been achieved by closing down the work at Beaconsfield and making economies within the Unit, and preserving the Unit. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would enlighten us more on the figures than has been the case so far.

2.35 a.m.

I do not want to quarrel with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood), or my hon. Friend from Devizes (Mr. Hollis), on the issue of the technical and artistic merits of some, though by no means all, of the films which the Crown Film Unit has produced. I have some sympathy, in replying to an Adjournment debate at this hour of the morning, with "Target for Tonight."

The hon. Member for Rossendale spoilt his case by exaggeration when he started to suggest that, for better or for worse, the Unit was in the same category as the National Gallery. I am not concerned to dispute that if this were a prosperous country, in which there was no particular need for economy, hon. Members might well feel that a unit of this kind was an agreeable ornament of its society. But all hon. Members know the situation with which the country is faced, and which this Government inherited from its predecessors—

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks we created the situation which this Government inherited from its predecessor. It is a situation which makes the utmost public economy essential. We are not going to get that if, when any particular economy is put forward, hon. Members talk about haggling over a few thousand pounds. It is easy, if one dons intellectual blinkers and confines one's case solely to one matter, to put up a plausible case for not carrying out the particular economy you are discussing. If hon. Members adopt that attitude any really effective attempt to deal with national expenditure becomes impossible.

I would ask the House, in discussing the merits of this issue, not to get into the mood that one particular economy can be sacrificed easily. In respect of every economy there are hon. Members who are interested in that subject, and who, with the same zeal, persuasive power, and eloquence, as the hon. Member for Rossendale has urged in this case, will urge that that economy be not effected.

The basis of the matter is that the Government have decided, quite apart from the Crown Film Unit, to reduce substantially Government expenditure on films as a whole. That does not spring from any antipathy to that agreeable method of disseminating information. It is based on the fact that the production and distribution of films is a highly expensive way of carrying on information work, and that this is a method of information activity which has to be substantially restricted.

Once we adopt that attitude, the case for maintaining a separate and special unit for the production of Government films becomes very much weaker. If we decide to carry on production on the comparatively large scale undertaken in 1946–47 there is a much stronger case for having a specialised unit to produce films for the Government. If we decide, as a matter of policy and national economy, to reduce substantially—though not completely to eliminate—the production of films, the case for the overheads, organisation costs, accommodation, etc., of a separate film unit, becomes, pro tanto, very much weaker.

That is, in fact, the background against which this particular decision was taken, and that really answers my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. He pointed out, quite rightly, that economies were of two kinds—one where you dispense with a considerable part of a service, and the other where you transfer expenditure elsewhere. This is in the first of the categories.

If one takes the C.O.I. estimate alone, the provision for films this year shows a reduction of £300,000, compared with the estimate for last year. That is a very substantial figure. Coming to the cost of the Crown Film unit itself, there are a number of facts which may be of interest. Last year, inside the Crown Film Unit, the item of salaries alone came to £78,500. There was a staff of no fewer than 117, 14 of whom were in receipt of salaries in excess of £1,000 a year. The total cost of its operation was in excess of £200,000.

Both hon. Gentlemen referred to the commercial earnings of the unit. I am sorry to say that last year, against a background of production costs in excess of £200,000, the identifiable earnings amount to £3,000 only. There has been, I am sorry to say, a very substantial, absolute, and relative fall—relative as against expenditure on production—in the receipts from the Unit's productions, from £25,000 a year in 1946–47 down to £3,000 in the financial year now coming to a close. Therefore, I do not think that the argument of commercial earnings—of earnings of £3,000 by an expenditure in excess of £200,000will commend itself very strongly to this House.

But the cost factor does not stop there. It is an elementary platitude, for which I apologise, that it is useless to produce films unless they can be displayed. It is a fact that even in the last year for which we have complete figures, 69 per cent. of the films produced by the Unit were not taken and exhibited by any of the commercial companies or any cinema other than Government controlled projectors.

It followed from that that if we were to produce films and to do nothing with them other than putting them in a drawer where no one could see them we had to maintain the system of Government film distribution. That system the Government decided to abolish. I ask both hon. Gentlemen to appreciate that when we come to the question of costs we are not only concerned with the cost of producing films, but we are equally concerned with the fact that if we produce films we are consequently bound to take the steps necessary to secure that they are exhibited, and that therefore the costs of distribution inevitably come into our calculations.

Let me give some facts about this ancillary activity. The Film Distribution Service had a salary list of £126,000 in the last financial year. It owned 91 vans with mobile projectors, and something in excess of 100 of what I may describe as static or non-mobile projectors. The cost of the service totalled £238,000 in 1951–52.

I do not want to be misleading on this point. The service is not solely confined to the distribution of Crown films, but the point I ask the House to bear in mind is that if we are to retain the Crown Film Unit, as the hon. Member for Rossendale suggests, we would be bound to retain the distribution service.

Surely there will have to be some distribution service for those Departments which intend to go ahead with the use of films for, for example, propaganda purposes for recruiting or, as in the case of the Ministry of Food, for training purposes.

It may well be that some Departments have their own film projection services. The Ministry of Agriculture and, I think, the Scottish Home Department have them. What is being closed down is the nation-wide system of film distribution through the C.O.I. Of course, the training film service, to which the hon. Member referred, could not, and would not, be used to distribute Crown films, those films which, as I have already pointed out, simply would not be shown at all unless we preserved this central distributive system.

I ask the House, therefore, to appreciate that this is not a case of haggling over a few thousand pounds. This involves items running in all into several hundred thousand pounds. It involves, indeed, infinitely the major part of the reduction of some £600,000 a year which is being effected this year in the Central Office of Information as a whole.

The film distribution service for Crown and other films has taken up a very substantial proportion of the C.O.I.'s staff. It has involved the employment of about half of the 300 people engaged out of London in the regions by the Central Office of Information. Under the circumstances, that half are now able to be dispensed with. Therefore, we are concerned with the central core—the real essence—of the whole economies being effected in the Central Office of Information as a whole, economies involving manpower to the extent of some hundreds of people and money to the figure of some £600,000.

If I may take up again the hon. Member's phrase, that is not "haggling" over a few thousand pounds. That is, even in these days of astronomic millions in national accounts, a not wholly insignificant sum; nor is the manpower involved insignificant. That brings me to my further point. When the hon. Member deplored the loss of the Crown Film Unit, he spoke as if we were about to put into some lethal chamber the very talented people who have produced these films. But, of course, these people will remain and will be available for employment.

I do not think there is anybody who would not say that the British film industry generally, which the Government, through the medium of the Eady plan, inaugurated under their predecessors, are making such strenuous efforts to revive, would not be much the better for a certain infusion of constructive ability, both in direction, in production and in photography.

If these people are of the quality which the hon. Gentleman states them to be, and which I do not dispute; if this industry—and I intend no discourtesy—has no plethora of talent, if one may judge from some of their productions, there is no reason why that quality should not display itself, perhaps, in a sphere whose commercial receipts will exceed £3,000 a year.

The fact that these people are now available for such employment as may be offered in the film industry has been well publicised, since the interest that has been shown in this subject has given nobody in the film world any opportunity of not knowing that they will be available for employment.

The Unit, in its major part, is due to close at the end of this month, at the end of the financial year, although certain ancillary services—such as what is technically called "dubbing," for example—will continue for a few weeks more; and certainly no obstacle will be put in the way of any of the technicians who desire to leave earlier if suitable employment seems to them to come their way.

I am sorry—I am up against time.

Therefore, the position is not that this ability is being destroyed. On the contrary, it is still there; it is still available for exercise in a somewhat wider direction than in the past. In those circumstances, I think the House will appreciate that this is a decision which was not taken lightly.

We appreciate that all cuts that have to be imposed have their disadvantages, that when cuts are made even of some of the less essential aspects of Government expenditure, something inevitably is lost. The hon. Member will not dispute that. But, equally, the hon. Member has not made out any case for suggesting that the Crown Film Unit comes in the category of essential services which the nation, at a time of the greatest difficulty, can afford. It really is essential, therefore, that this economy shall be maintained, that the decision which has been given shall stand, and that action shall be taken along the lines which I have described.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes to Three o'Clock a.m.