This week I’d like to point you in the direction of the British Film Institute and its free online archive collections, which are properly free. There is no signing up for one of those ‘free trials’ which means that, somewhere down the line, you’ll discover you’ve been paying £4.99 a month for something you didn’t want. And it’s certainly excellent value for the money you don’t pay, as there are 65 of these collections, grouped under various headings — ‘Football on Film’, ‘Black Britain on Film’ — although I plumped for ‘Eating In’, because it’s all any of us do now, and ‘Cats v Dogs’, as if that were even much of a competition…dogs! (Cat people: show me a guide cat for the blind or a sniffer cat or a cat that’s pulled its owner from a fire, then we’ll talk cats.)
The films date from the late 19th century through to the modern day and can last from just a few seconds to 30 minutes. The earliest I discovered is from ‘Cats v Dogs’ — also, show me a cat that can herd sheep, then we’ll talk — and is a four-second snippet from 1898 featuring a little girl in a poufy white dress and her dog (a collie cross, by the look of it). It is wonderfully Victorian and sentimental and Pears soap-ish and is titled Me and My Two Friends as there is also a cat in it but that’s okay. You can just ignore it.
It’s all fantastically moreish. There’s whippet racing in Yorkshire from 1970 and a 1943 road safety film starring Labradors driving their own cars to the shops (surreal) and another 1943 government film encouraging people to stub out their cigarettes properly. This features an English bull terrier whose equipment, shall we say — this was before regular neutering, remember — is impressively distracting. Also, there is Cat & Dog Life, a cat and dog show filmed at Alexandra Palace in 1928, which not only offers a peek at the Palace’s extraordinary interior during its prime but will also make you marvel at the women’s furs and wonder why some dog breeds have since gone out of fashion. When did you last see a borzoi? Or bloodhound? Yes, there are cats on show, and also baskets of fluffy kittens that are cute, admittedly, but you can happily ignore those too. There is so much here that you could, in fact, spend for ever just on ‘Cats v Dogs’. Or ‘Dogs’, as I like to call it.
On to ‘Eating In’, which traces Britain’s relationship with food down the years. What you didn’t know until now is this: a four-minute film from 1920 on making Stilton cheese may be the most soothing and meditative thing you have ever seen. Much more soothing, in fact, than that meditation app that’s now costing you £4.99 a month and you never go near.
The social history is, of course, riveting. Wives are always getting in trouble for not having dinner on the table. (See: The Secret. I’d have told him where to put his dumplings but this was 1918.) There are also items from living memory, including food ads (Nimble, Findus Crispy Pancakes, Roy Kinnear going mad for Shippam’s paste) and the 1973 Boxing Day edition of Farmhouse Kitchen, Yorkshire Television’s cookery show presented by Dorothy Sleightholme, a stout, no-nonsense, disapproving woman who cannot be considered the Nigella of her day. (I don’t think she appeared in a slinky dressing gown even the once. Or ever licked a spoon erotically.) Her recipes are wonderfully appalling.
Her centrepiece for Boxing Day, for example, is a platter of leftover turkey decorated with orange segments and tomatoes cut into flower shapes and then smothered in cream mixed with mayonnaise — ‘perhaps, for once, you will be forgiven for buying some if you haven’t time to make it’ — and garnished with parsley and paprika (but only a little paprika, to add colour, because heaven forbid you might actually taste it). Also, she has a cough. She may even cough right in her hands and then proceed as normal. Wonderfully appalling, as I said. And truly incredible value for the money you haven’t paid.