Don’t let your preconceptions get the better of you. Although this new compilation documentary from the British Film Institute’s vast archive may indeed look like the disc portion of one of those commemorative birthday card/DVD combo packs (the ones that feature key news events from the year of one’s birth: the 747’s first flight, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Hindenburg going down, that kind of thing), it is in fact an entirely different proposition, and it’s all rather delightful, too.
The period photographs and the “1963” emblazoned boldly across the inlay may leave no doubt as to the year that provides the footage, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the unexpectedly random and culturally diverse material contained within. Additionally, a brief explanation of what served as the catalyst for the British Government to commission these films offers some context as to why each production has such a vibrant, exotic flavour.
In the ‘60s, the COI (Central Office of Information), which was the marketing unit of the UK Government, made a collection of films under the umbrella of the Roundabout moniker. Intended for distribution throughout British Commonwealth countries (primarily those in South and Southeast Asia), Roundabout, a cine-magazine launched in 1962, was essentially an elaborate PR exercise, with each of its productions designed to internationally promote both the industrial relations and the cultural values of Britain.
Historically, the films represent 11 months in 1963 (strangely, the month of September is omitted); the scope of the collection is huge, and whilst the haphazard narrative of each film – their subject matter flits around the globe, with often the most tenuous of links—should be a source of mild irritation, it comes off as oddly charming, instead.
Take, for example, highlights from the first two shorts alone, which include: tours of the British embassies in Jakarta and the former Saigon, a cursory look at both the sterling work of London’s silversmiths and the function and office of the capital’s Lord Mayor, and a summing up from a Canadian pageant taking place at one of England’s foremost royal residences, Windsor Castle. Next it’s off to the Auckland Grand Prix, with the motoring angle used to further segue to the factory assembly line of Mini and Vauxhall cars; this is followed by a swift and tangential deviation to a sequence examining the manufacture of tyres, and lastly on to a finale that illustrates how the sourcing of rubber from Southeast Asia leads to its eventual application in various common items, such as divers’ wetsuits and aqualungs.
Remember, all this diversity relates in some way to Britain, giving an indication of the country’s strong global reach during the period. The remaining March to December shorts follow a similar, all-embracing ethos; if the subject matter concerns Britain and its industry, and British interests at home or within the countries of the Commonwealth, it’s in.
Stylistically, each film is appealing, too, and most contain a straightforward aesthetic that has sadly disappeared from the process of promotional filmmaking (nowadays, many promos and commercials, whilst technically very impressive, seem emotionally cold by comparison, being both artistic beyond purpose and overly obsessed with gimmicky style-over-content).
Indeed, stylistic progress deems that whilst Roundabout would have appeared fairly cutting-edge in the early ‘60s, its films are now gloriously outdated, each a joyous package of jollily hyperactive orchestral music and lounge jazz, vivid and saturated Technicolor visuals, and the obligatory, staid and formal voice-over in the manner of the much-imitated-but-never-bettered Bob Danvers-Walker, whose clipped and slightly nonchalant delivery was always at odds with the frantic tone of much of what he voiced. (The narrator for most films in the Roundabout series was actually the excellent Brian Cobby – voice of the UK’s Talking Clock—who contributes a valiant, Walkeresque effort to these productions.)
Of course, most of the action and events depicted in 1963: A Year in Colour have little political or commercial relevance in 2013 (indeed, even the Central Office of Information finally closed its doors in 2012), so the main function of the collection is now to serve merely as an important historical document detailing Britain’s recent past, most notably as an example of the country’s relationship with, and influence over, various Commonwealth economies around the world.
Despite Roundabout’s remit to promote British commerce and values, much of the manufacturing and industry shown in the series is naturally obsolete, too, so perhaps the most interesting and still-relevant aspect of the series is its overtly non-commercial material; that which focuses primarily on the formality, tradition and colourful ceremony of British culture and history, and manifestations of it in the various Commonwealth member states. If you’re looking for pomp, you came to the right place.
Each film has received a new High Definition remaster, which compliments the beautifully rich Technicolor images. Unusually for the BFI there are no extras on the disc, although a short full-colour booklet giving basic information for each film is included.