Stylish Propaganda: 'Roundabout 1963: A Year in Colour'

Intended for distribution throughout British Commonwealth countries, this cine-magazine 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.

Roundabout 1963: A Year in Colour

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: BFI
Studio: Central Office of Information
UK release date: 2013-03-25

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.