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The National News: The forgotten newsreel

In the summer of 1937, there must have been some considerable discontent with the newsreels.  A group of people with backgrounds within the film industry in general and the newsreels in particular decided that, with high ambition, they could produce the perfect newsreel.

The originators had a number of features in mind.  They promised to issue each edition in three different lengths 1,200 feet (a little more than 13 minutes) to be called “five star”, a four star version of 800 feet (just short of nine minutes) and three star of 500 feet (almost six minutes).  This was at a time when the newsreels were issuing editions averaging 850 feet.

They promised fewer big stories and that their commentary would be “fast moving” in the contemporary style of the American newsreels.

The commentator was to be involved in the writing of scripts for stories before they were shot and to work in close co-operation with the editor and the cutter.

Another of the promises was that they would include a section in colour, something that had not been attempted by the other newsreels up to that time. (Their Coronation films in colour were separate productions).

They planned to have a cartoon sequence each week and a “behind the headlines” item on the lines of The March of Time.

Alexander Korda

Alexander Korda

A fine team was gathered together to achieve their aims.  The prime mover of all this was Norman Loudon who was Chairman of Sound City Limited.  It was a production and distribution company.  Later he changed the name of the company to British Lion Studio Company.  Loudon was the founder of Shepperton Studios which were taken over by Sir Alexander Korda together with Sound City Limited.

The Editor of the new company was Cecil R. Snape who had been editor of Universal News.  It was claimed, at the time, that he had personally supervised the production of 25,000 newsreels stories.  This must be a misprint, with Universal operating over the previous eight years, the thought that they produced 60 stories a week is not believable. Let’s say 2,500, it still meant that he was extremely experienced in his job.

The commentator that was chosen was Thomas Woodroffe a former B.B.C. broadcaster.  The cameramen included Eric Owen and Jimmy Humphries from Gaumont British News, Jerry Somers and Shannon Swan from Universal News and S. Bartholemew who had been a stringer with Pathe NewsThe sound crew were to be Leslie Murray and Fred Ralph of Movietone.  Ralph was taken on not only to record location sound, but also be responsible for re-recording in the studio the music and commentary tracks.  He had been with Movietone for about a year.

The Head Cutter was Helen (Nellie) Wiggins, who was the sister of Sid Wiggins the Chief Cutter at Movietone.  She had been chief film editor on Universal Talking News and the cine magazine that presented in depth analysis on stories of the day, it was called Points of View.

So they had the cream of the industry at their disposal, people who were so confident that they had given up their solid jobs to join the new company.

Their main title showed a British bulldog looking out of the screen surrounded by a laurel wreath with the word’s National News in Old English Capitals. Also the prophetic motto, “Here, There and Everywhere”.

The new newsreel was launched on October 11th 1937.  The new company was publicly congratulated by their laboratory and other suppliers.

In Today’s Cinema of October 14th is was reported that the company had made an announcement the previous day.

Having set themselves only to present the best, the directors of National News are temporarily withdrawing National News from circulation until the standard they present is consistent with the high level they have announced.  This pause will only be a short one and will give time for the complete installation of equipment which is still awaiting delivery”.

They never returned.

One has to wonder what equipment that might have been. There was no shortage of equipment within the industry, equipment that, if not owned, could have been hired.

An article published in World Film News of 8th November 1937 reviewed the reception it had received.

It reports “ National News was born on October 11th and….was dead of a broken heart on October 13th

“The almost unanimous verdict of the few thousand who saw the first reel during the two days that it was showing was that it was terribly disappointing.  The finished product was rated slipshod, unimaginative, lacking both news and entertainment value.  The colour quality of the colour section was bad and the choice of an army mannequin parade of uniforms, which might have been shot months earlier, for the first colour story was another bad start.  Commentator Woodroffe failed to adapt his radio technique to the lighter, more concentrated newsreel style”

With such a team gathered for the purpose of a superior newsreel, how could this have happened ?.

Let us consider their aims.  First that they would issue three different lengths; 1,200, 800 and 500.  It is obvious that two of these lengths would have to have been made from duplicate material.  Probably it would have made sense to cut the 1,200 version first and from that version produce two Fine Grain Duping Positives to make the basic material for the two shorter lengths.  Did they only have one cutter, Helen Wiggins ?  If so, she would have been under extreme pressure to cut all three versions.  It would not have been an enviable job i.e. to cut the long version and then have to cut that down to 800 feet and then again down to 500 feet. One wonders what the processing requirement would have been.  We do not know how many copies were involved at each length, but there would have to have been considerable delay in printing the shortest version.

Newsreels of the day used to struggle to get their prints away on time for distribution around the country.  They would not have considered producing an edition in three different lengths.

I have mentioned this elsewhere, but they wanted to get the commentator involved in the writing of commentaries before the stories were shot.  This is a mystery to me.  How can anyone make a comment when the event has not yet taken place.

In my career, I can remember two occasions when this was possible. While with GTV9 in Melbourne, I devised a scheme where we covered the arrival of the Queen Mother at Canberra.  Knowing that it was a Royal event and that it would be planned to the second, I was confident that our journalist could write his commentary from the Press Handout and speak it directly into the sound camera.  We did this to enable us to get the film on the air in Melbourne, 670 kilometres away, three hours later.

The second occasion was while I was working with ABV2 in Melbourne.  We covered a Test Match in Adelaide and had the cameraman’s dope sheet telexed to Melbourne where the journalist wrote the commentary and we chose the shots from that dope sheet. The film was to arrive three hours later. All done to save time.  It worked, but I fail to see how this can be done as a routine.

We do not have a list of the stories that appeared in that first issue.  Some of the things going on at the time included Hitler meeting with Mussolini, Oswald Mosley marching with the fascists in Liverpool and Lord Nuffield donating a million pounds to open a new college in Oxford.

As for the cartoon section each week, to make a cartoon long enough to have any story at all, would have been extremely labour intensive and I seriously doubt that they could have produced an item every week.

As Bob Godfrey once said (well, not quite the same words) “Animation is like having sex with an elephant.  It is very difficult to do and you have to wait a very long time for the result”.

In an article written by Philip Norman for The Sunday Times Magazine, published in January 1971, he wrote:

In the late thirties a touch of new blood was added in the person of an all-colour newsreel. Its commentator was Tommy Woodroffe…but National was a doomed thing;  the existing companies had a tourniquet hold on all distribution.  And National were laughed out of Wardour Street because of technical misfortunes that may not have been entirely accidents….National’s first edition was shown to the trade up-side down;  then a sequence of the Trooping of the Colour produced Grenadiers parading in tunics as white as lambs”.

The whole article entitled The Newsreel Boys shows that Mr. Norman had no liking for the newsreels.

Let’s consider what he says about National News.

Where were the “new blood” ?, They were mostly seasoned veterans of the industry.

Universal title

Universal title

The existing companies had a tourniquet hold on all distribution” Gaumont and Universal had the Gaumont and Odeon cinema circuits, Pathe had the ABC cinema circuit.  At that time, there would have been over one thousand independent cinemas in Great Britain and, although they were showing newsreels from the big five, there was nothing to stop them preferring a superior newsreel.  There was no tourniquet. One might ask why National News would have gone into production without securing a substantial circulation beforehand.

He states that the “misfortunes” of National News may not have been entirely accidents.  If, by stating this, he is accusing the newsreels of sabotage, one has to wonder how they might have achieved it.  If the report of the audience reaction is accurate, there were no “misfortunes” involved, the audience did not like what they saw.

One of the problems facing the newsreel on a weekly basis is that there could be weeks when there was no outstanding news story of pictorial interest.  There could also be weeks when there were several outstanding stories, but there were no guarantees.  National News would have been obliged to go along with whatever was happening shortly before their opening.

The laboratory involved with National News was Humphries Laboratories, a first class laboratory, but, perhaps, not able to produce top class colour material in a short time.

If the film was shown to the “trade” upside-down, I would have thought the screening would have lasted a few seconds before the mistake was spotted, and that the film would have been re-wound and then shown right way up.

Finally, one wonders what pictures of Trooping the Colour were doing in a newsreel in October, of an event that took place in June.

Philip Norman’s article goes on ”National folded but the chuckling survivors had only a limited time to enjoy themselves.”

Well, Paramount went on for another 20 years as did Gaumont and Universal.  Pathe closed thirty-three years later and Movietone forty-two years after National News folded..

What of the staff of National News ?

Norman Loudon went to produce more feature films and expand his studios.

Thomas Woodrofe returned to the B.B.C. to become even more famous.

Helen Wiggins went freelance and started her own company.  She was still in business with her brother Sid in the mid sixties.

Leslie Murray became a cameraman with Universal News and eventually its editor. In 1975 he would come to my office in ITN House, to meet with my colleague Norman Dickson.  They would go to lunch together and speak about old times.  Leslie was driving a Triumph Stag at the time.

Jimmy Humphries eventually joined Movietonews as a cameraman based in The Wirral, staying with Movietone for almost twenty-five years.

Jerry Summers found work with Paramount for a short time and then he was with Pathe until the end of the war in 1945.

What became of Messrs. Ralph, Bartholomew and Shannon Swan I do not know.

The company was liquidated in the February of 1938 and what equipment they had was sold off.

B.B.C. Television made a purchase.

“The equipment was described as consisting of the latest type Mitchell sound camera complete with lenses, tripods, sound amplifiers, batteries, cables etc.,  and certain portable lighting equipment.  A Studebaker saloon with a reinforced roof to form a camera position was thrown in with this £1,600 purchase from the National News Company which had gone out of business”.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions”.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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