Decline and Transformation: British Pathé from 1958 to the present day

by James Hoyle, archive co-ordinator for British Pathé

This post is Part IV of IV.

For the years 1895 to 1910, see blog post “Pathé Before British Pathé”.

For the years 1910 to 1933, see blog post “Establishing Itself”.

For the years 1933 to 1958, see blog post “A Golden Age”.

In 1958, Warner Brothers merged with Associated British Picture Corporation (parent company of Pathé-branded newsreel and feature film producers, Associated British-Pathé) to form Warner-Pathé. The new management oversaw the introduction of colour into regular news production (it had hitherto been saved for special documentaries such as Elizabeth Is Queen). But Warner-Pathé needed more than colour in order appeal to consumers who were increasingly getting their hard news from live television. Other newsreel brands went out of business, and the company needed to adapt if it was going to survive. The answer it found was to focus on the quirks of humanity.

Warner-Pathé offices on Wardour Street, 1963

“Cinemagazines” were not an invention of the 1960s. They actually date right back to 1913 and the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette, though it was Pathé-Cinema which perfected the form with 1918’s Pathé Pictorial. But the 1960s were the cinemagazine’s heyday. Colourful, quirky, and fun, they were also light on information and hard news. In some ways, this footage is more valuable today than when it was filmed. At the time, mere light entertainment, it now serves as a window into the leisure activities of the British people in the 1960s. Indeed, the collection was used extensively in the 2012 BBC Four series British Passions on Film.

The opening of the final edition of Pathé News in February 1970.

Regardless of the merit of the output, the company could simply not compete with the rise of television. In 1969, the final Pathé Pictorial cinemagazine was released, shortly followed by the last edition of Pathé News. This was when Associated British-Pathé went through a radical transformation, from an active news and film production house, into a dormant film archive.

As the Warner-Pathé staff on Wardour Street were wrapping up their long history of news and feature film production, they were purchased from Warner Brothers by EMI (which later became Thorn EMI). The cameras in Wardour Street may have stopped rolling, but an archive of historic importance remained. The value of its content was immediately clear and television programmes featured visits to the archive. One was Clapperboard with Chris Kelly, which was broadcast on ITV. The collection was now available to be mined by future generations of filmmakers and documentarians, and licensing became the chief occupation of the archive staff.

The Archive under EMI ownership

After a long period without much change, a significant development took place in the later 1980s. Thorn EMI was purchased by The Cannon Group in 1986, which sold the Associated British-Pathé newsreel archive the following year. Cannon did not, however, sell the assets of the feature film arm of Associated British-Pathé. Thus, for the first time, the Pathé-branded UK feature film and newsreel arms were separated, as they remain today. (The feature film assets now lie with StudioCanal.) By 1990, the archive was operating as British Pathé News. It was at this time that the company produced the respected series A Day That Shook the World and Twentieth Century Hall of Fame, as well as Year to Remember, which is still popular on DVD today.

1995 marks an important year in the recent history of the archive. Firstly, British Pathé News was purchased by the Daily Mail and General Trust. Secondly the name was shortened to British Pathé (plc, later Ltd). From 2003 to 2009 the archive was represented by ITN Source and became a respected resource for filmmakers, museums and educators. During this time, the entire archive was digitised in an effort funded partly by the National Lottery.

The British Pathé Ltd logo as it was in 2009

The Independent Archive

In 2009, British Pathé Ltd became, in essence, an independent archive (as opposed to a part of a larger corporation) for the first time in its history. This new era saw the introduction of a museum subscription service, an increase in licensing and programming (notably including The Story of British Pathé, a four-part BBC Four series), and an expansion in the company’s online presence (the entire archive is available to view online for free and is complemented by Facebook, Twitter and WordPress pages, as well as a YouTube channel). In 2012, the archive was awarded “Footage Library of the Year” at the Focal International Awards.

For the foreseeable future, British Pathé looks set to remain a remembered and respected brand within the British cultural consciousness.

British Pathé is always keen for corrections and additional information about its footage and corporate history. Please email us or leave a comment beneath the relevant clip on the website.

A Golden Age: British Pathé from 1933 to 1958

by James Hoyle, archive co-ordinator for British Pathé

This post is Part III of IV.

For the years 1895 to 1910, see blog post “Pathé Before British Pathé”.

For the years 1910 to 1933, see blog post “Establishing Itself”.

For the years 1958 to 2012, see blog post “Decline and Transformation”.

In 1933, British International Pictures purchased the Pathé newsreel and feature film brand from Warner Brothers-First National. Associated British-Pathé was born, under the umbrella of the Associated British Picture Corporation, and soon the Pathé brand was enjoying something of a golden age in the United Kingdom.

In the 1930s, the newsreel staff became increasingly ambitious, providing audiences not only with quantity (one only needs to see News In a Nutshell to know that audiences were enjoying this regular dose of news enough to warrant 340 episodes of it), but also with variety. Would You Believe It?, for instance, is a little-known gem assorting footage of various unusual things from around the world, such as oddly-named streets, strange animals, and bizarre technological breakthroughs. At the same time, Feminine Pictorialities continued the company’s trend of providing for all audiences that had begun with Eve’s Film Review in the 1920s. This “special selection for the ladies” covered bathing and hat fashions, hairstyles, and women’s sport.

The war years, quite unsurprisingly, produced some of the most dramatic material ever captured on film by a newsreel company, including the astonishing events at Dunkirk and the D-Day Landings. But other notable stories from around this time include the destruction of the Hindenburg (which was unbelievably captured live in 1937), the first majority Labour government, the independence of India and Pakistan, and the 1948 London Olympics.

Following the war, despite having been completely separate companies for two decades, the newsreel companies Associated British-Pathé (UK), Pathé Journal (France), and Pathé News Inc (USA) began a unique partnership. In a move celebrated by President Truman, these organisations began sharing footage and cameramen in order to enable news to be more easily distributed worldwide. Pathé Gazette also rebranded itself – from 1946 until 1970, it would be known simply as Pathé News. One of the major stories from this period was the Korean War, that sometimes criminally-forgotten conflict that claimed an estimated 2.5 million lives.

Newsreel staff at work in 1953.

Associated British-Pathé was also busy producing feature films and commercials, and even expanding into the television market. One such production was Film Fanfare, a charming 1950s film magazine show that presented viewers with footage from recent glamorous premieres as well as featuring in-studio interviews, quizzes, and reviews of what are now classic motion pictures. However, the most impressive example of the television work done  was the company’s involvement in Peter Baylis’s Time To Remember. This epic series touched on all aspects of life in the first half of the Twentieth Century, using the original newsreel footage, and was narrated by celebrated actors, including Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir Ralph Richardson. Its charm was such that in 2010, the BBC re-edited and re-broadcast the series for a modern-day audience, retaining much of the original commentary.

But television posed more of a threat than an opportunity for the company, especially for the newsreel staff. They could release the Queen’s coronation in glorious colour, and even film it in 3D(!), but it was not a live broadcast like that of the BBC coverage. Viewers were increasingly not willing to wait. The newsreel format was also beginning to look tired, with outdated patriotism at odds with the postcolonial attitudes of the British public (particularly during the Suez Crisis). By the end of the 1950s, Pathé News was already struggling to compete. The 1960s would witness a shift in the nature of the company’s output as it tried to survive.

British Pathé is always keen for corrections and additional information about its footage and corporate history. Please email us or leave a comment beneath the relevant clip on the website.