HL Deb 04 May 1932 vol 84 cc291-305

LORD DANESFORT rose to call attention to the importance of showing British films in largely increased numbers throughout the Dominions and the Colonies and all parts of the Empire; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to place this question on the agenda for the Imperial Conference at Ottawa; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to ask the Question and move the Motion which stand in my name with regard to increasing the number of British films for exhibition throughout the Empire. There are few who would be found to dispute that the film has now become one of the most potent influences in modern life. It has a world-wide influence more direct and more important I think in some ways than literature, and week by week, in every country of the world, there are almost countless millions who go as spectators to films. No doubt, primarily, the object is to give entertainment, but the effect of the films has a far deeper and a far wider meaning. Trade and industry are powerfully affected by the exhibition of films. It is an old saying that trade follows the flag. I think it would be true to say to-day that trade largely follows the films, and there is an American saying, perhaps tinged with characteristic exaggeration but containing a considerable amount of truth, which is that a foot of film is worth a dollar of trade. But, besides their influence on trade, films have a further and other influence, and that is this. It cannot be disputed that they exercise a powerful influence for good or for evil on the mental and moral characteristics of people.

If these facts be undisputed, I think it follows, and is abundantly clear, that good British films can be of the utmost value in the industrial and educational development of our Empire. Happily for us there is no nation in the world which has a more fertile field for the production of good national films than our own. Our magnificent literature, the wonderful history of our Empire, the beauty of our countryside afford a wealth of material for the production and exhibition of British films which, if properly utilised, can be of the utmost value, and will enable dwellers in every British land to know and appreciate British achievement, British traditions, and British ideas. Already a beginning has been made. There are in this country a number of well-equipped companies and agencies which are engaged in the production and exhibition of British films. They have achieved considerable success at home, and, under favourable conditions, can penetrate into the overseas Dominions and Colonies all over our Empire. But, in order to achieve that result, a far more complete and co-ordinating effort is necessary.

Attention was drawn to this subject by the Secretary of State for the Dominions and the Colonial Secretary quite recently in two very important communications they made to the Morning Post of April 1 last. Perhaps your Lordships would allow me to quote some of the words of the Dominion Secretary in that communication. He said: The film has put a girdle round the earth. Trade, industry and commerce are all directly influenced by this method of appeal. It is of the most urgent importance that the British film industry should provide films fit to portray the deep-felt desire of the Dominions to keep in touch with what is happening in the heart of the Empire.… I look forward to the day when the Dominions themselves will produce their own films which will be shown throughout the United Kingdom. I pause there for a moment to say how important that aspect of the question is. We know a certain amount of what goes on in the Dominions, but I think the rank and file of our population would be far better instructed if at these cinemas, instead of seeing some somewhat perverted American films, they could see good films produced in the Dominions showing what the Dominions are thinking of and what they have achieved. The Dominion Secretary also said: It is our bounden duty to do all we can to increase the power of the British Empire for good and to stimulate inter-Imperial trade. The film provides a quick and sure means for achieving this result. The Colonial Secretary, in his message to the morning Post of April 1, strongly insisted on the necessity of increasing the supply of British films to our Colonies and more especially to the native races who inhabit those Colonies; and, of course, the same is true of India.

The Colonial Secretary, like others, realised that the impressionable mind of the natives throughout our Dominions and Colonies should not be exposed to what has been well called the alien and perverted representations of our civilisation which reach them from foreign sources. I ought to say before I go further that, unfortunately, owing to a variety of causes which I need hardly enumerate, there has been up to now a deplorable paucity of British films exhibited in the various parts of the Empire. The truth is that the United States of America have built up a colossal industry for national propaganda, for the advancement of American industry, and, I suppose, not least, for the profit of themselves.

I got some figures the other day—I think they were given in the Morning Post of April 1—showing the stranglehold which American films have established throughout British lands and the lamentable scarcity of British films. The figures are these: In the home market, The United States supply nearly 80 per cent. of the films shown, but it is gratifying to know that the quota which was established by legislation in this country a few years ago, which was fixed at 7½ per cent., has now gone up by voluntary effort to something like 20 per cent. That shows what a quota can do. In Canada and South Africa there is almost complete American monopoly. In Australia, only about 5 per cent. of the films exhibited are British. In New Zealand the position is slightly better, because 10 per cent. of British films are exhibited there; but in India and in the Crown Colonies only about 1 per cent. of British films are exhibited. I need not enlarge in your Lordships' House upon the vital importance, especially in a time like this, of increasing the number of British films shown in India and thus letting the many illiterates in India know through the medium of the film what our ideas, our aspirations and our achievements have been in the past. By that means I think we might achieve a very great improvement in public opinion among the native races of India.

This question of increasing British films has already been considered by two Imperial Conferences in 1926 and 1930. Resolutions were passed recognising the great importance of increasing throughout the Empire films of Empire production and suggesting further that the various Governments concerned should take steps to secure this. Unfortunately, for want, as it would seem, of specific proposals, specific remedies and specific recommendations, these resolutions up to now have produced little or no result. It appears to me that unless the Governments assembled at Ottawa can agree upon some general line of action, which should be taken as far as possible by the Governments of the Dominions, of the Crown Colonies and of India, it will be very difficult to get really effective action.

May I say a special word about Canada? The position in Canada is undoubtedly a very difficult one. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a very striking report, dated April 30 last year, which was made by a Commissioner appointed by the Canadian Government to report upon an alleged combine in the motion picture industry in Canada. To those of your Lordships who do not happen to have seen that report, perhaps it would be well to say that it can be obtained at a very small price from the King's Printer in Ottawa. What did that Commissioner find? He found, after an exhaustive inquiry, that a very powerful combine largely controlled by American influences, consisting of producers, exhibitors and distributors, did exist in Canada and was operating to the detriment of the interests of the public in that Dominion. He also found—and this affects this country, I venture to think, very strongly —that as a result of this combine the exhibition in Canada of American films was prevalent to the almost entire exclusion of British films. In those circumstances I venture to submit to your Lordships' House that this question is of the most urgent importance and that it should be brought before the Ottawa Conference for consideration.

It should be brought before that Conference with a view to correcting the present evils under which we suffer, and that should be done with a view to concrete proposals being made and united action taken so far as possible by the various Governments concerned. May I conclude by repeating the words of the Secretary of State for the Dominions in that message to the Morning Post, in which he said: The Imperial Conference at Ottawa will provide amongst other opportunities a unique occasion to cement the fabric of the British Empire through the most potent medium of the film. I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Danesfort, has brought before your Lordships' House a matter of very considerable importance and one to which statesmen and educational authorities give as a rule far too little attention. It is because I had the honour of being Chairman of the Colonial Films Committee which sat for a long time and reported two years ago, that I venture to add a word or two in general support of the Motion which the noble Lord has brought before your Lordships. This matter has been neglected chiefly because people have assumed that films have to do merely with the recreative side of life. The educational, the political, the cultural influence of the film has been more or less ignored. People used to quote the saying of some wise man: "If I can make the songs of the people anybody can make their laws." If he had lived in these times, he would probably have said: "If I can produce the films for the people anybody can make the laws." In any case the film reaches far more people than any other medium we have, and its propaganda value, as the noble Lord has said, is very considerable. It is one, of the great new factors in the world's life at the present time.

The Press may be local, it may be national; religion may be restricted to definite territories; but the film is world wide in its influence, and it goes over national barriers in a way that no other medium does. It speaks all languages, it reaches all classes, it appeals to all ages. It is constant, and its influence extends to the remotest corners of the earth. It is not difficult to understand why that is so. It catches life in the very act of living, and it selects episodes that appeal most strongly to the imaginative faculties of young people. But it has a dangerous side to it. It is like living on a picture book without being able to read. It has another very definite social disadvantage, in that it tends to draw people away from rural into crowded urban areas. So far as the Empire is concerned, it is undoubtedly true, as the noble Lord has said, that millions are influenced, not only by the story that the film attempts to teach, but by the tone given to, by the treatment of, and by the emphasis that is laid upon, particular aspects of the story.

As to what that precise influence is, how far it aids or hinders the general purpose of British civilisation, we have very little knowledge. We are certain, however, that it has an influence upon the type of civilisation that the British Empire aims to present. Those of us who conceive of the Colonies as growing up in due course to a position of something like independence, or as independent sister nations living under the general principles of the British Constitution, are appalled at the material that is fed to these growing nations; and no one who cares for the British traditions on the one hand, or has any hope for the development of the Colonies upon certain lines on the other, can look with anything except dismay at the cultural influences that the film conveys to them.

Without desiring to delay your Lordships for more than a minute or two I venture to suggest that British civilisation does not consist merely in ships and trains, imports and exports, and the rest, but its source and inspiration and meaning are rather on the cultural side—in its literature and art, in the way English people bear themselves towards the problems they have to face. It is the lack of this presentation through this great educational medium that is a matter of the sincerest anxiety to those who look to the future. I am not in the least degree hostile to America. Indeed if I were not British through and through I should prefer to be American rather than anything else. But I like her culture best when it is in its own natural environment and not when showing itself in our Colonies or even in London itself. I very much hope, too, that the music of our mother tongue may be preserved in some sort of way by the development of British rather than of American films. I feel that when an alien culture, even though it is American, is imposed upon peoples such as those living in the Colonies it makes a very deep cut into the established traditions and the historical sanctions of our land.

The noble Lord pointed out that there is a most lamentable lack of British films of the like kind available for distribution throughout the Empire, but the fault is really with our own producers. It is all very well for the noble Lord to say as a criticism of America that she has built up a colossal industry; the industry was open for other people to build up if they had had the initiative and the creative insight that the people of America had in this matter. Our films have not spread because their quality has not been equal to that which could be obtained from elsewhere. Emerson, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death those who have been enriched by his teaching cannot help remembering, once said that if a man made even a mousetrap better than anybody else the whole world would make a track to his door. The reason that we have not a proper organisation of films throughout our Empire and that our films do not win their way is that they are less efficient in make than are those of other countries. It is true, as the noble Lord has said, that the industry is growing not only in extent, but also in quality, and we must wish that it will grow at an increased speed.

What I specially rise for this afternoon, my Lords, is to ask the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government whether any action has been taken upon the Report which was presented to the Colonial Office in June, 1930, by the Committee over which I had the privilege of presiding. We there made certain quite definite recommendations after having considered this matter in a great deal of detail with the most generous, ready and valuable help of representatives of the film-producing trade, and with all the expert knowledge that the Colonial Office and its advisers could give us. We made certain recommendations pointing out the immense danger of the situation. We made definite suggestions in regard to the future. I should like to ask the noble Lord what has been done. Has the Report been considered at all? Have any of its recommendations been put into effect? Has the Advisory Committee which was then suggested been established and, if so, what kind of people are on it and how far has it got in its work? Whether the question can be dealt with at Ottawa, as the noble Lord has suggested, is not for me to say, but I can support the noble Lord in his contention that the question is of immense importance to the future not merely of the Dominions, for which he mostly spoke, but most of all, in my judgment, for those backward, struggling communities for whom we have some very special responsibility.


My Lords, I beg to thank my noble and learned friend for having so kindly given me in a private communication the general outlines of what he was going to ask. I think we must be grateful to my noble friend for having raised this question this afternoon in, if I may be allowed to say so, a very able and attractive speech which was based on the true Imperial traditions in which I know he believes. May I also say with what pleasure we have listened to the noble Lord who sits on the Opposition Bench, and to what I would almost say was his treatise on the films, advanced from a slightly different, but no less attractive point of view—the educational point of view? Before the noble Lord mentioned it I am afraid I was not aware that he had been Chairman of the Colonial Films Committee, but I think I may say on behalf of the House that I am sure, having heard the noble Lord, no better chairman could have been appointed, and before I have finished my remarks I hope I shall be able to answer his specific questions in a way that will give him satisfaction.

In reply to my noble and learned friend I will attempt to give him from information supplied to me the position in this country so far as we know it and in the Dominions and the Colonies. In the United Kingdom the Cinematograph Films Act, 1927, requires renters to acquire and exhibitors to show a certain proportion by footage of British films. For the current year, ending March, 1933, the renters' quota is 15 per cent. (rising to 20 per cent. in 1938) and for the current year ending September, 1932, the exhibitors' quota is 10 per cent. (also rising to 20 per cent. in 1938). Some of the largest American renters in this country only acquire, of course, sufficient films to meet their quota liabilities, but others who deal more largely in British films have quotas considerably in excess of the statutory requirement. This is borne out by the fact that for the year ending September, 1931, when the exhibitors' quota was 7½ per cent., the actual proportion of feature films (that is, films over 3,000 feet in length which are the important part of the trade) shown by exhibitors in this country was nearly 18 per cent., as against their quota liability of7½ per cent. It may also be noted that of the feature films registered under the Act for the year ended March, 1932, 154, or roughly one in four, was a British film. Although at first the tendency of United States renters was to acquire cheap British films in order to meet their quota liabilities, there has been a gradual improvement in this respect, and some of the largest renters have now started production units in this country or have entered into contracts for production for reputable British producers.

I pass to the position of Canada. It is understood that Ontario has quota legislation on her Statute Book which is not in operation, and that similar legislation is either before or has passed the British Columbia Legislature. Recently a report was issued by the Commissioner appointed under the Combines Investigation Act of Canada into the film industry. His findings were that a combine existed in the motion picture industry in Canada consisting of Famous Players and its exhibiting associate, the Paramount Publix Corporation of America (the American producer which controls Famous Players), the various renters in Canada, and the organisation known as the Motion Picture Distributors and Exhibitors of Canada, and that this combine has operated and is likely to operate to the detriment or against the interest of the public. Subsequently an action was instituted against the Famous Players, apparently by the Ontario Government, but it was unsuccessful, and it remains to be seen whether Ontario will now put her quota legislation into operation. There is no important production of films in Canada, and the market has been almost entirely supplied from the United States. Obviously the Canadian market is a difficult market to enter in view of its proximity to the United States, and particularly owing to the fact that the Famous Players Canadian Corporation referred to has gathered under its wing some 200 of the most important picture theatres in Canada.

I now pass to Australia. There is quota legislation in the State of Victoria on the basis of the exhibition of a certain amount of British footage in each programme, a method which is not altogether satisfactory, as it probably only leads in the long run to the exhibition of Australian-taken news reels. It is understood that the proposals for Commonwealth quota legislation have been shelved partly owing to the difficulties arising out of the division of functions between the Commonwealth and the States; nevertheless British films have made considerable progress during the year in the Australian market. I understand that British films lost ground after the introduction of talking films at the end of 1928, but the leeway has now been made up.

With regard to South Africa, little is known as to the position there. It is understood that the American hold on the market is strong and no move has apparently been made towards any quota legislation. In the Irish Free State, I understand, there are no quota provisions. As regards India, I understand India definitely decided against a quota for United Kingdom films. This market, of course, presents peculiar problems and must largely be a question of the production of the vernacular film.


Is the noble Lord able to say whether the production of films in India itself is growing?


I understand that a certain number of vernacular films are produced in India, but we have no information as to whether they are on the increase or not. As to New Zealand, that Dominion has an active quota legislation on the lines of the United Kingdom Act, which is compulsory so far as renters are concerned, but is at present worked voluntarily by exhibitors. I pass to the last paragraph in my summary, as regards the Colonies. I may say here that I was very glad to hear Lord Snell say that he is so British that he likes the American culture in its own environment. It leads me to think he was, like myself, a listener to some of the earlier "talkies" a few years ago. The position in the Colonies requires more lengthy explanation. In March, 1929, the Secre- tary of State for the Colonies appointed the Colonial Films Committee, of which my noble friend opposite was Chairman, to examine the arrangements existing for the supply. … of cinematograph films for public exhibition in the Colonies, Protectorates and Mandated Territories, and to consider in what way these arrangements could be improved, with special reference to. … the desirability, on political as well as economic grounds, of encouraging the exhibition of British films. One of the recommendations made in the report of the Committee, which was published as a Parliamentary Paper (Cmd. 3630) in July, 1930, was that an organisation should be set up in this country, independent of but working in close co-operation with the Government Departments concerned, to undertake the distribution of British films throughout the Colonial Empire. The Committee also recommended that this organisation, when established, should have the assistance of an advisory Committee nominated by the Government to assist in the selection of suitable films for exhibition in the Colonies and to advise generally on questions relating to the distribution of such films. It was not intended that this Committee should in any way replace the local censorship authorities, who would still retain the responsibility for deciding what films could properly be shown in each of the territories concerned. With a view to assisting in the establishment of this organisation, a number of Colonial Governments have, at the request of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and in accordance with a recommendation made by the Colonial Films Committee, undertaken to guarantee the company formed for the purpose against loss in its total transactions in the first year up to £1,000.

In order to give effect to the recommendations made by the Colonial Films Committee—here I come to answer my noble friend—the Film Producers' group of the Federation of British Industries formed in October, 1931, the British United Film Producers Company, Limited, to undertake the distribution of British films throughout the Colonial Empire. This company has on its board of directors representatives of the principal film-producing companies in Great Britain. At the same time the Secretary of State nominated as members of the advisory committee to assist the company in the selection of suitable films, two ex-Colonial Governors, the technical adviser to His Majesty's Government on cinematography, and a representative of the Department of Overseas Trade. The company proposes to undertake the distribution of British films through local agents in the Colonies and Colonial Governments have been requested by the Secretary of State to afford to the company and its agents such assistance as can properly be given. The company has already shipped large consignments of British films to the West Indies and to West Africa and hopes to arrange for the shipment of further consignments in the near future, not only to those areas but also to other parts of the Empire as soon as the necessary arrangements have been made. Although the primary object of the company is to distribute British films to the Colonies, it is understood that the company propose, as and when opportunity offers, to extend their activities to certain foreign territories contiguous to the British Colonies in which their films are exhibited.

In addition to this, His Majesty's Government have been considering the possibility of the enactment of film quota legislation in the Colonies, similar in form to the Cinematograph Films Act, which was passed in this country in 1927. The enactment of such legislation is not possible in the majority of our African Colonies owing to our international engagements, but steps are being taken to secure the introduction of such legislation in certain of the West Indian Colonies, and further consideration will be given to the possibility of introducing similar legislation in other parts of the Colonial Empire as soon as an adequate and regular supply of British films can be made available for exhibition in the territories concerned. It will be seen therefore that the film industry in this country is, under the direction of the Cinematograph Films Act, making steady progress towards overcoming the American domination of the screen to which my noble friend drew attention. In the Colonies, too, satisfactory beginnings have been made, but progress in the right direction must inevitably be gradual. In the Dominions as a whole, however, the position is not so satisfactory, and the American producers are still strongly entrenched, no doubt partly through their control of the cinemas themselves. The Dominion position must to a large extent depend on the position here, as the production of films in the Dominions is on the small side.

In the Dominion markets, if the trade are not strong enough to force matters themselves, this can only be done with the co-operation of the Governments concerned. A recent deputation from the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress, which suggested certain amendments in the Cinematograph Films Act, stressed very strongly that efforts should be made to encourage and facilitate the production of good quality British films, and the distribution and exhibition of such films not only at home, but throughout the Dominions and Colonies, and in foreign countries. They pointed to the importance of films as a factor in influencing trade generally, in familiarising the use of the English language as spoken in these islands, and in assimilating British customs and cultural standards. There can, of course, be nothing but complete agreement with these views.

The question of pressing for an Imperial quota at Ottawa, however, raises certain difficulties. The Imperial Conference of 1926 stressed the importance of promoting the production and exhibition of British films in the various parts of the Empire. It did not attempt to draw up an exhaustive list of the methods which might usefully be adopted, but it was pretty clear that the only effective Government action in any part of the Empire to assist in the exhibition there of films made in any other part of the Empire must take the form either of Customs Duties or of quota legislation. The question did not, however, come up again at the Conference in 1930. As regards Customs Duties, many of the Dominions and Colonies give a Customs preference to British films, and in some cases this preference has been increased since 1926. This method of assistance is not, however, of so much importance in the case of films as in the case of many other goods.

As regards Ottawa, I think it will be obvious to my noble friend that it is for the Canadian Government as convenors of the Conference to prepare and circulate an agenda. No doubt following the precedent of previous Imperial Confer- ences, the other Governments will be given an opportunity of making suggestions in regard to that agenda. It is understood that the Governments concerned will prefer to concentrate on major questions having immediate and direct influence on trade, and the preparatory work on this side has been conducted on this assumption. It may of course be argued, and I rather think that my noble friend argued, that the question of films is in itself a major question, and he referred to the message from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Morning Post. In this connection I am authorised to say that while no promise can be given that the question of films will be placed on the agenda, the Government are impressed with the importance of securing an increasing market for British films in the Dominions and Colonies, and that it is quite possible that some opportunity may arise for dealing with the subject, if not formally, then informally. They are very sympathetic towards the objects which have induced my noble friend to bring forward this Motion, and they will certainly bear this aspect of the general trade question in mind in connection with the Conference.

There are no Papers on the subject of films in relation to the Ottawa Conference which could be laid before the House. While regretting having kept your Lordships for, I fear, rather an unconscionable time on this somewhat complicated, though very interesting, subject, I could not very well have occupied less time without want of respect to my noble friend and his Question and your Lordships generally in connection with this matter.


My Lords, I only desire to express my thanks and, I am sure, the thanks of the House to my noble friend for the very informative speech which he has made, and which has given us, and I hope the country at large, a great deal of very valuable information upon this most important question of British films in this country and throughout the Empire. As regards bringing up the question at Ottawa, I rather gathered from my noble friend that the British Government would suggest to the Canadian Government the desirability of putting it on the Agenda.


I should not like my noble friend to go away with any false impression. I was very careful not to give any undertaking on the part of my right hon. friend or the Government. All I can say is that they fully realise the importance of this question, and they will be very sympathetic towards its being brought up. I am afraid I cannot give any undertaking.


I understand the objection to undertakings; they sometimes turn out to be difficult to observe. But after what has been said I do hope that the Government, without giving any formal undertaking to-day, will find themselves in a position to represent to the Canadian Government the paramount importance of bringing this question before the Ottawa Conference, when some general line of action can be adopted and carried into effect by the Governments concerned. I hope my noble friend will represent to his colleagues the desirability of that course. As regards Papers, I quite understand that there are none to lay, and I therefore withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.