04 April 2013

The birth of a nation: Your Children and You

The BFI's latest DVD release, out on Monday 15 April, brings together Government-sponsored films made between 1946 and 1985, on parenting, teaching and caring for children.

A multitude of dualities cohabit the films included in Your Children and You, the latest two-disc entry in the BFI's ongoing COI Collection, which compiles works commissioned and exhibited by the Central Office of Information - the UK government's publicity arm between 1946 and 2012. These efforts, put out in response to the dramatic post-war increase in birth rates and to lend guidance to first-time parents as to how and how not to bring up a child, render parenthood at once terrifying and joyous, exhausting and rewarding, demanding and reasonable; they are educational in design but didactic in delivery; progressive and instructive in purpose and intention, they may be viewed today as cautionary and conservative; their emphasis upon the dialectical nature in which humans develop - how we both condition and are conditioned by our environment - marks the films as rational and materialist on the one hand, and yet on the other there appears to be a utopianism at work, an objectification and even perhaps a dehumanisation at work, which refuses to acknowledge the vast array of life experiences in British society.

Indeed, this last tension in particular is present perhaps due to a more insidious tension, explicitly acknowledged in A Family Affair (1950): that between "the green of the south and the grey of the north", a line that pertains not only to the country's geographical divides but also to its class connotations. What marks these works as peculiarly British is indeed their consistent reliance upon and perpetuation of South- if not London-centric biases: our green and pleasant land, with its top-down concessions to socialism, was curiously all-white, heteronormative and distinctly middle-class. It is there in the authoritative voice-over of Bruce Belfrage, in the easier-said-than-done, if-only way in which the female audience is addressed, in the gendered divisions of labour that permeate throughout, and in the ways in which rearing a child is harmoniously and repeatedly linked to an education programme designed to meet the demands of a labour market unpleasantly founded upon growth, profit and a pioneering but submissive workforce.

There is a fine line between instruction and indoctrination, however, and this was a highly contradictory period of British history - and, by extension, of British filmmaking. Britain was disengaging its Empire and nationalising its industries; it looked once more to be productive and profitable. Its workers had been recruited during the war to serve imperialist interests abroad, and in their place women had been drawn out of the home and into the factory - exciting but self-problematising developments when peacetime arrived and domestic equilibrium threatened to return. A discrepancy, between ideas of social progression and gender equality on the one hand, and the pedagogic patriarchy that still reigned on the other, is encapsulated by the films here compiled: credits (listed in the ever-insightful accompanying booklet) include names such as Margaret Thompson, Janice Kay, Judith Davidson, Helen de Mouilpied, Susanna York, Dorothy Grayson, Pamela Geary and Rosamund Davies, while in the films themselves there is no mistake as to which of the genders is expected to bear the physical, emotional and social burdens of parenthood.

Just as today's economic climate begets juvenile nostalgia for the Attlee years, we might receive these films as wholly unproblematic, amused by and laughing at their old-fashioned aesthetic. Their gender problems aside, however, such works evince a technical skill that both contradicts and elevates their somewhat propagandistic nature, and there remains in them something remarkably straightforward and instructive. As manifestoes go, for instance, 1946's Your Children and You and 1947's Children Growing Up with Other People are spot-on, sensitively foregrounding the social basis by which an individual develops. And the universal joy of seeing a newborn responding with laughter to the world's curious wonders is undeniable.

Such works are also cultural artefacts, of course, and the BFI's chronological presentation of the films accommodates a historical overview of changing attitudes within Britain. Look, for instance, to Test Tube Babies, a 1985 documentary made as part of the COI series A Woman's Place, which in thirty minutes concisely and informatively interweaves questions on and contributes to debates surrounding feminism, scientific enquiry, the ethical and practical considerations of in vitro fertilisation and the class and gender inequalities that exacerbate problems facing infertile couples. Genuine insights are at work and on display, also, in Children's Thought and Language (1971), which looks at researchers in Edinburgh University's Department of Psychology and the work they undertook on language and its relation to children's behavioural and intellectual development during the late 1960s.

In a particularly inspired twist, the collection allows historical distance from and a re-evaluation of the changing values ineluctably depicted within: as an example, watch Bathing and Dressing Parts 1 & 2 (1935), one of four films selected from the Wellcome Library's medical films archive, included here as extras. An antenatal instruction film, Bathing and Dressing is accompanied by a running commentary recorded by Felicity Ford, of present-day mothers lending their opinion on advice that seems these days to be common sense... Or is it? As one of the women says, there's a fine line between motherly intuiton and taught practice. Which is perhaps why films like these seem so eternally socially and historically invaluable precisely because of their contradictory nature.