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The Happiest Days of Their Lives: The Guinea Pig on Blu-ray

  "Education, education, education," as one British Prime Minister repeated, has been a priority for the nation for centuries, but honing it to perfection, to ensure every child fulfils their potential and becomes a constructive member of society, has proven a trickier proposition for a number of reasons. In some places of the United Kingdom, it seems the more the system is improved (or meddled with) the worse it gets, but with the release of the 1948 public school film The Guinea Pig on Blu-ray, we can see from it and the special features that 'twas ever thus, and the curriculum has been tinkered with since time immemorial.

The film itself detailed the experience of a working class (or lower middle) schoolboy invited to study in private education - almost exclusively the domain of the upper classes - as part of a social experiment to see if he would fit in and thrive in that environment. Directed by The Boulting Brothers, it was inspired by a real-life initiative that never got off the ground, though some of the lesser public schools would begin to accept middle class pupils over time. Lord Richard Attenborough played the boy at the age of twenty-four, which drew ridicule from the press, though nowadays the bizarre rituals and conventions are more likely to draw the ire.

The extras here were carefully chosen from the BFI archive to illustrate both education in the twentieth century, and the ration book existence the likes of the Attenborough character would have been living through post-World War II. In the first collection, we saw two clips from pioneering documentarians Mitchell and Kenyon, who collected a huge amount of footage from around the British Isles; here we saw the kids of Audley Range School, Blackburn humourlessly doing their exercises in 1905, and the kids of York Road Board School, Leeds, marching into their school en masse in 1901. As they will all be long dead by now, you wonder what their lives were like.

Next, from 1951 is the information film Your Children's Play, part of a series of post-war shorts catering for the health of the little ones. This example, an indication of child psychology's progress, was about the mental health of the pre-schoolers, not that it dealt with anything serious, it was more about heading off any problems that may develop later before they had a chance to take root. This involved keeping them happy through play, allowing their imaginations to bloom and their physical abilities to keep in shape, not by dismissing them or constricting them with stern rules, but accepting learning was part of play activities and encouraging it. Slightly patronisingly.

The Children's Film Foundation, that venerable body devoted to creating entertainment for the younglings from the late nineteen-forties to the eighties, got in on the act too by depicting how life was lived by British children. In 1953's A Letter from Wales, Rhys Evans is a little boy who pens the titular missive to his cousin in Australia, telling him about a typical day where he, for example, tickles a trout in the nearby river that the dinner staff at his school are kind enough to prepare for his lunch, and rescues one of his farmer father's lambs that has been stuck in a bramble bush. It was very much promoting the rural idyll, not that the C.F.F. neglected the city kids, however.

These information films were not confined to the Brits, as the Central Office of Information as was produced them for overseas consumption as well. 1962's plainly titled Comprehensive School was made for African audiences and explained how the new school system was working in the least flowery, most understandable terms possible by focusing on the heart of the system at Holland Park School in London. Here we went through the lessons on offer, which was regarded as a progressive curriculum though modern viewers would notice how the girls were sent off away from the boys to learn about domestic and catering duties, all the better to become dutiful wives.

Leaping ahead to the go-getting nineteen-eighties was 1988's That's GCSE, recreating an episode of popular consumer magazine show That's Life! which starred Esther Rantzen leading a team of "Esther’s nancies", a panel of well-turned out men who assisted her (here Adrian Mills and Gavin Campbell) plus comic relief with Doc Cox, usually required to read out funny misprints but here employed as the star of sketches. All this was in the service of the GCSE, a would-be revolutionary educational process that the UK (except Scotland) employed. Before an audience of pensioners, the information is imparted, pupils are interviewed, and it stuck to the TV format with curious rigour.

That is it for the Old School section, but its complement section is entitled The Make Do and Menders, four shorts providing tips to get by in the rationing. First is an imaginative recipe for vegetable pie - the recipe itself is basic but tasty stuff, it was the presentation that was the imaginative part. A 1941 effort from innovator in the Ministry of Information Film Unit Len Lye, When the Pie was Opened uses nursery rhymes, both heard and seen, to show mothers how they can cheer up their offspring, not with four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, but with something more nutritious and, more importantly, easy and thrifty to create.

Bob in the Pound from 1943 referred to the Government drive to convince the public to buy war bonds, setting aside a "bob" (around five pence in decimal money) from every pound they earned to fund the war effort. This two-minute little number featured the biggest name in comedy on the radio during World War II, Tommy Handley, whose lead role in the must-listen show It's That Man Again had one of the nation's most recognisable voices, therefore hearing him singing along with a little cartoon coin (named Bob) was enough to persuade the audience that this whole war bonds idea was a worthwhile use of their cash.

Richard Massingham was the hero of public information films from the nineteen-thirties to the fifties, as his boundless imagination dressed up even the most mundane of Government messages with humour and economy. In the In Which We Live series, he produced Being the Life Story of a Suit Told By Itself, where the titular clothing item was a part of the family and took the wife of its owner down memory lane over her marriage while her husband was off at war (this was 1944). The idea was to illustrate how to keep on repairing the suit until it was too worn to be, er, worn, and then reuse it as cloth for clothes for the children, which the wife runs up with a needle and thread.

Lastly, and in the same vein, was the simply-named Make-Do-And-Mend, a minute of a family initially lamenting their lack of money and resources until their clothes appear before them and inform them that they can use them to make more clothes when they wear out. Much like the Massingham item, but told with more brevity (possibly influenced by him?), this 1945 piece continued the trend for having inanimate objects speaking to people and imbuing them with a distinct personality. And that closed a disc that tells you plenty about how Britain lived and changed in the twentieth century, bemusing as it could sometimes be, from cradle to grave.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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