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Nation’s rural past revealed in Britain on Film: Rural Life

Date Posted: May 24, 2016




The BFI today announces Rural Life, the release online of over 750 films from 1900 to 1999, many unseen since they were first shown. The films form part of the BFI’s Britain on Film project that reveals hidden histories and forgotten stories of people and places from every corner of Great Britain from the UK’s key film and TV archives, available for free on BFI Player via an interactive map. The archive films will also be visiting over 125 locations around the country for special screenings and events.

Rural Life charts the changing countryside and rural life, highlighting activities, pursuits and traditions still surviving today, as well as customs, trades and skills that have since dwindled or disappeared. Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of footage from Northern Ireland about the people and landscapes which give a rich historical insight into the way we lived, from colourful films about life on a farm and old trades and crafts to leisure pursuits and travelogues aimed at potential tourists.

Many of the films were made by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (now Tourism NI) at a challenging time for the industry in the 70s and 80s. Resilient staff adapted creatively to the uphill struggle to find ways and places where they could responsibly encourage tourists to visit, forgoing the bigger cities and concentrating instead on our picturesque landscapes, earning the nickname the ‘Fermanagh Tourist Board’.

Films including Song of Ulster and The Quiet Land portray idyllic scenes of a sun-dappled Lough Erne and competitive fishing, as well as sheepdog trials in the Glens of Antrim, and a young Gloria Hunniford entertaining guests in the Slieve Donard Hotel. You may even recognise the voice of veteran broadcaster Walter Love as he articulates the sheer beauty of the Mountains of Mourne.

There is much to enjoy in the collection of Ballyclare filmmaker Archie Reid, from glorious footage of his home town’s May Fair in 1960 to the truly bizarre Sodom and Begorrah, the adventures of a priest who finds his new parish in the grip of the most blatant depravity.

Robin Baker, Head Curator, BFI National Archive said, “These films offer an unrivalled record of our rural heritage in all its richness across the 20th century. It’s an immersive experience to watch them, and often deeply moving. People who live and work in the countryside will be fascinated to see how their forbears used to live. Like many other city dwellers, I was born and bred in the countryside, and this collection of films offers all of us an extraordinary and very real social history of the British countryside. It’s a very potent portrait of an often neglected cornerstone of our national life.”

The films in Rural Life date from 1900 to 1999 and are drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive and the UK’s Regional and National Film Archives, with content spanning the whole of the UK. Anyone can explore Britain’s rural past through the Britain on Film map, which reveals films shot in almost every county. Since Britain on Film’s launch, over 6 million people have visited the site to discover their country’s heritage. With this new collection, there are now over 5,000 films to see online – 97% of which are free. By 2017, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will be newly digitised and available to view.

Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen said, “Thanks to the advances in technology, archive material can now by enjoyed by everyone. Our Digital Film Archive team has worked closely with partners including National Museums Northern Ireland and UTV to make accessible for the first time in a long time so much illuminating footage.

“UTV’s reports are a treasure trove of the eccentric and strange aspects of Northern Ireland’s people and history. By Tradition captured a glimpse of our farming past for a 1966 television audience, and Lesley Dawes investigates the curious Pub with No Beer run by the Armagh Pioneers.”

No one can fail to be moved by the rich and rare discovery of a world almost lost to living memory, but which survives on film as a colourful and nostalgic treat.


Britain on Film – Rural Life spans the length and breadth of the UK and viewers can enjoy a whistle-stop tour through Scotland’s lochs and mountains in 1924, learn about ‘Hot Coppers’, the 150-year-old-custom – now extinct – once practised in the ancient town of Beaumaris (1929), there is also a rare glimpse from 1946 of the now globally threatened bird, the mistle thrush.

Events celebrating Rural Life will be delivered across the UK by the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) and the BFI will release a number of films on DVD and/or Blu-ray in July and August. Sir Peter Hall’s Akenfield (1974) traces three generations of one Suffolk family and their lives in the farming industry. Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country (1987) adapted from J L Carr’s novel is set during a 1920s summer in rural Yorkshire and stars Colin Firth, in his first lead role), Andrew Grieve’s On the Black Hill (1987) is based on Bruce Chatwin’s award-winning novel and depicts the life of a rural farming family set in the beautiful Welsh Border country.


Britain on Film is one of the largest and most complex archival projects ever undertaken and is part of the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme (2013-17). Unlocking film heritage for everyone in the UK to enjoy is a key strategic priority for the BFI, and Britain on Film is the public launch of a vast programme of work, which has been ongoing for over three years. Bringing together a partnership with Regional and National Film Archives and rights holder collections across the UK, this work has included a sophisticated programme of data capture, cataloguing, copying to archival standards, meticulous preservation of original materials, thorough searching of archives across the country, new state-of- the-art equipment and digital storage facilities and the transfer of films to the BFI’s online video platform, BFI Player.

Unlocking Film Heritage and Britain on Film are thanks to £15 million funding from the National Lottery and the additional support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

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