Soundtracking the past

Bermondsey Borough Council’s innovative interwar public health work is on display in our ‘Here Comes Good Health’ exhibition. But what do these films look like to young people today? Alexander Green joined the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel as they set out to create a new soundtrack to one of Bermondsey’s silent films.

One Friday lunchtime during February half-term I found myself anxiously waiting with Wellcome Trust colleagues from the Youth Programme and Wellcome Library in Walworth town hall, Southwark. In collaboration with the Cuming Museum, we had organised an open workshop for young people to come along and create a new soundtrack for one of the Wellcome Library’s newly acquired and digitised health education films made by Bermondsey Borough Council. We were confident that a few of the regular members of the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel would give up a day of their holidays, but were still unsure exactly how the day was going to come together.

The Bermondsey films were produced in the 1920s and 1930s by Bermondsey Borough Council’s Public Health Department. Shown to thousands of people across the borough for over 15 years, the films aimed to educate the public about the importance of health and hygiene and encourage uptake of medical services and treatments. Here Comes Good Health!, a display about the health education efforts of the borough is currently running in Wellcome Collection until 3 June 2012.

We began the day by investigating the context in which the Bermondsey films were produced. Reading through original sources, including leaflets and newspaper clippings provided by Southwark Local History Library, we developed a bleak view of conditions in Bermondsey at the time. One report spoke of an “all-night war with rats”, while others described terrible conditions of overcrowding with multiple families sharing the same room. We then watched the film Some Activities Of Bermondsey Borough Council and discussed the council’s work to try to improve health; how new medical facilities were developed for the people and how the borough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr D M Connan, saw education as central to the improvement of  health.

While watching the films we talked about how they can seem quite distant from our lives today. Not only do they present a very different vision of urban life to the one we are familiar with, but the modes and conventions of representation in the films distance us. To a modern audience the pacing seems slow, the intertitles remain on the screen for a long time and – obviously for this period in film history – there is no colour or sound. Watching the films in a silent darkened room can often be quite a sombre experience. However, these films were never originally shown in silence; the film programme was introduced by a member of the Public Health Department and while the film was rolling the audience was free to ask questions, converse or interject. Contemporary reports even describe children making up tunes  to accompany the intertitles! The films were also presented in informal settings, not just in school halls and cinemas. Projected on the back of the touring cinemotor vans they were shown all across the borough, from courtyards and street corners to playgrounds. In the late 1930s soundtracks were created for some of the Bermondsey films using a specially purchased gramophone recorder; however, these have now been lost.

With this in mind, the Youth Panel decided they would create a similarly lively atmosphere in their soundtrack. They devised a concept around showing the film to a contemporary group of students, questioning and reacting in the same way schoolchildren might have done when the films were originally shown. The film we were working with was Where There’s Life There’s Soap. Aimed at a younger audience, the film combines comic moments, such as a man with a boil bigger than a chicken egg, with shots of animals from London Zoo washing to illustrate the importance of personal hygiene and cleanliness. In their soundtrack the Youth Panel worked to bring out these comic elements and recapture some of the lively atmosphere that would have characterised the film’s reception.

Throughout the day the Youth Panel members displayed an amazing level of energy, focus and engagement. Even with this level of commitment, it was still an ambitious project to complete in a day. The original film had a running time of 18 minutes but we felt that was too long for our purposes. We created a special short, cut-down version of the film which had a running time of around 5 minutes, while still retaining much of the comedy of the original. Despite this, after checking the time while recording, we only had 45 minutes to go with a third of the scenes left to cover! Fortunately, thanks to a brilliant final effort, and a last-minute deadline extension, we managed to wrap up just in time, having produced an interesting and engaging soundtrack that the Youth Panel members can be justifiably proud of.

The Youth Panel members were Toyin Ayedun, Rose Stephens, Tejiri Cousin, Karen Serwaya Gyebi-Ababio and Fitzroy Ugorji.

Elvie Thompson runs the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel; they meet at the museum on alternate Saturdays. Aimed at young people based in Southwark and aged 13 to 19 years, anyone who is interested in meeting new people and learning new skills should get in touch on 020 7525 2332.

Stanley Green is a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust. Here Comes Good Health is on display at Wellcome Collection until 3 June.

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