BFI digitises 4m newspaper cuttings

Millions of film reviews and features dating back to the 1930s are made available as a digital resource in the BFI Reuben Library.

Samuel Wigley

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! (1968)

Among the media truisms threatened by the onward march into the digital era is the old adage that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. While the web now ensures infinite longevity for the daily publishing turnover of news and features, once upon a time print journalism had a very short shelf life before its inevitable greasy fate.

Mindful of this loss, librarians at the BFI have been saving newspaper cuttings on film and television since 1934, building an invaluable resource for film fans, students and researchers.

The microfiche for The Blue Lamp (1949)

The microfiche for The Blue Lamp (1949)

In the 1970s, a step was taken to preserve this ageing paper collection by photographing the cuttings onto microfilm. These tiny images were then made available on microfiche, for viewing in magnified form on the library’s reader-printers. By 2010, the BFI had amassed 188,487 microfiches, taking up 38 metres of drawer space.

Saving space and making the archive easily available at the click of a button, this collection has now been completely digitised, with over 4 million images scanned and attached as electronic files to relevant film or personality records in the BFI’s CID database. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology has been applied to each image, making individual files fully searchable by keyword. 

Not least among the values of this vast repository of primary source material is the opportunity to trace changing opinions on a film, from its initial reception to the present day. Cuttings on some titles reveal often surprising reactions to now classic films.

“I have just seen one of the most vile and disgusting films ever made,” begins a 1960 review from the Daily Express. The film in question? Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking chiller Psycho. “In nearly half a century of film-going I cannot recall anything quite so revolting as these shots,” the reviewer continues, aghast at what is now among cinema’s most famous sequences: Hitchcock’s masterful shower scene.

“False, nasty: Is this what you want to see?” screams a Daily Mirror headline from 1948, decrying the “cheap, nasty sensationalism” of the Boulting brothers’ vintage British gangster film Brighton Rock. “No woman will want to see it. No parents will want their children to see it … In all sincerity I say that we should produce no more like it.”

Now available to view digitally at the BFI Reuben Library, records such as these present a fascinating roadmap of changing values and shifting critical sands.

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