Today the BFI launches a public campaign, Britain on Lockdown, calling on the public to recommend those online videos that best represent how Britain has experienced the impact of coronavirus.
From Joe Wicks to Boris Johnson, and from films showing solidarity for NHS frontline workers or bringing local communities coming together to music videos and comedy parodies, not to mention public health videos about proper handwashing, charity campaign pieces and much more – online video has played a key role in our collective experience of the lockdown in a way that has never been experienced before.
The impact of these digitally created films – distributed across multiple platforms and in some cases shared with millions of viewers – has been phenomenal. TikTok alone is reporting its video collection of #coronavirus themed content has had a jaw-dropping 46.8bn views. The curatorial team at the BFI National Archive has already started mapping the digital video response to the coronavirus crisis. In the first of a regular series, curators here choose a selection of titles from early in the lockdown period that give a flavour of the breadth of filmmaking that landed on people’s screens as we all began to Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives.
PE with Joe – 3 April 2020
How did it come to this? I am stripped to my shorts, short of breath, drenched in sweat, trying to keep up with a relentlessly energetic man as he encourages me and my family to do bunny hops in front of our television. It’s early and breakfast is barely digested. A day of trying (and failing) to calmly guide two bored and confused children through pages of home schooling awaits, and that’s on top of trying to focus on my own day job.
What makes it worse is that our fitness instructor is dressed in a rather unconvincing Spiderman outfit. But the biggest surprise of all is that is I am enjoying it – as are an audience of millions around the world who have followed Joe Wicks on his mission to become a virtual PE teacher for lockdown Britain.
Joe ‘The Body Coach’ Wicks is a new media creation, having built his brand via a mix of online social channels since 2014. YouTube and Instagram have been as important in his rise to fame as the more traditional channels of television and book publishing. But like Zoom meetings and rainbows in windows, Joe Wicks is one of the unexpected cultural phenomena that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the surface.
He was due to start a tour of the nation’s schools in person to promote fitness, which would have introduced him to tens of thousands of children. But with the pandemic and school closures leading him to take his mission online his audience has grown exponentially. Nearly a million devices livestreamed the first broadcast on the 23 March, and over six million have viewed it subsequently via his YouTube channel. He has also put his money where his mouth is, donating all the ad revenue generated by the workouts to the NHS.
It remains to be seen what the legacy of his efforts will be in the long term. But in the short term, millions share the knowledge of Spiderman squats, Pikachu jumps and – in my case certainly – quad muscles that let me know they are disgruntled every time I climb the stairs.
‘Please Just Stop It’ – Dawn Bilbrough
At 5:59am on 19 March, Dawn Bilbrough, a critical care nurse in York who had just finished a 48-hour shift made this short, direct video, on her mobile phone and posted it to her Instagram and Facebook accounts. Within 48 hours, Dawn’s video was on all the major channels and on the front pages of the tabloids.
Trying desperately to compose herself, she explains that she’s just been to the supermarket and “had a little cry in there”. What follows as she begins to break down further is an emotional plea to shoppers who have begun to stockpile and buy far more than they need amid the growing fears of the pandemic. “There’s no fruit, there’s no vegetables.” She adds: “You just need to stop it because it’s people like me that are going to be looking after you when you’re at your lowest, so just stop it, please.”
Supermarkets quickly responded by changing their opening times to allow NHS staff a priority window and preferential arrangements if their shift patterns did not coincide. The prime minister and Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, appealed to the public to resist stockpiling. On 21 March, Stephen Powis of NHS England made a direct reference to Dawn’s video and gave a plea on behalf of his health service colleagues for people to shop responsibly so that they can buy essentials after they finish work. Video really can make a change.
In a follow-up interview on the BBC, Bilbrough said: “No woman wants her face beamed around the world when they are upset but I think it got the message out there.”
Help Musicians Campaign Film
The response from the creative community during the coronavirus crisis – both professional and amateur – has been quite remarkable. Museums have moved galleries online, actors have been reading bedtime stories to children, and performers have been streaming concerts from their front rooms. Nevertheless, the large proportion of freelancers in the cultural sector means many livelihoods hang in the balance.
This film was produced by stage director and musician Tom Guthrie to help raise awareness for musicians who have seen their income severely restricted by the lockdown. He’s the man on his knees in the opening shot adjusting his webcam and, full disclosure, he lives on my street. Tom adapted an old arrangement he’d made of Pete Seeger’s 1955 folk song ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ and asked a few musician friends and colleagues if they’d like to contribute to an online project. He received an overwhelming response.
There’s a tentative, ramshackle prelude in the opening moments of the film before the music strikes up. It may represent how many of us have been feeling over the last few weeks as we’ve come to terms with the physical implications of staying behind closed doors, and the ensuing increase of on-screen exposure. But what starts as digital dislocation gives way to the rousing possibilities of human collaboration online before the rapturous swell of the music completely takes over. It’s testament to the potential of technology to keep us united in difficult times and confounds expectations of what is possible as a group working together apart. Pass the tissues.
Lewi B – ‘Lockdown Riddim (feat. Grime AllStars)’
The paranoid claustrophobia of grime makes it the perfect genre for a socially distanced nation inside and on lockdown. Mainstream media picked up on ‘Spreadin’, the coronaviral drill tune by New Addington rapper Rashid Kutubu aka Psychs. But the good-looking promotional video of Psychs and crew, filmed together outside in Surrey Quays in mid-March, seemed from a different era just days later as measures tightened.
Masterminded by producer Lewi B, self-styled young grime warlord, and filmmaker Tommy Biz of L&G.TV (aka brothers Lewis and Tommy Birtles), ‘Lockdown Riddim’ is an 8-bar rally tune and promotional video reflecting the increasing threat level. Lewis tweeted on 18 March seeking artists ready to record, which attracted MCs from Hull, Leominster and across London. According to Grizzly, it was all recorded and edited within three hours.
The video dropped on YouTube via online youth broadcasters SBTV at 7pm on 22 March, the day before Boris Johnson officially announced lockdown.
Featuring 13 grime spitters recorded in the microphone isolation of their own home studios and portable vocal booths, the video edited by Tommy Biz switches between their cramped urban cribs as each MC takes their eight bars. Biz unifies the footage with heavy use of a tracky VHS filter that symbolically reinforces a homegrown DIY aesthetic. Hoarding, especially of the ubiquitous toilet paper, provides a comic counterpoint to lyrical aggression and adds memetic décor alongside booze, weed and knives. It’s quick and dirty and stakes a claim on lockdown territory for a scene that’s already been Shutdown and Shut up.
Stay at Home – Belfast Health and Social Care Trust
Whither, in the age of coronavirus, the state-sponsored public information film? Some counterfactual historians have been asking what the COI (the centralised government communications agency in place from 1946 to 2011, famed for its public information shorts) might have produced during the pandemic: an impossible question to answer, though a fascinating one to contemplate.
Since the COI’s closure nine years ago, official filmmaking has diversified across government departments and public agencies (notably, in the present case, Public Health England) with the Cabinet Office having oversight of government comms. Most of the videos pushed out through social media have (perhaps rightly) been basic in form, from Boris Johnson’s avuncular messages-to-camera and Chris Whitty’s more formal addresses, which run on TV as well as online, to clear instructions on hand-washing.
Meanwhile, some of the more creatively impressive films have come from individual NHS trusts, with one standout being the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust’s #StayAtHome video. This was posted early in the crisis, back in March, and commissioned by them from production company Red Box Media.
It’s in the best tradition of the form: utilising a simple, elegant audio-visual concept that marries form and function, rooted in authenticity and strong enough to make it to mainstream media. The BBC and others reported and, in so doing, showed the film, and it’s been many times reposted on multiple platforms.
It’s also in passing a tribute to the cross-community nature of staffing of Northern Ireland’s health services. My only complaint is the distracting use of anodyne library music – the faces and voices are powerful enough.
This Is Curbar Edge – Derbyshire Police
In this Derbyshire Police video, people paying scant regard to the instruction that we should all avoid unnecessary journeys are highlighted, courtesy of a drone camera. Derbyshire Police went to significant lengths to highlight this issue in the beautiful Peak District. This video highlighted the seriousness with which they treated the question of travel to even scarcely populated areas of the county. Intended to warn off those from further afield, it actively discouraged journeys of escape to quiet, picturesque areas, in much the same way second home owners and tourists had been shamed for travelling to Cornwall.
On top of any risk of spreading the infection locally, walking there risked accidents and the deployment of emergency services when they are sorely needed elsewhere. The County Council were eventually forced to close their country parks.
The use of a drone caused some public backlash and controversy. The on-screen highlighting and text, along with the smooth movement, give the video a sinister, CCTV or military-like quality. It demonstrated that Derbyshire Police were taking the situation very seriously indeed and were not beyond criticising individual people’s actions as a way of setting an example.
Alone, Together in the Coronavirus Lockdown – Anywhere but Westminster series
It’s 6:53am outside Asda and there’s a long queue. “It’s quite a sight but this doesn’t look like panic-buying to me, it looks like pretty un-panicked people who need food,” John Harris suggests. This is the opening scene in this episode in the Guardian’s humane and entertaining Anywhere but Westminster online video series, which has now been running for 10 years.
These short films by journalist and author John Harris, teaming up with video journalist John Domokos, capture a vivid sense of how everyday folk are living, beyond the centres of power. For this venture, Harris and Domokos appealed for video contributions showing community self-help in action, to make the first edition in a series of coronavirus diaries. Their call-out generates footage of local heroes up and down the country, including Claudine, who’s supporting families on universal credit in Lewisham, and Jim, who runs a grassroots organisation in Edinburgh called Helping Hands.
Domokos has niftily edited the crowd-sourced videos, together with contributions from himself and Harris, and the result is a moving, compelling and witty glimpse of people’s lives around the UK. This first edition features communities in Norwich, Milton Keynes, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Plymouth and elsewhere. It was filmed on 20 March – which already seems like another era, shortly before full lockdown was declared on 23 March.