On 28 April, the BFI launched #BritainOnLockdown, an appeal to the public to help the BFI National Archive map the rich and varied world of online video and the huge role it’s played in the UK’s COVID-19 experience. From official information to dark satires, from campaign films to music videos, adverts to home movies, online video is contributing at least as much to Britain’s lockdown life as any traditional media.
Thank you for your many contributions – our curators are reviewing all your recommendations and in future articles we’ll be highlighting some of the best suggestions. This remarkable era of national life is set to continue for a long time to come, even as lockdown enters new phases, and thousands more new videos will be made.
Here’s a further selection by BFI curators of great, significant or representative webfilms that have played their part in helping Britain through lockdown life.
Misery Bear’s Guide to Isolation
Misery Bear has been appearing on and off for more than 10 years now on the BBC website, even taking a turn with Kate Moss for Comic Relief in 2011. This pithy piece was uploaded directly to YouTube and perfectly captures the boredom and frustrations of quarantine isolation. How have you been spending your time – reading, cooking, boozing? Pretending you have company when you don’t? Whichever one it is, the sad, frustrated teddy is glumly along for the ride and knows how you feel.
Do you ever have the concentration to read? Nope. Can you focus on the simple distraction of an office toy? Nope. And who would want to? Misery Bear, as this very to-the-point video testifies, is not just a very sad, shabbily-furry animal with a bowtie, but a very angry one. Most things are cast to one side with spitting, self-loathing venom.
The Misery Bear videos, produced by Roughcut TV, deliberately make the most of home video editing aesthetics and simple, centralised fonts. Each of the bear’s endeavours invariably leads to failure or despair. If his life does not exactly mirror your own, you might still enjoy his own particular passageway through the trials of now, and perhaps find a little catharsis.
Coronavirus: They tell us it’s a great leveller… it’s not – Emily Maitlis
This viral video originated as a clipping from Newsnight. In the opening remarks of the BBC’s late evening news and opinion show on 8 April, journalist Emily Maitlis delivered a hard-hitting critique of the language used around the COVID-19 crisis: “They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not. It’s much, much harder if you’re poor. How do we stop it making social inequality even greater?”
This was partly a response to news reports coming from the US about the disproportionate number of deaths from the virus among the African American population, and to the accumulating evidence of the wealth gap revealed by the lockdown in this country, with those on the front line (and at greater risk of contracting the disease) being some of the poorest paid in the country.
It’s the martial metaphors that perpetuate the myths that we are all equal in the struggle. As Maitlis says, “You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character.” This is a strong trope in online media, which has been awash with frustration about the use of military language in regard to those suffering from the virus. There’s an implied lack of respect for those who have died, as if they somehow didn’t fight hard enough.
Fifty-two seconds, more than 30 faces and voices: one clear message. When historians come to appraise the use of video to convey public health information during the pandemic, many key themes will emerge. One is the diversity of sources of communication – still very much including, but no longer limited to, the central state. Another is the targeting of campaigns towards specific demographics, alongside messaging aimed at the whole public. Both factors apply to #RamadanAtHome, a film in which a host of contributors – public figures like Sadiq Khan, Riz Ahmed, Mehdi Hasan and Baroness Warsi, alongside doctors, nurses, police officers and other citizens – urge their fellow Muslims to stay home and protect the NHS, all speaking parts of a unified, direct script.
This video followed an earlier one, facilitated by filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, which came from – and was aimed at – British Asians of all religions and is longer and more leisurely in style, while also making use of celebrity to present important health advice. Part of the context for both films is the disturbing fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds.
JOE – Ghost Town
The mixing of news footage with pop records to convey a satirical, often political, message is an art form perfected in the UK by comedy and electronic music combo Cassetteboy. Given the amount of moving image material with which we’re all bombarded these days, and how easy it now is to manipulate it with basic software, it’s no surprise that others have started using the technique to get messages across. JOE is a left-leaning news website based in Ireland and aimed at a young male audience. Its output employs a light touch, with an emphasis on the visual, so creating spoof music videos is a great way to communicate with its youthful viewers, even if the tracks used are mostly from their parents’ era.
This video features Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak orating to The Specials’ 1981 hit ‘Ghost Town’, conjuring up the deserted streets caused by the government lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus. This particular video is less biting than earlier ones from the site, such as the version of the song ‘We Go Together’ from the musical Grease, in which the faces of Johnson and Donald Trump were superimposed onto Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, insinuating a too-close relationship between the two political leaders.
Here, the ostensible objective is to reinforce the government’s advice to stay at home and protect the NHS, although the use of a song that evokes the disaffected youth speaking out about the effects of recession in the early 1980s sends its own subliminal message.
A&E nurse moved to tears as millions across UK applaud NHS staff
If Yorkshire’s critical care nurse Dawn Bilbrough was the social media video that pricked our conscience then Craig Leathard’s emotional response to the first Clap for Carers must surely be the video that touched our hearts. The first 8pm Clap for our Carers initiative saw millions of people across the UK step out of self-isolation to applaud NHS frontline heroes. At Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington, senior charge nurse Craig Leathard took his A&E team outside to listen to the clapping and cheering. His emotional reaction left thousands moved to tears when he later posted his video on social media with the heartfelt message: “Wow just wow …..Thank you so much … Human kindness, that’s how we win.”
Bryn Celyn Care Home residents playing Hungry Hungry Hippos
Everyone loves Hungry Hungry Hippos. As a parent you realise that it’s practically the only game you can play with toddlers, teens and grown-ups on a level playing field. But staff at the Bryn Celyn Care Home in South Wales took the game to a whole new level by arming elderly residents in wheelchairs with basket scoops and flooding the floor with coloured balls. It was an ingenious idea to raise spirits among both staff and residents, at a time when the over-70s were among the first in the UK to be officially advised to isolate themselves from wider society.
But a video of the activities posted on the care home’s Facebook page on 19 March became a morale-boosting story across the world. By the following day it was a popular “and finally…” feature of TV news outlets in the UK, and in the following days it spread across US network channels. An eclectic mix of online magazines including Time, Singapore Business Insider, The New European and Lad Bible had features on the story, and a BBC reporter’s tweet of the story helped rack up over a million views while being shared across the globe. The adoption and dissemination of the video by users of various platforms make it impossible to speculate how many people across the world might have seen it.
The physical distancing that the coronavirus has imposed on a large part of the globe has strengthened our virtual connectivity, exposing whole new communities to user-generated online content. Yes, we might increasingly depend on the technology and networks of multi-billion dollar companies to create and share such content. But the universal joy of laughter, the enlightenment of an inspired idea and the urge to not just witness such pleasures but also share them – these are still the connective tissues that bind us together.