A strange vehicle manoeuvred its boxy mass into the car park by the Manor Gardens in Exmouth last weekend. It looked like it had slipped through the timestreams from another era, perhaps another world. And in some ways, it had. It was the Vintage Mobile Cinema, refurbished from the last of a fleet of 7 cinema vans built for Harold Wilson’s Ministry of Technology in 1966. The Ministry of Technology was the Whitehall embodiment of Wilson’s vision of the white heat of technological innovation and evolution which was to drive British industry towards a glorious and productive future, paving the way for a leisure society of plenty and easeful pleasures. It was founded in 1964, after Wilson’s Labour party won their surprise parliamentary victory. In 1966, the youthful and intensely keen Anthony Wedgwood Benn became its head, and he proceeded to energetically promote the cause of a technocratic, planned social and industrial framework for the nation. It all reminds me of the scene in Lindsay Anderson’s film If…, in which the head of the school is waking the grounds with his prefect elite (the captains of industry to be), and roundly declares that ‘Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas and industry’. It could Mr Benn himself voicing those sentiments. The Ministry of Technology was soon conflated to the more technocratically concise MinTech, which made it sound like an organisation from a science fiction dystopia, which would be based at the shining apex of a towering steel and glass monolith. Dominic Sandbrook, in his book on the first Wilson era (1964-70), White Heat, quotes from an amusing Private Eye sketch in which Benn kneels for a moment in silent prayer on a cassock which is a small, inflated hovercraft before a model of the Concorde prototype (shades of Brave New World and the Model-T icons) before addressing a gathering of the press. He proposes abolishing all street names, replacing them with ‘a simple code of 54-digit numbers’, and announces that he is changing his own name to 01-346-2167. The minister finally appears to break down, and is carried off by men in white lab coats, whilst a ‘weird electrical humming’ and flashing coloured lights accompany his swift exit.
Technocratic future (or present?) - The PrisonerBenn believed that he was spearheading a new British revolution, one which would see the country transformed by science, with improved communications and computer technology becoming increasingly prominent. In the long term, he was right, but the time wasn’t yet ripe. It was not an idea with which everyone was entirely comfortable, either, as evinced by episodes of Doctor Who and The Prisoner featuring controlling super computers, huge cabinets with revolving reels of magnetic tape, housed in large temperature controlled rooms. In the War Machines, a Hartnell Who, the computer sits at the top of the Post Office Tower (which was like a MinTech beacon) and orders the construction of roving robotic tanks to bring London to its knees. In The Invasion, a Troughton adventure, the computer is now installed in the very 60s office high rise of Millbank Tower, the headquarters of International Electromatics, and directs instructions from the waiting cyberman force to the corporate quisling Tobias Vaughan. In The Prisoner episode The General, Number 6 discovers that the originating force behind the hypnotic Speedlearn lessons apparently devised by The Professor is in fact a computer which he had invented, and which is being used further to control and regulate the surveillance of the Villagers. Number 6 gains permission to feed it a question it cannot answer, playing on the pride of its supervising scientist, who doesn’t believe such a question exists. But sure enough, the machine starts to shake and belch smoke, and finally explodes, leaving a wreckage of blackened and twisted metal. He has simply asked it Why?
The mobile cinemas were commissioned to promote Benn’s technocratic utopianism, travelling the country in a manner recalling the Soviet propaganda trains of the post-revolutionary period, which would screen instructional films for the peasants. Benn’s buses showed short instructional films to the heads of industry, telling them of the benefits of new technologies and methods of working. If the brief extract included in the introduction to the Vintage Mobile Cinema is anything to go by, they were excruciatingly dull and insultingly patronising. The vans themselves partook of the space age design aesthetic of the era, which tried to manufacture the future now. They looked like they could have been models from a Gerry Anderson series, Captain Scarlet or Thunderbirds, and would have made a fine replacement for my Corgi Captain Scarlet Special Patrol Vehicle, which got battered to the point of destruction through frequent high speed descents down pavement slopes. Anderson created a highly-technologised society, a hyper-60s dreamworld. The 60s moonage daydream took a pride in overt artificiality, in the manufactured and synthetic. Plastics and Velcro, polyester and Perspex were the thing, shiny and glowing with unnaturally bright pop colours. The vans, perhaps mindful of the need for gentle persuasion aimed at a slightly older generation in order to achieve their propagandistic purpose, also looked back to futurisms past. The bulbous curve of the glass canopy above the cab, in which the projector sat, has a rounded Deco look. The rest of the vehicle is rather too bulky to fully replicate the streamlined look of the 30s. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in William Cameron Menzies’ 1936 realisation of HG Wells’ future history Things To Come.
Of course, we didn’t all end up in a Thunderbirds world, racing around the country on high-speed monorails or lounging around our brightly coloured pads with everything we need or desire available at the press of a button. The vans went the way of MinTech, which grew into a huge governmental bureaucracy, swallowing other departments along the way, before being summarily disbanded and absorbed into the new DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) as soon as Edward Heath’s Conservatives came into power in 1970. Dominic Sandbrook is dismissive of its achievements, referring to its ‘abortive gimmicks’ and the long term disasters of its drive towards ever-larger industrial mergers, such as that which created the ill-fated British Leyland. It certainly seemed to be more accomplished at dazzling rhetoric and SF dreaming than at bringing about any substantive change. As the decade turned and the moon landing came and went, mid-sixties futurism went out of fashion, as optimism for things to come began to fade. The vogue for manufactured and prefab materials was replaced by homespun hippy chic, a revival of crafts and a yearning for the handcrafted, or at least something which gave an illusion of it. The mobile cinema fleet were sold off in 1974, less than a decade after they’d been built, and disappeared from view. One ended up in the corner of a field in Essex, slowly rusting and sinking down into the mud. It was effectively brought as scrap and thanks to the tireless efforts of its new owners, Rob Howell and Nancy-Rose Mills, refurbished and repaired until it had attained a proud and gleaming approximation of its former glory. It now travels the country once more, showing a far more entertaining and interestingly diverse programme of films that it used to, as you can see from the programme here.
In the South West, where it is based, the emphasis is very much on local film-makers, and on material which documents the area. We saw a couple of films. The first was about a little girl watching a ballerina rehearse in an empty church hall, or perhaps she’s just dancing for the sheer pleasure of it. It captured the beauty of dance with all the vari-speeded trickery of modern digital cameras. It reminded a little of the scene in If… in which Philips admiringly watches Wallace swing gracefully between the gymnastic frames (it seems a lot of things are reminding of If… at the moment). The other film, Stan, was about a Cornish commercial diver, who also dives for his own pleasure. He talked about his life and what he’d found on the sea bottom over the years. His dockside lock-up was a cornucopia of historical artefacts, a hoard which included coins and swords, artillery shell cases and cutlery and much more. There were some fine aerial and waterbound shots of Plymouth Sound, a particularly rich area for diving finds with its long naval history. Stan had an array of vintage diving suits and helmets which, when laid out in a chronological line on the harbourside, traced the development of individual subaquatic adventuring. Finally, he put on the baggy brown oilskin and was screwed into his Victorian brass helmet, and clumped towards the shoreline in his lead weighted Frankenstein boots, descending below the waters of the Sound. It was a steampunk dream. There was also a collage of home movies shot in and around Exmouth, dating from the 30s through to the sixties, gathered together and edited under the aegis of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s ‘Back to the Future’ project. There was a shaky ‘cab ride’ shot from the passenger seat of a 30s car, which harked back to the Edwardian ‘phantom ride’ films shot from the upper decks of trams which were popular in the earliest days of cinema. Students of Rolle College (where I went) goofed about in the streets on a Rag Day parade a couple of years after it had opened in 1947. There was also some footage of the opening of the college by Ellen Wilkinson, the minister for education in Attlee’s post-war Labour government. She had led off the Jarrow marchers in 1936, and according to Juliet Gardiner in her book The Thirties: An Intimate History, she ‘would march most of the way, taking days out to attend the Labour Party conference and fulfil other engagements’. The college was very much a part of the idealism of post war reconstruction, a place for more teachers to be trained in order to build the New Jerusalem from the foundations up. Its location in a small town was also a step towards a greater regionalism and the integration of national education and other institutions within communities beyond the major urban centres. Sadly, these steps have now largely been retraced, and Rolle College, along with many other such places, has been drawn back into larger and more centralised (and thus more homogenous) sites. In the 1950s Welcome To Exmouth promotional film, children see-sawed back and forth on the same row of yellow wooden swings which are still set up on the sea front every summer to this day (I saw them later on for real). The college may have closed down, but some things, it seems, will always endure.