Human fish and the 10-stone toddler: the weird world of British Pathé

Weighty issue ... A ten-stone toddler filmed in 1935 by British Pathé. Photograph: British Pathé British Pathé, which documented th...

Weighty issue ... A ten-stone toddler filmed in 1935 by British Pathé. Photograph: British Pathé
British Pathé, which documented the first 70 years of the 20th century in cinema newsreels, has uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 films to its YouTube channel. That's about 3,500 hours of historic footage. How on earth do you start exploring that?
The answer is to plunge in randomly, which is how I hit on Micky the alsatian, aka "the world's greatest canine jumper", filmed in 1930 leaping over a 9ft 6in gate to a jazzy musical score (this was before the days of stentorian Pathé commentaries) without impaling himself. Well done, Micky.

The Micky film links seamlessly to a truly grotesque newsreel from 1935 featuring Leslie Bowles, "the fattest baby in the world", who at the age of three was said to weigh 10st, and was unable to walk because his legs couldn't support his body. The jokey commentary – unfortunately, sound had arrived by now – is appalling. The 1930s were a brutal decade.

"Our hope is that everyone everywhere who has a computer will see these films and enjoy them," says Alastair White, general manager of British Pathé. "This archive is a treasure trove unrivalled in historical and cultural significance that should never be forgotten. Uploading the films to YouTube seemed like the best way to make sure of that."
Admirable sentiments, but you can't help noticing that a lot of the films they have chosen to highlight are redolent of the modern "sidebar of shame", with an emphasis on death and disaster. So we get the airship Hindenburg going down in New Jersey in 1937 in a remarkable film that uses music to build tension, powerful effect; Franz Reichelt jumping to his death from the Eiffel tower while testing his homemade parachute in 1912 (in a particularly horrible touch, the crowd below measure the depth of the hole his body made in the ground on impact); and Gerard Masselin suffering a similar fate in 1963 when he jumps out of a plane and his parachute fails to open.
The Masselin film is brief, the music oddly tinkly and upbeat, the gaggle of spectators around the body bored-looking. Not much is known about Mr Masselin, and this is an odd memorial. For disaster junkies (and I fear I may be turning into one), Pathé has helpfully packaged a selection of catastrophes together – a collection of crazed jumpers and crashers from across the century. Again, the wistful musical accompaniment fascinates: a kind of hymn to human folly.
There is, of course, history here, too, to go along with the hysteria: the battle of the Somme; the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; the abdication of Tsar Nicholas. But anachronistic commentaries by John Humphrys have been added, which feels like cheating. Surely if these are to be valid historical documents we need to see or hear the original narrative.

This being a repackaging of old stuff for the modern digital sensibility, there has to be a celebrity section: a uniformed Elvis being interviewed about his posting to Germany; a brief, drossy lament marking the death of Marilyn Monroe; the Beatles collecting their MBEs at Buckingham Palace in 1965 (complete with wonderfully "square" commentary in a neat 60s cultural collision).

But the main impression you get is how weird the recent past was. The "human fish" from 1949; a French couple getting married on a tightrope; a horse and his American rider jumping 60ft into a small pool; a 3ft 7in man marrying a 6ft 4in actress turned nightclub bouncer.

Strangest of all is the 1954 film about Catherine Bent from Cornwall, a human water diviner who ambles through a field and suddenly has something resembling a fit when she senses the closeness of an underground stream. The commentary informs us that she is "one of Britain's most successful professional water diviners". I can only presume this was a significant occupation in the 1950s.
Whether or not these newsreels add much to our knowledge of the 20th century, it certainly feels like all human – and, indeed, non-human – life is here.


Film 2631508623796628508

Follow Us

Hot in week



-- / --