A new project from the University seeks to unearth film footage of Oxford's past and transfer it to an archive accessible to all. Have you checked in your attic?
By Caroline Jackson
Oxfordians past and present are being summoned to the aid of a new film archive set up to unearth hidden treasures of Oxford’s history and excite curiosity about its singular, enduring relationship with the moving image. The University’s Educational Media Unit, adapting Balliol poet Matthew Arnold’s still resonant description of the city, has named its project Dreaming Spools.
Oxford is winningly photogenic. Its cityscape, centred on the Radcliffe Camera, is among the most recognisable in the world and presents a peerless concentration of well-preserved and beautiful buildings, in every English architectural style since the eleventh century. The University is also alma mater to numerous notable screenwriters, directors, producers and actors. So it is no surprise that filmmakers have long been drawn to Oxford. Particularly in the last three decades, it has been used as a setting for films about the city and University, and also as a stand-in for locations ranging from Harvard to Hogwarts.
However, reeling back further in time is more difficult. Though the University began to expand its film archive some years ago, it currently holds minimal colour footage from before the early 1980s.
Coincidentally that era produced what remains arguably the archetypal film representation of Oxford – Granada Television’s acclaimed 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. “Brideshead” became a byword for an Oxford of posturing and privilege – a lasting, unfortunate consequence of the series and ample evidence of the potency of the visual medium.
Through Dreaming Spools, the University now seeks to develop a more comprehensive visual record of both town and gown by soliciting and collating as much vintage film and video as possible. The British Film Institute holds a substantial archive of Oxford films, and the University’s Film Society, later to become the Experimental Film Society, dates from the 1940s. But contributions are now sought from amateurs or professionals who may have footage languishing unseen. Some of this may be forgotten until now, and at risk of obscurity.
As various themes emerge, such as Oxford during the Second War, films will then be made available on the University's public channel.
Initial response to Dreaming Spools has been enthusiastic, with new material emerging daily. One captivating acquisition is of 1944 footage, shot on rare 16mm colour cine film by US airman Major James Savage, whilst on attachment with the 14th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the US Air Force at RAF Mount Farm, Dorchester-on-Thames. Donated by Major Savage’s great nephew, it shows the young serviceman enjoying a river trip from Folly Bridge on one of Salter’s Oxford Steamers.
Contrast this with a silent, monochrome film taken during the 1923–33 joint archaeological expedition by Oxford University and Chicago’s Field Museum to Kish, Mesopotamia. Recording the extraordinary scale of operations and bringing to life contemporary cultural chasms, it is another vivid example of the gems being brought to light by this exciting project.
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Video and images from the University of Oxford’s Educational Media Services.