A DATE TO REMEMBER (c.1952) film no: 4729
This film, made by amateur filmmaker Fred Brackenbury, is from the Nowell collection and shows three children being given a big bundle of fireworks on Bonfire Night. There are shots of them looking through their collection and then bringing it outside and lighting some of them.
Title-A date to remember
A woman walks into the sitting room, turns on the light and arranges some of the flowers in the vase. Her son and two daughters are sitting at the dining table; her son is doing his homework and the two girls are reading comics. There is a shot of the boy's copy book and workbook titled `A test a week mental arithmetics' (sic)
Their father comes in the door and places a large package and some loose fireworks in front of the boy. He happily puts his books away and begins to open the package, which contains fireworks of every shape and type. The girls come over and smile with delight as the boy takes out the various items. Their mother comes over to have a look and the girls each take a sparkler and light them on the fire.
The boy puts everything neatly on a tray and then the mother helps them to put on their hats and coats so that they can go outside. They wave the sparklers around in the dark and then there is a shot of a large bonfire.
There is a sequence of shots of the large sparklers and fireworks lit and then of a lit up sign which reads `Good Night'.
This film is one of over sixty films made by amateur filmmaker Fred Brackenbury between 1948 and 1966. Fred was a member of Harrogate Cine Club, and made all the films with a 16 mm cine camera, virtually all in Kodachrome. He made films for Harrogate Council, and other documentaries on Yorkshire, some with a separate soundtrack with commentaries by his wife, Nora. A great many of them have a horticultural theme, and display Fred’s love of the outdoors. He also made several films featuring events at Woodlands Junior School in Harrogate.
The YFA has a number of films showing family Bonfire nights, but none as well filmed as this one. It being a night time affair, the lighting doesn’t normally allow for good filming, but Fred has managed to film both the fireworks display and the bonfire beautifully, allowing us to experience it almost as if we were there.
The history of Guy Fawkes night is fairly well known, originating in the failure of a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament and kill King James 1st in 1605. It was hoped by Catholics that with the arrival of the new king (having a Catholic mother, but brought up by Protestants) the repression of Catholics under Elizabeth 1st might be eased. The failure of this to happen led to the plot by Robert Catesby and his group of a dozen co-conspirators – meeting in the Duck and Drake Inn on the Strand. As well as decimating the Stuart royal family and the assembled Lords and Commons, the plotters hoped to spark a Catholic rising, and install James I's surviving daughter Elizabeth as the figurehead of a Catholic regime. It just so happened that it was Guy Fawkes who was guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder and was caught and tortured – and later hung, drawn and quartered along with seven other members of the gang. In the aftermath of the failure of the plot, The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 called for an annual thanksgiving which became a focus for anti-Catholicism. In the wake of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, the Act was finally repealed in 1859, and with it the long and ponderous thanksgiving prayer in the Book of Common Prayer said in Church of England churches which helped keep anti-Catholicism alive.
Guy Fawkes himself – brought up in York as a Protestant – only really becomes a focal point of the 5th November in the late 18th century (before that the effigy was usually of the pope) – his school, St Peter’s, long boycotted the event. During the Victorian period the occasion became associated with working class youth and rowdyism. This association remained until the time of this film, in the mid 20th century, when the original historical connection had largely been lost – thankfully for the 5% of the population who were Catholics, mainly with British ancestry – with the possible exception of the town of Lewes in Sussex, which also commemorates Protestant victims of the reign of Queen Mary 1 “Bloody Mary”, 1553-1558). Those of a certain age will remember well stuffing old clothes to make a guy, buying a mask (re-emerging in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta), and wheeling it on a pram or suchlike to a strategic spot (a pub was good) to collect money. Although a survey in 1981 found that about 23 per cent of Sheffield schoolchildren still made Guys, this is nowhere near as common a practise as it once was – Halloween now being promoted much more.
The money would be used to buy the sorts of small fireworks seen in the film. The accompaniment of fireworks to Bonfire night goes back a long time: they are recorded by Samuel Pepys in his Diary during the 1660s (although they were twice banned in the 1680s). Their popularity after the war was matched by the large number of brands – Astra, Benwell, Brock’s, Lion, Pain’s, Rainbow, Wells, Wessex and Wilder’s, to name a few – of which possibly only Standard remain today. Doubtless, many will be able to name the fireworks seen in the film (is there a Golden Rain?). It was also more common then for there to be fireworks in one’s own back yard, perhaps with a few neighbours, rather than the large public displays of today which have lost much of the intimacy – and the chestnuts and potatoes one put around the bonfire. Of course, proper considerations of safety are now paramount – although still around 1,000 people are injured each year during the fortnight around bonfire night (statistics on this weren’t started until the late 1960s); and it is no fun for pets. For more on what Bonfire night was like at this time, and some good photos, see ‘Bonfire Night in a Working Class area in the 1950’s’ from the Hubpages of maggs224 (References).
The book shown in close-up, A Test a Week Mental Arithmetics by Cyril James Ridout, first came out in 1938. It isn’t clear when this stopped being used in schools, although many of his English school books were still being published well into the 1970s. Thankfully (or unthankfully!) mental arithmetic is still being taught in schools. The other close up is of another interesting characteristic from this era, comics, in this case Rainbow, which made its first appearance on February 14th 1914 and last on April 28th 1956. Here, on the front page, we see the characters of Mrs Bruin’s boarding school, although the lion with a top hat isn’t one of the regulars. The characters were originally created in 1904 by Julius Stafford Baker for the Daily Mirror's comics section and later drawn by Herbert Sydney Foxwell in 1910. One of the characters, Tiger Tim, contiued to appear in Jack & Jill until 1985.
Comics too were a much bigger part of children’s lives in the 1950s (and 1960s) than they are today – apparently in a survey in 1952 girls listed 51 and boys named 87 different comics that they liked to read. The Dandy, which closed in 2011 with a sale of 8,000, sold over 2 million in the 1950s. It was around the time of the early 1950s that more lurid comics from the US found their way in to some British homes, leading to the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 (still on the statute books). Mel Gibson (no, not that one) notes that vehement debates emerged in the 1950s, “predominantly amongst librarians and teachers, [some] of whom saw comics . . . as not ‘real’ reading and because there were pictures to support the words saw them as undermining the imagination of young people or making readers ‘lazy’.” (References) Yet how many children learnt to read through comics? One of the best places to look for more on comics is to the numerous books written by comic and film enthusiast and historian Denis Gifford. Within a very packed life Denis also wrote the nostalgic radio panel game Sounds Familiar, beginning in 1966 and transferring to television in 1972 as Looks Familiar, using clips from video and film archives – as well as the definitive guide to British films. For a view on recent trends in comics see Lew Stringer’s fascinating blog, Blimey!, and the work of the aforementioned Mel Gibson (References).
John Cramsie, Review of "Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day." The Historian 69.1 (2007)
Denis Gifford, Discovering Comics, Shire Publications, 2nd edition, 1991.
Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury, Great British Comics, Aurum Press, 2006.
Christopher Hitchens, "No Popery there: how patriotism and Protestantism became inseparable in England." The Weekly Standard 31 Oct. 2005.
James Sharpe, Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
Mel Gibson , ‘How Did We Get Here From There? – why are we so hung up about children’s reading?’, speech at Youth Libraries Group Conference 17th-19th Sept 2004