We seem to remember the past in black and white, especially the 1930s and ’40s, but the work of Miss Rosie Newman, a British woman who happened to be a talented amateur film maker, allows us a wonderful opportunity to see what the 1940s really looked like – blue skies, sunny streets, the different tones of military kit, nursing uniforms, blooming flowers and neat gardens, vibrant shop windows, different skin colours. Being filmed in the 1940s was very much a novelty, especially if it was a woman behind the camera, some people couldn’t take their eyes off her. This novelty, combined with her impressive social connections and a determination to film wherever she could has left us with a terrific colour documentary about the war, Britain at War In Colour.
So who was Rosie Newman?
Rosie Newman (1896-1988) moved in the highest social circles, living in Piccadilly, right next door to royalty. She travelled widely and in the late 1920s took up the ‘new’ hobby of film-making. She preferred colour film; she said ‘it looked more natural’. In the 1930s Rosie became well known for showing her travelogues at charity film shows that she organised in smart locations like the Dorchester Hotel to audiences of Britain’s social elite. Her little black book was packed with the addresses of generals, archbishops and aristocrats, who generously donated money. When war broke out she turned her cine camera on Britain, shooting unique footage that recorded everyday life in colour. Her connections allowed access to people and places that were unavailable to most film-makers; for example she filmed a Navy exercise while onboard a warship. The first version of Britain At War In Colour dates from 1942, with several revisions over the following few years. She continued organising her fundraising shows but she also presented the film to service personnel and local audiences in town halls around the country.
Rosie Newman’s films are special because she focused her lens on daily life as she saw it, whether it was a child’s party in a country house, sailors playing with the ship’s dog, or men sweeping up after an air raid. That she was devoted to colour film has left a valuable resource that informs our understanding of the Home Front in WWII. To learn more about this remarkable woman, I spoke to Jane Fish, Senior Curator at the IWM’s Film Archive, who has extensively researched Rosie Newman’s work.
AR: How did this film come to be with the IWM?
JF: Rosie Newman approached the IWM in the 1970s to see if we would like it – the answer was yes! It was one of the first amateur films accepted by the IWM, even though amateur film then wasn’t considered good historical information. Now most people accept that amateur film is valuable evidence and that it fills the gaps left by official cameramen. She’s not typical of amateur film makers as she didn’t film her own family, but focused on life around her.
AR: Did she make the films herself?
JF: She shot and edited all her own film, adding intertitles where necessary, and changing the content as the war progressed. During the shows, her projectionist was the only other person involved – she did everything herself, including choosing the appropriate music.
AR: What about the music?
JF: Music was a crucial element. Rosie carefully chose the appropriate music (contemporary songs or orchestral) to accompany the footage and, almost like a modern DJ, she had a dual turntable gramophone so that she could fade music in and out according to the mood she wanted for each scene; the records were marked with chinagraph pencil indicating where to put the needle, or remove it. It was very effective. Until recently, her record collection was thought lost; we considered reconstructing the soundtrack from her notes but it wasn’t possible. However, by a great stroke of luck, in 2010 the son of Miss Newman’s post-war projectionist found about 60% of the records in his father’s effects. They needed a lot of conservation and some were beyond repair, but we constructed a programme that reflects the way she worked. This is the soundtrack on the new DVD.
AR: Rosie’s wealth meant she could afford colour film, can you comment on the cost?
JF: 16mm colour film stock was extremely expensive. In 1935, 50 feet of Kodachrome film, lasting for about two minutes, cost 21 shillings, equivalent to around £60 today; bearing in mind that World War II In Colour runs for 90 minutes it was obviously a hobby for the very wealthy. It also reveals Rosie’s resourcefulness as she called on her friends for any spare colour film they had and, when that ran out, she exported small amounts from the USA. The British government restricted colour film stock during the war and it was only slowly reintroduced afterwards.
AR: Any favourite clips?
JF: I really like the scene with the bomb-damaged house where the top floor tenants were moving out. Rosie filmed their furniture being carefully lowered by rope from the attic window, first a chair, then a chest of precious items. It’s a very personal moment. I also like the Hyde Park segment – the park was used as a gigantic store for recycled building materials from bombed houses. The lines of baths and stacks of front doors are so poignant. The film is full of quiet, almost mundane moments and that’s what makes it so special.
AR: I love the queue in the street – women waiting in the sun to buy what looks like bread with their daughters, they’re wearing dresses of lovely colours; it’s not how we usually think of war footage. Any final thoughts?
JF: I’d like to remind readers that sometimes things, like the records, are never lost so keep your eyes open!
Rosie Newman’s Britain at War In Colour on DVD is released by Strike Force Entertainment and includes options to hear a reconstruction of Rosie Newman’s music selection or Jane Fish’s highly informative commentary.
An edited version of this article was originally published in Family Tree, February 2012. http://family-tree.co.uk/tag/rosie-newman/