A Channel 4 history documentary based on the to explore extraordinary “Calling Blighty” films, made by the North West Film archive and featuring Manchester based soldiers from “The Forgotten Army” in the Burma Campaign of WWII is to be screened this Sunday .
The films, which all relate to Manchester, were discovered in the basement of Manchester Town Hall and according to Archive Director Marion Hewitt, must have accumulated there at the end of the 1940s after they had first been screened in the cinemas.
“They are filmed messages – all the reels contain is a series of men coming forward to deliver their message to the camera, and then they were shown at the cinema back home, to an invited audience of relatives. And then they were simply stashed. Why they happened to end up in the town hall we have no idea. We don’t know when they were put there or who decided to save them. Part of the story of the Calling Blighty films is that there were 391 issues filmed, and only about 50, that we know of, have survived. I think the general attitude was “We’ve shown that, so we don’t need to keep it.”
The soldiers in the film were called the Forgotten Army, he 14th Army, sent to the Far East. For these troops – fighting a savage battle against the Japanese in Burma and India – home leave wasn’t possible, post was slow, and sometimes letters didn’t get home at all. Some left behind pregnant wives or elderly parents who would pass away before they returned, or young children who would barely recognise them by the time they came home. Fighting in far flung jungles, soldiers suffered from tropical diseases. Morale was low, so the Ministry of Defence decided upon a scheme to provide a much needed boost for the disaffected soldiers in the Far East and their families back home.
That scheme was “Calling Blighty.” The films – a series of personal messages home to loved ones – were sent back, and families were invited to cinema screenings to try and catch a glimpse of their relatives on screen – some of whom had tragically died by the time the films reached home.
The archive wanted to try and track down the families to recreate the screeninmgs in the 1940s. The scheme was launch in May 2015, and about 50 families were found within a month or two.
There was one women who had never met her father. Marion takes up the story
“Ann Alsop was about three when her father was killed in action. She’d never met him, her mother had been pregnant when he went off. When he didn’t come back, her mother remarried and changed her name and moved on. It was only after her mother had died, and her mother’s brother gave her some photographs and correspondence, that she learned more about her origins. But she never followed it up, and was amazed when the team tracked her down. She’d seen photos of her father, but obviously nothing moving, and never heard his voice.”
They also found two veterans, and one of them appears in the film.
“He remembers being filmed and how it all happened. He was delighted to see himself. The other chap that we found was a seaman on an Aircraft Carrier, and his vessel had just docked briefly, so he just happened to be there when they were filming. He didn’t actually serve in Burma. ”
Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army is on Sunday 26th June at 8pm on Channel 4