This story is over 5 years old.

YouTube Channel of the Week

These Ancient News Reels Show Us a Past that Can Inform Our Future

One of the greatest archives in the world comes to the best website in the world.

Image via YouTube

YouTube is probably the greatest anthropological project ever launched. It has managed to expose the multitudes of the human condition more than any other medium ever created, and allowed people to express themselves in more diverse ways than at any point in history. This weekly column is an outlet for me to share with you some undiscovered gems, as well some very well-trodden gems, and discuss just what it is that makes the chosen accounts so intriguing.


WHO: British Pathé
WHAT: Vintage video lists and bits from the worlds foremost archival body. HOW MANY SUBSCRIBERS AT TIME OF WRITING: 478,730
WHY SHOULD I CARE: Pathé, a French film company started in 1896, is one of the oldest in the world. Its founders were pioneers of silent film, and its existence predates that of Paramount Films and other stalwarts of the big screen. Pathé News was a British offshoot founded in 1910 by Charles Pathé, focussing on documentaries, cinemagazines, etc. It's now called British Pathé, and serves as one of the finest archives of old footage in the world. An extremely important window into to frailty of our past, the quaintness and also the darkness of it. But even Pathé, a true bastion of the oldest of the old school, will be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, a world of livetweeting, owl cafés and creme egg cronuts.

Except it doesn't look like it's being dragged at all. On the contrary, British Pathé, a company over 100 years old, seems to be managing quite alright in our time of transient, throwaway content. They've done a great job of appealing to our hummingbird-esque attention spans. But how can ancient, crackly footage of women wearing too many clothes in the summer do such a thing? They have, of course, reached for the only true salvation left for content-creators in this damned world. Somebody lied, friends; British Pathé have got a chopper in the car, and it's called 'Lists'.


As I mentioned in a previous edition of YouTube Channel of the Week,the one about WatchMojo, the list, as a format, lends itself more to video than to the humble article. But while WatchMojo's schtick is to be the jack of all trades of online video list-making, i.e. everything can be compiled in a top-ten list in ascending order, British Pathé opts to theme itself based on the viewer's preferences and choices. Every month has a theme (this month's is crime, the last was Lights! Camera! Action!), and each theme opens up doors to a smorgasbord of fantastic black and white footage. The lists, like '6 Strange Christmases' or '8 New Dance Crazes that Went Old', always feel fun, not forced. I think that's the main difference between WatchMojo and British Pathé: I can practically feel the beads of sweat running off whoever has to make a new list every day at the former, whereas the latter would be a riot to compile, sifting through the past to create patterns.

One slightly troubling aspect of British Pathé's success is its big hits. One of the first videos of theirs I came across was '6 Spectacular Crashes'. As the title suggests, it featured racing cars speeding around the track and coming to sticky ends. Some of these crashes were truly horrific. Pierre Levegh's crash at the 1955 Le Mans race in France killed him along with 70 spectators after a collision with the wall. All of them are reported with the austere Received Pronunciation of the narrator, sometimes to unfortunate comic effect, such as in the case of Bill Vukovich, who was denied a third win at the 1955 Indianapolis 500 race, because "Death says no."


We become exponentially distanced from our past the faster we progress. The more iPhones and human-like android robots are created, the more ludicrous and pastiche-worthy these kinds of things become. 1955 wasn't even that long ago, but the style of speech, reporting, the technology, everything about it is unrecognisable. It's no wonder that old people find it impossible to adjust. What are they supposed to focus on? It's all a big blur, like those black and white car crashes, zipping past into oblivion.

That's why this merging of old and new is integral. British Pathé presents the retro in a modern fashion. It appeals to our curiosity, but also our thriftiness with time and attention. It wants you to learn, but knows you only have an hour for your lunch break, and that when you get home you'll be too tired from hating your horrible life to indulge in anything more than 10 minutes long, collapsing on your bed before being torn from it to continue your digital nightmare. It's a form of catharsis for us futurists, a hark back to a time we will never see, but perhaps want to see more than we let on.


More from VICE:

YouTube Channel of the Week #8: WatchMojo

YouTube Channel of the Week #9: Jay Cooper

YouTube Channel of the Week #10: The Crude Brothers & EricSurf6