A twenty-minute film about the building of Churchill College, lost for a generation, has come to light, and it is a gem – a must see.

The reel had languished, unidentified, in the College archive, until several early alumni began to ask what had become of that film they had helped to make. Archivist Natalie Adams identified the item, now fragile, and, with generous donations from alumni, has had it digitised for posterity

Made between 1962 and 1964, when the College’s central buildings were under construction, the film was directed by Andrew Sinclair, the first Fellow in History and future professional film-maker. Sinclair was a celebrity while still an undergraduate, publishing his hip novels My Friend Judas and The Breaking of Bumbo in 1959. An historian of Prohibition America, he did not long remain in academe, turning instead to a career as writer and film producer. His signal achievement was Under Milk Wood (1972) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He tells stories of his time at Churchill in his autobiographical In Love and Anger: A View of the Sixties (1994).

The new-found film touches on the social life of early students. It is a world away: après the great cultural revolution of the later 1960s. Ties, tweed jackets, and tank tops are much in view; albeit also the sharp narrow lines of the early Beatles era (and beehive hair for the only girl in sight). At night in town, the young gentleman must still wear gowns. Croquet was an early hit, and sport was king. The College conducted its life at the west end of the site, the facilities pro tem in the Sheppard Flats and adjacent Nissen huts, with cramped dinner under Winston’s gaze. There are glimpses of Fellows at a garden party laid on by the Master, Sir John, and Lady, Cockcroft: including John Morrison, George Steiner, and Sinclair, as well as the architect Richard Sheppard. In another scene we see a crisply dynamic first Bursar, Major-General Jack Hamilton. Aficionados will enjoy the arresting editing, such as the cut from a student dealing a pack of cards to a porter sorting the morning mail.

But what is remarkable about the film is that it chose not to linger on students and Fellows, but on the men who, literally and physically, built the College. It is a film about buildings coming into being, emerging from the mud of the Gault clay. It dwells fondly on forests of scaffolding; it renders the gloop of wet concrete truly palpable; and reminds us of the ambitious grandeur of the great dining hall. It implicitly reproaches us for citing a building’s architect without mentioning the contractors, for it was the old Cambridge firm Rattee and Kett which made Churchill – and so well. What comes home to the viewer is that, for all its modernist design, the construction of Churchill relied on traditional and relentless craftsmanship on site. Almost nothing was factory prefabricated. The project soaked up labour from miles around, and we see workmen being bussed to the site. This was, moreover, the era before electric power tools; and before ‘health and safety’; an age still of flat caps not hard hats.

Soon the suspicion grows that the film is less about architecture and construction and more about the nobility of labour. It owes a debt to Socialist Realism. If the students are given a memorable soundtrack of contemporary jazz, the workers labour to the heroic chords of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Mark Goldie, October 2011

Related links

Read more about the architectural competition to build Churchill College.

Read the Architecture Daily feature

Film credit: “Churchill College: June 1962-May 1964″ Director: Dr Andrew Sinclair, Sound: Paul Barton, Titles: Martyn Stroud, Producers: Nigel Birch and Andrew Bird”. Churchill College Archive, CCRF/151/21. Reproduced by kind permission of Dr Andrew Sinclair.