A history of film in BP

The company’s origins go back to 1908, when oil was struck in Masjid-i-Suleimen, Persia. It was the beginning of the oil industry in the Middle East and the first days of Anglo-Persian, the company that later became BP.

The earliest record of film making in BP (then Anglo Persian and later the Anglo Iranian Oil Company) was in 1920 with the production of a silent black and white film documenting the company’s operations in Persia (now Iran). The 35mm film was 1.15 hours long and cost a total of £2,100.00. It was seen by ‘company officials’ and not publicly exhibited.

The only other film activities in Persia around this period, that we know about, were those of an Explorer and Cinematographer and his collaborator who took pictures of the twice yearly migration of the tribes from the plains to the hills, and produced a film entitled ‘GRASS’.  Mr Cooper’s film was sponsored and widely distributed by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Company. At the time it was considered a ‘classic’ and is still regarded as a most valuable historical record of those inhabitants of southern Iran who were then still living the nomadic life. The film, ‘Tribes of Iran’, is held in the BPVL.

After a visit to Persia in 1924, Lord (then Sir John) Cadman (Chairman of Anglo Persian 1927-1941), saw the need for ‘recreational entertainment’ for the staff out there, and instructed Head Office in Londonto look into it. Head Office took advice from the International Cinematograph Corporation Ltd and Pathe Ltd and looked at the possibilities of: ‘libraries, magic lantern lectures and entertainment films.’

In the winter of 1925, a Topical Press Film cameraman made a silent record of the Company’s operations in Persia. The 35mm film, entitled ‘The Persian Oil Industry’, was 45 minutes long and shown to specialised audiences in technical institutions. Later, a 15 minute film was produced and shown in public cinemas under the title of ‘In the Land of the Shah’ and a 20 minute version bearing the same title was made for distribution by Pathescope Limited. The film, in its various forms, was seen by nearly a million people between 1926 and 1938. The approximate cost of the film was £1,600.00.

In 1930 Scottish Oils produced the classic film: ‘The Scottish Shale Oil Industry’ (also in the BPVL).  The black and white 35mm film documents the technical processes of the shale industry developed by Dr James Young and features some of the earliest film shots of miners descending into the pit and working deep below the surface. In 1938 Scottish Oils made a sound film entitled Paraffin Young, Pioneer of Oil (begun in Sept 1937), specially for display at the Scottish Oils and Shell Max Pavilion at the Glasgow Exhibition (May to October 1938). The film describes the historical rather than the technical aspects of the Scottish Shale Industry, with the late Dr Young as the central figure. A silent version of the film was made in October, 1938, for use in colleges, schools and other places were sound projection was not possible. 

In 1934, Gaumont British Distribution Limited produced a cinema newsreel which was widely distributed, called ‘Llandarcy Refinery’ the story of the huge refinery in Wales. It was seen by thousands of people in cinemas around the UK. In a world without television, theses early films were a window on the wider world.

In 1936, after much negotiation, permission was obtained from the Iranian Government to make a large-scale sound film of Iran, depicting the progress of Iran under the Shah, and the part played by the AIOC in this progress. Between November 1936 and March 1937 a large amount of filming took place around Iran and the films: ‘Dawn of Iran’ (sound) and ‘Oilfields of Iran’ (silent) were produced.

BP continued to commission award-winning documentaries and travelogues about its work around the world. The films were objective and informative documentaries, often with the subtlest glimpse of the company that paid for them, and played as B movies in cinemas in the UK and on the continent.

The effect of the Depression was felt through Anglo Persian’s business and with competitive pressures mounting, Anglo Persian and Royal Dutch-Shell agreed to combine their UK marketing organizations and in 1932 Shell-Mex BP Limited (‘32-‘76) came into being. The new company produced many award winning films including ‘Forth Road Bridge’ which was nominated for an Oscar in 1965. They also filmed many Grand Prixs and produced ‘Two Laps of Honour’, a film about Stirling Moss’s successes at Monaco and Nurburgring in 1961.

In 1933 Gulf Oil and Anglo Persian formed the Kuwait Oil Company to bid for oil concessions in Kuwait and documented life in Kuwait. The BPVL holds some of the few remaining films of life in the great walled city of Kuwait, like ‘Focus on Kuwait’ shot in the 40s, before the oil industry arrived in force and before the city was completely rebuilt leaving only a tiny fragments of the old city. These films are constantly in demand by museums and broadcasters world-wide.

When war was declared in 1939; Anglo Iranian evacuated 900 of its headquarters staff from central London to Sunbury and to Llandarcy and only 15 people remained to look after Britannic House. Despite film production dwindling at this time, the acclaimed documentary, ‘An English Oilfield’ (1942) was produced about the oil field in Nottinghamshire, England, drilling oil successfully for the war effort and described by Winston Churchill as ‘England’s best kept secret’.

After the war, with petrol rationing over and new refined products on the market, ‘BP Super’ was launched in the early 50s along with a series of high profile commercials featuring celebrities like Terry Thomas and Stirling Moss as ‘BP Supermen’. Later commercials like ‘BP on The Move’ and ‘Britain at its Best’ were produced and are all viewable in the BPVL along with an award winning commercial directed by Steven Spielberg.

A popular series of magazine programmes were produced between 1951 and 1952 called ‘Oil Review’ and a ‘review of the AOIC in Iran’ in 1953. These were shown as B movies in cinemas and to staff. ‘Oil Review’ was the first of the internal magazines programmes produced by the corporate centre of BP.

In the early ‘60s, BP produced a series of acclaimed Trade Test films, which were first screened on BBC2 between January and April 1964 and were used to test black and white broadcasts in the run-up to the channel’s opening night. More trade test films were shown from August 1964 as the channel began experimenting with colour broadcasts. The films were shown sporadically during the afternoon and at closedown until August 1967, and ahead of the formal launch of BBC2 colour in November 1967, when they gained a regular schedule. Many of the films won prestigious awards including several BAFTA’s and Oscar nominations. On August 24th 1973 the very last Trade Test film to be shown was BP’s Oscar-winner; Giuseppina. 

During the 60s and 70s some of the best known films were made in the great documentary tradition of Grierson some of which, like BAFTA winners, ‘Shadow of Progressand ‘Tide of Traffic’ were critical of the very industry that sponsored the films. It was a tradition that continued into the 80s and films like, ‘Landscape on Loan’, were still able to be objective in their criticism of the oil industry. The films were shown as B movies in commercial cinemas and were in great demand in schools and colleges.  

In the 1970s it was estimated that over 20 million people a year watched BP films, and in 1974 the film critic of the Financial Times said that:

‘BP films invariably outlast, outstrip and out-distribute the films of any other company in the world’

In 1964 with BP’s move into Alaska and in 1970 with the discovery of the Forties Field in the North Sea, some of BP’s major films were produced and shown in schools and cinemas. They were objective documentaries that showed the company moving into new unchartered frontiers and at the forefront of new technology. BAFTA winner ‘Alaska the Great Land’ and BAFTA and Oscar nominated ‘The End of the Road’ were produced; BAFTA winners ‘Location North Sea’ and ‘Sea Area Forties’ were also highly acclaimed.

BP’s Head Office in Britannic House Tower had two film theatres at this time, the largest seating 250 people, with two 35mm projectors and a thriving film society. Later, in the 80s video projection arrived and when the company moved its HQ to Finsbury Circus there was no provision for showing films.

BP ran a free film distribution library for schools from the late 50s into the early 80s. However, the growth of the television industry and the advent of cheap video players saw a gradual decline in usage of film in schools. In addition, the greater centralization and tightening of the school curriculum meant that teachers had less leeway to include commercially produced material, unless it was targeted at the core curriculum. The distribution function was finally wound up in the late 1980s.

By now the cinema B movie had disappeared and cheap video cameras meant that the face of television production changed.  After BP’s diversification, with less central communication, the different businesses began to produce their own programmes.  The audience had changed, and whereas the films produced centrally by the Film Unit in the past were made to reach a wider audience, the new videos became more targeted at employees and could focus on a product or new initiative.  As the programmes became less objective and more introspective, broadcasters were less keen to pick up the films. The last big films to be broadcast included, ‘Under the North Sea’ by the BBC, the ‘History of the Motor Car’; a co-production with Thames TV and a film about ‘Magnus’, a new platform in the North Sea.

Production became more business focused and magazine programmes like ‘Pipeline’ from the early 80s to 1992 and ‘Downstream’, for BP Oil, from 1988 – 97 (26 editions) were produced. Later, in 2002, the most successful internal magazine programme series called ‘Performance in Perspective’ began production, a quarterly report which was made available on-line to employees.

In 1992, BP outsourced its archive and closed down the Film Unit which had commissioned all the centrally films produced until then. Hundreds of films were donated to the British Film Institute. The BFI National Archive continues to preserve many of BP's best-known films. 

In 2006, the video archive that remained was recognised as a valuable asset and brought back into BP and housed in South London.  A major digitization project began to make the material available to BP staff and to external audiences.  In September 2008 the new archive went online with over 500 hours of fully catalogued film footage which was made available to preview and download online. The online archive now boasts in excess of 1,700 hours of digitised archive content.

At the same time, in 2006, CENTENARY: The BP Story, a documentary charting the 100 years of BP's history, went into production. In collaboration with the BPVL, the production sourced the most valuable archive film from BP’s heritage companies around the world including: ARCO, Veba/Aral, SOHIO and Amoco. These assets are now stored at the BPVL.  In 2007, the Castrol Motor Sport library was transferred from Swindon to London. This unique collection covering over fifty years of motorsport and advertising has been fully catalogued and is available to preview on line.

In 2008 BP returned to its roots of broadcast programme making by releasing ‘First Oil’, a documentary by Emmy and BAFTA award-winning writer and director Nigel Williams. This acclaimed film has its roots firmly the Grierson documentary tradition and takes an objective look at the day that oil was stuck in the Middle East giving birth to the company that was later to become BP. 

In 2015, with the move of BP-TV back into BP's HQ in St. James's Square, all remaining videos and films were moved up to the BP Archive in Warwick. 

The history of the film making in BP is unique. From the beginning of its history of film production in the early century, BP went on to become one of the most successful producers of industrial films, winning more than one hundred film awards including one Oscar, four Oscar nominations and seven BAFTAs.