This film is held by the BFI (ID: 18140).


A day in the life of a 'typical' English family. Intended for African distribution.

After an opening shot of a policeman walking down a suburban street, we are introduced to a woman inside a house. She wakes up her son, who immediately goes to the bathroom to wash. The boy wakes up his sister, then returns to his room and puts on his school uniform. The boy goes downstairs for breakfast, and sits with his father. The father takes his newspaper and briefcase and kisses his wife, before leaving the house and walking to the bus stop where he catches a bus heading to Welling. The father, a carpenter, appears at a building site where a house is being constructed. Meanwhile his wife and three children sit at the breakfast table, and the two older children then take their school bags and leave. At the school, children play in the playground before lining up to go indoors. The mother takes her youngest son out in his pram as she goes shopping - buying fruit and cheese. On returning home she peels potatoes.

The children return - crossing the road and watching a postman empty the post box - to eat lunch, while their father unpacks a sandwich on the site. The mother clears away their meal, before the children head back to school. She tidies up the house and dusts, before the children return again. The children go to the park, where the boy plays football, while his sister dresses a doll with her friends. Their father leaves work and gets a bus heading for Lewisham. He arrives home and they all sit down to eat once more and drink tea - including the toddler. After the mother clears the table away, she begins the washing up with her daughter, while her son does his homework. The mother takes her youngest son for his bath - he cries throughout - before putting him in his cot. The mother finally sits down with her family and knits with her daughter while her husband smokes a pipe and reads his paper. The father checks his son's homework before they work together on a model aeroplane Spitfire kit. The daughter falls asleep and is taken up to bed by her mother. The film finishes after the mother draws the curtains and turns out the light.



In October 1939, William Sellers, the head of the newly formed Colonial Film Unit (CFU), began work on the company’s first film, Mr English at Home (Smyth, 1986, 5). Work at Soho Square was held up when the GPO Unit, which had lent technicians to the CFU, moved to Pinewood, but Sellers recruited personnel including George Pearson as head of production and Fred Gamage – recently departed from the GPO Film Unit and credited here as Faulder Gamage – as a cameraman. Production was completed in 1940 (Pearson, 1957, 202).

Rosaleen Smyth noted that Mr English at Home ‘aroused a good deal of controversy’. Denounced by members of the Film Division at the MOI and by the Educational Advisory Committee at the Colonial Office, the film nevertheless proved enormously popular on the mobile cinema circuit in Africa (Smyth, 1988, 289). A report from East Africa explained that ‘officials who had viewed the film expected it to be a dreadful flop, but not at all! It can only be described as a striking success’ (Sellers, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 831).

Rosaleen Smyth argued that the film ‘is both an instructional film and a piece of propaganda’, belonging to the ‘projection of England genre’, which she described as a ‘quintessentially British style of propaganda… based on the assumption of the superiority of the British way of life’. This propaganda represented ‘the celebration of one’s virtues rather than the denunciation of the enemy’s vices’. Smyth also noted the influences of the GPO Film Unit – which initially worked alongside the CFU in Soho – in the film’s focus on the English working man (Smyth, 1988, 288).

Reports from screenings in Africa noted the popularity of Mr English at Home. For example, the results of a questionnaire sent out to mobile cinema operators throughout Africa in 1943 revealed that Mr English was one of the most popular films in Kenya, Nigeria and the Gold Coast, where ‘amongst literate audiences, Mr English at Home has caused more interest and comment than any other’ (CO 875/10/11). Reports also noted the influence of the film on local audiences. A British man, writing in Colonial Cinema magazine in 1945, explained that ‘I have just seen a film of the everyday life of an English working-class family projected, with running commentary in a Gold Coast vernacular, for African teachers in Accra’. The purpose of the film, he suggested, was to bring ‘an English family to West Africa’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1945, 47). The writer noted the remarks of the African teachers at the end of the film – ‘Do many English women have to work as hard as that?’, ‘Do they not have servants?’ – while a Colonial Films Officer further remarked that to many Africans it came as a revelation that not all English households had a ‘complement of servants’. An African viewer, quoted in Colonial Cinema, praised Mr English’s ‘high sense of responsibilities’ and described his wife as ‘a true specimen of a conscientious and dutiful helpmate’ (Smyth, 1986, 6). William Sellers emphasised the role of Mr English at Home in challenging popular perceptions of English life. ‘I have been 22 years in West Africa’ he wrote, ‘and know only too well how our way of life in this country is judged by the very artificial lives we officials and others live in the colonies’ (The Film in Colonial Development, 1948, 46). 

In assessing the appeal of the film to African audiences, a report from East Africa noted that ‘the characters are few and the scenes remain on the screen sufficiently long for Africans to appreciate their meaning’. The report described the film as ‘a lesson in the presentation of a subject to illiterate Africans through the medium of the cinema’ (Sellers, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 831). The influence of William Sellers, the head of the Colonial Film Unit, is most apparent here. In his role as a medical officer for the Nigerian Government, Sellers had made a series of health films for African audiences, and championed a specialised type of filmmaking. In a 1941 article entitled ‘Films for Primitive Peoples’ Sellers outlined the case for a different film language for African audiences. He stated that it was ‘essential… to make individual scenes much longer than is usually considered necessary, in order to enable illiterate Africans to analyse the scenes in detail’. ’Reverse shots and other violent changes in camera angle are very confusing to the minds of illiterate people’, while Sellers also emphasised the difficulties of using close-ups and panning shots – ‘show him a vertical pan and he will tell you he saw the buildings sink into the ground’ (Sellers, Documentary News Letter, September 1941, 173). James Burns argued that ‘by 1945, the Sellers style had established a kind of orthodoxy among colonial filmmakers throughout the Empire’ (Burns, 2002, 52).



As a film produced for African audiences, Mr English at Home offers a valuable insight for cultural historians into both the perceived filmic requirements and the representation of Britain – and specifically England – that the Colonial Film Unit wished to project to African audiences.

Stylistically, the film largely follows the earlier films and writing of William Sellers in using a ‘specialised’ type of filmmaking for African audiences. The scenes are extremely long – the boy is shown washing his face, brushing his teeth and getting dressed in real time, with the camera fixed throughout. The camera depicts each member leaving and arriving back at the house from the same spot and the editing across scenes harks backs to the earliest days of narrative film ­– for example showing the father getting on and off the bus and leaving one scene before rejoining the next. As with all early CFU productions the film is silent. This may suggest a reliance on a purely visual storytelling, but this is not entirely accurate as touring CFU film shows were often accompanied by a local commentator.

In its representation of England, Mr English at Home focuses on traditional signifiers of English identity – the local school, the policeman in the opening shot, the postman, shopkeepers, drinking tea – and places enormous emphasis on cleanliness, with the children spending large chunks of the film washing. The film also promotes traditional, clearly defined gender roles. For example, the boy plays football in the park, while the girl plays with her doll. Father and son sit at the table building a model aeroplane, while mother and daughter knit. In this scene, the framing also prioritises the position of the men, as they are framed centrally, while the women are positioned in the corner – and at a lower level – sewing. Indeed the film’s title further emphasises the role of Mr English, even though the film’s protagonist is in many respects his wife. In 1948, the Colonial Film Unit did plan to make a film entitled ‘Mrs English the Homemaker’, but there is no evidence that this was ever produced (CO 875/26/1).

Although the film highlights the daily routine of a ‘typical’ English family, significantly this ‘typical’ English family is ‘lower-middle class’, with the central role model an artisan. Certainly, as the reports suggest, this serves in part to challenge popular perceptions of English life among African audiences, but it also ensures that the African viewers can more easily relate to the family – and by extension the image of England – depicted on screen. This is particularly important in the context of the war. Rosaleen Smyth suggested that as there is no indication of war at any point within Mr English at Home, it might appear ‘a curious choice for the first film of a unit which had been set up for the specific purpose of making war propaganda films’ (Smyth, 1988, 288). However, this image of a hardworking family presents a world and ideals that the African viewers can feel empathy, rather than jealousy, towards and into which they can project themselves. An African viewer, on seeing the film, noted the ‘comfortable living’ Mr English earned as a carpenter, concluding that ‘technical education is valued and encouraged in the civilised world’ (Smyth, 1986, 6). In this respect, the film can also be seen as aspirational, while the film’s representation of a hard working, lower-middle class family is essential in presenting an image of the country that the African viewers are more likely to want to fight for.

Tom Rice (July 2008)


Works Cited

British Film Institute, The Film In Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (1948).

Burns, J. M., Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Ohio: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2002).

‘Kumasi Kumbungu and John English’, Colonial Cinema, June 1945, 46-48.

‘Colonial Film Unit: Distribution and Technical Questions: Replies to Questionnaire on Films Shown’, accessed at the National Archives, CO 875/10/11.

Pearson, George, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Filmmaker (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957).

‘Provisional Film Programme, 1948/49’, accessed at the National Archives, CO 875/26/1.

Sellers, William, ‘Films For Primitive People’, Documentary News Letter (September 1941), 173-174.

Sellers, William, ‘Making Films in and for the Colonies’, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 829-837.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The British Colonial Film Unit and sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8 (1988), 285-298.



  • MISTER ENGLISH AT HOME (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
27 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
HALES, Gordon
SELLERS, William
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit





Production Organisations