This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 4141).
A commercial for Co-op tea in the guise of a documentary about tea production.
The film shows how tea is grown, picked and selected in Ceylon, and how in wartime it has to be shipped by convoy. A women making a pot of tea is stopped by the commentator from adding "one for the pot" - you don't need the extra spoonful with Co-operative tea!
The Co-Operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was one of the few parts of the Labour movement to fully engage with cinema and to give sustained attention to filmmaking. Alan Burton, in his analysis of the CWS film movement, argued that it was ‘among the pioneers of the industrial film, while the Co-Operative Movement was far in advance of other Labour groups in Britain in bringing the cinema to bear in its promotional and educational activities’ (Burton, 2005, 3). Since the turn of the…
The Co-Operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was one of the few parts of the Labour movement to fully engage with cinema and to give sustained attention to filmmaking. Alan Burton, in his analysis of the CWS film movement, argued that it was ‘among the pioneers of the industrial film, while the Co-Operative Movement was far in advance of other Labour groups in Britain in bringing the cinema to bear in its promotional and educational activities’ (Burton, 2005, 3). Since the turn of the century the CWS had commissioned actualities and arranged film shows, and during the 1930s and 1940s it continued to commission productions – for example from Publicity Films Limited – that blended narrative and factual sequences. By 1937 a newly formed CWS film unit was also making films, and in 1941 it was commissioned by the Government to produce official films to aid the war effort (Burton, 2005, 164, 171).
Eastern Rose was intended as a promotional film for Co-op tea and played in commercial cinemas. Alan Burton explained that this was not particularly unusual: ‘Of the seven CWS films produced in 1943, six were released theatrically into cinemas, and four screened non-theatrically by Ministry of Information roadshows’. In briefly discussing Eastern Rose, he also notes its similarities with the earlier Rose of the Orient (1935), from which some of its footage comes (Burton, 1997, 56).
Rose of the Orient was produced by Publicity Films Limited and was released in 1935 in two versions. The lengthier 40-minute documentary (dated to 1931) combined the industrial material with a historical narrative and was distributed to public cinemas, while the shorter 6-minute version was ‘deemed more suitable for the transient audiences of the English and Scottish CWS Tea Demonstration Van, which came into commission during the summer months of 1935’ (Burton, 2005, 118). The film was described as the biggest project yet undertaken by the Society and extended the subject of The Cup that Cheers (1928) by adding footage filmed at the plantations in Ceylon. In reviewing Rose of the Orient, the trade journal The Commercial Film wrote that it represented ‘an admirable example of a short industrial film, calculated to stimulate the interest of Co-op tea drinkers in the source of supply’ (cited in Burton, 1997, 24). While similarly motivated, Eastern Rose updated this story within the context of the war, now including wartime convoy scenes. Footage from Rose of the Orient also featured in the CWS’s 1941 film, Tea is Served, while sequences from the Ceylon tea plantations also appeared in Food From the Empire (1940), which was directed by Theodore Thumwood (one of the cameramen on Rose of the Orient). These CWS films shared with Eastern Rose this message of imperial partnership, of self-rationing – ‘save that one for the pot’ – while relating the sequences of overseas industry and plantations back to the British housewife.
In 1882, the CWS had joined the Scottish Co-operative Workers Society (SCWS) in a tea department that ‘was to become one of the world’s greatest tea dealers’. Tea growing estates were bought in Ceylon in 1902, and added to in 1913, before expanding into southern India in 1916. By 1939, the English and Scottish Joint CWS operated 29,841 acres in India and 5,408 acres in Ceylon, while annual tea sales now amounted to £7.5 million (Burton, 1997, 24). In Ceylon, there was a ‘drive’ during the War for co-operative stores (of which there were 52 all on estates by 1942) to ‘act as agents of the State to distribute available foodstuff’, while in England, the movement’s share of the market was increasing (Co-Operative Federation of Ceylon, 1962). By the start of the War, the British Co-operative movement had 8.5 million members and when rationing was introduced, 28% of the entire population registered with the Co-op for their supplies. There were 1,100 societies controlling 24,000 shops and they captured around 20% of the market in tea (Birchall, 1994, 136, 137).
As a documentary produced on the tea plantations of Ceylon, Eastern Rose invites comparisons with the more famous and illustrious example from the British documentary movement, Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934). While Song of Ceylon, sponsored by the EMB and Ceylon Tea Board, offers a poetic, impressionistic and, in particular in its use of sound, experimental representation of the tea plantations of Ceylon, Eastern Rose sits more traditionally…
As a documentary produced on the tea plantations of Ceylon, Eastern Rose invites comparisons with the more famous and illustrious example from the British documentary movement, Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934). While Song of Ceylon, sponsored by the EMB and Ceylon Tea Board, offers a poetic, impressionistic and, in particular in its use of sound, experimental representation of the tea plantations of Ceylon, Eastern Rose sits more traditionally within the conventions of the sponsored industrial documentary. The film does provide some nicely filmed, romanticised images of the plantations – ‘the rich green of its tea plantations are broken by the pure white of the Eastern Rose, the blossom of the bush whose leaves provide us with tea’ – but also follows a clear linear narrative. Opening with a map locating Ceylon (‘for centuries known as the Jewel of India’), the film shows the different stages of tea production until finally showing the tea within a British household.
As an advertising film aimed at British audiences, Eastern Rose constantly connects its images of Ceylon to Britain. The workers on the plantations ‘provide us with tea’ and ‘provide the homes of the world with their favourite beverage’, while the film’s conclusion, in keeping with many wartime documentaries, directly identifies with the British housewife. In its depiction of Ceylon, the film presents the workers as ‘skilled’ and ‘experts’ and shows the merging of modern technology – for example, in the overhead cable – and the continuing local traditions. It further highlights the welfare opportunities provided for the workers’ families at the village schools. By 1945 there were 55 school co-operatives in Ceylon with 5,493 members, and the commentator states that the children at these schools ‘are fitted to become more knowledgeable citizens of the future world’.
Eastern Rose differs from many of the industrial documentaries of the 1930s (such as Rose of the Orient) in its more direct advertising strategy – ‘Yes try Co-operative tea available only at Co-operative stores’ – and, in particular, in presenting the industrial documentary within the context of the War. After the initial sequences of Ceylon, the tone of the commentary shifts, as the film highlights the dangers and difficulties of transporting food supplies. ‘But today, before that tea reaches these shores, it has to journey over thousands of miles of war-infested sea’, the commentator explains. ‘The enemy waits to strike so the tea ships must be convoyed and protected. The Merchant seamen will bring us our tea and the Navy which escorts them face constant danger’. The film aligns Co-op tea with the war effort, while further suggesting that its extra strength makes it particularly appealing at a time of rationing and reduced supplies (‘Good quality tea does not need one for the pot’). In highlighting the difficulties of food distribution, the film also emphasises once more the importance of imperial collaboration during the War.
Tom Rice (September 2009)
Birchall, Johnston, Co-Op: The People’s Business (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).
Burton, Alan, The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film, 1890s-1960s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
Burton, Alan, The British Co-Operative Movement Film Catalogue (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997).
Co-Operative Federation (Ceylon), 50 Years of Co-Operatives in Ceylon, 1912-1962 (1962).