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Betty beats the Nazis: how war propaganda launched a golden age of British film

A scene from The Gentle Sex (1943)
A scene from The Gentle Sex (1943)

A new movie, Their Finest, looks back at the role British films played in the war effort. But what are the true stories behind it? 

The Second World War ushered in a new golden age in British cinema, launching the careers of great directors such as David Lean and Carol Reed. But in 1939, the government almost killed off our film industry completely.

When war first broke out, they feared popular public venues could become bombing targets, and so in September 1939 decided to close every theatre and picturehouse. It was a move George Bernard Shaw called “a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity”. With nowhere else to go, people drank the pubs dry and started brawling in the streets.

The ban was called off after a few weeks, and when the studios and cinemas reopened the government was keen to exploit them. With a weekly audience of 30 million, the cinema was the perfect tool to inform and influence...

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