This film is part of Free

Double Thread

The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds (1940s-style) at a nursery in Guildford.

Documentary 1943 33 mins


This wartime documentary is really rather special - think of a 1940s precursor to Channel 4's The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds. Filmed at a Guildford nursery school, it portrays a typical day for infants in nursery daycare. In 1943, a small crew spending hours in the company of children with a bulky, whirring 35mm film camera faced a far more daunting task than a production team filming kids today using fixed-rig digital cameras. The results are almost endlessly fascinating.

The film was produced within the Rank empire (note the opening gong), reflecting J Arthur Rank's Christian philanthropic interests: the religious film organisation he supported paid for the film as a piece of 'free' sponsorship on behalf of the Nursery Schools Association. Director Mary Field was one of Britain's most successful female filmmakers, an experienced maker of natural history and schools films who later headed the Children's Film Foundation. Field's background as an educationalist put her in good stead for this project. The 'double thread' of the title is the complementary influence of parenting and daycare. Book-end scenes representing home life seem to have been staged in a studio, making the bulk of the film, shot on location in a more observational style, all the more impressive. Naturally it's a dated and idealised vision of childhood, playing out in an impossibly orderly environment (this is leafy Surrey after all...) beneath a slightly stiff narration. But it still feels broadly humane and progressive over seventy years later.