From an Edwardian tram ride to a heart-rending look at life in Belfast during the Troubles, the British Film Institute (BFI) has revealed the most popular glimpses of historic Britain in its archive collections.


The BFI unveiled the ‘Top 10 Most Watched Films You Have Never Heard Of’ to celebrate 25 years of National Lottery funding – with an appearance from comedian Paul Merton.

Merton, who traced his own family history on Who Do You Think You Are? this year, presented a short video offering his own unique commentary on Britain on Film's 10 most popular film clips.

“They are incredible and are a wonderful way to get lost in our history and heritage for an hour, or even a day,” he said.

BFI Player’s free archive film service lets viewers stream thousands of historic films capturing ordinary life in Britain over the past 120 years.

Since the website launched in 2015, it has attracted 75 million views.

The ten most popular clips feature cities including London, Belfast, Aberdeen and Nottingham, and date from the dawn of the moving image to the 1960s and 70s.

The film is part of the wider National Lottery 25th Anniversary celebrations.

Since the first draw in 1994, the National Lottery has invested over £933 million in its partnership with the BFI, funding almost 23,000 projects including hit films such as Billy Elliot, The King’s Speech and I, Daniel Blake.

The BFI has now launched the next phase of Britain on Film, with BFI Contribute, a crowdsourcing platform for members of the public to identify the streets and locations seen in archive films.

The 10 most watched films on Britain on Film are:
1. Sunshine in Soho (2,548,336 views to date)

Sunshine-in-Soho_1956_Melodie Hyams_BFI_Britain on Film

Melodie Hyams 1956/BFI, Britain on Film

1950s Soho beats with far more energy than its 21st century counterpart in this vivid time capsule.
2. Christmas in Belfast (1,984,223 views to date)

1977 © Crown Copyright/BFI, Britain on Film

Christmas in Belfast at the height of 'The Troubles' where traditional holiday activities and images are punctuated by reminders that not all is as it should be.

3. Tram Rides through Nottingham (505,430 views to date)

Tram rides in Nottingham_1902_BFI_Britain on Film

1902 / BFI, Britain on Film

Pioneering filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon conduct an evocative ride through Edwardian Nottingham, following the same route as today's Nottingham Express Transit tramway.

4. Aberdeen (401,351 views to date)

1970, National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive, Britain on Film

Explore the growth of Scotland’s oil capital, from small ancient burgh to bustling metropolis in this lively and colourful educational documentary produced for the 'Cities of Scotland' series.

5. Chichester Tour (376,961 views to date)

1962, Screen Archive South East, Britain on Film

A fascinating amateur film showing the cathedral city of Chichester before the arrival of its ring road and the pedestrianisation of its Roman streets featuring a variety of shopfronts, some of which are still trading in exactly the same location.

6. Changing Face of Camberwell (347,375 views to date)

1963, London Borough of Southwark / BFI, Britain on Film

Looking back at Camberwell's Victorian history, and forward to the future, this film captures the impact of changing architecture on local residents and what was lost.

7. Day in Liverpool (225,649 views to date)

Day in Liverpool 1_1929_BFI_Britain on Film

1929, BFI, Britain on Film

Metropolis meets Merseyside, as this city-symphony inspired early travelogue portrays a day in the life of a city thriving with modernity.
8. Portsmouth's Charlotte Street Market (179,718 views to date)

1977, Wessex Film & Sound Archive, Britain on Film

An affectionate snapshot showcasing the colourful bustle of Portsmouth's oldest street market– where independent traders and shoppers mix under the brooding presence of the infamous Tricorn Centre, demolished in March 2004 after being voted 'Britain's Most Hated Building'.

9. Belfast - No Way Out (171,436 views to date)

1970, Fremantlemedia Ltd/BFI, Britain on Film

What was life really like in 1970s Belfast? The current affairs magazine show This Week addresses social problems, talking to people in poverty struggling to cope.

10. Milton Keynes and the area (156,350 views to date)

1968/ UEA’s East Anglian Film Archive, Britain on Film

Anglia TV footage of the pre-existing towns and pretty North Bucks hamlets newly incorporated into the New Town Development of Milton Keynes.


Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine