BFI Preserves Valued Video Arts Comedy Training Short Films

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John Cleese

Corporate training videos featuring comedians are to be preserved by the British Film Institute. Anyone who recalls being a delegate at a corporate conference in the late seventies or sitting in a bland training room in the eighties, will probably remember being exposed to at least one of John Cleese’s Video Arts training films. Such videos were popular with audiences and managers. The material dealt with topics including sales, leadership, customer service and workplace skills.

The company used humour in its videos in order to make learning points more memorable. John Cleese said ‘People learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored’. However not all training managers agreed. Eddie Turpin Sales Director of EMP believed the humour got in the way of the core message. ‘People would be laughing so much, the actual key points in the video were lost on them.’

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Video Arts, was set up in 1972 by John Cleese and Sir Antony Jay (co-writer ‘Yes Minister’ & ‘Yes, Prime Minster’). The instructional films featured some of the UK’s best known comic actors of the last 40 years. Cleese also appeared in many of the productions. As well as sourcing some of the country’s top comedy talent. Including Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and Bernard Cribbins. Later in the eighties and nineties. Rik Mayall, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Each brought in to make new films as well as updated versions of the most popular original titles.

The company grew rapidly in the early eighties partly due to the emergence of Betamax video tape. This new format made professional production costs lower. The output of training videos expanded. This was the era of the corporate video. Eventually, Cleese sold the company for £43million in 1989. He continued to appear in their productions. Martin Addison, chief executive officer of Video Arts, said: “Our library charts the changes that have taken place in the workplace and documents our unique approach of using humour to change behaviours at work’. Such history and work place issues captured on film has been seen by the British Film Institute as a filmed record of the ever changing face of the office. BFI senior curator Patrick Russell said: “Video Arts is an important part of the art and history of film-making that has had a real impact in the workplace.”


The Video Arts catalogue of training films were seen as a ‘must have’ part of learning by many corporate trainers, and their popularity made them expensive. Companies could buy them outright or rent over a period of time, often costing thousands of pounds. Hence some were illegally boot legged among managers, old fashion copied video tapes were past under desks like some dodgy porn film.

Video Arts was again sold in 2007 to Tinopolis a Welsh independent TV company with a sports (Sunset & Vine) and drama division. The video company operates today with a catalogue of training expanding to e-learning still with humour at its heart and using modern day comedians and performers such as Ricky Gervais, Rob Brydon, Olivia Colman, Sally Phillips, Robert Lindsey and Kevin Bishop in some of its films.


To mark the entry of the collection in the BFI National Archive two key titles will be available from next month to view for free on the BFI’s VOD platform BFI Player: the 1974 film ‘Manhunt’ featuring John Cleese as three inept managers who can’t run a selection interview; and a 2016 short from the Leadership Essentials library called ‘Control Freakery’ which features Robert Webb and Sally Phillips.


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