11/05/2012 18:17 BST | Updated 11/07/2012 06:12 BST

This Sceptred Isle

The British Council is releasing over 120 films from our archive dating back to 1934. In the British Council's early years, we were an enthusiastic commissioner and distributor of documentaries, designed to showcase Britain to the outside world and promote democratic values whilst fascism was spreading across Europe.

The films were shown at British embassies and consulates to young people across the world; strengthening British influence as a counterpoint to the sinister activities of other European states exercising international relations through rearmament, marching songs and aggressive declarations. Viewed now, the films are also poignant reminders of how much England has changed in the span of one lifetime; a sepia tinted view of our cultural, industrial and political heritage.

What would the intended audience have made of Cricket (1948) an 18 minute film of England v Australia at Lords, narrated by John Arlott and Ralph Richardson?

In an effort to extol the axiom that anything but sportsmanship is 'just not cricket' the film introduces the viewer "to a very revered patch of English turf, plumb in line with the Pavilion" and guides us through the game with footage of Bradman, Compton, Hutton, and Dexter, as well as a spin-bowling master-class from Bert Rhodes. Beautifully shot, the film is an incredible tribute to a game that "began in quiet places; and lives on in quiet places, deep in the hearts of those who love it."

How confusing must Border Weave - a film shot in glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff (of Powell and Pressburger fame) - lovingly documenting how the industrialised manufacture of Harris Tweed have been to schoolchildren in the Sahara or students in Delhi?

Indeed, feedback at the time suggests the films were not necessarily enthusiastically received; the British Council officer in Cyprus wrote to inform headquarters that, "Films of this type do more harm than good - presenting England as a utopia where maternity homes, model schools, specialized training, employment under ideal conditions are within everyone's reach. Why not show food queues, the tiny meat and fat rations, housing shortage and other uncomfortable facts."

And how much 'this sceptred isle' has changed: listen to the lilting commentary of Raymond Glendenning as he narrates The Great Game, a film that follows well-known teams to the 1945 Football League War Cup Finals at Wembley and Stamford Bridge, attended by King George VI. Compare it with the bombast of the modern Premier League where every Sabbath is 'Super Sunday'.

Or watch seconds of London River, an elegiac documentary of the passage of a cargo ship from the Docks of East London to the Houses of Parliament, to be reminded of the rapid industrialisation of our capital. And how different is the structure and purpose of the National Health Service, proudly displayed in Hospital School, a moving account of the care, treatment, and education given to children with long-term illnesses at Lord Mayor Treloar Cripples Hospital in 1945.

The digitisation of the British Council Film Collection, made possible thanks to funding from Google, will allow a whole new generation to view our history through this unique lens, and its presentation as downloadable files allows those viewers to actively 'play' with the films. The films present a unilateral Britain, a singular monoculture; a stable heterogeneous society singing from the same hymn sheet.

They are propaganda. The idea of basking on the terrace at Lords in 1948, sipping warm ale with the great and the good is seductive - but I am proud that today the British Council is a much more inclusive organisation; if I dare use the words (often scoffed at by the anti-pc brigade), I am proud of the UK's multiculturalism. Nowadays, when the Britain Council engages culturally overseas, we do it in the spirit of mutual benefit and exploration. We are there because we are wanted.

For example, Out of Britain, the first ever the first ever contemporary British art exhibition to be shown in Saudi Arabia opened last week at the National Museum in Riyadh. So far so what? But the pictures - ranging from the smoke-belching chimneys of the Black Country by Edward Wadsworth, to a new installation by Conrad Shawcross that mounts video projections onto the gunwales of a rowboat to trace a journey through the Lea Valley - have been selected by curators from the National Museum in Riyadh.

The exhibition is supported by a full programme of public lectures, workshops for artist and teachers as well as a nationwide online art competition. The real power of cultural relations is in evoking rather than projecting values.

Nor, in my view, is cultural relations 'soft power'. There is nothing 'soft' about the UK's arts and creative industries, two of our biggest economic assets. Neither is there anything soft about our continuing work through the recent unrest in the Arab world and the British Council remaining on the ground during the last decade in Burma, Iraq and Afghanistan where we reopened within days after our Kabul office was attacked by the Taliban last year.

Nor is it about "power": rather it's about influence and trust in the long term. We are a pioneering organisation with a long history. Our Film Collection allows us to reflect on that. But the UK must remember that in order to continue to be an active and effective member of the international community there is no substitute for the trust built by cultural relations.