Difference between revisions of "A Cruel Kindness"

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|Titre=A Cruel Kindness
|Année de production=1967
|Année de production=1967
|Année de diffusion=1968
|Année de diffusion=1968

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A Cruel Kindness

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Title A Cruel Kindness
Year of production 1967
Country of production Grande-Bretagne
Director(s) Winifred Holmes
Duration 13 minutes
Format Parlant - Couleur - 16 mm
Original language(s) English
Subtitles and transcription EnglishFrench
Production companies Oswald Skilbeck
Commissioning body British Medical AssociationBritish Life Assurance Trust for Health Education
Archive holder(s) Wellcome Collection
Warning: this record has not been reviewed yet and may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Main credits


British Medical Association and British Life Assurance Trust for Health Education



Written and Directed by WINIFRED HOLMES


British Medical Association and British Life Assurance Trust for Health Education



Written and Directed by WINIFRED HOLMES


Medical themes


Causes et prévention du surpoids chez les pré-adolescents.

Causes and prevention of obesity in pre-adolescent children.

Main genre



With the message that it is a cruel kindness to feed your child too much, this film presents three children, who are heavy for their age, the difficulties they may encounter as they enter adolescence and the guidance provided by a paediatrician following a school medical exam. The film focuses on the role of the mother in properly feeding their children. (Summary on the Wellcome Library database: An extremely enjoyable film, which contains excellent footage of late 1960's home life, attitudes to food and meal times, addressing obesity in children. A female GP presents three case studies of children who are overweight most likely due to over feeding on the part of the parents, what the GP calls a ‘cruel kindness’.)


Cruel Kindness was produced just as concerns with weight and obesity were shifting from an undesirable state for personal happiness to one of cardiovascular health. In the late 1950s, obesity was largely portrayed as causing social difficulties. From the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, obesity was associated with cardiovascular disease. In this film, it is the onset of adult obesity in childhood that is being addressed. The film was likely part of a campaign by the British Medical Association, and was accompanied by the 23-page booklet Overweight children: victims of a cruel kindness (London: British Medical Association, 1968).

This slightly pre-dates ‘The Causes of Obesity’ (1977) in the Uptodate series originally broadcast on Channel 7 of the ILEA closed-circuit television network, in which Dr W. P. T. James lectures on obesity. He defines how obesity should be measured using weight for height criteria, acknowledging that statistically it often begins in childhood, such that social factors affecting its onset as well as demographic features and studies into metabolism should be undertaken. Reflecting the view taken by the medical profession, that it is the parents at the heart of obesity in children, James comments judgementally about people’s body types and personality traits; “fatties and thinnies” and personification as “gluttony and sloth”. He mentions “nutritionally inappropriate meals”. (See: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b17259204)

Saccharin, a sweetener that became very popular in the 1960s as doctors prescribed it to patients with diabetes or to patients for weight-loss, is promoted in the film. This chemical substance was favoured by diabetics because it is much more sweet than ordinary sugar (sucrose) but contains no calories. It was discovered in the 1870s and began to be used during the WWII when sugar was rationed. Saccharin was criticized since its introduction on the market, but scientific studies have multiplied from the 1970s accusing this synthetic sweetener to be responsible for cancers and diabetes. If some countries decided to ban saccharin, like Canada, its use as sweetener is approved in many others as Great-Britain. However, its safety is still controversial in the scientific community. The film clearly promotes here the use of sweeteners to reduce overweight and plays so on knowledge and practices of the time.

It may also be noted that milk is the only food to be present in three food groups. Milk had been promoted as a perfect food since the late 1930s. This fits into a wider history of dairy promotion and of food guides.

Structuring elements of the film

  • Reporting footage  : No.
  • Set footage  : No.
  • Archival footage  : No.
  • Animated sequences  : Yes.
  • Intertitles  : No.
  • Host  : No.
  • Voice-over  : Yes.
  • Interview  : No.
  • Music and sound effects : Yes.
  • Images featured in other films : No.

How does the film direct the viewer’s attention?

This film, in the aim of informing parents about the risks of overeating, stages the lives of three children aged 10-11, who are all identified as overweight. The scenes of their lives are commented by a voiceover, a doctor or paediatrician who meets two of them. Although the commentary is provided by the doctor, the scenes reveal much more than what a doctor would see or know – the food eaten at the dinner table, as well as the attitudes with which they are served. The commentary is rather judgemental, playing on stereotypes, but equally adds an informative dimension as it conveys the “right” behaviour and where there is room for improvement or where a shift in perspective is needed. These staged scenes of family life are interspersed with additional footage to add a further visual dimension to certain explanations; such as the animation explaining the different food groups and defining balanced meals or the babies and how they are fed and weighed. We are also shown the consultation and the spectator learns what to expect when going to see the doctor. A number of popular beliefs are debunked here, for example obesity being a metabolic disorder. Although dysfunctional gland was one possible cause of obesity and had been recognised in the late 19th century (studies by Bouchard in the 1870s identified endogenous causes due to metabolic disorders and exogenous causes due to overfeeding), this was not common in the 1960s. The film employs different registers to reach the spectator, addressing prejudices and dangers regarding the overeating in children. There are three children and three sets of parents whom the spectator might identify with. They appear to medical concerns, but also to the social difficulties of being obese, notably for girls and women. The film ends with a serious, talking head; the doctor, as a person of authority, stating the severity of the situation and drawing attention to the responsibility of parents, especially of the mother in child obesity.

How are health and medicine portrayed?

The medical doctor is the narrator of the film and it is she that brings the spectator to understand the role of food and nutrition in overall health. We visit her office along with Jimmy and his mother to witness the medical examination and how the doctor evaluates weight. We smile with them as the doctor’s advice on dieting is met with positive results, weight-loss. The spectator is impressed with the role of the medical doctor in weight-loss, the role of nutrition in good health and the ability of the doctor, and perhaps medical sphere more broadly, to grant perspective and grace to those who heed its advice. The mother and son who do not eat messily and loudly, there is attention on how they walk (nearly waddling) and out of breath. This is opposed to the smiling, even beaming, family who restrict their diet and hold their heads an air of refinement.

Broadcasting and reception

Where is the film screened?


Presentations and events associated with the film

This film was likely part of a larger campaign, as attested by the publication on 1 November 1968 of a 23-page brochure titled Overweight Children: Victims of a Cruel Kindness by Family Doctor Publications Ltd. in Poole, United Kingdom for the British Medical Association.


It can be deduced that this film targetted parents, especially mothers.

Local, national, or international audience



00:00-01:35 In the schoolyard

The opening scene resonates with the sound of laughter and children run into the schoolyard, where they play before heading home. From a wide shot of the school yard, the camera zooms in on two children. The voiceover introduces the two boys, who are playing with a basketball. “On the right, Ronnie Brown, age 10½, nearly 9 stone. On the left, Jimmy Grant, same age, much the same weight.” The view shifts to a group of girls laughing and pointing, in front of them a girl walks alone: “In the front, Valerie Smith, age 11, 7 stone 12.” The scene shifts, assumedly to the walk home, Ronnie and Jimmy are with other children that crowd around an ice cream truck. Valerie walks out of a sweet shop with a paper bag in her hand. We see the stares of older women, as she walks by. We return to Ronnie, now alone, as he messily devours an ice cream cone in front of the truck.

01:35-03:22 A good filling meal for the Brown family
We then see Ronnie in a close up, again with food around his mouth, now at the table at home with his family. The voiceover “Fatness begins at home.” The camera zooms back and we see the family members, his mother and father and younger sister. The table is spread with a rich flaky meat pie, bread and cakes. The voiceover continues to describe what Mrs Brown, with the best of intentions has prepared, “a good filling meal for her family” and then rhetorically asks, “it’s filling, but is it good for them?” We then witness the scene as Mrs Brown encourages them to all have more, with the voiceover commenting their habits and lifestyle, in a somewhat judgemental tone. Mr Brown is described as “also very much overweight. Works at a desk, doesn’t take exercise, poor expectation of life.” Ronnie sits down in front of the television with a soda, the voiceover says “pity he hasn’t heard of things like saccharin”, the artificial sweetener. We hear a crowd cheering as swimmers race in a competition on the television. Mr and Mrs Brown are described as “breathless”, and then we see Mrs Brown scold and strike her daughter and then apologize with a sweetie .As the camera frames the television screen, we are struck by the swimmers’ physical activity that is in stark contrast to Ronnie’s unhurried movements. With the words, “If only Mrs Brown knew more about food", the voiceover makes a shift from observing their family life, to instructing us, the spectator, on what she doesn’t know.

03:23-04:08 A balanced meal
Animated sequence as an interlude to explain healthy eating. A white plate appears on a blue background, three coloured circles represent three kinds of food: orange for protein, blue for carbohydrate and yellow for fat, as if they exemplified the three parts of a meal. The explanation goes one step further as a number of examples of each category are illustrated. Eggs, milk, cheese, meat, fish: “Protein for growth and to replace old tissues.” Milk, bread, pasta, cakes: “Carbohydrate for energy.” Milk, cheese, butter, margarine: “Fat for warmth and as a further source for energy.” Then a fourth category is added: vitamins, which are represented by a green circle, with examples oranges, lettuce, tomatoes. This together makes up “a balanced meal.”

04:09-04:35 Fatness runs in families
We then return to the dinner scene in the Brown household. Mrs Brown nibbles on a jaffa cake as she begins to clear away the dishes and Mr Brown reads the newspaper. The voiceover gives us some background explanation, “Mrs Brown thinks that fatness runs in families and can’t be helped.”

04:36-05:39 Unhealthy practices
Six scenes of six mothers and babies as an interlude to illustrate the way that good intentions can lead to unhealthy practices. First we see the profile of a woman breastfeeding a baby. The voiceover explains “The trouble often starts as a baby. Food is our joy and Mother’s arms our refuge, so we identify eating with pleasure and security to our cost later on.” The scene shifts to another woman and another baby, this time weighing a sitting baby in a scale in what appears to be a medical office. The commentary explains that we rationalise that a baby gaining weight is proof of successfully giving it what it needs, concluding “a plump one doesn’t thrive any better than a lean one.” The scene shifts yet again to a baby sitting at the table in a kitchen, crying as a woman tries to feed it with a spoon. Although the baby turns it head away and pushes the spoon repeatedly, the woman manages to get a spoonful in. The voiceover explains that some mothers equate food with love. And then a fourth baby, with a woman preparing a baby bottle and adding an extra spoonful or two of sugar. A fifth scene shows a baby in a pram in the sun with a large orange ice lolly in its fingers, the voiceover suggesting it is “to keep baby quiet.” The last scene shows a woman walking across a park with a toddler, a shopping bag and a pushchair. She stops and puts the toddler in the pushchair, “mothers in a hurry can cut down on baby’s exercise.”

05:40-06:28 The Smith home
The camera returns to main storyline and the children introduced in the beginning. We follow Valerie, who comes from a broken home, as she arrives home and unlocks the door. We understand that she lives alone with her mother. A close-up of a framed black and white photo of a man, presumably her father, is on her bedside table, “when he left home for good, she began eating chocolate to console herself. Now she can hardly leave the stuff alone.” We see her sit on the bed and take a candy bar from the bag from the sweet shop and open it as she opens a book. Her mother walks in, putting on her kid gloves, with her handbag on her arm. She tells Valerie her tea is waiting for her and mind she washes up. Disdainfully, her mother notes that she’s growing out of her dress and tells her “for pete’s sake, stop eating that chocolate.” She frowns as she gives a quick glance at the photo on the bedside table. The voiceover suggests “without help, she’ll be handicapped for life.”

06:28-06:48 What fate awaits for Valerie
An interlude of three scenes explains the difficulties a teenage girl will confront as a result of being overweight. The view of a storefront comes into focus, a sign in the shop window reads The Outsize House Limited. The voiceover describes what awaits her “she’ll have to buy outsize dresses.” The scene shifts to a party where one girl (perhaps Valerie in a few years) sits alone, while others dance: “She’ll be left on her own at dances.” With a water fountain in the background, an outdoor swimming pool in the foreground is full of activity. Teenage girls in bikinis and boys in swim trunks walk around, while one girl (again perhaps Valerie) stands fully dressed on the pool’s edge: “She’ll be too embarrassed to undress at the swimming pool.” The commentary continues as the scene returns to Mrs Brown sitting at her table (with a different dress on, assumedly a different day than the previous scene): “she’ll turn to a fat, breathless woman like Mrs Brown.”

06:48-07:41 The Grant family at the dinner table
Then the film turns to the third child introduced at the beginning, Jimmy, who is also presented sitting at the table with his family. Jimmy Grant also eats well and we see him asking for second helpings of mash and sausages. The voiceover points out that Mr Grant is slim. Mrs Grant tries to coax Tom, Jimmy’s younger brother, to eat, but he gets up without finishing. Jimmy gives his mother a paper from his pocket, then reaches for a slice of white bread and a cup of tea. His mother reads the note, from the school doctor, recommending he be examined as he was putting on too much weight. Mrs Grant responds as Jimmy looks on sheepishly, “he’s just well built”, but Mr Grant states it out, “he is fat.” We see the discussion as she thinks she hasn’t the time, while Mr Grant says they’d better go, “the doctor says so.”

07:41-11:47 A visit to the doctor
The next scene jumps forward to the doctor’s office, Jimmy in his underclothes as the doctor measures his height and weight. She uses callipers to measure the amount of fat on his arm, concluding he is 30% overweight. We find out here that the voiceover commentary we’ve been listening to is this doctor. The doctors sits at her desk with Mrs Grant to explain that Jimmy is “much too fat” and “will damage his health if he gets any fatter.” Mrs Grant asks questions, such as about his glands – addressing common beliefs and misinformation about children and obesity. She states that he’s a perfectly normal boy as we see Jimmy enter the room and stand behind his mother. He makes a face and his mother looks concerned when the doctor says he’ll have to have a diet. The camera focuses on the doctor’s face as she explains firmly that if Jimmy doesn’t stop overeating and take more exercise, he’ll become a fat man. As she says this, we see Mr Brown in a suit, walking to a staircase, out of breath, stopping as a slimmer man runs up the stairs past him. The doctor explains that the extra weight puts a strain on heart and lungs and reduces life expectancy. Mrs Grant asks if there are tablets, but no, they’d only be temporary. Mrs Grant wisely tells Jimmy no, as he pulls a sweet from his pocket.The voiceover gives another explanation, and we see Mr Brown sitting in an armchair, working on a crossword, he unbuttons his cardigan. “It is much easier to see that child doesn’t get fat, then for him to get slim when he has grown up.” The camera switches between Mrs Grant, Jimmy and the doctor, as she explains what calories are, the role of starch and sugar and protein. She holds a booklet in her hand open to a page illustrating what Jimmy should eat (10:20-10:27). Mrs Grant is also given a diet sheet and the doctor escorts them out of the office. Smiling, Mrs Grant appreciates the lesson and wishes “she’d known about this years ago.” As we see the clinic from the outside, Mrs Brown and Ronnie walk to the door as the Grants walk out. They stop to chat as Ronnie munches on crisps.In the scenes at the doctor’s office, the Brown family members are used as counterexamples to the doctor’s recommendations, the ominous result if the orders aren’t heeded to.

11:06-11:15 The Grant's heed the lesson
Mrs Grant is serving Mr Grant at the dinner table fish with no sauce, green vegetables and fresh fruit. She stops Jimmie from taking too much sugar in his tea with a gentle touch on his hand.

11:16-11:47 But the Brown's just enjoy their food
Mrs Grant visits Mrs Brown for tea. Mrs Brown has no qualms about serving a pink iced cake and sweet buns, as she explains that they were “just fat people.” She goes on, “Dad and I like to see the children enjoying their food,” as she stuffs a piece of cake into her mouth. We can note the difference between them. Mrs Grant is quieter and holds herself with more poise. She reacts as she should with respect to the doctors recommendations, and she presents a role model for overweight women.

11:48-12:51 Curing the fat child

Mrs Grant is sitting in a chair, Jimmy by her side, both smiling with pride. Jimmy’s hair has been cut since we saw him last, now we can see his eyes. They are at the doctor’s office and she compliments them and comments on the self-confidence that Jimmy has gained. She goes as far as to suggest that he might begin winning races now. As she says this, an interlude imaginary scene of a group of children, including Jimmy winning a running race with his mother applauding proudly in the stands and Mrs Brown sitting beside her looks on blankly. Then, an extreme close-up of the doctor’s face as she explains “to cure a fat child…” she underlines the two examples that were presented, what should and shouldn’t be done. This reinforces the responsibility that the doctor puts on the parents, and especially mothers, by speaking directly and very seriously, if not dramatically, to the viewer. The last line of the film alludes to the title: “It’s a cruel kindness to let your child eat too much.”

Supplementary notes

This publication has been prepared within the ERC BodyCapital project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 694817).

References and external documents


  • Record written by : Tricia Close-Koenig
  • French subtitles : Thibault Riegert
  • Transcription : Marion Speisser