Britain At Bay: Peace & War 1937-1940
BFI/ICO Archive Screening
Viewed at: Plaza Community Cinema (Waterloo, Merseyside)
Following Love Letters & Live Wires and Housewives’ Choice, this is the third BFI/ICO archival screening that I’ve attended at the Plaza in the last few months. Each screening has consisted of a series of short films – usually documentaries or informational films – from the middle of the last century, focussing on the output of the GPO Films Unit, the experiences of women from the 1920s to the 1950s and, in the case of this screening, life in Britain in the leadup to World War II.
A few things stood out for me over the course of this screening. Each of the films present a vision of England and England only, with representations of Scotland and Northern Ireland conspiciously absent and Wales glimpsed briefly in Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time. On screen in these films is an England in which it never rains, the only history that matters is modern history and everyone is noble, from society women to coalminers, shop clerks and farm hands.
Taken as a whole, the films give a false impression that the mood in England turned almost on a pinhead at the outbreak of war. The first set of films largely dismiss the heavy sense of foreboding which must have been felt by the British population in the last few years of the 1930s when they experience the complex reality of a long march to war. In the second batch of films, once war was unavoidable, the mood of the films resulted in a much more stoic, militant outlook, rallying the citizens to support their troops and their country. This seemingly sudden change in attitude is surely down to the filmmakers and producers themselves, of course, who were striving to assert a sense of normalcy in the leadup to war in order to reassure audiences, but were soon required to confront the realities of war and forced to provide a much more proactive set of ideas to their audiences.
The films screened as part of Britain At Bay: Peace & War 1937-1940 were as follows:
Around the Village Green
d. Evelyn Spice, Marion Grierson / 1937 / UK / 12 mins
The programme began with a rather charming portrait of the contrasts between traditional and modern life in an Essex village in the mid-1930s, an early collaboration between Canadian documentarian Evelyn Spice (later to become Evelyn Cherry) and Marion Grierson, the younger sister of documentary film pioneer, John. Although the film screened here seemed to be an excerpt from a much longer piece, it nevertheless paints an idyllic, sentimental portrait of life in an English village, extolling all the virtues of modernisation and its benefits to everyday life in rural England.
Aside from being a little romanticised, a key criticism of Spice and Grierson’s film is that it doesn’t really examine the social realities of village life in any meaningful way. What of the lower classes, for instance, and the young who have moved to the city? I found it interesting that the film addresses only how modernisation has improved life in the village – apart from a short (and rather out of place) interview with an older gentlemen – and rarely addresses the negative impacts of modernisation of traditional ways of life.
d. Humphrey Jennings / 1938 / UK / 9 mins
Next up was the first of a number of titles by the venerable Humphery Jennings. English Harvest is an interesting, kind of day-in-the-life portrait of the harvest season, full of Jennings’ typical romantic lyricism and populated by his usual array of English characters. It is interesting, also, for being one of the few extant films shot in Dufaycolor, an early additive colour film process invented by Frenchman Louis Dufay in 1908 that produced wonderful, faded painterly tones in stark deference to the contrast-heavy hues of other, more successful processes such as Technicolor and reminiscent of the hand-tinted picture postcards of the early 20th century.
Sam Goes Shopping
d. Harold Purcell / 1939 / UK / 6 mins
Sam Goes Shopping is a charming little advertisment for the Co-operative, based around a ‘tuneful ditty’ about a man entering a shop just before closing time and refusing to leave empty handed, even though he cannot remember what he wanted. All he knows is that it began with a ‘D’. Starring Ealing stalwart Stanley Holloway, it was directed by playwright, lyricist and composer Harold Purcell. Not a huge amount to say about this one, other than that people like Sam are why I hate working in retail!
d. Humphrey Jennings / 1939 / UK / 15 mins
The first half of the screening closed with Spare Change, undoubtedly one of the best films of the bunch. Its another lyrical, romantic slice of portraiture from Jennings, that was criticised at the time for being patronising. And while it is easy to see why people may draw that conclusion, the film essentially grew out of the ethos of the Mass-Observation movement, which Jennings had helped to foment in the mid-’30s. With Spare Time, it seemed that Jennings was essentially attempting to marry his own brand of poetic realism with the non-invasive nature of Mass-Observation, which he had earlier abandoned in favour of a more permanent role with the GPO Film Unit.
Spare Change highlights the leisure pursuits of men, women and children associated with three groups of working class Britain in the 1930s. First, the steel workers of Sheffield are shown playing in brass bands, walking their dogs, riding bicycles and watching the football. Next, the cotton workers of southern Lancashire attend amusement parks and the wrestling, whilst their children march in one of the many kazoo bands popular in the region at that time. Finally, for the coalminers of Pontypridd, Wales, spare time is filled with choir rehearsals, card games in the pub and reading the newspaper. Jennings biographer Kevin Jones rightly refers to Spare Time as the point at which Jennings finally begins to find his identity as a director, offering up complex and willfully ambiguous images of popular life in an associative manner, eschewing the narrative driven context of his earlier works and that of many of his contemporaries.
War Library Items 1, 2 & 3
d. Uncredited / 1939 / UK / 6 mins
The opening film of the screenings’ second half was also the first film in the programme to deal directly with the harsh realities of war. Produced by the GPO, these short informational films were intended to demonstrate the efficiency of essential wartime services, tracing the work of enumerators, hospital workers and volunteer firefighters. For modern audiences, they provide an interesting documentation of how Britain had been preparing for the war, and gave a sense of the day to day role of those involved in the essential services. Just remember, the nurses knit, the doctors dont!
If War Should Come
d. Uncredited / 1939 / UK / 9 mins
Produced specifically by the GPO Film Unit for theatrical release, and shown on 2,000 screens in mid-September 1939, this is easily the pick of the bunch in this programme. Far from the washy, sentimental portraits or blatant propagandising, If War Should Come stands out as a much more instructional work, which was intended to catalogue a series of civil defence precautions for British citizens, such as how to build an air-raid shelter or why you shouldn’t panic buy food. It instructed citizens on what to do in the event of an air-raid, when to use a gas mask and what to listen for once the danger had passed. Like ration books and first hand accounts of the trials of life in wartime Britain, If War Should Come stands out as a vital social document at the outset of a period of prolonged social, political and emotional upheaval.
The First Days
d. Pat Jackson, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt / 1939 / UK / 22 mins
Opening with an evocative combination of cityscape montage and Lord Chamberlain’s echoing declaration of war, The First Days was the GPO Film Unit’s patriotic attempt at documenting the speculative uneasiness of the earliest days of World War II, largely from the perspective of the homebound majority. Jackson, Jennings and Watt undertook this largely improvised project without specific direction from above, using their initiative and collective nous to create a simple visual record of these early days and weeks. General street scenes are contrasted with the recruitment of air-raid wardens, the filling of sandbags, the installation of barrage balloons and the evacuation of children and pets. Among the more workaday scenes is a brillantly eerie sequence in which the National Gallery is shown devoid of its Great Masters which, having been removed to the relative safety of the English countryside, have left behind wall after wall of empty frames.
Moving from the streets of London to the barracks and airfields, The First Days evokes the poetic realism of earlier films in the programme when it shifts its attention to ‘a generation of young men, born in the last war, and brought up in contempt of militarism and the fruitless romance of the battlefield, [who] went into uniform willingly and with clear understanding…’. Soldiers are seen preparing for the battlefield, training and bidding farewell to friends and loved ones, before the narration turns outward, highlighting the plight of foreign nationals in London and declaring the city to be ‘a hundred thousand people of many lands’. Hanging over this film and all the others, of course, is the fact that in these early days, no one could possibly anticipate what was to come and just how long the war would last.
Britain At Bay
d. Harry Watt / 1940 / UK / 7 mins
The final film in the programme, Britain At Bay, is a collaboration between poet and author J.B. Priestley and GPO director Harry Watt, which offers more evocation of the virtues of Britishness (or Englishness) and offers up a kind of poetic defiance of the threats presented by certain sections of continental Europe. Compiled with already existing footage, this film is clearly much more concious of its place as a historical document than the others, featuring some great montage to match Priestley’s verse, yet doing so in an unashamedly propagandist, jingoistic manner. Of course, chief among the criticisms of Britain At Bay has been its contentious assumption that Britain would prefer to be ‘left alone, to do as it will’, flying in the face of Britain’s (then) recent history as the kind of imperialistic landgrabber that Hitler himself had praised and foolhardily attempted to emulate.
So there you have it, a (slightly overlong) rundown of the films of Britain At Bay: Peace & War 1937-1940. If you ever get the chance to attend one of these BFI/ICO screenings, I highly recommend it!