All entries for Monday 07 April 2008

April 07, 2008

Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings

Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings

Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954


It is difficult to write anything but personally about the films of Humphrey Jennings. This is not of course to say that a full and documented account of his work in the cinema would not be of the greatest interest: anyone who undertook such a study would certainly merit our gratitude. But the sources are diffuse. Friends and colleagues would have to be sought out and questioned; poems and paintings tracked down; and, above all, the close texture of the films themselves would have to be exhaustively examined. My aim must be more modest, merely hoping to stimulate by offering some quite personal reaction, and by trying to explain why I think these pictures are so good.

Jennings’ films are all documentaries, all made firmly within the framework of the British documentary movement. This fact ought not to strike a chill, for surely "the creative interpretation of actuality" should suggest an exciting, endlessly intriguing use of the cinema; and yet it must be admitted that the overtones of the term are not immediately attractive. Indeed it comes as something of a surprise to learn that this unique and fascinating artist was from the beginning of his career in films an inside member of Grierson's GPO Unit (with which he first worked in 1934), and made all his best films as official, sponsored propaganda during the second world war. His subjects were thus, at least on the surface, the common ones; yet his manner of expression was always individual, and became more and more so. It was a style that bore the closest possible relationship to his theme – to that aspect of his subjects which his particular vision caused him consistently to stress. It was, that is to say, a poetic style. In fact it might reasonably be contended that Humphrey Jennings is the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.


He started directing films in 1939 (we may leave out of account an insignificant experiment in 1935, in collaboration with Len Lye); and the date is significant, for it was the war that fertilised his talent and created conditions in which his best work was produced. Watching one of Jennings’ early pictures, Speaking from America, which was made to explain the workings of the transatlantic radio-telephone system, one would hardly suspect the personal qualities that characterise the pictures he was making only a short while later. There seems to have been more evidence of these in Spare Time, a film on the use of leisure among industrial workers: a mordant sequence of a carnival procession, drab and shoddy, in a northern city aroused the wrath of more orthodox documentarians, and Basil Wright has mentioned other scenes, more sympathetically shot – “the pigeon fancier, the ‘lurcher-loving collier’ and the choir rehearsal are all important clues to Humphrey's development”. Certainly such an affectionate response to simple pleasures is more characteristic of Jennings’ later work than any emphasis of satire.

If there had been no war, though, could that development ever have taken place? Humphrey Jennings was never happy with narrowly propagandist subjects, any more than he was with the technical exposition of Speaking from America. But in wartime people become important, and observation of them is regarded in itself as a justifiable subject for filming, without any more specific "selling angle" than their sturdiness of spirit. Happily, this was the right subject for Jennings. With Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Pat Jackson he made The First Days, a picture of life on the home front in the early months of the war. On his own, he then directed Spring Offensive, about farming and the new development of agricultural land in the Eastern counties; in 1940 he worked again with Harry Watt on London Can Take It, another picture of the home front; and in 1941, with Heart of Britain, he showed something of the way in which the people of Northern industrial Britain were meeting the challenge of war.

These films did their jobs well, and social historians of the future will find in them much that makes vivid the atmosphere and manners of the period. Ordinary people are sharply glimpsed in them, and the ordinary sounds that were part of the fabric of their lives reinforce the glimpses and sometimes comment on them: a lorry-load of youthful conscripts speeds down the road in blessed ignorance of the future, as a jaunty singer gives out ‘We're going to hang out our washing on the Siegfried line’. In the films which Jennings made in collaboration, it is risky, of course, to draw attention too certainly to any particular feature as being his: yet here and there are images and effects which unmistakably betray his sensibility. Immense women knitting furiously for the troops; a couple of cockney mothers commenting to each other on the quietness of the streets now that the children have gone; the King and Queen unostentatiously shown inspecting the air raid damage in their own back garden. Spring Offensive is less sure in its touch, rather awkward in its staged conversations and rather over-elaborate in its images; Heart of Britain plainly offered a subject that Jennings found more congenial. Again the sense of human contact is direct: a steel-worker discussing his A.R.P. duty with his mate, a sturdy matron of the W.V.S. looking straight at us through the camera as she touchingly describes her pride at being able to help the rescue workers, if only by serving cups of tea. And along with these plain, spontaneous encounters come telling shots of landscape and background, amplifying and reinforcing. A style, in fact, is being hammered out in these films; a style based on a peculiar intimacy of observation, a fascination with the commonplace thing or person that is significant precisely because it is commonplace, and with the whole pattern that can emerge when such commonplace, significant things and people are fitted together in theright order.

Although it is evident that the imagination at work in all these early pictures is instinctively a cinematic one, in none of them does one feel that the imagination is working with absolute freedom. All the films are accompanied by commentaries, in some cases crudely propagandist, in others serviceable and decent enough; but almost consistently these off-screen words clog and impede the progress of the picture. The images are so justly chosen, and so explicitly assembled, that there is nothing for the commentator to say. The effect – particularly if we have Jennings’ later achievements in mind – is cramped. The material is there, the elements are assembled; but the fusion does not take place that alone can create the poetic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And then comes the last sequence of Heart of Britain. The Huddersfield Choral Society rises before Malcolm Sargent, and the homely, buxom housewives, the black-coated workers, and the men from the mills burst into the Hallelujah Chorus. The sound of their singing continues, and we see landscapes and noble buildings, and then a factory where bombers are being built. Back and forth go these contrasting, conjunctive images, until the music broadens out to its conclusion, the roar of the engines joins in, and the bombers take off. The sequence is not a long one, and there are unfortunate intrusions from commentator, but the effect is extraordinary, and the implications obvious. Jennings has found his style.


Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, A Diary for Timothy. To the enthusiast for Jennings these titles have a ring which makes it a pleasure simply to speak them, or to set them down in writing; for these are the films in which, between 1941 and 1945, we can see that completely individual style developing from tentative discovery and experiment to mature certainty. They are all films of Britain at war, and yet their feeling is never, or almost never, warlike. They are committed to the war – for all his sensibility there does not seem to have been anything of the pacifist about Jennings – but their real inspiration is pride, an unaggressive pride in the courage and doggedness of the ordinary British people. Kathleen Raine, a friend of Jennings and his contemporary at Cambridge, has written: “What counted for Humphrey was the expression, by certain people, of the ever-growing spirit of man; and, in particular, of the spirit of England.” It is easy to see how the atmosphere of the country at war could stimulate and inspire an artist so bent. For it is at such a time that the spirit of a country becomes manifest, the sense of tradition and community sharpened as (alas) it rarely is in time of peace. “He sought therefore for a public imagery, a public poetry.” In a country at war we are all members of one another, in a sense that is obvious to the least spiritually-minded.

“Only connect.” It is surely no coincidence that Jennings chose for his writer on A Diary for Timothy the wise and kindly humanist who had placed that epigraph on the title page of his best novel. The phrase at any rate is apt to describe not merely the film on which Jennings worked with EM Forster, but this whole series of pictures which he made during the war. He had a mind that delighted in simile and the unexpected relationship. (“It was he” wrote Grierson, “who discovered the Louis Quinze properties of a Lyons’ swiss roll.”) On a deeper level, he loved to link one event with another, the past with the present, person to person. Thus the theme of Words for Battle is the interpretation of great poems of the past through events of the present – a somewhat artificial idea, though brilliantly executed. It is perhaps significant, though, that the film springs to a new kind of life altogether in its last sequence, as the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg are followed by the clatter of tanks driving into Parliament Square past the Lincoln statue: the sound of the tanks merges in turn into the grand music of Handel, and suddenly the camera is following a succession of men and women in uniform, striding along the pavement cheery and casual, endowed by the music, by the urgent rhythm of the cutting, and by the solemnity of what has gone before (to which we feel they are heirs) with an astonishing and breathtaking dignity, a mortal splendour.

As if taking its cue from the success of this wonderful passage, Listen to Britain dispenses with commentary altogether. Here the subject is simply the sights and sounds of wartime Britain over a period of some twenty-four hours. To people who have not seen the film it is difficult to describe its fascination – something quite apart from its purely nostalgic appeal to anyone who lived through those years in this country. The picture is a stylistic triumph (Jennings shared the credit with his editor, Stewart McAllister), a succession of marvellously evocative images freely linked by contrasting and complementary sounds; and yet it is not for its quality of form that one remembers it most warmly, but for the continuous sensitivity of its human regard. It is a fresh and loving eye that Jennings turns on to those Canadian soldiers, singing to an accordion to while away a long train journey; or on to that jolly factory girl singing “Yes, my Darling Daughter” at her machine; or on to the crowded floor of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom; or the beautiful, sad-faced woman who is singing “The Ash Grove” at an ambulance station piano. Emotion in fact (it is something one often forgets) can be conveyed as unmistakably through the working of a film camera as by the manipulation of pen or paintbrush. To Jennings this was a transfigured landscape, and he recorded its transfiguration on film.

The latter two of these four films, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, are more ambitious in conception: the second runs for about forty minutes, and the first is a full-length “feature documentary”. One’s opinion as to which of them is Jennings’ masterpiece is likely to vary according to which of them one has most recently seen. Fires Were Started (made in 1943) is a story of one particular unit of the National Fire Service during one particular day and night in the middle of the London blitz: in the morning the men leave their homes and civil occupations, their taxi-cabs, newspaper shops, advertising agencies, to start their tour of duty; a new recruit arrives and is shown the ropes; warning comes in that a heavy attack is expected; night falls and the alarms begin to wail; the unit is called out to action at a riverside warehouse, where fire threatens an ammunition ship drawn up at the wharf; the fire is mastered; a man is lost; the ship sails with the morning tide. In outline it is the simplest of pictures; in treatment it is of the greatest subtlety, richly poetic in feeling, intense with tenderness and admiration for the unassuming heroes whom it honours. Yet it is not merely the members of the unit who are given this depth and dignity of treatment. Somehow every character we see, however briefly, is made to stand out sharply and memorably in his or her own right: the brisk and cheery girl who arrives with the dawn on the site of the fire to serve tea to the men from her mobile canteen; a girl in the control room forced under her desk by a near-miss, and apologising down the telephone which she still holds in her hand as she picks herself up; two isolated aircraft-spotters watching the flames of London miles away through the darkness. No other British film made during the war, documentary or feature, achieved such a continuous and poignant truthfulness, or treated the subject of men at war with such a sense of its incidental glories and its essential tragedy.

The idea of connection, by contrast and juxtaposition, is always present in Fires Were Started - never more powerfully than in the beautiful closing sequence, where the fireman's sad little funeral is intercut against the ammunition ship moving off down the river – but its general movement necessarily conforms to the basis of narrative. A Diary for Timothy, on the other hand, is constructed entirely to a pattern of relationships and contrasts, endlessly varying, yet each one contributing to the rounded poetic statement of the whole. It is a picture of the last year of the war, as it was lived through by people in Britain; at the start a baby, Timothy, is born, and it is to him that the film is addressed. Four representative characters are picked out (if we except Tim himself and his mother, to both of whom we periodically return): an engine driver, a farmer, a Welsh miner and a wounded fighter pilot. But the story is by no means restricted to scenes involving these; with dazzling virtuosity, linking detail to detail by continuously striking associations of image, sound, music and comment, the film ranges freely over the life of the nation, connecting and connecting. National tragedies and personal tragedies, individual happiness and particular beauties are woven together in a design of the utmost complexity: the miner is injured in a fall at the coal face, the fighter pilot gets better and goes back to his unit, the Arnhem strike fails, Myra Hess plays Beethoven at the National Gallery, bombs fall over Germany, and Tim yawns in his cot. Such an apparently haphazard selection of details could mean nothing or everything. The difficulty of writing about such a film, of disengaging in the memory the particular images and sounds (sounds moreover which are constantly overlapping and mixing with each other), from the overall design has been remarked on by Dilys Powell: “It is the general impression which remains; only with an effort do you separate the part from the whole ... the communication is always through a multitude of tiny impressions, none is isolation particularly memorable.” Only with the last point would one disagree. A Diary for Timothy is so tensely constructed, its progression is so swift and compulsive, its associations and implications so multifarious, that it is almost impossible, at least for the first few viewings, to catch and hold on to particular impressions. Yet the impressions themselves are so rarely unmemorable, not merely for their splendid pictorial quality, but for the intimate and loving observation of people, the devoted concentration on the gestures and expressions, the details of dress or behaviour that distinguish each unique human being from another. Not least among the virtues that distinguish Jennings from almost all British filmmakers is his respect for personality, his freedom from the inhibitions of class-consciousness, his inability to patronise or merely to use the people in his films. Jennings’ people are ends in themselves.


Other films were made by Jennings during the war, and more after it, up to his tragic death in 1950; but I have chosen to concentrate on what I feel to be his best work, most valuable to us. He had his theme, which was Britain; and nothing else could stir him to quite the same response. With more conventional subjects – The Story of Lilli Marlene, A Defeated People, The Cumberland Story – he was obviously unhappy, and, despite his brilliance at capturing the drama of real life, the staged sequences in these films do not suggest that he would have been at ease in the direction of features. The Silent Village – his reconstruction of the story of Lidice in a Welsh mining village – bears this out; for all the fond simplicity with which he sets his scene, the necessary sense of conflict and suffering is missed in his over-refined, under-dramatised treatment of the essential situation. It may be maintained that Jennings’ peacetime return to the theme of Britain (The Dim Little Island in 1949, and Family Portrait in 1950) produced work that can stand beside his wartime achievement, and certainly neither of these two beautifully finished films is to be dismissed. But they lack passion.

By temperament Jennings was an intellectual artist, perhaps too intellectual for cinema. (It is interesting to find Miss Raine reporting that, “Julian Trevelyan used to say that Humphrey's intellect was too brilliant for a painter”.) It needed the hot blast of war to warm him to passion, to quicken his symbols to emotional as well as intellectual significance. His symbols in Family Portrait – the Long Man of Wilmington, Beachy Head, the mythical horse of Newmarket – what do they really mean to us? Exquisitely presented though it is, the England of those films is nearer the “This England” of the pre-war beer advertisements and Mr Castleton Knight’s coronation film than to the murky and undecided realities of today. For reality, his wartime films stand alone; and they are sufficient achievement. They will last because they are true to their time, and because the depth of feeling in them can never fail to communicate itself. They will speak for us to posterity, saying: “This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us.”


Humphrey Jennings

Lindsay Anderson

Free Cinema Movement

The History of British Cinema: 1939

The History of British Cinema: 1939

For 'British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films' please follow link


A core part of this blog is the project of having a continually developing dynamic space primarily concerned with developments in the 5 leading industrial countries of Europe with the key dates being from 1918 to the present (whenever that is). The site already has several historically based reviews of particular periods however the advantage of working on the web is that it is a dynamic publishing space and almost infinitely extensible, particularly as there are literally hundreds of other online contributions.  This situation is only likely to extend in quantity and improve in quality over the next few years. This isn't an attempt to suggest that print publishing will become outmoded, the web simply offers things in different ways. One important thing is that it is a part of a culture that is increasingly an 'on demand' one - what you want , where you want it, when you want it. Certainly a huge amount of resources can be delivered via the web and ideas too can be actvely promoted via the web in discussion fora, Wikis etc. Hopefully these entries will contribute to the spirit of new learning without foregoing the pleasures of the old.

This entry is the first specific year entry and it is significantly placed at the start of the Second World War or the opening of hostilities of the 30 years war of the 20th century which is perhaps a more fruitful way to look at it. The foundations are in place for the rest of the war years however it is likely that the next section is likely to jump to British cinema from 1990 to the present as that is currently a teaching focus. There is no need to proceed in a directly linear fashion however it is important to have a chronological basis to history despite the doubts raised by postmodernists. Chronology does not in itself imply that history proceeds in any kind of rational progression but chronology is one benchmark by which it is possible to relate cinema to events in wider society in both a national and an international context. 


Lion Has Wings 1

From The Lion Has Wings (1939) Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, Adrian Brunel [Alexander Korda producer] : The first of the wartime films

Here it is important to make clear to readers just how perilous the situation of Britain was in the opening period of the war. It is generally considered that British cinema in the Second World War between 1939-1945 had something of a 'golden period' with some of Britain's best ever film makers coming to the fore such as Powell and Pressburger and Humphrey Jennings. Cinema-going during the war period was both an important means of gaining information about the progress of the war as well as being an escape from the rigour and dangers of the war. The latter part of the war saw some of the highest ever cinema attendance figures at the box office. 

The Position of Britain up until the US entered the war in December 1941

On the third of September 1939 two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland Britain and France formally declared war upon Nazi Germany. In Britain the war rapidly turned into a 'People's War' in which the British nation came together in a unified manner in order to defeat what by then was considered to be a common enemy. That enemy was an enemy seen as a threat to all classes of society. This consensus was by no means present at the outset of the war. Within the ranks of the Chamberlain Conservative government there were people such as Lord Halifax the then Foreign Minister and Lord Londonderry who were at best appeasers of Hitler if not something of admirers. It is no exaggeration to say that the memories of this war are still at the time of writing deeply embedded in the British national psyche. This extraordinary recent on-line historical project by the BBC rather proves the point. Indeed the War was the basis of the consensus politics that was to develop in Britain and remain inplace until the middle of the 1970s when it started to unravel with a deepening economic crisis to be replaced by the neo-liberal Conservative regime of Mrs Thatcher. 

For the rest of 1939 as far as Britain and France were concerned the months from September until the Blitzkrieg attacks of Spring 1940 were nicknamed the'Phoney War'. On land a few skirmishes happened near the Maginot line. for Britain the first day of the war saw the start of an ominous threat as the British liner Athenia was torpedoed by a U-boat. This marked the beginning of the Second Battle of the Atlantic and posed perhaps the greatest danger to British survival of all. For countries in Eastern Europe the war was rather less 'Phoney'. The Baltic States had been swallowed up by the Nazi-Soviet non-agression pact and the Soviet Union used the opportunity to invade Finland. Ultimately this folly was to give the Nazis an ally in Scandinavia. Countries such as Romania were also strongly affected. Hungary formally joined the Axis powers in November 1940 and Bulgaria had little option but to follow suit when the Nazis prepared to invade Greece using Romania as a launching pad in april 1941. All three of these countries had extremely right-ring Nationalistic governments and were people hitler could do business with. 

On April 9th 1940 Hitler invaded Norway and the British expeditionary force had to retreat from Narvik at the end of May.  In May 1940 the Nazis launched their key offensive on Western Europe. As the Nazi blitzkrieg rapidly overwhelmed Holland and Belgium Churchill took over as Prime Minister in May 1940. Even Churchill's influence could not stop the fall of France which surrendered on June 22nd. Until the USA formally entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1941 the fate of Britain was in the balance. One would need to return to the days of the Spanish Armada to compare the threat to the country its way of life and the people as a whole. Even the term Allies was more of a fantasy than a reality for by mid 1941 Britain was the only non-neutral country in Europe not occupied by the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Italy. Neutral coutries at the time were The Soviet Union in a non-agression pact with Nazi Germany, Spain under the Fascist Franco regime, Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden. Greece had been invaded in April 1941 by the Nazis after an Italian invasion had been repulsed in the winter of 1940 and by the middle of May it was all over. 

British Cinema in 1939 

Even before the outbreak of war in September some films released earlier in the year were reflecting some of the tensions rapidly building up across Europe especially in the wake of the Munich crisis which handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis on a plate. The Spy in Black (Powell & Pressburger) and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda) produced Alexander Korda were not unaware of the wider political problems so it can be seen as responses to this crisis. In the Four Feathers for example the issue of cowardice could well have been an allegory of Appeasement policy. With the Spy in Black featuring a U-Boat captain albeit more gentlemanly then the one in 49th Parallel made later in the war this chimed with The 39 Steps (1937) by Hitchcock from the work of John Buchan always aware of the Central European political scenario. 

The Ministry of Information (MOI) 

The initial reaction to the outbreak of war in September 1939 was the instant closure of cinemas and other places of mass entertainment such as sports grounds for fear of carnage if the Nazis launched bombing raids.  In terms of mass communications radio was the most important tool for information, nevertheless cinema was hugely important as it was a way of visually communicating ideas and ideology about the war and it also provided an important focus of communal identity as well as creating an affordable means of escaping the rigours of war even if only for a couple of hours. Interestingly, as Sargeant (2005 p 146) points out, radio as a method of mass communication is frequently represented in films of the period. The role of the Ministry of Information (MOI) was going to be crucial throughout the war as more than at any previous time in history the era of 'total war' needed a powerfully organised communications system of propaganda to keep their citizens in support of the hostilities:

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The very next day, in line with longstanding plans drawn up by the Committee for Imperial Defence, the government re-established its Ministry of Information, which had previously been wound up, at the tail-end of World War I in 1918. The MoI had two primary aims: the censorship of news media, and the creation of pro-Allied propaganda for both home and overseas audiences. ( Screenonline Propaganda Article)

The outbreak of war saw a Conservative Government stained with the ignominy of Appeasement trying to engage its citizens in what was to prove the most perilous of wars. The first Minister of Information was Lord Macmillan however he was quickly replaced by John Reith in January of 1940. Reith himself was replaced by Duff Cooper in May 1940. He remained in post until July 1941  as part of the Churchillian reshuffle, however it wasn't until Brendan Bracken took over from him that the MOI reamined stable for Bracken remained in post until May 1945.  

Despite the enthusiasm of largely left of centre film makers of the  British documentary tradition the MOI was very reluctant to move in the direction of the people. Noticeably the first film of the War The Lion Has Wings received mixed reactions from its audience. Whilst responses from more Conservative quarters were effusive Aldgate & Richards comment that:

...considerable reservations were expressed about both its style and co0ntent, and its resort to blatant jingoism. Mass Observation reported that cinemagoers compalined about there being 'too much propaganda' and Tom Harrison came to the conclusion that 'it was a powerful contribution towards Chamberlainish complacency'. (Aldgate & Richards, 2007 p 23) 

Ian Dalrymple

After helping Korda with The Lion Has Wings  Ian Dalrymple was seconded to work under Jack Beddington in the Films Division at the MoI.  He was responsible for overseeing the documentarists of the Crown Film Unit

It seems as though the film's producer Alexander Korda had already pre-empted events for the film was already under production a few days before hostilities broke out. Ian Dalrymple is cited by Aldgate and Richards providing evidence of this:

A few days before September 3rd, some of us...were summoned to Alex's office. He told us that we were to make a film to reassure the public of the power of the Royal Air Force, and that a liaison officer from the Air Ministry was on his way to assist us. (Dalrymple cited Aldgate & Richards 2007, p 21)

The presence of an airforce liaison officer clearly indicates there had been prior discussion with the government about the need for a propaganda film as people were becoming increasingly aware that the issue wasn't so much as to whether there would be a war but when it would start. The film was put on general release on the 3rd November literally 2 months after war had been declared. Unusually 200 prints were made instead of the usual 70. All the main cinema chains with the exception of the ABC showed the film.

Britain at War The First Days

Three of Harry Watt's early wartime films are currently available. The DVD contains the films below:  

The First Days (1939) directed by Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings and Pat Jackson - Preparation for war on the home front.
The Front Line (1939) directed by Harry Watt. Dover becomes a target for the Germans.
Squadron 992 (1940) directed by Harry Watt. A barrage balloon squadron is trained and deployed to South Queensferry to defend Rosyth Naval Base and the Forth Bridge. Includes a reconstruction of the Luftwaffe raid of October 16 1939. DVD only. 55 mins b/w.

The First Days (1939 Watt / Jennings / Jackson) was a documentary bought from the GPO Film Unit and distributed by Pathé. Harry Watt has commented on how Cavalcanti at that time the head of production for the GPO Film Unit recognised how history was being made all around them and without official sanction "took the law into his own hands and sent us all into the streets to film anything we saw that was new and different":

...six small units went out with all our stock and filmed the extraordinary scenes of a nation amateurishly preparing its capital  for a new kind of war. We filmed the frantic sandbag filling, new balloons rising up in the oddest places, endless drilling in parks , new auxilliary policemen... (Watt cited in Sargeant, 2005 p 147)

For a fuller history of the public sector and corporate film units which helped Britain's strong documentary tradition to develop  please see Screenonline on Film Units of the GPO Film Unit it comments:

the Empire Marketing Board's film activities from 1929, which effectively became the justly famous GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit in 1933. This in turn mutated into the Crown Film Unit during World War II, working for the Ministry of Information and then for the Central Office of Information which superseded it.

Interestingly The Stars Look Down (1939 but released in January 1940) Carol Reed was a box office hit. It was based upon miners and a mining disaster however it had an anti-union line which must have helped it get past the censors at the same time a pulling together around a disaster clearly had wider meaning in the context of the war.  

Aldgate and Richards point out that the MOI were quick to respond to the negative responses made to The Lion Has Wings. Macmillan had himself written a Policy Committee Paper which outlined the three core elements of a propaganda strategy. This went down to the Films division of the Ministry which circulated a fuller plan stressing the three core issues:

  • What Britain is fighting for
  • How Britain fights
  • The need for sacrifices if the fight was to be won

This meant that all three areas of film production Features / Documentaries / Newsreels could be used however the feature film was 'singled out' (Algate and Richards) in order to represent British life and character. Ideals of democracy and proper institutions could be contrasted with recent German history: "A film which induces boredom antagonises the audience to the cause which it advocates" and film propaganda will be most effective when it is least recognsable as such". (Cited Aldgate & Richards 2007 p 28).

Thus the scene was set for the take over of the Films Division of the MOI by Sir Kenneth Clark in January 1940, from Sir Joseph Ball. Ball's politics as Conservative Central Office Director of Publicity from 1927-1929, then being Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1929-1939 as well as being Deputy Director for Conservative Party Publicity 1934-1939 was hardly likely to endear him to the more centre and left thinking documentarists which were tensions the country could do without. 


For bibliographical references please follow the link to the British Cinema Bibliography page

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