All 8 entries tagged British Directors
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April 17, 2008
Alberto Cavalcanti (b Rio de Janeiro, 1897 – Paris 1982)
The traitor is rumbled in Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well (1942)
Alberto Cavalcanti was a director and producer and enjoyed a distinguished career as an avant-garde film-maker in France. Rien que les heures (1926) shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. He was making ‘quota quickie’ comedies for Paramount’s Paris studio in the early 1930s when he was invited in 1934 to come to England by John Grierson to join the GPO Film Unit. Cavalcanti was enormously influential in this British documentary movement encouraging realist film making to have a wider aesthetic dimension. He was very influential in the making of Night Mail (1936) and other of the best known works of the GPO Film Unit (See filmography below).
Exploring the possibilities of montage and sound he was foundational in developing the poetic style developed by his leading disciples Ken Lye and Humphrey Jennings. In 1940 when the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit and was intimately connected with making propaganda films it was more appropriate that as a Brazilian and therefore an ‘alien’ that he not be head of the Crown Film Unit. Cavalcanti therefore joined Ealing studios supervising both documentary and feature out at the studio and directing the influential propaganda film Went the Day Well? (1942). He made the musical Champagne Charlie (1944) making Ealing comedies more sophisticated. He made another three films with Ealing including the crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). From 1949 he divided his time between Europe and Brazil where he helped to establish its nascent film industry and founded the Brazilian Film Institute.
Michael Balcon credited Cavalcanti with having a special role within Ealing Studios because his most important job was training new directors who included Robert Hamer, Charles Frend and Charles Crichton all of whom went on to make important British films in the 1940s and 1950s. Balcon talking about Ealing has commented “The whole of the Ealing output has a certain stamp on it. Whether I would have done it on my own I don’t know. But most certainly I acknowledge… that of all the help I got his is the help that is most important”.
Filmography (Important British Films)
Pett & Pott (1934)
Coal Face (1935)
Went the Day Well (1942)
Dead of Night 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' episode [Portmanteau film] (1945)
They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
Producer & Sound Supervisor
Four of the best known documentaries from the GPO film Unit
Song of Ceylon (1934)
Night Mail (1936)
North Sea (1938)
Spare Time (1939) Humphrey Jennings
Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD
Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008
Aitken, Ian (ed.) 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (pp. 179-214)
Aitken, Ian, Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000)
Caughie, John & Rockett Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassell
Cavalcanti, Alberto, Filme e realidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Artenova, 1977)
Hillier, Jim, Alan Lovell, and Sam Rohdie, 'Interview with Alberto Cavalcanti', Screen v.13, n. 2, 1972, pp. 36-53
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, 'Alberto Cavalcanti', The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television v. 9, n. 4, 1955, pp. 341-358
Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI
April 10, 2008
Listen to Britain (1942): Dir. Humphrey Jennings
A Scots regiment singing 'Home on the Range' in Listen to Britain
For formal perfection, for essence of Jennings - albeit extracted by McAllister - probably 'Listen to Britain' would be the one to put in the time capsule. It never palls I must have seen it hundreds of times, but still every time I notice something I hadn't seen before. Somehow it has captured life's rhythm and texture. To watch it is to experience life afresh with an awareness that usually eludes us. The tiniest things...There's the pleasure of recognition, but also I think a revelation of the poetry in the everyday. (Drazin, 2007 pp 155-156)
The Importance of Naturalness
Jennings seemed to be better than most at capturing people being very natural 'capturing it how it was'. Jennings didn't work to much of a preconceived script which was to be disadvantageous when it came to trying to raise money for a feature film, but it worked brilliantly in documentary. Listen to Britain has certainly proved to be a very influential film for Britian's documentary and realist film makers as Mike Leigh notes:
I also admire Jennings's Listen to Britain. It is a fantastic piece of film-making for all of us (and this includes me) who in our films have tried to build film stories in an atmospheric way, using all kinds of elements, including sound and music. Listen to Britain does this extraordinarily well, and with an incredible ease of editing. Although it is not a narrative film, it is an exemplary piece of film storytelling and it raises the hairs on the back of your neck every time. (Mike Leigh Channel Four Website)
Probably to be great at documentary you have to be opportunistic and take advantage of moments of serendipity. Drazin discusses how in the shooting of Listen to Britain at a primary school it was impossible to shoot inside because of the lighting conditions so the children were asked to do a dance in the playground. One of the girls had made a mistake and the cameraman wanted to do a re-shoot Jennings wanted the naturalness of a child making a slip:'... the child's half-stumble, with its quality of truth made the scene.' (Drazin, 2007 p 157). However the Film Maker Mike Leigh makes an interesting point about the way many people are scratching on Jennings films:
If you look very closely at Jennings's work, you start to see some very interesting behavioural detail. For example, he often gets people to scratch - all over the place, across all of his films. You can see that he told them to do it when the camera gets to a certain moment. On your first viewing, you just accept it as part of the texture but it actually does look very self-conscious. The reason he's doing it is to introduce some kind of realistic movement into the very static style of documentary at that time. Don't forget that it wasn't until after the war that BBC radio realised that you could interview a working-class person spontaneously. Before that, they used to go out and talk to ordinary people, then write a script, and then get them to read the script. (Leigh ibid)
Despite his powerful intellectual capacity Jennings and his own taste for so-called 'high culture' he was concerned to capture tastes and cultural practices across the board. The filming of Flanagan & Alan doing a show in a factory canteen has a well timed cut to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery to the Queen amongst others. There was nothing judgemental there, all were enjoying themselves and the music they loved providing a unity in difference. Jackson points out in his introduction to the Humphrey Jennings Reader that Jennings:
...would not turn people into allegories or types, no matter how benign the typing might be, and the outcome was that he was able to show the British at war as nobody else could. Those singing factory girls are neither dupes of capitalism nor Stakhanovite heroines: they are the women Jennings chanced to meet when he took his cameras down to the shop floor, and thier faces are vivid and unforgettable after half a century. (Jackson, 1993 p XV).
In the Editing Room
Jointly on the credits with Humphrey Jennings is Stewart McAllister an editor with whom Jennigs worked a lot. Joe Mendoza who was a young assisstant in the GPO film Unit at the time was asked to work with Jennings because he was the only person who could read a musical score in the unit. This was a prospect he found intimidating as Jennings had a reputation for shouting at people according to Drazin. Mendoza thought that Jennings had the visual brilliance whilst McAllister worked more on the issue of the music and creating a progression thorugh the film giving it some structure even though it isn't a narrative documentary.
In Listen to Britain McAllister has been credited with several important sections such as the build up of aircraft sound over the cornfield and the crucial cut from the Flanagan and Allen factory floor show to Myra Hess in the National Portrait gallery. Creative editing was especially important in teis film as around 25% was taken from existing sources note Aldrich and Richards.
Despite the importance of McAllister's contributions and his ability to work well with Jennings Aldrich and Richards comment:
Nevetheless it is hard to to accept that the overall conception, the continuing preoccupations, the structure even of the films are not ultimately those of Jennings. (Aldrich and Richards p 224)
They point out that Jennings always did the scripting and of course all the shooting of the footage and even where some of this was spontaneous it was also done in the framework of the masterplan in Jennings' mind. It is they note Jennings belief in a pattern but one in which:
...artistic form was a wider reflection of British history and of English life and culture. It is this consistent and coherent world view which ultimately marks Jennings out as the directing intelligence of the films... (Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 225)
Critical Reception of Listen to Britain
In many quarters a jingoistic 'up and at them' form of propaganda was the only thing worth having, Aldgate and Richards cite Edward Anstey of the Spectator who was a s scornful of the film as were the documentary purists writing in Documentary News Letter who were scathing about Words for Battle:
By the time Humphrey Jenings has done with it, it has become the rarest bit of fiddling since the days of Nero. It will be a disaster if this film is sent overseas. One shudders to imagine the effect upon our allies should they learn that an official British film-making unit can find the time these days to contemplate the current sights and sounds of Britain... (Cited Aldgate and Richards 2007, pp 222-223)
However, in reality it went down well with audiences in fact the description below sounds closer to a rock group reception than a 'documentary' screening. The deputy head of non-theatrical distribution for the Ministry of Information (MoI) reported that:
All sorts of audiences felt it to be a distillation and also a magnification of their own experiences on the home front. This was especially true of factory audiences. I remember one show in a factory in the Midlands where about 800 workers clapped and stamped approval. (Aldgate and Richards 2007 p223)
Roger Manvell then working as the Films Officer in the South West and later North-West of the country reported that he always showed a Jennings film because of the :
...poetic and emotional life they gave the programmes as a whole. I do not exaggerate when I say that members of audiences under the emotional strains of war ... frequently wept as a result of Jennings' direct appeal to the rich cultural heritage of Britain.... (Manvell cited Aldgate & Richards 2007, 223 )
Overall Listen to Britain is a powerful film which through a very creative notion of documentarism manages to not only capture fragments of everyday life but unify them in a way which is at the highest level of myth-making thus comfortably achieving the aims of the MoI. The Spectator commentator was proved spectacularly wrong. This geninely was propaganda as art an extraordianry feat and one which Triumph of the Will doesn't come near thankfully.
Screenonline: Listen to Britain
Screenonline: John Krish. Editing asisstant on Listen to Britain
Pembroke College International Programme: Theory and Practice of Documentary Film
British Cinema and The Ideology of Realism Chapter 1. (Somebody's interesting looking thesis)
Please follow link to the British Cinema Bibliography
April 06, 2008
Jill Craigie (1911-1999)
Jill Craigie seems to have been Britain's second woman film maker after Kay Mander and has a cinema named after her at Plymouth University. This is the city where she made her post-war planning film The Way We live (1946). As well as being a film maker and screenwriter she was also a researcher into the Suffragettes and wrote an introduction to Emeline Pankhurst's autobiography My Own Story published by Virago in 1979. Jill Craigie was also an alumni at Indiana University although they forgot to put in the fact that she was a documentary filmmaker(!): "Alumni of the Institute of Advanced Study (Academic Fellows, Distinguished Citizen Fellows and Visiting Scholars) - 1982-2007":
Jill Craigie, Historian of women's movement, journalist, screenwriter. (Distinguished Citizen Fellow in September of 1991)
The Way We Live was backed by Fillipo del Guidice of Two Cities films which was a brave decision backing a young woman with little experience as a filmmaker. Craigie made another film concerned with planning and post-war redevelopment in Middlesborough called Picture Paper. The only evidence I can find about this is present on the website below:
Over 10,000 people saw the exhibition in one week. The Picture Post articles stimulated a documentary film made by Jill Craigie - Picture Paper - a story of the photographer / reporter who come to Middlesbrough to see and interview the Group at work and was shown in cinemas all over the country. (History of Max Lock Group)
A biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst an uncompleted film project
Carl Rollyson author of the 2005 biography of Craigie To Be A Woman has commented upon this in the Virginia Quarterly Review of Spring 2003 which I have cited at length as it is a good example of what a film maker must overcome when trying to make documentaries about controversial figures:
So influential has Sylvia's narrative become that when former Labor Party cabinet minister Barbara Castle published a short study of the Pankhursts she blithely relied on Sylvia's The Suffragette Movement without noting any of its numerous inconsistencies and biases, flaws that June Purvis identifies. Jill Craigie (1911—1999), a lifelong student of the suffragettes, and wife of former Labor Party leader Michael Foot, was so outraged at Castle's ignorance that she called her up and threatened to "flatten her." Craigie, a staunch Socialist and Labor Party loyalist, nevertheless knew from firsthand experience how brutal Sylvia had been in her quest to superimpose her narrative of Votes for Women on the memory of her mother. In 1940, Craigie had read Sylvia's The Suffragette Movement and had been captivated by its "rich" writing. Sylvia saw history, Craigie commented, with the "eyes of an artist." But in 1943, when Craigie decided to write and direct a documentary on the suffragettes, she found herself pitted against Sylvia and other suffragettes who fought over who would act as advisor to the film and thus control the master narrative of their story. The film never got made because of this internecine warfare, and Craigie spent the next several decades of her life assembling a massive collection of material and writing a book (left incomplete at her death) that exposes how Sylvia distorted her mother's legacy. As I will show in a forthcoming biography of Craigie, she is the missing link between West and Purvis. Craigie is partly responsible for the rediscovery and reprinting of West's work in the 1970's and is the key transitional figure who leads to Purvis' brilliant demonstration that during and after the war Emmeline Pankhurst not only did not abandon her principles, but saw the war and its aftermath as a way to implement them. Although there are many reasons why Craigie did not complete her epic work (a substantial manuscript of over 200,000 well-polished words), one consideration surely is the massive criticism she would have endured in her own party for putting one of Britain's Socialist icons on the rack.
Sadly this kind of wrangling led to the film about Emmeline Pankhurst never being made. Below are a list of relevant links following a Google search down to page 20. I have now ordered the biography of her by Rollyson which should enable a deeper introduction to her role in the film world to be written. In the meantime there are a range of useful links provided below.
A full list of credits for Jill Craigie is available at the Screenonline database. (It does miss out Paper Picture)
Two Hours from London (1995) [Self funded Documentary screened on BBC2]
To Be a Woman (1951) Jill Craigie
Blue Scar (1949) Jill Craigie [Blue Scar, a film exploring the implications of coal industry nationalisation in 1947, is a considerable achievement.]
Children of the Ruins (1948) Jill Craigie [Documentary]
The Way We Live (1946) Jill Craigie [Postwar Planning] YouTube extract can be viewed here sorry not embeddable):
Picture Paper (1946) Jill Craigie [The evidence for the existence of this film is History of Max Lock Group]
Out of Chaos (1944) Jill Craigie
Windom's Way (1957), screenwriter
Trouble in Store (1953), uncredited screenwriter
The Million Pound Note (1953), screenwriter
The Flemish Farm (1943), screenwriter (credited as "Jill Dell")
Blair joins tributes to Jill Craigie BBC 1999
UK Women force removal of Koestler bust. BBC story on Koestler'ws sexual violence
There is an interview of Jill Craigie avaible from the UEA BECTU website but you will need to have formal access
- Macnab, Geoffrey (1993). J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07272-7.
- Rollyson, Carl (2005). To Be A Woman: The Life Of Jill Craigie. Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-935-9.
- Dr Gwenno Ffrancon published ‘The same old firm dressed up in a new suit’: Blue Scar (Craigie, 1949) and the portrayal of the nationalisation of the coal industry in Media History. This article examines how a film, Blue Scar, made in 1949 by Jill Craigie, the filmmaker, feminist and wife of Michael Foot, portrays the changes brought about by nationalisation in the South Wales coalfield in the late 1940s.
- Entiknap, Leo. 2001. Postwar Urban Redevelopment, the British Film industry and The Way We Live. In Shiel, Mark and Fitzmaurice Tony eds. Cinema and The City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell
- Leo Entiknap's PhD thesis is available including work on Cragie's film The Way We Live can be downloaded here.
- Two articles may be downloaded without cost from Women's History Review, Volume 9 Issue 1 2000 on Jill Craigie. One by June Purvis and the other by Ursual Owen.
March 30, 2008
David Lean (Croydon 1908 - 1991)
David Lean filming the funfair sequence of This Happy Breed
David Lean was the son of Quaker parents and as such the cinema was forbidden territory on religious grounds. Lean disobeyed his parents and saw the Hound of the Baskervilles (1921) and was instantly won over to cinema. Lean entered the film business in 1927.
Throughout his career David Lean was closely involved with editing
Lean concentrated on editing whilst closely observing how directors worked, he nevertheless laregly avoided making the ‘quota quickies’ as he was concerned that these wouldn't help his career. He quickly gained the reputation for being the best editor in the country working on Pygmalion (1938), and Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Lean then worked with Noel Coward on In Which We Serve (1942). Lean then made Blithe Spirit (1945) a Coward play which Coward felt he had not made the best of.
Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson & Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey from David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945).
Brief Encounter (1945) was based upon a one act play by Coward. It had a disastrous preview which had the audience in hysterics nevertheless the film has now become a classic.It can however be seen as a very conservative film as its basic message is part of an overall post-war message that women should get back to their prewar positions in society following the much freer moral milieu of wartime Britian especially in London and the big cities.
Kevin Brownlow argues that Lean’s two Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are still regarded as the finest among all British films. Unsurprisingly American critics in particular complained that the representation of Fagin was deeply anti-semitic and was similar to much Nazi anti-pre-war propaganda. They were so effective that the filkm wasn't released immediately and had to be edited before its eventual release. Lean's defence was that the looks of the character were modelled on the original illustrations for the text by Cruickshank and that furthermore as a Quaker he didn't have any notion of what anti-semitism was. This is a little hard to swallow from somebody who had an astute and acute visual awareness. There can have been few adults in 1948 who were unaware of the realities of the 'Holocaust' and at best this representation could be considered as insensitive. Who is to say that Cruickshank wasn't anti-Semitic in any case?
Alec Guiness as Fagin on the right in Lean's Oliver Twist (1948)
Passionate Friends (1948) followed. Madelaine (1949) by comparison fared rather les well being seen by many as cold tributes to his third wife. In the 1950s he progressed through The Sound Barrier (1952), to Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957 UK) gaining several Oscars including best picture and best director. In 1962 he made Lawrence of Arabia which also received many awards and is considered by many as a masterpiece. This was followed in 1965 by Dr. Zhivago which received public support through the box office despite many reservations from critics.
Sarah Miles in Ryan's Daughter (1970)
Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was seen as a very old fashioned picture and was badly received by critics although it can now be seen as interesting in its representation of Irish resistance to British rule. In 1984 He made Passage to India which gained critical plaudits and academy recognition. He died just before shooting on Nostromo was about to start. In the August editionof sight & Sound Nick James argues that it was Lean that was the grandfather of the British 'Heritage Film' making specific reference to Passage to India (1984). Arguably Lean's contributions to heritage cinema are embedded in most of his cinematic output. Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, seem to be infused with a sense of nostalgia a sense of a mythical golden age which was somehow lost. Most of them show a sense of anxiety with the processes of change and a loss of the notions of fairness and fairplay which Powell & Pressburger had hearlity dismissed in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Money for Speed (1933). Directed Bernard Vorhaus. (David Lean Editor)
The Ghost Camera (1933). Directed Bernard Vorhaus. (Editor David Lean)
As You Like It (1937). Directed Paul Czinner (David Lean Editor)
Pygmalion (1938). Directed Anthony Asquith (David Lean Editor)
49th Parallel (1941). Directed Powell & Pressburger (David Lean Editor)
One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Directed Powell & Pressbuger (David Lean Editor)
In Which We Serve (1942). Directed David Lean & Noël Coward
This Happy Breed (1944). Directed David Lean. [First official credit as sole director]
Blithe Spirit (1945. Directed David Lean
Brief Encounter (1945). Directed David Lean
Great Expectations (1946). Directed David Lean
Oliver Twist (1948). Directed David Lean
The Passionate Friends (1948). Directed David Lean
Madelaine (1949). Directed David Lean
The Sound Barrier (1952). Directed David Lean
Hobson's Choice (1953). directed David Lean
Summer Madness (1955). Directed David Lean
The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957). Directed David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Directed David Lean
Doctor Zhivago (1965). Directed David Lean
Ryan's Daughter (1970). Directed David Lean
Passage to India (1984). Directed by David Lean
Sight and Sound August 2008. Nick James David Lean special feature Part II
Sight and Sound July 2008. Nick James David Lean special feature Part I
Anthony Asquith (1902-1968)
Anthony Asquith by Helen Wilson in the National Portrait Gallery
Anthony Asquith was born in 1902 whose father Herbert Asquith became the Liberal Prime Minister of the UK from 1908-1916. He gained the nickname of 'Puffin' and was educated at Winchester and Oxford. Drazin notes Asquith's enthusiasm with film as an undergraduate when he sometimes saw up to three films a day.
Upon leaving university he went to Los Angeles for about six months where he came into contact with many of the leading figures in the film industry. On his return to the UK he was determined to enter the film business which wasn't then consider a 'respectable'career for somebody of his background as Drazin notes:
At the time it was an extraordinary aspiration for someone of his class to have, the cinema generally being frowned upon as a rather tawdry diversion for the masses... . (Drazin 2007 p 187)
Early Years in the Industry
He went to work with Bruce Woolfe for British Instructional Films which was a company formed in 1919 that specialised in documentary reconstructions of World War 1 as well as a series of natural history documentaries. In 1925 Asquith was so embedded in film culture he became a founding member of the London Film Society and was enthusiastic about all the latest films from Germany, Russia etc. In 1926 he joined Woolfe at the Stoll Film Company in Cricklewood as a general assistant. Asquith was to direct 4 short films in the late 1920s. His first sound film was Tell England (1931). Asquith joined Gainsborugh Films in 1932 and worked on both screenwriting and directing. In 1935 he joined Korda's London Films directing Moscow Nights in 1935. In 1937 he became President of the recently formed Association of Cine Technicians. He held this position until 1968 when he died of cancer in February whilst working on a film.
The recently released Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) from BFI has been regarded by many as providing the evidence that at this stage in his career Asquith was at least as good as if not better than Hitchcock.
Asquith's breakthrough film was Pygmalion (1938) on which George Bernard Shaw himself worked on the script. It gained a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and gained Oscars for adaptation and its screenpaly. It was Shaw who won the latter. Asquith's next film French Without Tears (1940) was the first of ten films which he directed in collaboration with Terence Rattigan the playwright.
Asquith During the War
Asquith's Wartime output was prolific it encompassed straightforward war stories such as We Dive at Dawn, Spy Thriller propaganda such as Cottage to Let (1941), comedy as in Quiet Wedding (1941)and also the well-known Gainsborough melodrama Fanny by Gaslight (1944).
Phyllis Calvert and Margretta Scott in Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Asquith's Postwar Output
After the war Asquith continued to make films on a regular basis of around one per year. He made several films which Terence Rattigan had scripted including Rattigan's most successful plays The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).
The Browning Version
Asquith also continued to make films from the British literary repertoire such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Asquith worked in a number of genres and ended up working on large budget co-productions with US companies. Despite promising beginnings Asquith never became a director who own powerful vision came through as something of an auteur unlike his contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. Asquith has been considered as more of a metteur en scene.
From Asquith 1952 version of The Importance of Being Earnest
The Browning Version (1951)
The Winslow Boy (1948)
While the Sun Shines (1947)
The Way to the Stars (1945)
Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Two Fathers (1944)
The Demi-Paradise (1943)
We Dive at Dawn (1943)
Cottage to Let (1941) Not yet open
Quiet Wedding (1941)
Freedom Radio (1941)
Rush Hour (1941)
French Without Tears (1940)
Channel Incident (1940)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Geoffrey McNab on Asquith: Guardian 2003
Caughie, John with Rockett, Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassells
Drazin, Charles. 2007. The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s. London: I. B. Tauris
British Directors (Non-Contemporary) Hub Page
For current or recently passed away British Film Directors please go to the Contemporary British Directors Hub Page.
This page is designed to allow visitors to access information on a range of past British diectors and where appropriate informational hubs and critiques of specific films as these are developed. The links are both internal and external ones
Non-Contemporary British Film Directors
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Lindsay Anderson (Above)
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Anthony Asquith (Above)
Roy and John Boulting (Above)
Box Muriel (1905 - 1991)
Muriel Box (Above)
Alberto Cavalcanti (Above)
Jill Craigie with Husband Michael Foot (Above)
Douglas, Bill (1937-1991)
Dupont, E.A. (1891-1956)
Forbes, Bryan (1926-)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
John Grierson (1898-1972)
Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)
Hamilton, Guy (1922-)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
David Lean on set
Lee, Jack (1913-2002)
Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)
Lester, Richard (US 1932-)
Losey, Joe (US but made many important films in Britain 1909 - 1984)
Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Tony Richardson (Above)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Russell, Ken (1927-)
Watkins, Peter (1935-)
Young, Terence (1915-1994)
For a useful range of biographical information also see the Screenonline Directors in British and Irish Cinema
March 17, 2008
Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950)
One always hopes - without too much presumption - that one is helping to keep the work alive...Yet as the years pass these films, which should be familiar to every schoolboy and girl in the country, seem to be seen and known by fewer and fewer people. (Lindsay Anderson, cited Drazin 2007 p 159-60.)
Above Humphrey Jennings' Swiss Roll which is in the Tate collection
It is only recently that there has been some attention paid to the legacy of Humphrey Jennings yet many consider him to be one Britain’s best filmmakers if not the best yet the medium of documentary shorts that he worked in doesn’t gain the attention of the more flamboyant aspects of feature film narrative cinema. It was gratifying to find a comment which I very much agree with in book which arrived yesterday by Charles Drazin (2007) who draws attention the the fact that Sir Dennis Foreman who was director of the BFI in the early 1950s put on an exhibition of British films for the Italian government showing only Jennings films. Foreman reported that:
The Italians were absolutely stunned. They said "This is neorealism 10 years before we invented it"' (Foreman cited in Drazin 2007 p160)
Jennings was renowned for his very ‘poetic’ style of documentaries. Jennings studied English at Cambridge working as a poet and painter specialising in surrealism. 1934-36 he worked as a designer, editor and actor at the GPO Film Unit. Jennings was one of the least likely people to be in the British Documentary Movement given that’s its style of documentary realism was very distant to the sort of activities Jennings participated in. His restless eclecticism meant his energies were spread across a range of activities. Jennings partook in intellectual activities and was a poet, painter, critic, an organiser of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition which famously featured Salvador Dali speaking in a deep-sea diving outfit. In 1936 he also founded the Mass Observation Movement with two others. On top of all this he was a film maker.
Jennings: from GPO to Crown Film Unit
In 1936 he was one of the three founders of the Mass Observation movement along with Madge and Harrison. In 1939 he made Spare Time for the GPO film unit. It was only around ten minutes long yet its Kazoo band scene is highly memorable for Jennings’ more than almost any other film maker was able to capture the surrealism of everyday pastimes in which strange juxtapositions and ‘found objects’ are but a natural cultural occurrence.
During the war he made many ‘propaganda’ documentaries including London Can Take It!, Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942) as shorts. His full length drama documentaries were Fires Were Started (1943), The Silent Village (1943) reconstructing the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice by the Nazis. Diary for Timothy was shot in 1944 and the beginning of 1945.
MacDougall has commented that documentaries influenced by the Grierson School had been the film maker confronting reality rather than exploring the process of reality as a ‘flow of events’. They could be seen as a style of synthesis which used images to develop an argument or impression. In this style comments MacDougall:
Each of the discrete images... was the bearer of a predetermined meaning. They were often articulated like the images of a poem, juxtaposed against an asynchronous soundtrack of music or commentary. Indeed poetry was sometimes integral to their conception, as in the The River (Lorentz, 1937), Night Mail (Wright and Watt, 1936), and Coalface, (Cavalcanti, 1936)”. (MacDougall in Nichols, 1985 p 277).
On this argument it can be seen that Jennings’ Listen to Britain - for many his ‘masterpiece’- belongs to this sub-genre of documentary. Certainly it was entirely observational in attitude as might be expected from one of the founders of the Mass Observation Movement. It is also clearly a propaganda film but one with a ‘voice’ which is very different from the propaganda documentary of a Leni Riefenstahl. As Dalrymple who became head of the Crown Film Unit commented:
“When we make propaganda we tell, quite quietly, what we believe to be the truth. The Nazi method is to bellow as loudly and as often as possible, what they know to be absolutely and completely false…We say in film to our own people ‘This is what the boys in the services, or the girls in the factories, or the men and women in the civil defence, or the patient citizens themselves are like and what they are doing. They are playing their part…be of good spirit and go and do likewise.” (Dalrymple cited Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 219)
Above a range of stills from Listen to Britain. At the bottom the Queen listening to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery which is bereft of pictures as they have been sent to the safety of old slate mines.
Whilst the approach of Dalrymple is clearly very patronising towards the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ it is also a denial of the myth-making of national ideologies that is essential to a propaganda agenda - where propaganda can be taken to be having specific aims and objectives or a strong preferred reading. What is especially interesting about Jennings’ wartime output is how they tended to avoid making direct reference to the Nazis altogether the fact that the Queen was in the National Portrait Gallery listening to a concert of German composers strongly signified an internationalism not an anti-German position. In Listen to Britain, Britain effectively became the defender of the civilised world for at the time it was made Britain and Greece which was about to fall were the only two European countries not under Nazi control apart from neutral countries. One must remember at that moment the Hitler – Stalin pact was still in force. But what Dalrymple said can certainly be applied to Listen to Britain for Jackson (2003) points out it is ‘free of these Riefenstahlian properties’ (bombast, overblown rhetoric and melodramatic theatricality). It seems to be commonly accepted that his wartime output were probably his best films.
"Voice" in Documentary
Bill Nichols suggests that as the documentary has developed one of the major contests between different forms has been centred upon the question of “voice”. “Voice” he argues is a narrower concept than style. It gives a sense of the text’s social point of view and of how the materials are organised to present the materials. Therefore “voice” isn’t restricted simply to one code or feature - spoken commentary for example: “Voice is perhaps akin to that intangible, moiré-like pattern formed by the unique interaction of all a film’s codes, and it applies to all modes of documentary”. (Nichols.B, 1985, p 260-61).
Nichols points out that very few documentary filmmakers are prepared to accept that “through the very tissue and texture of their work that all film making is a form of discourse fabricating its effects, impressions and point of view”. Jennings’ Listen to Britain is clearly a documentary form which isn’t reflexive in the way that the work of Dziga Vertov is and is clearly in a different ‘voice’. Man With a Movie Camera isn’t merely a symphony to the modern industrial city, or modernity in general it is modernistic in its reflexivity about the very making of a film itself as well as incorporating audience and exhibition. By comparison Jennings’ work has a deeply poetic quality which seduces the viewer. With strong justification the filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson described Jennings as “the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced”
Pat Jackson another director who was working with the Crown Film Unit at the time described him as a painterly director:
“It was terribly like a painter in a way; it wasn’t a storyteller’s mind. I don’t think the dramatic approach to a subject, in film really interested him very much. It was an extension of the canvas for him. Patterns, abstractions appealed to him enormously, and those are what people remember most you know”. (Jackson cited Aldgate and Richards 2007 p 220)
Jennings went to Germany in 1945/46 and made the short documentary A Defeated People (1946)
The film is an excellent piece of visual reporting, ably assembled and edited with a pointed and impartial commentary. There is no attempt to work up pity for the Germans, only a desire that we should realise what the war they started has brought back to them on recoil. The film ends with shots of children dancing in their schools, alternated with shots of German judges being sworn in to administer justice in the new Germany of democratic control. (Monthly Film Bulletin review March 1946)
Jennings' Postwar Period
Many suggest that his post-war period was less fruitful than during the war where he reached the height of his powers. Jennings’ last film before his tragic fatal accident falling of a cliff in Poros Greece whilst doing location work for a film was a documentary short for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Graeme Hobbs in a MovieMail review describes it as follows:
a film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.
Seemingly Jennings was always engaging with the enigma that is the ‘national’ character. Certainly he was never patronising towards those he represented and he carried his brilliance lightly able to empathise with his subjects who were ordinary people well before the Italian neo-realists started to carry out their post-war aesthetic approach. Arguably Jennings was a neorealist in methods before his time his content was far more poetic represented than Rossellini’s and was probably a more powerful representation of nation and a call for unity than a film such as Paisa. Hopefully Jennings will not always remain so under-recognised and hopefully he will be inspirational to new film makers who could do worse than to study Jennings closely.
- The Changing Face of Europe (1951) (segment 6 "The Good Life")
... aka The Grand Design (UK)
- Family Portrait (1950)
... aka A Film on the Theme of the Festival of Britain 1951 (UK: subtitle)
- The Dim Little Island (1949)
- The Cumberland Story (1947)
- A Defeated People (1946)
- A Diary for Timothy (1945)
- Myra Hess (1945)
- The Eighty Days (1944)
- V. 1 (1944)
- The Silent Village (1943)
- Fires Were Started (1943)
... aka I Was a Fireman
- The True Story of Lilli Marlene (1943)
- Listen to Britain (1942)
- The Heart of Britain (1941)
- This Is England (1941)
- Words for Battle (1941)
- London Can Take It! (1940) (uncredited)
... aka Britain Can Take It!
- Spring Offensive (1940)
... aka An Unrecorded Victory
- Welfare of the Workers (1940)
- Cargoes (1939)
- The First Days (1939)
... aka A City Prepares (UK)
- Spare Time (1939)
- S.S. Ionian (1939)
... aka Her Last Trip
- Design for Spring (1938)
- English Harvest (1938)
- The Farm (1938)
- Making Fashion (1938)
- Penny Journey (1938)
- Speaking from America (1938)
- Farewell Topsails (1937)
- Locomotives (1934)
- Post-haste (1934)
- The Story of the Wheel (1934)
Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings: Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Humphrey Jennings The Man who Listened to Britain. Channel Four documentary available on DVD
English Heritage awards Jennings a Blue Plaque. (Recognition at Last).
Simon Garfield on his book Our Hidden Lives about the Mass Observation Movement
Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Humphrey Jennings Issue (Winter, 1961-1962)
BBC The Film Programme Radio 4. You can download a Realplayer file here of a discussion with Kevin Jackson Biographer of Jennings
Radio Prague pages in English on Lidice and Jennings portrayal of the Nazi massacre there. Many Associated links.
Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey.2nd Ed. 2007. Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War. London: I. B Tauris
Jackson, Kevin (ed.) 1993. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader. Manchester: Carcanet
Jennings, Humphrey (ed.).1987. Pandaemonium. London: Picador
Jennings, Mary-Lou (ed.)1982. Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet. London: British Film Institute
Lovell, Alan and Hillier, Jim. 1972 Studies in Documentary. London: British Film Institute/Secker and Warburg,
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 1986. 'Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist observer'. In Charles Barr (ed.). All Our Yesterdays (London: British Film Institute,
Orwell, George, 'The Lion and the Unicorn', in Sonia Orwell (ed.) Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1970)
Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI
March 23, 2007
Ghosts: 2007: dir Nick Broomfield
For those of you following the theme of 'British Cinema's Reaction to Globalisation and Global Events' it is an important film to note and should be seen at the earliest opportunity in order to compare with the other British films which have been covered.
Below there are a range of links to good quality reviews plus official sites, blogs and interviews. There is the facility to hear an interview with the director amd to see a short extract on the BBC film Network site as well as the trailer on the official site. There is also a brief contextual overview relating Ghosts to other British and European films which are examining the forces driving diaspora and some of the unpleasant outcomes for those who do emigrate.
Link to Official Web Site
Click here for BBC Film Network Site. Video interview and a short scene from the film are accessible here. (You will require Realplayer)
Click here to access Nick Broomfield's Guardian Blog
Much of the film is taken from the work of journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai:
born in Taiwan and now lives in Britain. She writes for the Guardian newspaper, specialising in stories about the Chinese community. She also writes for UK-Chinese publications. Her latest Chinese-language work is Hidden Assembly Line: Undocumented workers in Britain, published in February 2006. (From Open Democracy site see webliography below).
Contextual Overview of British Cinema's Responses to Globalisation
In early April 2007 Tartan Video are releasing Ghosts which is a film bearing witness to the pain and danger endured by the undocumented workers from China who form a major part of Britian's hidden economy which has thrived under ten years of 'New Labour'. It also functions as a critique of neo-liberal economic policies at the expense of social policy. It also important to note the EU has failed to take the measures necessary to stop this trade. This includes such policy areas as agricultural policy. As such the much vaunted 'joined up thinking' aspired to by New Labour ten years ago has failed to materialise.
Ghosts bears witness to the dreadful night in February 2004 when 23 Chinese workers died on the sands of Blackpool. It was an event which finally brought the dreadful situation of undocumented workers into the limelight. It is well known that London runs on the sweat of undocumented labour in clothing, low value services such as sweatshops and the so-called 'sex industry' a name which appears to legitimise the 'new' slave trade of the 21st century of women being brought and held against their will to service British sexual fantasies (presumably mainly male). It is a subject touched upon by British cinema but to my knowledge best dealt with in Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever (2002, Sweden). Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) effectively exposed many of dodges in London as well as the apalling trade in body parts. Pawlikowski's Last Resort (2001) dealt with the way in which British men exploit and mislead women in vulnerable positions in Eastern Europe. Michael Winterbottom's In this World (2002) and Ghosts can be more strongly linked with Lilya 4-Ever in that all three seek to represent the powerful forces which push people into desparate migrations often right across the World.
Of the British films dealing in differing ways with the pressures of globalisation upon the weaker countries of the World dirty Pretty Things (BBC), Last Resort (BBC) and Ghosts (Film Four - See note 1) were all backed directly by TV. This is laudable as it is clear that a Public Service Broadcasting remit has gone beyonf the artificiality of national boundaries to explore problems n the World in relation to Britain which is as it should be.
1) Wikipedia suggests Film Four were involved in backing the film however I haven't found any other evidence to corroborate this at present. This will be updated when this is confirmed.
Please note these sites were pop-up free when visited. The Times review has a pop-up and is not included.
May 08 2008 Gangmaster loses licence. BBC Report on mass exploitation of Polish Workers in UK.