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March 30, 2008
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
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
January 12, 2007
Book Review: Christine Geraghty. 2005 My Beautiful Laundrette. London: I.B. Tauris £9.99
Preface: This article is now part of an interlinked theme called Representing Changing Britain: Ethnicity and Hybridity. If you have visited this page via another route you may wish to follow this perspective on contemporary British Cinema.
The specialist publisher I. B. Tauris has teamed up with Turner Classic Movies film channel to develop The Turner Classic Movies British Film Guides . The series was launched in 2003 and the fact that I have seen so few of them about on the shelves of bookshops varying from University of Warwick bookshop to Birmingham and Coventry branches of Waterstone’s is disturbing. When this happens it is little wonder that British cinema is held unjustly in low esteem. Critical coverage of our best films is a fundamental part of cultural citizenship. It is thus worth reviewing and hopefully revitalising sales of these books. This review and those which follow on this blog are not conducted on the grounds that they are new, but on the grounds of the ‘long tail’ argument which has been advanced and analysed elsewhere on this blog. If something is worth reading then it is, worth reading.
On the basis of Geraghty’s book on My Beautiful Laundrette and a swift glimpse at some of the other ones I have received for review this series of monographs on individual British films is doing what it says it intends to on the inside cover which is to : ...comprehensively refute the ill-informed judgement of French director Francois Truffaut that is cinema.
Priced to go, at a very reasonable £9-99 these books are ideal for those who wish to engage with a film more deeply either from direct personal interest or as a student completing a film or media studies course.
The books are well researched, well written and don’t go off into the depths of ‘theoretical practice’ at the expense of the film. They are a good match for the French cine guides also produced by I. B. Tauris which I’m more familiar with.
The titles in both series are written by well known academics and critics and effectively act to bridge that gap in film studies literature which veers between total populism on the one hand and obscure academicism on the other. In short, they provide an intelligent read for the train being a handy size to carry around.
My Beautiful Laundrette
My Beautiful Laundrette was made in 1985 by Stephen Frears and scripted by Hanif Kureshi. It was certainly one of the most interesting British films of the 1980s and certainly deserves a full monograph devoted to it. Along with films such as Mike Leigh’s Meantime it spoke to a disaffected youth culture who had a rebellious consciousness which had been honed by the growth of political and cultural such as ‘Rock Against Racism’ the ‘Anti Nazi league’, anti-fascist marches in Lewisham, ‘Gay Pride’ and mass radical cultural events sponsored by the Greater London Council (GLC). Despite the triumphs of the Thatcher government there had been strong resistance to it from London under the leadership of ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone and other cities such as Sheffield at the time had been supporting radical cultural politics.
The audience for a film like My Beautiful Laundrette was an audience without a film until that point. The fact that Hanif Kureshi appears on the London cultural scene at this time is less than coincidence. The reason why the film was so successful in Britian, apart from the cinematic elements which Geraghty explores very thoroughly, was this rich cultural environment. Had it been just a ‘boring but worthy’ film then it would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
I have a criticism of Geraghty for sidestepping the cultural context from which the film grew. In her introduction she argues for a corrective position set against a critical backdrop which has emphasised the social and political importance of the film. Geraghty instead argues that much of the film’s success was based upon its aesthetics and its cinematic art. Here there is a tendency to slip into the polarisation of text / context as different methods whilst I prefer to use SPECT (social / political / economic / cultural / textual) as a combination. My Beautiful Laundrette fits into all of these categories rather well, which is unusual.
Throughout the book there is a lack of recognition of the hybrid nature of many young people at the time, certainly in the more progressive cities of Britain in any case. It was they who provided the audiences because it was a part of their lived cultural experience. Geraghty makes the point that having a cinema release was a status thing from within the British cultural establishment gaining access to a critical weight which would have been absent had Channel 4 chosen to go down the route of premiering the film on TV. In fact the film gained around 8 million viewers on two screenings on TV. Geraghty seems to be putting this down to its mode of release rather than the fact that there was a ready made target audience. The film would probably have gained similar numbers of viewers in the UK if had just come out on TV because of the cultural milieu from which it grew. On the other hand Geraghty is certainly right when it comes to overseas reception and distribution.
At the time the film was surrounded by controversy in the UK because many in the readymade audience were concerned with having ‘positive’ role models. Kureshi’s original play was having none of this and both play and film stood up for making the characters have human foibles rather than cardboard cut-out ‘good’ Asians. Many a late night smoke ridden argument was held about whether the film was politically progressive or regressive.
Room for some qualitative audience research
Whilst Geraghty homes in on the academic critical debate around black British cinema from academic luminaries such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer this is a film where some qualitative audience research wouldn’t have come amiss. Some memories and experiences of people at the time might have been welcomed both from readers who were around at the time and from current students. This would have been especially valuable given as Geraghty notes from her own students that they think it is an old film. Perhaps there’s a research project there for somebody.
Narrative, Mise en scene and Performance
Geraghty does some excellent analysis of the narrative particularly in relation to the narrative theories of Todorov which makes the book valuable student reading to accompany the film. As a contiguous narrative there are many strands the relationship between Nasser – Omar’s Uncle – and his mistress are but one.
She makes some very pertinent comments about the performances noting that whilst the film seemed to be a launch platform for Daniel Day-Lewis it didn’t lead to similar success for Gordon Warnecke who plays Omar relating this to part of a wider problem for British Asian actors.
Geraghty also analyses the mise en scene very well commenting on the way that this is clearly a proper film rather than an extended TV play through a range of cinematic devices. When it comes to mise en scene apparently many considered the ‘Powders’ laundrette to be a comment on a cinema. I must say I read it as a bit of a homage to Schlesinger’s Billy Liar when a spanking new supermarket is opened by Julie Christie. By comparison this is a parody upon Thatcher’s entrepreneurial UK.
Keeping good films alive
Geraghty also makes some useful comments about how a film can live on through being adopted by courses such as the Welsh Joint Exam committee’s excellent Film Studies ‘A’ Level. Discovering it as an affordable DVD last year I showed it as a movie on my British cinema course for evening students many of whom were contemporaries. For them and for me it still retains it freshness and liveliness as a film.
Geraghty notes how the film made other films about hybridity possible such as Bahji on the Beach, East is East and Bend it Like Beckham. This alone makes it a very important British film. Geraghty notes the rather dismissive tones of Claire Monk who criticised films like these for becoming a ‘staple of British films’. The fact of the matter is that as Britain seems to be becoming more culturally divided rather than less with the growing demand for single faith schools a lamentable signifier of this tendency the need for popular representations of cultural hybridity is important. As part of the ethnic polarisations in British society today is centred upon the growing class divide criss-crossed by this ethnicity there is a greater need to encourage hybridity as the essence of Britishness.
Will it go on my bliographies?
Absolutely despite my comments about context the book’s discussion about the film’s aesthetic strengths are considerable and it will help many a student learn more about film criticism when read alongside the film itself. Geraghty’s book is also to be welcomed for being a book which will keep the film’s message of hope alive.
For more on the book and link to a free extract click here