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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