Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950
(Various directors; BFI 2008)
The BFI have never produced a more valuable and important set than this. Anyone with an interest in the England of the thirties and forties—particular its social history— must have this collection, which covers pre-war economic depression, the experience of total war, and post-war reconstruction.
Of course, this is a set about Britain in general, not England in particular, and the vigorously propelling influence of the great Scottish documentary film pioneer John Grierson is discernable throughout. There is significant Scottish and Welsh-interest material (such as A Plan to Work On, which follows the application of post-war town planning to Dunfermline, and the wonderful Eastern Valley, about the introduction of co-operative agriculture to a former mining area in Wales). Nevertheless, most of the films are directly relevant to England. The detailed, superbly-written essay booklet accompanying the set reminds us that, although this is the largest DVD collection of its kind, it is "still an inevitably selective representation of a film tradition from which hundreds of productions eventually emerged." GPO and British Transport films are generally excluded, since these are represented elsewhere in the BFI's catalogue.
Ian Aitken's essay on the documentary movement during the thirties sets the pre-war films in historical context. They have an overwhelmingly working-class focus because Grierson believed that documentary film should actively pursue progressive reform, fostering social equality and, in the process, national unity. Aitken shows how the documentary movement contributed to the gradual ascendance of social democratic thought, which triumphed in the 1945 Labour General Election victory and the subsequent founding of the welfare state. This political outlook was a compromise "between unfettered capitalism and nationalising socialism" and would be christened "the middle way" by Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Economic hardship and the spectre of war are the main themes of the thirties films. In the delightful Children at School, the innocence of English children's lives—joyously anarchic seaside splashing, a little boy telling his classmates a long and involved story about his new kitten—is contrasted with the regimentation forced on their peers in Italy and Germany. At the same time, however, the film urgently calls for reform of education, to free all children from filthy, dark and crowded school buildings.
The aim of Workers and Jobs was to encourage employers and the out-of-work to make use of the labour exchanges ("What are you?"), but what it really does is highlight the problem of mass unemployment. Industrial Britain, technically an extremely impressive film for 1931, is a paean to the "spirit of craftsmanship" involved in various industries, with especially memorable footage of blown glass making; similarly, the stages of building a new ocean liner are captured in Shipyard. Housing Problems anticipates the post-war Land of Promise with its pictures of horrendous slum conditions and harrowing first-person accounts of the struggle with squalour. Today We Live, by Grierson's sister Ruby, fascinatingly interweaves the experiences of villagers in Gloucestershire and unemployed Welsh miners in a film that is notable for its nostalgic view of feudal village life—largely brought to an end, it is suggested, by World War I— contrasting it with the poverty and listlessness of the present, to which village halls and occupational centres are seen as only a partial answer. There is a robustly pacifist short film (People of Britain) from 1936, worth contrasting with the resigned but determined If War Should Come of three years later, a public information film that outlines civil defence precautions.
Most viewers will probably be particularly interested in the World War II films. The contributions of various groups to total war are the focus of many of them. Young and mostly female factory munitions workers in Paul Rotha's Night Shift slog away determinedly ("You feel you're really pulling your weight, 'cos you're working when other people are asleep," a girlish voice-over explains earnestly). Their break for 'lunch' halfway through the night involves a shrill sing-song and an impromptu dance, youthful spontaneity overcoming weariness. The work of the Women's Institute is examined in The Countrywomen, a fascinating insight into the importance of female organisational skill in keeping rural communities ticking over. Farm workers are celebrated in Summer on the Farm, as are the eponymous subjects of the film Builders, while Transfer of Skill recognises the importance of skilled craftsmen to the war effort. The endurance, kindliness and humour of Londoners during a typical day in the Blitz is movingly captured in Ordinary People, with its eerie and arresting footage of air-raid wardens silhouetted against the London skyline as they watch alertly for enemy aircraft. Housewives are saluted in They Also Serve, and children's experience of the war is examined by Tomorrow is Theirs and Five and Under.
There are also some more straightforwardly propagandistic war films. J. B. Priestley's significant role in raising morale (his radio talks were second in popularity only to Churchill's) is acknowledged by Britain at Bay, his patriotic narration complemented by a series of emotive landscape shots that, strikingly, balances rural and urban. Words and Actions investigates the meaning of 'democracy,' which turns out to be pro-active community spirit interacting with government provision, and a willingness to stand up for one's rights. The film contains a thumbnail sketch of the progressive take on English history. How much progress had been made in the previous hundred years, it suggests: from child labour in mines and factories to contemporary children's happiness and health; from the persecution of the suffragettes to women MPs; from Peterloo to the general franchise. The Beveridge Report is depicted as a new chapter in this optimistic narrative.
The jewel of the collection (for this reviewer, at any rate) is undoubtedly the wartime contribution by Humphrey Jennings, whose stoical, poetic, humane films are some of the finest artworks of that or any age: in his excellent essay on Jennings, Kevin Jackson comments that they "have a sensibility that is as unmistakable as it is unique." Two of Jennings' greatest films are included here. Listen to Britain is an deeply touching look at cultural life in wartime, incorporating Myra Hess's famous National Gallery piano recitals and a scene from John Gielgud's Hamlet in what, as the booklet suggests, was not just a patriotic booster, but "also, and implicitly, a utopian work, a vision of what a gentle, pluralist and decent society might look like: exactly the kind of society that Hitler wanted to destroy." The famous A Diary for Timothy is one of those rare films that bring together exactly the right combination of talents: Jennings, E. M. Forster, who wrote the sensitive commentary, and the calmly mellifluous voice of Michael Redgrave. What will tiny Timothy, born on the fifth anniversary of Britain's entry into the war, do with the freedom and peace that others have fought and died to give him?
The films of the post-war period capture the contemporary contradiction between bleak fatigue and excited reconstructive planning, the first represented by a blackly humorous film about a failed suicide pact (What a Life!), the latter by the optimism of Britain Can Make It. Fenlands (narrated in a marvellous East Anglian twang) is a rare film about the countryside, depicting the watermen's constant struggle to preserve the fens from the sea, but in general the focus of the post-war films is urban. Industrial reorganisation and improved working conditions are a popular subject. The cotton industry is the focus of two films: Cotton Come Back is both a scathing attack on thirties mismanagement and a promise to organise the industry better, while the rather peculiar Chasing the Blues makes an artistic attempt to convince industrialists to improve work spaces and thereby raise workers' happiness (and productivity) levels. It deploys the talents of two Sadler's Wells dancers ('Mr Will' and 'Mr Way') who skip and caper about with paintbrushes and ladders to some excellent blues music.
Five Towns is a splendid look at the pottery industry, evoking the proverbial friendliness of this part of the Midlands ("How do you like our smoke?") There is superbly detailed footage of the specialised jobs involved in making pottery: the scene of a potter at his wheel is riveting, as are the close-up shots of hand decoration. The film also captures workers' social life, their tremendous appetite for fun as they descend in droves on dance halls after a day's work. The particular challenges of reconstruction in the potteries — improving factories so as to eliminate smoke and increase light and space, and providing decent, smokeless homes for returning soldiers and their families—are soberly examined.
The nationwide housing problem, exacerbated by the Blitz, is the theme of Land of Promise itself, a searing indictment of successive governments' failures to provide adequate housing. The film sometimes works itself up to such a pitch of compassionate rage that it is occasionally hard to take it seriously; however, the terrible slum footage speaks for itself, even without John Mills' fervent closing speech. World War II's human cost is the subject of The Undefeated, an empathetic film about disabled veterans. From the Ground Up, propaganda for the post-war austerity measures, promotes self-denial in the short term as a means to achieve future prosperity.
Educational reform was a major feature of this era, and Children's Charter joyously heralds the new Education Act, which created the controversial tripartite school system. Transport reform proves surprisingly fascinating in a film unsurprisingly entitled Transport, containing a detailed look at the inner workings of London's bus and Tube system. On the whole the films in this set are profoundly earnest, but there are some moments of unintended hilarity. "I haven't been here as long as you," says a reedy-voiced teacher to a colleague in Children at School, glinting owlishly behind his spectacles, "but I've been here long enough to know that I'm not quite satisfied." Over-enthusiasm for isotypes produces some surreal effects in a post-war film about imports and exports (The Balance): teacups (representing tea) chug across a world map from Britain to North America, bicycles rain down on West Africa, while wheat and cotton scud diagonally from North America to Britain.
Didactic yet generous, this extremely varied collection is united by the particular mid-century attitudes that it expresses: that Everyman and Everywoman are important; that the details of their lives matter; that they deserve a decent chance in life. This insistence on the common person's importance is what, indirectly, makes these films such a valuable historical record, since it led the filmmakers to capture ordinary lives in extraordinary detail. There are other, less dominant themes as well, such as pride in industry and respect for skilled craftsmanship and individual genius, particularly technical and scientific. Jennings' warm post-war Family Portrait marries community feeling with enterprising individualism, reminding us that Shakespeare's characters were "all different from each other, as we feel ourselves to be."
Though highly critical of the status quo, the films are frequently and profoundly patriotic, yet Kevin Jackson's observation of Jennings' work—that it was free of any xenophobia or jingoism—can equally be applied to most of them. They express pride in a country "small, varied and restrained," exhausted by the experience of total war and struggling with a legacy of crippling social inequality, but full of a wan determination to do better. In their egalitarianism and moral fervour, they call on us today to reflect on what we have done, and what we have left undone. --Isabel Taylor