Review of Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front
BFI release, 2015
After watching this collection of public information films, this reviewer has a much deeper understanding of why a relative who was a child during the rationing period turns pale at the very mention of cabbage. For cabbage is literally everywhere in this collection —as a replacement for oranges, which could no longer be imported during the war, as an extender, as a filling for vegetable pies, as a main course on its own. Mrs T and Her Cabbage Patch (a play on the title of the Hollywood film Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch) and Two Cooks and a Cabbage are just two of the films featuring paeans to this lowly vegetable. Cabbage was a wonder food, mainly on account of its high levels of vitamin C, which led to its starring role in Ministry of Food propaganda. Indeed, there is even a morality film on the right and wrong ways to boil cabbage: little girl A uses too much water, which drains the cabbage of nutrients and makes it taste nasty, whereas little girl B uses just enough. (The correct way of making tea, a famously important source of energy during the war, is also explained—exhaustively—in Tea Making Tips.) The discovery of nutrition, explained carefully, if not always accurately from today’s point of view, in The ABCD of Health, was one of the most important advances of the time, and has gone down in legend as the factor behind the sudden gain in height by working class children at the mid-century. While quantities may have been spartan, the careful engineering of rationing to provide the full gamut of vitamins (particularly via cabbage) had a positive impact on health. A comparison between the terrible condition of many would-be First World War recruits with the generation born in the forties highlights the stunning change over a relatively brief period.
Cabbage aside, these films are fascinating for a number of other reasons. The atmosphere of bloody-minded determination and occasionally rather strained jollity in the face of a truly bleak situation is, from this remove, very touching, though the constant, didactic U-accented shrilling of the voiceovers must have been rather wearing to some cinema-goers at least, despite the intent of these films to boost morale. (Indeed, the nostalgic haze which now surrounds the Home Front should not encourage us to idealise the extent to which the nation felt united. Think, for example, of the indignant reaction to the poster “YOUR COURAGE, YOUR CHEERFULNESS, YOUR RESOLUTION WILL BRING US VICTORY” —emphasis added by the outraged target demographic). There was probably a certain amount of sniggering in cinema back rows, particularly at the endless catalogue of virtuous animals and their economical habits with food in Wisdom of the Wild. Viewed in one go like this, the whole enterprise occasionally feels somewhat relentless, but the remarkable fact is the extent to which people co-operated with the new dietary restrictions and the complicated recycling of household waste for armaments production. That was not all that they co-operated with: there is also poignant footage of a community kitchen, with babies and toddlers being fed en masse to free up their mothers for war work. This is a circumstance which —together with the absence of fathers at the front, the overall traumatic effect of the war on parents, and of course the much-needed extension of education in the post-war era— helps to explain the gulf which opened up between parents and children who came of age in the sixties. Some families simply did not have enough time together at the critical juncture. Particularly sad, in this regard, is the appeal to London parents to contribute to a fund for the provision of a proper Christmas to their children evacuated to the countryside in Keep Them Happy, Keep Them Safe.
There are a number of very stern homilies on the necessity of saving fuel. Instead of boiling laundry, housewives were encouraged to use a washing soap which apparently had exactly the same effect (though one can imagine that it probably didn’t). The most interesting entry on this theme is The Wicked Witch, in which the eponymous sorceress is interrupted at her (fuel-wasting) cauldron by a censorious little girl who strongly resembles the terrifying Violet Elizabeth Bott from the Just William stories, in costume, attitude and voice. The entire exchange is conducted in rhyme, adding to a hilarity which perhaps was not intended. Frugality in general is lauded: in another film, the female viewer is encouraged to save her clothing coupons, on the rather dubious ground that nothing is more attractive to a man (in this case the —himself suspiciously flash-looking— Tommy Trinder, who dismisses a wide range of handsomely turned-out showgirls in favour of our frugal heroine, perhaps with an eye to getting his mitts on those coupons).
The importance of physical fitness was also a new discovery during the war, and Fitness Wins: 4 and 20 Fit Girls is one of the most delightful inclusions on the disc. One cannot help but admire the energy and determination brought to these exercises by women who worked all day in munitions factories, and if the calisthenics of yesteryear sometimes look a little quaint to modern eyes (and the male voiceover is excruciatingly patronising), it must also be borne in mind that these were the early phases of another important health movement. Another major preoccupation was preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as the common cold. The narrator of A-Tish-Oo! booms at the audience that workers nowadays can’t afford to get sick and lose important time for war work —hence the need to make and wear masks (particularly important for bombed-out families sheltering in the Tube). These, indeed, could even be quite fashionable if made of the right material. The most surprising film on the disc is definitely the surrealist fantasy When the Pie Was Opened, which occasionally seems to veer alarmingly in the direction of horror. The music of blackbirds interspersed with completely silent footage makes the viewer fear the worst, and it is perhaps not a spoiler to reassure potential purchasers of this set that in the end, no blackbirds come to grief. It is an odd and anomalous film in a set that otherwise uses fairly traditional techniques, though the animation on Bob in the Pound and Dustbin Parade is quite impressive, given the straitened resources.
These films provide an invaluable insight into the minutiae of domestic life during the Second World War. Their overall impact is to make the viewer feel intense gratitude for the sacrifices of our grandparents’ generation. These were not just the obvious, immense sacrifices that war brings with it (the loss, temporary or permanent, of friends and family members) but also thousands of smaller ones: the foregoing of enjoyable food, new clothes, a pint, and many other small pleasures, the coming to terms with a suddenly much bleaker existence. This could and did lead to a melancholy which lasted long after the war, and which the chirpy hectoring of these films does not altogether succeed in hiding. It sometimes seems that the fact of ultimate victory leads to a retrospective distortion of the way ordinary people experienced the war (as satirised so brilliantly by Beyond the Fringe’s Aftermyth of War). It was, in fact, a very long, cold winter. --Isabel Taylor