“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”
On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.
There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927): just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.
Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.
The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations
First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.
This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers
“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”
So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.
There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.
Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.
Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.
The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.
Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.
The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.
The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.
The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination. The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.
The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .
The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.
The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.
The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.
And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.
The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.
The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.
It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.
All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.