SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
An 11-minute film, made 70 years ago, sums up just what it means to be British
Humphrey Jennings is thought to be one of the greatest documentary makers in British cinema. Unlike so much received wisdom, this fragment is absolutely true. He cut his teeth in the Thirties in the GPO Film Unit, most of whose personnel moved across in wartime to the Crown Film Unit, making subtle propaganda films. Jennings’ name is on some of their greatest films, such as Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, which are great because their message consists simply of telling the truth about how people were coping with war and the changes it brings.
All of Jennings’ films – some just a few minutes long – are valuable for their honesty and their humanity: nothing else gives so vivid a picture of life in the Forties. He died in 1950, accidentally falling over a cliff when sizing up a shot. One can only imagine what he might have done in another 20 or 30 years. His work is now all out on Blu-ray, including a gem I have always found the most moving of all, The Dim Little Island, just 11 minutes long.
In 1948, Jennings fretted about the collapse of morale in Britain after three years of a Labour government that was supposed to transform the nation’s values and standard of living. In practice, rebuilding was slow; industry lacked investment and innovation; rationing continued to bite; and there were signs that our defeated enemies were embarking on the future with a resolution missing in Britain.
So Jennings recruited four men to talk about why Britain was a wonderful country, and why its future was brighter than many feared. His participants were Osbert Lancaster, whose cartoons ran on the front page of the mass-circulation Daily Express; John Ormston, who ran Vickers, the shipbuilder and arms manufacturer; James Fisher, an ornithologist; and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Britain’s greatest living composer.
Lancaster suggests that the Britons of the age were ridiculous in their gloom, and that there was much to be cheerful about, if only they stopped whining and applied themselves to the obstacles ahead. Ormston, shot against footage of the Tyne, and the almost primitive environment of the workers there, addresses the post-war failure to mobilise industry – though he does not mention the threat of nationalisation, which was holding up investment. He says that the way industry picked itself up after the slump showed that it could do it again, if only management and workers pulled together. (This was optimism indeed, given the decades of miserable industrial relations that would follow.) Fisher talks about the natural beauty of Britain, taken for granted by many of his compatriots. Perhaps inevitably, Vaughan Williams steals the film, through the warmth of his voice and the serenity of his observations that there had been an uplift of “national consciousness” during the war, partly thanks to music.
Jennings uses Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
– which epitomised for the composer an idea of England – as the soundtrack for footage of the war, but also for scenes of choirs and orchestras perpetuating an idea of civilisation, and British phlegm, in the face of barbarism. Jennings is a genius: with few words, but with the perfect interaction of pictures and music, he creates an idea of the national spirit. Within a decade, a prime minister would tell our people they had never had it so good. Who is to say that Jennings’ optimism was misplaced?
Nostalgia is said to be one of the evils of our age: it implies being “backward looking” and “romantic”, two things that rational and intelligent people are supposed to avoid. Yet I defy any rational and intelligent person who has lived long in this country to watch this film and not to be overwhelmed by the sense that, in its short span, the director has communicated the most powerful idea imaginable of what it means to be British. Migrants to this country are made to take a written examination. They should be asked simply to watch this film instead.