An 11-minute film, made 70 years ago, sums up just what it means to be Bri­tish

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - OPERA -

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.

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