by Allan Fish
(UK 1942 19m) DVD1/2
The pulse of a nation
p Ian Dalrymple d Humphrey Jennings w Stewart McAllister, Humphrey Jennings ph H.E.Fowle ed Humphrey Jennings
Humphrey Jennings’ output at the Crown Film Unit during the war has long been the subject of critical eulogy, the sort of independent vision that draws both awe and wonder. Listen to Britain is his greatest miniature time capsule, a film that demands viewing for anyone inquiring as to the mood of a nation at war. It’s best summed up by the superb foreword of Leonard Brockington. “I am a Canadian. I have been listening to Britain. I have heard the sound of her life, by day and by night. Many years ago a great American, speaking of Britain, said that in the storm of battle and conflict she had a secret vigour and a pulse like a cannon. In the great sound picture that is here presented, you too will hear that heart beating. For blended together, in one great symphony, is the music of Britain at war; the evening hymn of the lark; the roar of spitfires; the dancers in the great ballroom at Blackpool; the clank of machinery and shunting trains; soldiers of Canada holding in memory, in proud memory, their home on the range; the BBC sending truth on its journey around the world. The trumpet call of freedom. The war song of a great people. The first sure notes of the march of victory, as you and I listen to Britain.”
From the opening shots of the cornfields and swaying trees under the noise of the overhead spitfires, this is a film of contrasting sounds combining to produce imagery that equates to poetry. Dancers at Blackpool sing ‘Roll out the Barrel’ while soldiers guard the top of the tower above and look out to sea; people at play contrast with the war outside; concerts are performed by HM Forces orchestras and Flanagan and Allen sing ‘Underneath the Arches’. Even the choice of classical music is apt for the proceedings. Nothing is left to chance, for to have one shot out of place, the slightest conspicuous noise, would destroy the cine-poem’s structure. This is a picture those of my generation cannot hope to really feel, a time when the sounds and rhythms of the radio brought news, hope and comfort to the nation en masse. Of course we all have our memories of radio broadcasts of old, from Edward VIII’s abdication to Chamberlain’s declaration of war, from Churchill’s morale boosters to Alastair Cooke’s letters from America, and from the light-hearted awfulness of Mirabel Topham’s 1952 Grand National commentary to the Test Match specials of John Arlott and Brian Johnston. All of them broadcasts that everyone who heard them will never forget. Many of us may have asked our grandparents about the war and how it affected them, what life was like and what kept them going through this darkest of hours. Some would understandably not talk about it, but anyone who lived through it and may recall the documentaries of Humphrey Jennings would recommend tracking down this film. Jennings manages, in merely nineteen minutes, to capture the essence of Britain at war, the pulse of a nation. A nation that has always been proud of is heritage, personified by Jennings’ shot of Nelson looking down from his column calling on the lion statues beneath him to rise up for Britain as Eisenstein’s did for the Russians in The Battleship Potemkin.
Listen to Britain may not document an event as did his and Harry Watt’s London Can Take It did of the 1940 blitz, but rather captures something much subtler but no less imperative. It tries to preserve for posterity a whole way of life. Not just a factor of it like the fictional The Good Companions and Sing as we Go did in the thirties, or hail a particular facet of the British wartime resolve as did In Which we Serve, The Way Ahead and The Way to the Stars. Worthy though those latter three films are, they may show the people of Britain at war, but somehow fall short of Jennings’ achievement in the eyes of posterity. Listen to Britain represents not only Jennings’ crowning glory and that of the Crown Film Unit and its head Ian Dalrymple, but the greatest British documentary made during the war. Considering the likes of Western Approaches, Desert Victory, Target for Tonight, The True Glory and his own A Diary for Timothy, that’s one hell of an accolade in anyone’s language.