Listen to Britain: Now and then

I can’t wait to see what Listen to Britain inspires in today’s budding filmmakers, occupying a very different media landscape, using very different technology, reacting to a very different society.

30 January 2017
By Patrick Russell
Patrick heads the BFI National Archive’s non-fiction curatorial team, responsible for building, managing and interpreting the UK’s national collection of documentary and non-fiction filmmaking.

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Listen to Britain (BFI National Archive)
An early treatment for Listen to Britain was entitled The Music of War, asking: Do you think that modern war has no music? That mechanisation has banished harmony and that, because her life is for the moment so grim, Britain no longer thinks of singing? What an error. Listen…
 
Such is the film’s invitation to its 1942 viewers: those on the home front, whose morale it was intended to boost; and those abroad (particularly in the United States) whose thinking it was intended to influence. It is both a film of its time and oddly timeless. Listen… 
 
Listen to Britain was co-directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister. They belonged to the British Documentary Film Movement which combined four interests:
 
One, an interest in film form: They believed in filmmaking that was neither fictional entertainment nor mere recording of non-fiction or newsreel images, favouring instead ‘creative treatment of actuality’: crafted shooting and editing of documentary images to make a statement about their subject.
 
Two, an interest in film use: They believed film should play a part in society, representing on screen the everyday lives ignored by commercial cinema, and using film to illuminate the interconnections of a society divided by class, political opinion and the effects of economic depression. Sound familiar?
 
Three, a model for film funding: Their films were paid for by state, charity and industry. What today we may think of as ‘propaganda’ was judged a progressive alternative to commercial filmmaking. During World War 2, the Ministry of Information sponsored hundreds of short films – including Listen to Britain. 
 
Four, a means of film distribution: Though some documentary films were shown in cinemas, their prime distribution was ‘non-theatrical’: to village halls, mess halls, work canteens… Before television, this was an important civic space for non-commercial screen content. And guess what? Today, that space has been reborn: it’s called the Internet.   
 
Jennings, a painter and writer as well as filmmaker, has often been described as the documentary movement’s greatest ‘poet’, turning propaganda into textured, lyrical evocations of Britain at war. His close collaborator McAllister was a master of ‘associative’ editing, creating patterns of images juxtaposing or reinforcing one another, becoming far more than the sum of their parts.  
 
In Listen to Britain disparate images and sounds together evoke a typical day in the life of Britain 75 years ago. Accompanied by music, both highbrow (classical) and popular (music hall), a complex, hesitant harmony emerges to say something far deeper about its subject than its commissioners could have expected. 
 
I can’t wait to see what Listen to Britain inspires in today’s budding filmmakers, occupying a very different media landscape, using very different technology, reacting to a very different society - but, perhaps, sharing some of the same underlying concerns. 
 
Look… and listen… 
 
 
References: 
 
You can watch Listen to Britain here and find out more about BBC Four and BFI NETWORK's short film grants here.