The Case Of Listen To Britain

The British war documentary ranged from direct, narration-driven films such as Desert Victory (1943) to the nonnarrative treatment of Listen to Britain. Jennings's treatment of a Britain under assault from the air and under threat of invasion was unhurried and indirect. As Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier write,

It is a most unwarlike film. Its basic motivation is a balance between menace (to a culture rather than to material things) on the one hand and harmony and continuity from the past on the other. Images of menace are constantly juxtaposed with the images of the population's reactions. Almost all images gain complete meaning only when seen in context. Thus the fighter planes fly over harvesters and gunners in the fields, working side by side; the sandbags, empty frames and fire buckets at The National Gallery are intercut both with steady tracking shots of the calm faces of the audience or shots of people eating sandwiches or looking at paintings and accompanied by Mozart.1

Jennings was unique in his approach to the documentary. His colleagues at the Crown Film Unit, although they admired him, did not understand how he could achieve so great an impact in his films. As Pat Jackson, a colleague of Jennings, suggests, a good part of his success was achieved in the editing room: "Humphrey would interpret a situation in disconnected visuals, and he wouldn't quite know why he was shooting them, probably until he got them together. Then he created a pattern out of them. It was as though he were going out to collect all sorts of pieces, cut already, for a jigsaw puzzle, and wasn't quite certain about the picture that jigsaw puzzle was going to be until he had it in the cutting room, and here he was enormously helped by [Stewart] McCallister."2 This view is echoed by the producer of Listen to Britain, Ian Dalrimple,3 and the impact of the film abroad is discussed by filmmaker Edgar Anstey.4

The key to the success of Listen to Britain is its imaginative use of sound and image. As Paul Swann suggests, "[Jennings's] subtle cross structuring of sound and visual images instilled a uniquely poetic element in his films."5

Listen to Britain, a film of 21 minutes in length, does not focus on any particular character or event. It depicts wartime Britain with a focus on London, pastoral farmland, the industrial heartland, and the vulnerable coast. Jennings included shots of civilians at work and soldiers enjoying themselves in individual recreation and marching in organized columns as they pass through a small town. Many of the people included are women principally because the men were away at war. The film focuses on culture, both popular culture—a dance in Blackpool, luncheon entertainment by Flanagan and Allen—and high culture—Myra Hess performing Mozart at The National Gallery. Jennings also included sequences of individuals and groups passing the time by singing.

Throughout the film, work and leisure activities are presented in an unhurried fashion. Whether people are working on an assembly line manufacturing Lancasters or sitting in the audience listening to a lunchtime concert, there is no anxiety, only a concentrated involvement in the tasks of war and everyday life. The film gives the impression of a calm, strong, determined population, a population where the queen can sit at a lunchtime concert as one of her people rather than the cult of leadership central to the German propaganda film or, for that matter, the cult of ideology so central to the dramatic fabric of the American propaganda film. Jennings managed to transcend politics and economics to present a purely aesthetic, cultural response to the problem of war, and it's a very powerful response.

Central to the structure of Listen to Britain is a dialectic set of sequences. Each sequence interacts with the next through sound and juxtaposition. Pace is never relied on too heavily.

The film can be broken down into the following sequences:

1. Farming goes on in spite of the war.

2. Soldiers relax at the Blackpool dance hall.

3. The work for war goes on at night.

4. Canadian soldiers wait for an assignment.

5. The manufacture of the Lancaster bomber is ongoing.

6. Ambulance workers wait.

7. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) speaks to and for Britain in the world.

8. The work of war proceeds from dawn forward.

9. Families are left behind while loved ones go to war.

10. War workers are mostly women.

11. Popular performers entertain workers at the lunch halls.

12. Guest artists perform in museums at lunch.

13. War and great culture have intermingled in the past.

14. The British people serve in the factories and in the armed forces.

15. "Rule Britannia": the determination of a nation.

Every sequence reminds us that Britain is at war. In the first sequence, the rustle of the trees and of the wheat fields is complemented by the roar of a Spitfire flying overhead. Toward the end of that sequence, a shot of spotters at their posts on the coast facing the English Channel is a reminder of Britain's vigilance against potential invaders.

Either a sound effect or a visual acts as the reminder of war: soldiers in uniform at Blackpool, the morning march of civilians carrying helmets along with their lunch bags, the sandbags piled high against a tall window in The National Gallery. In one sequence, children play in the schoolyard of a sleepy town as if there were no war, but the shot of a woman looking at a photo of her uniformed husband and the sound of a motorized column moving through the town are reminders about how close the war is.

Between each of the first three sequences, Jennings referred to the spotters and those on guard watching the skies and the sea for the enemy. These shots support the idea that although the sequences may be about recreation or rural beauty, the real theme of the film is war. The waiting and watching and civilian preparation are part of the process of being at war. So is the ambulance service and the war manufacturing.

Gradually, Jennings shifted the focus from waiting for war to preparing for war. Beginning with the sequence that shows the manufacture of the Lancaster bomber, Jennings began to concentrate on the war effort. Sequences 5, 8, 10, and 14 are about the effort at home to prepare for war. Although less obvious, sequences 6, 9, 11, and 12 are also about people involved in the war effort. However, these sequences do not show them at work, but rather at lunch or listening to a noontime concert. Jennings seems to have been saying that the British know how to prepare for war, and they are confident enough to enjoy a respite from the lathe, the iron furnace, and the assembly line. The British value culture and companionship.

Sequences 7 and 13, the sequences about the BBC and about the past— Horatio Nelson and Trafalgar, the architecture of the Empire—all suggest the power and influence that is Britain. These two sequences rely heavily on sound. In sequence 7, a series of sound dissolves suggest not only that the BBC is important within England, but also that it reaches in every direction; the last sound reference, "This is the Pacific Services," represents the BBC's influence on the land, air, and merchant navy forces in that region. In sequence 13, the soaring orchestral treatment of Mozart's Concerto Piano Forte in C Major accompanies images of Trafalgar Square; the monument to Nelson seems almost to come alive as the dynamic cutting suggests a historical continuity that is irresistible in its power. In sequences 7 and 13, the abstract idea of Great Britain is a long-standing, far-reaching, and impregnable nation. Although nothing is said verbally, the juxtaposition of these sequences acts as an apex for the ideas arising out of the film as a whole. There is something emotional about Jennings's reliance on music in sequence 13. This sequence prepares us for the anthemlike quality of the last sequence, in which the manufacturing for war is presented to the sounds of "Rule Britannia."

A notable characteristic of Listen to Britain is the level of feeling Jennings achieved without the use of even a single close-up. Much of the film is presented in midshots and slow-moving shots.

Through the juxtaposition of sequences and a gradual build-up caused by the pattern of filming and editing, Jennings created a sense of Britain's invincibility. To appreciate how indirect his editing is, we must look at a single sequence. Many sequences are unified by a single piece of music, for example, the Blackpool sequence, the two lunchtime concerts, the sequence in which the Canadian soldiers are waiting. Other sequences are less obviously unified, for example, the sequence featuring the manufacture of the Lancaster bomber.

The transitional image of spotters watching for German planes dissolves to the sight and sound of a train pulling out of a station. The trains move without lights. The film cuts to the manufacture of an airplane and then to a Lancaster taking off. The film pans to an ambulance station, and we are into the next sequence.

This sequence is flanked by images of civilians preparing for war. In between, the images are of the production for war. The sound throughout highlights the natural sounds of the production process and of an airplane in flight. The sounds of the preceding and following sequences are overlapped to create a smooth flow into and out of the sequence. Although the sequence has no visuals in common with the preceding and following sequences, the sound overlaps provide continuity.

As is so often the case in the documentary, the continuity of ideas flows from the sound track. Jennings may juxtapose visual sequences to one another, but the ideas are more directly ordered by sound continuity. His approach is less direct, but nevertheless not confused, because the overall pattern of the juxtapositions has a sound continuity.

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