Free-ads - Forum News and columns Features & Interviews Film links Calendar dates for festivals Contact details Statistical Info Funding Info
site web
About Netribution Contact Netribution Search Netribution
interviews / reviews / how to / short shout / carnal cinema / film theory / whining & dining
netribution > features > essays >

by peter holland | january 28th, 2000

Listen to Britain: Humphrey Jennings & John Grierson

The 1930s are generally seen as a period of increased social conscience and introspection, a time when ‘the country turned inward, and concerned itself more with its own ills than the cares of the world’1. Housing Problems (GB, 1935, Edgar Anstey & Arthur Elton) was made against this context, and played off the ‘indignation about unemployment, about malnutrition, about the bad housing at the time’2. By 1942, Britain was in the midst of war, and the films of this period are ‘premised on the danger of defeat’ and aimed to ‘create an image of a diverse but united nation, whose multiple sources of energy are being harnessed to a single life and death struggle.’3 In Listen to Britain (GB, 1942, Humphrey Jennings) we see this diverse nation, united through music, work, leisure, and most importantly, the war effort.

Unlike documentaries before it, Housing Problems chose to describe the problems of its subjects in their own words. This was perhaps the first time the British viewer had seen the poverty and living conditions of the working class. From the titles we are taken in to a derelict world with a ‘voice of God’ style narration. This upper middle class voice presents a dichotomy with the working class dialect of the film’s subjects, providing a point of association for the intended middle class audience. Andrew Higson suggests it also acts to separate the subject from the viewer: ‘that voice intervenes between the spectator and the diegesis, keeping us at a distance from the working-class victims of the film’4. The narrator acts as our guide, introducing all the early images with a description of the contents: ‘here are some pictures…’, ‘here are examples…’, ‘here’s a typical interior of a decayed house’ and ‘now for the people who have to live here’. The effect is akin to watching a slide show presentation with a speaker providing the link between alien visuals and the viewer.

This ‘show and tell’ technique couldn’t be further from Humphrey Jennings’ style in Listen to Britain where voice-over and interview is abandoned in favour of a seamless flow of images, sound and music. We are still given an introduction to the film from a figure of authority, Leonard Brockington. Like the upper middle class narrator in Housing Problems, Brockington differs from the subjects of the film in that he is a Canadian, and this use of an outsider helps to give the film a sense of objectivity whilst providing a bridge to the intended international audience. With neither interview or narration to present a narrative, Jennings uses a continuous juxtaposition of images and sound spanning all ages and class in both rural and urban Britain to portray ‘a context in which war seems almost a natural disaster which fosters a single spirit of unity binding the whole people together.’5

This sense of spirit is echoed in Housing Problems where the tenants are portrayed as both articulate and resilient. They describe the problems of their environment with neither a note of self pity or militant outrage, accepting their difficulties and hoping for something better soon. Despite the standards of their accommodation, those interviewed still seemed to take pride in it, being filmed in front of mantelpieces and pictures. In one particularly revealing shot we see a woman beating the dust from a door mat only for it to blow back in her face. This image underlines the hopelessness of their conditions; regardless of their desire to uphold standards, they are limited in doing so by the housing.

The interviews are conducted direct to camera, with no voice of the interviewer. This helps the verité feel of the film, giving a reality to the people and their surroundings. The camera tends to keep a distance from the subjects, varying from medium long shot to medium close up, but never closer. The interview with Mrs Hill is lit strikingly from beneath, sending shadows up the wall behind her. In this case the wall takes up a disproportionate amount of the frame, and the effect is a sense of her being overwhelmed and diminished by her surroundings. This method of composition is common throughout the film, with subjects often taking an unnaturally small proportion of the frame, hence giving the viewer an emotional distance from the interviews.

Listen to Britain opens with pastoral images of trees and a field of corn. A sense of foreboding is created as the rumble of spitfires interrupts the song of birds. As the planes pass overhead it is clear that the threat of war is not stopping Britain at work as we see workers pull up potatoes and a tractor continue to mow the corn. This theme is continued throughout, juxtaposing unhindered work and leisure with preparations for an attack. A ballroom of dancers in Blackpool is contrasted with soldiers on the sea front on the lookout for attack; a playground with children innocently playing against images of tanks driving through a quiet town.

From the introduction, the viewer is told that they shall be hearing ‘the music of Britain at war’. Jennings sets out to show how throughout Britain music is a unifying factor across boundaries of class, age and position. In a particularly clever cut we move from a performance by Flanagan and Allen before servicemen, women and workers to a Myra Hess recital before the Queen; the music blending seamlessly between the two contrasting styles. The queen is shown only in passing, and with the same regard Jennings has for the nameless faces in the worker’s canteen. We see soldiers on a railway carriage singing along to a guitar, and women at work singing to the radio. This helps emphasise that the people of Britain are setting to their work fearlessly and in good spirit, and that it is music which unites them. A sense of Britain as an industrial machine which continues to operate regardless is gained from the sounds of steam engines, signals and the factory.

In comparison to the bravura style of Jennings' films, which creatively interprets and re-presents actuality, Housing Problems was criticised at first for lacking enough ‘directorial intervention and guidance and shaping of the material’6. However, this unobtrusive, cinema verité style gives the interviews a greater realism and sincerity. There is no doubt in the viewer’s minds that these are real people, speaking freely in their own words. The only break in this style of film making comes at the end with a montage of dialogue tracks. Snippets of each of the interviews are amalgamated to give a stream of anonymous voices reinstating the problems already addressed. The final comment, ‘they don’t always look at that, do they?’ could be seen as a reference to the fact this was the first expose of its kind.

Housing Problems presents us with a problem, and midway through the documentary, we are shown a solution. By the end, the issues raised feel to a large extent resolved and we are told there is a ‘reason to hope’. With hindsight it is easy to recognise that the solutions offered were little better than the existing problems: the Quarry Hill estate in Leeds, which was proclaimed in the film as an excellent piece of planning, became infamous for its squalor. Conversely, Listen to Britain makes no attempt at presenting a problem and solving it, indeed, the film’s purpose is to emphasise the very lack of a problem. Britain is pedestalled as a united, fearless and hardworking nation; in the midst of a war, but thriving.

It is important to remember that both films were made with an agenda other than the filmmaker’s. In Housing Problems, the directors succeeded in persuading the British Commercial Gas Association that you could ‘identify a big organisation with social purpose, to the advantage of both’7. The gas company is presented in a positive light shown to solve the problems of slum housing, in the same way Listen to Britain presents a portrait of Britain which would serve the Crown Film Unit’s purpose overseas of showing a united and positive Britain. Hence we see no sign of ration books, evacuees or destroyed buildings. Where contemporary documentaries would offer a voice of dissent to appear balanced in their presentation, Listen to Britain is to a large extent a propaganda piece. Similarly, Housing Problems is devoid of interviews with the politicians responsible for the conditions in the slums, beyond Councillors Lordy, who, in voice, over shows simply a knowledge of, and sympathy for, the situation. The absence of any suggestion of potential problems in the offered solutions is uncomfortable given the film sponsor’s involvement with the projects.

In many ways the two films could hardly be more diversive. Listen to Britain is wide ranging in it’s subjects, presenting a poetic montage of sounds and image to create a portrait of unity across the country. Housing Problems is more narrow in its focus, using narration to support the visuals, and a style which is much closer to actuality. Both, however, were made with the intent of their sponsors in mind, and portrayed with passion the strength of the British spirit in difficult times.


Elizabeth Sussex - The Rise and Fall of British Documentary (University of California Press, London, 1975)

Roy Armes - Documentary at War: Humphrey Jennings in A Critical History of British Cinema (Secker and Warburg, London, 1982)

Geoffrey Nowel-Smith - ‘Humphrey Jennings, Surrealist observer’ in All our Yesterdays (ed Charles Barr, BFI Publishing, London, 1986)

Andrew Higson - ‘The Documentary Realist Tradition’ in All our Yesterdays (ibid)

Charles Loch Mowatt - Britain between the wars 1918-1940 (Methuen, London 1955)

Quentin Tarantino - Use of Music
by Laurence Boyce

Stanley Kubrick - Shooting the Magic
by Jonathan Key

Scorsese and Eastern Mysticism
by Seamus Enright

Is Catwoman a Replicant? - Tim Burton and the New Bad Future
by Jonathan Davenport

An Analysis of the Opening of Fargo
by Jonathan Davenport

Boxing Clever - essay on Raging Bull
by Lisa Sabbage

Vladimir Propp and the Universality of Narrative
by Will da Shamen

Le Mepris and The Modernist Aesthetic
by Will da Shamen

Gilliam's Battle for Brazil
by Laurence Boyce

Nikita & The Assasin - Hollywood vs Europe
by Will da Shamen

Jerry Bruckheimer and the 'New Economy'
by Seamus Enright

Getting Away With It - Morality and Violence in the films of John Woo
by Laurence Boyce

Visual Meaning in The Third Man
by Rich Swintice

Listen to Britain: Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson
by Rich Swintice

The Cinephilia of Le Mepris
by Rich Swintice

The Truman Show and Three Colours Red: European vs American allegory
by Rich Swintice

Copyright © Netribution Ltd 1999-2002
searchhomeabout usprivacy policy