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Five and Under (1941)


Main image of Five and Under (1941)
35mm, black and white, 18 mins
DirectorDonald Alexander
Production CompanyPaul Rotha Productions
SponsorMinistry of Information
PhotographyJohn Page

Commentary: Beatrix Lehmann

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A look at the problems facing working mothers during World War II in finding somewhere to leave their young children during working hours.

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Five and Under opens with a title card stating that "Women are in the war as much as their men", then poses the question of what has happened to the children they would otherwise be looking after. Notwithstanding some problems with sound synchronisation, the film explores this question in a stylistically fluid way. Documentary footage of various child care arrangements is interspersed with scenes in which the 'Voice of God' narrator (in this case a female voice - that of character actress Beatrix Lehmann) interacts with various protagonists, from working mothers to nursery nurses, speaking direct to camera about their experiences.

Like many works from Britain's classic documentary era, Five and Under is by turns informative, analytical and emotive. As a public information film, it helpfully summarises the viewer's main options for childcare: baby minders, nursery schools and day nurseries. As a work of reportage, it touches fairly honestly on challenges such as under-staffing and child behavioural problems (in a striking sequence, a group of unattended children is seen beginning to run amok before a matron arrives and intervenes), and the inherent tragedy of the war itself (the interior scenes contrast with the frequent images of rubble-strewn streets). Finally, as a work of propaganda, it first indicts society ("We allowed two things to happen - slums and war"), then looks forward to a postwar Britain of greater social provision. The film thus betrays the broadly socialist sympathies of its makers such as director Donald Alexander. One of many films by Paul Rotha Productions for Britain's wartime coalition government, it even foreshadows the rhetoric and policies of the Labour government elected four years later.

For 21st century viewers, the progressive sentiments may be undermined by the unconscious sexism on display (the film clearly implies that the need for such widespread institutional childcare will diminish once mothers return to their rightful place at home). And like many products of Britain's documentary tradition, its representations of class are open to question (the portrayals of working-class women are less than convincing). But as a social document, it is not only of historical but also of topical interest. Today, as in 1941, many mothers work outside the home, whether from choice or necessity, and finding affordable and appropriate childcare is as big a problem as ever.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

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Video Clips
1. Not ready yet (3:31)
2. Wartime childcare (2:06)
3. Improving surroundings (1:52)
Complete film (15:32)
Alexander, Donald (1913-93)