Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Britain at Bay (1940)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Britain at Bay (1940)
35mm, black and white, 8 mins
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
SponsorMinistry Of Information
MusicRichard Addinsell
CommentatorJ.B. Priestley

A morale-boosting look at the greatness of Britain and the efforts of all classes to preserve her power and integrity.

Show full synopsis

This is a 'compilation film', meaning it is assembled out of footage from various sources: material shaped by editing but made meaningful by the viewpoint imposed upon it by commentary. A well-established form before 1939, the compilation documentary became tremendously useful in war.

Britain at Bay compiles instantly resounding landscape images: green and pleasant, dark and smoky. Big Ben, defiant even when filmed behind barbed wire: whoever took this shot may not have intended symbolism, but the editor certainly did. And Dover's white cliffs, not yet clich├ęd. Shots of sea and sky complement narrator J.B. Priestley's invocation of a national history so old it brushes eternity. Compiled in juxtaposition are the unnatural intrusions of war: the bombs, the refugees. And compiled in retort: Britain's forces, its voluntary services. Recruitment is specifically encouraged but the overriding purpose is simple - to boost morale.

Churchill's legendary "fight on the beaches" is quoted, and a shot found to illustrate every sub-clause. Some propaganda documentaries were seen only at home, some abroad. Britain at Bay was released to UK Cinemas and distributed overseas (as Britain on Guard). In both guises it speaks of unity. Priestley had socialist sympathies, but all ideologies were now subsumed. References to poor social conditions at home are soft-pedalled. The flattering characterisation of the British as a tolerant people who ask "only to be left to do what we like with our own", who "ask for nothing belonging to others" doesn't square with the biggest empire in history. But in 1940 something worse was being withstood. To express the heroism, and to feed it, was a cultural duty.

Patrick Russell

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

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Britain alone (2:04)
2. We shall fight (1:10)
Complete film (6:47)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1940