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Midsummer Day's Work, A (1939)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Midsummer Day's Work, A (1939)
35mm, black and white, 13 mins
Director (uncredited)Alberto Cavalcanti
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Producer (uncredited)Alberto Cavalcanti
CameraJonah Jones, James E. Rogers
CommentatorRobin Duff

During the summer of 1939, an underground cable is laid in the Chilterns between Amersham and Aylesbury.

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The ostensible subject of A Midsummer Day's Work is the laying of an underground telephone cable in the Chilterns, from Amersham to Aylesbury. It certainly shows the various stages and types of work activity involved in this project, from the initial drafting of the project, to the manual labour involved in its creation. However, within, and despite, its restricted and prosaic remit, A Midsummer Day's Work also works at another, more symbolic level, in conjuring up a sense of rural English pastoralism.

The film is replete with imagery of an idyllic English countryside, with the Chilterns being held up as emblematic of an English way of life which, in 1939, stands united and at peace in the face of the coming threat of war. The historical past is also conjured up here as part of this portrayal of a rural homeland, and we are, for example, shown the cottage in which Milton once lived, and the historical home of Sir Francis Drake.

The film also portrays the everyday activities of an English countryside at peace and at rest. For example, we see what the commentary refers to as a 'typical village of the Chilterns', and the everyday activities which go on therein during a June summer's day in which, as the commentary opines, the 'English countryside is at its best'.

Alberto Cavalcanti is often credited as director of A Midsummer Day's Work. However, his name does not appear in the film's title list at all, and nor is anyone else credited as the film's director. Nevertheless, there are some signs of his quixotic and mildly subversive influence at work here. For example, during a scene in which the hard physical labour of the cable laying is emphasised, the musical soundtrack unexpectedly departs from its prevailing lyrical style and takes on a more modernist, staccato-like accent. The overall effect here is to add an element of slightly surreal humour to what would otherwise be somewhat pedestrian subject-matter.

What is particularly interesting about A Midsummer Day's Work is the way in which the film transcends its rather uninteresting remit, in order to conjure up a gentle and enchanting portrayal of Englishness. The camera work is also of a high quality, containing some enchanting images of landscape. In this film, in 1939, England stands united, and at rest in its historic-natural heartland, calmly awaiting historic events soon to come.

Ian Aitken

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (11:37)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1939