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Listen to Britain (1942)


Main image of Listen to Britain (1942)
35mm, black and white, 19 mins
DirectorsHumphrey Jennings
 Stewart McAllister
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
ProducerIan Dalrymple
PhotographyH.E. Fowle

Foreword: Leonard Brockington

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Images and sounds of wartime Britain, including Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen singing at a lunchtime concert at a munitions factory, and Myra Hess playing at the National Gallery.

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Documentary, public information film, morale booster; propaganda film - these are descriptions that could be applied to many of the 10 to 20 minute shorts that flourished and reached a peak of expression in the 1930s and '40s. Humphrey Jennings' films covered the whole of the Second World War in Britain. His quiet, emotive style produced some of the most memorable film images of the War; those from London Can Take It (1940), Listen To Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943) being of particular note. Those titles, for the GPO and Crown Film Unit, were American funded and were equally for American and British release.

Listen To Britain's title might suggest a strong sound element. There are the very recognisable sounds that one might expect in a wartime film: the evocative thunder of the 1000 horse power Rolls Royce Merlin engines of Spitfires and Lancasters, the cacophony of wartime heavy industry - tank factories, steel works, steam trains - but also the sounds of music; the egalitarian free classical music concerts, and radio; Workers' Play Time, Flanagan and Allen performing live at a lunchtime factory concert.

But it is the images, particularly the studies of people, that are the real star. The gaunt, tired faces in this most desperate part of the war seem only slightly aware that Jennings' camera is there. In a factory, a young woman handles heavy precision metal drilling/cutting machinery, almost in a trance, her body and hands skilfully heaving the heavy equipment into precise position. At a concert, another young woman, standing against the wall alone, stares through or past the camera. She is defiant, self assured, independent. We know with hindsight that in the comparative austerity and repression of the immediate postwar period, women would not enjoy the same limited equalities, liberty and sexual freedom that they did in the war (see, for example, Brief Encounter, d. David Lean, 1945).

The editing in Listen To Britain is trademark Jennings: simple comparisons between scenes from everyday life and the manic, unreal struggle of the war effort.

Ewan Davidson

*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. Ballroom (1:23)
2. This is London calling (1:00)
3. Flanagan and Allen (1:42)
4. Lunchtime concerts (2:30)
Complete film (19:12)
Of Time and the City (2008)
Today in Britain (1964)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
Krish, John (1923- )
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Crown Film Unit