‘This is London Calling’: Whose Britain are we listening to in Listen to Britain?

Kathryn Robinson

Kathryn Robinson

In the first of a series of blogs by students taking the Sites and Sources of Modern Britain module on our MBS MA Programme, MBS member Kathryn Robinson reflects on Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain and the use of film in historical research. You can find more about the MA programme here.

During the Second World War, the stirring melody of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G could be heard echoing against the empty walls of the National Gallery. At the piano was renowned pianist Myra Hess. When she embarked upon the intricate piano part, the members of the audience were listening to a woman with a Germanic name playing a piece by an Austrian composer in their lunch hour before resuming their war work to help secure Britain’s victory. A strange situation to say the least!

The aim of Listen to Britain was to capture the various sounds of Britain at war in a narrative form. From the outset, it is crucial to notice that it is as much about what the viewer sees as what they hear. Apart from a National Gallery concert, the film features tanks thundering through a rural village; women working in factories; Flanagan and Allen’s rhythmic swaying to accompany their singing of ‘Round the Back of the Arches’ in a workers’ canteen and a rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’ as the film finishes.

In 1942, the USA had joined the war on the allied side, the allies had secured important military victories and the initial stages of the Blitz, though utterly devastating, had largely passed. There was much to boost morale but there were still many reasons why the morale of the nation needed boosting. It was as part of this atmosphere that Humphrey Jennings created Listen to Britain.

The Crown Film Unit, part of the Ministry of Information, produced films as part of a cinema programme because the MOI recognised cinema’s potential to ‘further the national cause’ and to ‘sustain civilian morale’. [2] Jennings had already helped to create Mass-Observation before the war which allowed the MOI to study morale. The popularity of his films meant that a certain portrayal of Britain was successfully being given to his audiences.

herefore, when viewing Listen to Britain it is important to ask three questions. Whose Britain are we listening to? Then, whose Britain is missing? And finally, when these questions have been answered, what are the ways that this film can be used as a source for modern British history? Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that we are listening to Jennings’s vision of Britain but the film has more complexity than this conclusion gives.

Britain as a concept is presented in a fascinating way in the film. As was often the case during the war, ‘Britain’ was synonymous with England or London. The broadcaster announcing ‘This is London calling’ and the chimes of Big Ben puts London at the centre of British identity. Although footage of mining and factory work is shown, its exact location in Britain is unclear and this ambiguity excludes references to Britain’s component parts.

From Canadian soldiers singing ‘Home on the Range’ to the National Gallery concert, the film creates the paradoxical situation in which ‘listening to Britain’ is actually listening to Britain’s global links. It was also shown in the USA and some were concerned that the film would make Britain look like a museum piece. [3] However, the addition of the foreword – Leonard Brockington K.C. praising Britain for its determination in the face of conflict, heard in ‘the sound of her life by day and by night’ – ensured the clarity of the film’s motives.

Thirdly, the film presents a relatively prosperous wartime Britain. It shows people getting on with their lives whether at work or in leisure time and the three shots of a workers’ canteen menu board during one scene is just one example which shows Jennings’s desire to show Britain succeeding in the war.

However, listening to prosperous wartime Britain reveals the most obvious omission from the film. Apart from broken windows and sandbags in the National Gallery, it fails to portray the devastation caused by air-raids or their impact on the British people. This suggests that the story of the victims of war is missing from this portrayal of Britain; the theme of the ‘Blitz spirit’ is more prominent than a struggle in the face of devastation.

It is also startling in a film entitled ‘Listen to Britain’ during the Second World War that excerpts from the speeches of Winston Churchill are not heard. Indeed, apart from the chimes of Big Ben, there is no reference to the government at all. This however can be understood in the context of Jennings’s aim to show the ordinary lives of the British people seen both in his films and in the work of Mass-Observation.

The film’s omissions lead to how this film can be used as a historical source. They enable us to assess how true a representation of wartime Britain the film was. Bomb damage was not included in the film so as not to damage morale and this is another way in which the film could be used: to understand what Jennings and the Crown Film Unit believed would improve the morale of the British people.

This film also gives material for an analysis of power relations in British society between the film-makers, government, cinema and the people. In analysing the power of films to make people react in a certain way, we must not forget the agency all audiences of visual material have and we must not assume that the vision of Britain given to the audience by Humphrey Jennings was necessarily the same vision interpreted by those who watched it. [4]

Most importantly, this film must be considered alongside other wartime propaganda films and more broadly, the documentary movement’s developments through the work of John Grierson, the EMB and GPO. For instance, Jennings’s films London Can Take It (1940) and Harry Watt’s Christmas Under Fire (1941) portray the devastation of and responses to air-raids in ways that Listen to Britain does not.

Earlier documentary films such as Drifters (1929) and North Sea (1938) enable us to trace the movement’s wider aim to portray the lives of ordinary people, particularly in areas other than the south of England. These can also enable us to see technological and stylistic developments, from the way scenes were shot to the journey from silent film to artistic or docu-drama style films.

Putting these elements together presents us with a film that is both necessary to meet the objectives of wartime propaganda and therefore specific to its period whilst also being on a longer continuum of technological and genre-specific development.

 Listen to Britain is a clever and richly detailed film and as such, there are many ways in which it can be used. Ultimately, by asking questions about how Britain is being portrayed and where the film fits in with other similar sources, we can better understand the nature of the society in which it was originally shown and the historiography of modern Britain.

[1] A. Aldgate and J. Richards, Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War (London, 2007), p.4.

[2] J. Leach, ‘The Poetics of Propaganda: Humphrey Jennings and Listen to Britain’, in B. Grant and J Sloniowski, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video (Detroit, 1998)

[3] Foreword to Listen to Britain by Leonard Brockington K.C.

[4] See S.Hall, ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse: Paper for the Council of Europe Colloquy on “Training in the Critical Reading of Televisual Language”’, Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, September 1973.

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