Listen to Britain

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

This review is taken from a longer essay on Humphrey Jennings that appears in the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge (2006). 

At one level Listen to Britain (1942) is Humphrey Jennings’ definitive mass observation film, made up of a series of exquisitely chosen vignettes which give a vivid picture—and soundtrack—of life during wartime. Documentary had always been interested in portraying the dignity of work, and it was never so successful in this aim as it was here, when the most pressing labour was simply to survive, and to live decently in so doing. In a time when the possibility of death or loss was constant, Jennings and Stewart McAllister, (whose contribution as editor is so central that he is credited on the same card as the director) discover the sufficiency of simply looking, which reveals how precious plain processes, and regular people, can be.

This is not to say that Listen to Britain does not have its own complex depths; for all the matter we find in it, there still remains a great deal of art. The film’s commentary is not found within a narrator’s explicit and manipulative proclamations—it has no narrator at all—but in the much more subtle and open juxtapositions of intellectual montage. Here we find traces of Jennings’ surrealist affinities. The film proceeds by constant comparison, linking by mere proximity that which would at first seem to be completely unrelated. But as a number of prospects—the ballroom dancers in Blackpool, the Canadian soldiers in the transport train, the children in the schoolyard, the whistling workers in the canteen and the concert-goers in the National Gallery—pass before us, we begin to see unsuspected correlations.

The assertion that emerges out of these correspondences constitutes one of the central tenets of the documentary idea: regardless of his role, each honest worker—including the public-minded artist—is worthy of his hire, and he is part of an interdependent community. Listen to Britain gives us, in effect, the body of Britain, where the head can not say to the foot that it has no need of it. In fact we come to see that each member not only has its own utility, but its own beauty as well. The great Myra Hess, playing Mozart’s 17th piano concerto (German music, mark you), is in some ways as skilled, and in every sense only as important, as the factory girl who sings and smiles while she adeptly wraps a package of razors.

Out of a period in which, quite understandably, documentary films tended to be quite artlessly propagandistic, Jennings’s masterpiece can come to us as something of a shock. It has an assignment, as it were, and it fulfills it very successfully. But in addition to ministering to the morale of a beleaguered people, Listen to Britan is also so free and flowing, an exquisite aesthetic object, thoroughly informational, most stirring, but without any manipulation or compulsory means. Though thoroughly steeped in its time and place, it also stands as one of the most inspiringly timeless artifacts of this or, really, any war.