Promises, Promises: A Set of Documentary Films from 1930 to 1950 Shows a Britain in Which Equality Is So near as to Feel within Grasp. Nostalgia Is Hard to Avoid, Writes Lynsey Hanley

By Hanley, Lynsey | New Statesman (1996), April 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

Promises, Promises: A Set of Documentary Films from 1930 to 1950 Shows a Britain in Which Equality Is So near as to Feel within Grasp. Nostalgia Is Hard to Avoid, Writes Lynsey Hanley


Hanley, Lynsey, New Statesman (1996)


It is tempting--too tempting--to play the game of "what might have been", or to feel nostalgic for something that never happened. A vast new box set from the British Film Institute, Land of Promise, which collects the most notable films of documentary-makers working between 1930 and 1950, is a compendium of what-ifs, in which the idea of a fair and equal Britain, one brought about by war but created in peace, seems so real and near as to feel graspable. In these richer but once more unequal times, it is hard to avoid nostalgia.

The proselytising tone of the British documentary movement was set by John Grierson, a member of the Empire Marketing Board and later founder of the General Post Office film unit. He served as producer on many of these films collated and beautifully restored by the BFI, but his true role was as a mentor and evangelist for documentary film as a tool of social democracy. The movement reached its ideological peak towards the end of the Second World War, when the prospect of monumental change was brought giddyingly close by the Beveridge report.

In Humphrey Jennings's A Diary for Timothy, made in the closing months of the war, E M Forster's emotive script addresses a real baby, born on the fifth anniversary of 3 September 1939. Timothy, "born in a nursing home near Oxford, very comfortable", is a British, middle-class, and therefore extremely lucky, war baby: "If you'd been born in wartime Holland or Poland, or in a Liverpool or Glasgow slum, this would be a very different picture. All the same, you're in danger. You're in danger, Tim!"

The war against fascism was all but won, but the fight to remake British society by slaying the "five giants" of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want was at its very beginning. When Goronwy, a Welsh miner featured in the film whose working conditions embody the need for root-and-branch postwar social change, breaks his arm during a shift, he is seen groaning on a stretcher as his comrades carry him to the doctor, from whom he immediately requests "a fag".

The narrator adds, gloomily: "It's pretty shocking, isn't it, that this sort of thing should still happen every day, though we've been cutting coal for 500 years. Something else for you to think of." The inference is that it's all up to Timothy's generation, who would come to be known as the baby boomers and would now be regarded variously as the most idealistic but also the least mature, and the most greedy, generation so far. "Are you going to have greed for money and power oust decency from the world as they have in the past? Or are you going to make the world a different place--you and all the other babies?"

It's not surprising that the parents of Timothy and those children born around the same time might have indulged their offspring in the desire to ensure that their postwar lives bore as little resemblance as possible to those of the pre-war years. Goronwy's children would be discouraged vigorously from following him down the pit, and would form a large caucus of working-class grammar-school children from South Wales to enter university and the professions in the 1950s and 1960s. Boys of Timothy's background would enter the BBC and ultimately strip it of the ascetic Calvinism shared by Grierson and the corporation's founder, John Reith.

Paul Rotha's Land of Promise (1946), the longest and arguably the most ambitious piece in this collection, is, like A Diary for Timothy, pitched firmly at the heart and soul, yet is replete with persuasive facts detailing the disastrous effects of speculative property-building on the interwar supply of affordable rented housing. John Mills, as narrator, is the rational counterpoint to a chorus of complacent and defeated archetypes who refuse to look the disgrace of bad housing, and the people forced by circumstance to live in it, in the eye.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was by no means the first film to set its camera squarely on squalor in the hope of shocking those with the power and money to banish it into action.

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