This is the second blog from postdoctoral research fellow Hollie Price following the recent release of Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig), which centres on fictional screenwriter Catrin Cole’s role co-writing a feature film in London during the Blitz.

 In the face of bureaucratic restraints and reflecting some of the real-life demands made on the MoI’s Films Division, Their Finest depicts the trials of making a feature-length propaganda film in wartime. Director Lone Scherfig describes how ‘we tried only to use technology you could have used then, so the light is inspired by the lighting of the time – the compositions too’.[1] These compositions include glimpses of the dusky bright colours of the clouds and seascape in the background of a boat scene, evoking the visuals of the Crown Film Unit’s Technicolor Western Approaches (1944). The actors’ struggle to re-enact a trip to Dunkirk from the murky waters of a studio tank recalls the images of Noel Coward and the other actors in In Which We Serve (1942) doing much the same in order to create the film’s life raft scenes. (Indeed, whereas Bill Nighy’s character calls “I say, where are the rock cakes?”  from the tank, the cast from In Which We Serve were pictured having cups of tea during a break while still in the water).

When the final film made in Their Finest is shown playing in a cinema, a low-angle shot of two characters clasped together is a reminder of the famous shot of David Niven and Kim Hunter from the A Matter of Life and Death (1946), purported to be based on a recommendation made to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger by the MoI’s Jack Beddington that a ‘big film’ was needed to cement American-British relations.[2] The final film shown is very far from the style of British cinema of the period, with its American voiceover, romantic clichés and overacting. However, the small affectionate references to the visual style of British wartime features and the earlier scenes illuminating the filmmaking process ensure that Their Finest celebrates the creativity with which British film production continued during the war. 

The final MoI-sponsored feature film is shown playing to an enthralled audience: one audience member even mouths along to the words, declaring that she has seen it five times already. This contrasts with the opening scenes of the film, when another cinema audience is shown to struggle with an MoI-sponsored short called A Call for Arms (1940), which was made to encourage women to take up munitions work. Real footage from the short film is shown playing in a cinema but the members of the audience are variously sleeping, fidgeting, laughing derisively at the film’s dialogue or loudly describing it as ‘nonsense’. This scene was based on a response to A Call for Arms recorded by the manager of the Granada cinema in Woolwich, and sent to the Films Division’s Honorary Adviser Sidney Bernstein in 1940. The report states that the film is ‘rather naive in parts’, describing the response to one scene where

'The forewoman is shown as receiving a ‘phone message asking for a million bullets by the morning. She replies that the girls are dead-beat and can’t do any more. The workers, just knocking off after a long shift, overhear this; one shouts “Come on girls, it’s got to be done”, and there is a wild rush back to work. This was received by our audience, consisting of a very large portion of Arsenal workers, with satirical laughter and a chorus of "Oo”’s and “Oh Yeah”s![3]

At the time of the film’s release, a similar response in Glasgow was also used as a stick with which to beat the Films Division.[4] The fact that the machinery for dealing with women signing up for munitions work was not in place before the film’s release – and therefore those inspired by A Call for Arms to join up were not able to – worsened the Ministry’s early reputation for bumbling and lack of coordination.[5] However, the fact that some labour exchanges were reportedly unable to handle the influx of applicants for factory work suggests that A Call for Arms had some effect on encouraging audiences and were not solely treated with derision. Indeed, following his description of the negative response in Woolwich, the manager writing to Bernstein noted that ‘nevertheless, I would say that this short, which has a more direct and specific appeal than any of it’s predecessors, definitely succeeds in it’s object’.[6]

Basing the reception of the MoI shorts in cinemas on one instance of arsenal workers’ derision in 1940 dismisses the creativity that went into the shorts – which included live-action dramas or comedies, animations and documentaries, as well discounting the more nuanced audience response to them in reality. In 1941, Mass-Observation reported on audience responses to the shorts, suggesting that there were ‘roughly three appreciative comments on individual films for every two critical comments’.[7] Mass-Observation’s Tom Harrisson recalled that ‘our observations of films in general showed that Ministry of Information shorts were liked generally. They were usually treated with respect; they were never automatically put in a bad category; people were ready to love the good ones’.[8] Furthermore, a page briefly summarising the reports received from Granada managers in 1940 indicates a more varied response to the shorts, and a much warmer one, than that suggested in Their Finest. The snapshot of reports below show that the derisive response to A Call for Arms was one dramatic response among a much more varied, changeable and more positive reception: some short films were ‘well received’, had ‘excellent reports’ and, in the case of Channel Incident – a dramatic short film with similar themes to the feature film made in Their Finest, even prompted applause.[9]

Westward Ho – ‘This film is reported by all managers as being well received’

Britain at Bay – ‘Excellent reports especially Mr. Priestley’s commentary’

A Call for Arms – ‘Was not well received. In some districts the managers state it was received with derisive laughter’

Food for Thought – ‘Got a very poor reception all round.’

Miss Grant goes to the Door – ‘Just fair reception’

Albert’s Savings – ‘Well received’

Mr Borland Thinks Again – ‘Just average reception’

Sea Fort – ‘Greatly appreciated. Received applause’.

Yesterday is Over Your Shoulder – ‘Well received’

Channel Incident – ‘Excellent. Applause given’

[1] Stevens, Isabel Life During Wartime: Interview with Lone Scherfig, Sight and Sound (May 2017) p.45

[2] Powell, Michael A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1987) p.456

[3] IWM Sidney Bernstein Archive; Quoted in Evans, Lissa ‘Lissa Evans: how my novel about film-making was turned into a film’, The Guardian (22 April 2017)

[4] Chapman, James The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 (London: I.B. Tauris, First Pub. 1998, 2011) p.204

[5] ‘No Co-ordination’ Daily Mail (9 August 1940)

[6] IWM Sidney Bernstein Archive

[7] Richards, Jeffrey & Sheridan, Dorothy Mass-Observation at the Movies (London: Routledge, First Pub. 1987, 2014) p.422

[8] Harrisson, Tom ‘Films and the Home Front – the evaluation of their effectiveness by Mass-Observation’ in Pronay, Nicholas & Spring, D.W. Propaganda, Politics and Film, 1918-45 (London: The Macmillan Press, 1982) p.243

[9]IWM Sidney Bernstein Archive