In this post, project fellow Hollie Price looks at the depiction of the Ministry's film production in Their Finest.

Currently in cinemas is Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig), a drama focussing on the trials and tribulations of film propaganda production during the Blitz, in which central character Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is employed to help write a full-length feature film to inspire the nation. In one sequence, a Christmas-time air raid forces Cole to shelter in an underground station. The scene cuts between shots of Cole sheltering surrounded by crowds and her co-writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) working on the script back in their shared office. 

The sequence is accompanied by ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, concurrently played on a trumpet in the underground station and sung by a choir on the office wireless. The sound of the carol serves as a romantic bridging between the community of people brought together by the Blitz at Christmas time and living through a time of danger together, and the office as the site for Catrin’s newfound creativity and contribution to the war effort through propaganda filmmaking. This scene directly references the tube sequence from the MoI’s 1941 film Christmas Under Fire, a similarly poetic sequence aimed to create sympathy for the British cause with American audiences (which I explored on this blog last year).

The film maintains this romantic celebration of the MoI Films Division’s efforts during the war, weaving facts into its fiction. Catrin is a fictionalised version of Diana Morgan, Ealing Studios’ only female scriptwriter. Morgan co-wrote Go to Blazes (1942), an MoI-sponsored short explaining how to deal with incendiary bombs starring Will Hay and a young Thora Hird, and feature films such as The Foreman Went to France and Went the Day Well? (both 1942), which either ‘carried the MoI stamp of approval’ or were ‘thoroughly consonant with MoI policies’.[1] In the Ministry, Roger Swain (played by Richard E. Grant) stands for Jack Beddington. Beddington headed the Films Division from April 1940 until the end of the war and has become renowned – in various accounts of the Division’s work – for his diplomatic prowess, cooperating with both the commercial film industry and members of the documentary movement to foster a valuable creative climate for filmmakers.[2] 

In Their Finest, it is this climate which provides the opportunity for Catrin to co-write a propaganda film. In reality, inside the Films Division based at Senate House, the influence of women on film production was highly restricted. In the production section – which planned programmes for film production, selected film units and directors, and worked on scripts and ideas – the senior positions were all occupied by men. Film historian Sue Harper indicates that there would not have been any women present at meetings of the ‘Ideas Committee’ held in the Division, where writers, directors and producers met to plan films to fit with propaganda aims.[3] Women were limited to secretarial roles and research assistant jobs, and only attained (slightly) more senior positions levels in film distribution rather than in production. 

Nonetheless, women worked in a variety of capacities outside Senate House – for the units commissioned by the Ministry to make films and for the Crown Film Unit, the Ministry’s own production arm. Women worked as directors (of documentaries and short films, not features), screenwriters, art directors, continuity girls, and negative cutters, and as production managers, assistants, typists, librarians and accountants.[4] Although they very much remained a minority in influential creative positions in these units, the variety of roles for women in the film industry was cautiously celebrated in Modern Woman and Modern Home magazine in 1942, which declared ‘These Women go to the Movies – to Work’, exploring the work of Dora Wright, production manager of the Crown Film Unit, Margaret Bonnar, casting director at Ealing Studios, and Joan England, a camera operator at Ealing.[5] In Their Finest’s imagined version of these new opportunities for women, Catrin is able to make her mark.

A second blog, exploring Their Finest’s depiction of the public response to MoI-sponsored films, will follow next week.

[1] Harper, Sue Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (London: Continuum, 2000) p.35

[2] Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007).p.7; Chapman, James The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 (London: I.B. Tauris, First Pub. 1998, 2011) p.34; IWM Recorded Interview 6235 Sidney Lewis Bernstein (1982), British civilian film adviser worked for Ministry of Information Films Division, 1939-45.

[3] Harper, Sue Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (London: Continuum, 2000) p.31

[4] Williams, Melanie ‘A Feminine Touch? Ealing Women’ Ealing Revisited (London: Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of BFI, 2012) pp.185-94 p.186 INF 1/460-2 Crown Film Unit: Staff Complement and Salaries, 1940-2

[5] ‘These Women Go to the Movies – to Work’, Modern Woman and Modern Home (May 1942)