8th February 2008
I've recently read 'Mass Observation at the Movies' by Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).
Mass Observation is the organisation founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet and journalist Charles Madge and the documentary film maker, Humphrey Jennings, to create a kind of written documentary of their own times, and to study their own civilisation in much the same way as anthropologists studied other civilisations, for example the Pacific islanders of the New Hebrides, from where Tom Harrisson had recently returned.
Mass Observation archives are held at the University of Sussex and form a wealth of material for historians to draw on. Some of the material has been published and I've been particularly impressed by 'Nella Last's War: the Second World War Diaries of a Housewife' and three books edited by Simon Garfield, comprising extracts from diaries written for Mass Observation during and immediately after the war. I wrote about the first of these, (in the order in which they were published), 'Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain', in one of my first postings on this blog, two years ago.
I've also written extensively on this blog about one of the three founders of Mass Observation, the documentary film maker Humphrey Jennings, and his film about Germany after the war, 'A Defeated People.'
Jennings was involved with Mass Observation for only a short time, during the two years between founding Mass Observation in January 1937 and the start of the war in 1939. During this time he worked on two projects, a book about events on the day King George VI was crowned and 'Spare Time', a documentary film about what people did when they were not at work, in three industrial areas of Britain - South Wales, Tyneside and Lancashire.
During the war, Mass Observation undertook a few projects to study the reactions of cinema audiences. Firstly a report on Ministry of Information short films, dated 24 July 1941, analysing data from answers to the question: which were the best films and which the worst? "The most frequently praised film" by far, was Humphrey Jennings' 'London can take it' with 12 favourable mentions.
Secondly, Mass Observation issued a directive in November 1943, asking their panel of observers the question: "What films have you liked best during the past year? Please list six films in order of liking and give your reasons for liking them." In this case, the archives include not just a summary and analysis of the data, but the responses themselves. Most of them refer to feature films, but some people mention documentaries among their favourite films.
This is the first time I've found anything written about Jennings' films by members of the general public who watched his films soon after they were made.
Most of the references are to two of his films made that year: Fires were Started and The Silent Village. I found it interesting that all the observers quoted said they liked the sincerity they saw in the films, their portrayal of ordinary men and women, their restraint, and lack of melodrama.
Here are some extracts:
A 26 year old wireless operator in the Royal Corps of Signals in Kent:
"Fires were Started. The best wartime documentary yet: never have ordinary people been more convincingly done ... and the film is nevertheless 'poetic' in its treatment."
University lecturer, aged 55, Aberystwyth:
"The Silent Village - I believe that was the title. Welsh Lidice. This was good. Quiet, impressive, real. No melodrama."
Electrical engineer, aged 33, London
"Fires have been started. Having lived through the London blitz we naturally enjoyed this film. We were impressed with the way things were done and with the lack of heroics."
Radio Operator (unemployed) aged 31, Newport
"The Silent Village, a short film showing how Cwmgiedd, near Swansea, might have been treated by the Nazis if it had been Lidice in Czechoslovakia. Played with complete sincerity and conviction by the inhabitants of Cwmgiedd, without any professionals."
ATS sergeant (female) aged 22, London:
"The Silent Village - Natural, very moving and restrained"
Typist, aged 20, Reading
"Fires were Caused. (I think I've got the name wrong). It was a short, 'official' film, but very sincere, moving and human. About the work of the AFS [auxiliary fire service]. Photography was good and the actors were perfect."