Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Family Portraits: Two Films From the 1951 Festival of Britain

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

A number of films were made specifically for the 1951 Festival of Britain, notably John Boulting’s The Magic Box, a biopic about the pioneering filmmaker William Friese-Greene, Basil Wright’s Waters of Time, about the Port of London, and some experimental films in 3-D from Norman McLaren. The two I’m going to look at here – Humphrey Jennings’ Family Portrait and Paul Dickson’s David – reflect on nationhood.

Before the films though, a few words about the Festival itself. A centenary commemoration of The Great Exhibition of 1851, the 1951 event also looked to the future in sciences, arts and architecture, technology and industrial design. Its guiding principles can be summed up by the introduction that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave in the official book of the Festival, in which he wrote: ‘The chief and governing purpose of the Festival is to declare our belief and trust in the British way of life, not with any boastful self-confidence nor with any aggressive self-advertisement, but with sober and humble trust that by holding fast to that which is good and rejecting from our midst that which is evil we may continue to be a nation at unity in itself and of service to the world. It is good at a time like the present so to strengthen, and in part to recover, our hold on the abiding principles of all that is best in our national life.’

The words are worth quoting at length because they so precisely capture the tone of Family Portrait, Humphrey Jennings’ last completed film, made for the Festival in 1951. It’s one of his best late works in which he recaptures in part some of the confident collage of words and image that reached such profound levels in his wartime films. Of course, this is propaganda for a different purpose here, namely for the celebration of Britain’s past and future, instead of the initially urgent but increasingly subtle affirmations of the human qualities of stoicism, resolve and dignity whose loss simply could not be countenanced, and which informed Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy. As such, reaction to the film is bound to be different. There was something almost subversive about making wartime propaganda films that were subtle and poetic rather than strident. Family Portrait, accomplished as it is, plays by the officially sanctioned rules. In fact, Jennings’ great early proponent Lindsay Anderson said in 1981 that it was a ‘sentimental fiction’ which played on the ‘fantasy of the Empire’.
Watching it now, I like to imagine that Jennings, in time, would have found new subjects in which to become subtle and subversive all over again.

That is not what Family Portrait is for however. A film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.’

Jennings’ characteristic eye for a good picture is present; this is a film of beautiful silhouettes and shadows. Also characteristic is his wry humour in matching image to words. When the narrator talks of the astronomer at the Greenwich observatory studying the phases of the moon, the astronomer is shown with his own face in three-quarters shadow.

The films ends by stating the necessity of the free exchange of knowledge and the tradition of free enquiry for the good of the nation. Interestingly, it also talks of the need for the country to overcome its pride and ‘come inside the family of Europe’.

The theme of family on different levels is also central to Paul Dickson’s film David, made by the Welsh Committee for the Festival of Britain, and which is a poignant and touching portrait of a man’s life and his community. Filmed in and around the Welsh town of Ammanford and featuring the townspeople as actors, it is an unaffected piece of work that celebrates community and friendship as the bedrock from which individual talent, if the luck is with it, can rise, and if not, then no matter; the community is what survives and is enriched.

It is based on the life-story of the collier-poet DR Griffiths, who plays himself under his character’s name of Dafydd Rhys. He plays a school caretaker reflecting on his life to a schoolboy, and the film builds a portrait of a nation through one man’s experiences – as a child leaving school at 12 to go down the pit, surviving a gas explosion on the same day as his son is born, printing a book of poetry, O Lwch y Lofa (From the Dust of the Pit), to raise money so a fellow miner can afford to take up a scholarship that he has been offered.

The little glimpses of mid-century life are fascinating – the cobbler’s blackboard announcing ‘we save your soles’, the baker’s cart and whistle, the circus coming to town with its elephant, zebra and llamas processed through the streets, scenes from the Aberavon Eisteddfod, and pit life with miners with books in their pockets (the older men were great readers, ‘they could have been teachers, engineers, writers,’ says Dafydd). However, what really endures are its abiding spirits of humanism and dignity, qualities that were immediately recognised on it successful release in 1951, when it was named as one of Sight and Sound’s ‘Films of the Month’.

Perhaps most surprising for a fim that was made as the portrait of a nation is its ending, in which Dafydd, having come second at the Eisteddfod with his poem, pronounces himself, without the slightest hint of self-pity, a failure when he returns home. He says to Ivor, the boy who has taken an interest in his life and who has just passed his exams, ‘I failed. We can’t all be successful. I failed, you passed.’ Nowadays, when a word such as ‘failure’ is anathema, and has been all but ousted from anyone’s official record of achievements, or lack of them, it’s a sentiment that stands out in its realistic, harsh assessment. It’s also presented as nothing to be ashamed of. Dafydd always knew he wouldn’t win. It’s a rare film that proposes fatalism as a national characteristic. It also shows that being proud and being broken, being haunted and being still defiant, all characteristics that make up the character of Dafydd Rhys, need not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

I’d like to mention two more films about the Festival itself. Festival in London is a bright and bold introduction to the events and displays at the South Bank, accompanied by William Alwyn’s Festival March, while Brief City, made for The Observer newspaper, was filmed two weeks before the exhibition closed. In it, the reporter Patrick O’Donovan tours the South Bank site (described as ‘a gigantic toyshop for adults’) in the company of the director of architecture, Hugh Casson, who introduces and explains the layout and structures and the concepts behind them. He has a nice answer when asked about the purpose of  the  ‘Skylon’, the distinctive structure in aluminium, steel and wire that was emblematic of the Exhibition. It’s there merely ‘to hang upright in the air and astonish,’ he says. The film is firmly set in its time, which is alluded to by O’Donovan at the end of the film. ‘There were no resounding proud messages here – no-one was taught to hate anything. At a time when nations were becoming more assertive, here was a national exhibition that avoided these emotions and tried to stay rational.’

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