It Happened Here

By Dai Vaughan

millions-like-us-sidney-gilliat-frank-launder..jpgMillions Like Us, 1943

WWII home front picture millions like us still offers a telling take on the nature

Faced with the seemingly irreversible decline of television documentary over the past decade, many of us have taken comfort in the observation that no golden age has lasted for ever. The Globe Theatre didn’t last forever; neither the patronage of the Renaissance popes nor the Soviet silent cinema: in that context we may feel we have had a pretty good run. Clearly in some of these cases the cause of the collapse was primarily socio-political, in others primarily technological – though always, I think, to some extent both. What is interesting, in particular where changes in technology have played an important role, is to consider the extent to which the decline of an institution, or of a particular art practice, may present itself as tantamount to the loss of a language.

It became apparent to me some years ago that young students had trouble in ‘reading’ classic 35mm documentaries. The day is surely not far off when the synchronous 16mm documentary which has been the norm for the past 30-odd years (it depends where you count from) will itself have become partially opaque to viewers acclimatised to the frictionless visual world of today’s digital equipment, a world in which images owe less and less to the brute materiality of what is represented. With this in mind, I should like to offer some reflections upon the workings of a film, a fiction film, the specific character of which derives from its harnessing of assumptions brought to it by viewers of its time.

Millions Like Us, written and directed by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, was released initially in 1943 and then again in 1947. Its subject is the home front during the war, more specifically the recruiting of women for work in armaments factories; and it tells the story of the Crowson family, an elderly man with a grown up son and two daughters. The son is called up and posted abroad; daughter Phyllis volunteers for the ATS, while Celia (Patricia Roc), having been turned down for the WAAF and ATS, is, to her initial disappointment, directed into factory work away from home. Following a visit to the factory by a contingent from the local RAF bomber station, and a subsequent dance, Celia marries signals officer Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), who is killed on a mission shortly after the wedding.

A sub-plot deals with a tentative relationship between the working class foreman (Eric Portman) and a socialite (Anne Crawford), one of Celia’s batch of recruits. The opening titles are superimposed upon relentless shots of people passing through factory gates – iconography with a pedigree dating back to Lumière – to the accompaniment of an extract from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. These shots are clearly of genuine factory hands, not of film extras; and the point is driven home, none too subtly perhaps, when the main actors’ names are followed by: and millions like you in (new title): Millions Like Us. In other words, we are meant to be aware of them as ‘real’ workers – as ourselves.

The film proper begins in 1939, with the Crowsons about to set off for the seaside; and this is set against a sequence of archival footage with commentary describing the pre-war summer holiday. The status of this material as archival would have been more obvious at the time the film was made than it is today, since everyone would have known that such images of people relaxing on crowded beaches were no longer to be had – a fact underlined by a tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘explaining’ a reference to an orange. The sequence of the family’s departure, with its comic delays, and the subsequent arrival and settling in at the seaside boarding house, seem, in retrospect, disproportionately leisurely: like the start of a 1930s film, in fact.

This makes all the more startling the ellipsis whereby a casual remark about the imminence of war is followed by a single shot of a shopkeeper putting up a notice, No Blackout Material, No Drawing Pins, and this by a ‘cameo’ scene of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, in army uniform in the crowded corridor of a train, discussing whether or not the war will be over by Christmas. The shot of the shopkeeper was doubtless set up with an actor; but it is exactly the way a narrative point would have been carried in a documentary of the time.

Thus the appeal to the documentary tradition embraces both iconography and grammar. At times the film feels like an amalgam of Jennings motifs, with its montages of steelworks, its lunchtime entertainments in canteens and its high-shots of dance floors, its Beethoven and its signature tune from Workers’ Playtime. When the airmen visit the factory, there are shots almost identical to some I recall seeing in a newsreel of RAF bigwigs visiting a factory where Lancaster bombers were being made. As for stylistic ellipsis, not in a transitional passage but at the very heart of the action, consider the way we are told of Celia’s husband’s death. Celia is called to the factory manager’s office. There is a shot from behind the manager as Celia enters background left, looking cheerful. Her expression changes, and the camera pans right to reveal a clergyman. That is all. Such economy was not, of course, the exclusive province of documentaries. A hang-over from the silent era, which had honed the art of telling a story without words, it was not untypical of 1940s film-making (nowadays, we may be sure, the clergyman would have been required to say something). But in documentary, synch shooting remained a rarity right through into the 1950s. Individual emotion being considered outside its range and hence beyond its aspiration, it clung to such methods longer than fiction did.

Millions Like Us is true to the political correctitude of its day. The theme of British unity against the Nazi menace is present in the fact that Celia’s husband is Scottish, her best friend Welsh – though less ‘correct’ is the explicit suggestion that the alliance of the middle and working classes may not survive into peacetime. Like many films of the period, it made use of popular ‘character’ actors in roles in which they would be recognised. Wayne and Radford appear three times in a sort of running gag. Irene Handl, as the landlady of the flat the newly-weds will rent, does her ‘turn’ while advancing the story-line. A self-contained sequence of Celia’s father (Moore Marriott) trying to cope without the aid of his daughters has much the air of a music hall sketch, if not quite of a Chaplin one-reeler. We are close to Eisenstein’s ‘montage of attractions’ here. What distances this film from agitprop –albeit very convincing agit-prop – is the relative sensitivity of the performances of the principals, notably Roc, Jackson and Megs Jenkins. But whereas the use of generic quotation is a tactic which could be, indeed frequently is, employed today, the reaching towards a generally shared documentary convention is surely no longer possible.

When Celia has been called out of bed to take a phone call from her husband, we are given a close-up as she strokes one calf with the other bare foot. The erotic charge of this image relies on our being able to believe that these are genuinely Patricia Roc’s feet. Likewise, the propaganda value of the factory sequences relies on our belief that the actors are handling genuine working milling machines, not studio mock-ups. Every effort has been made, in mid-shots both in factory and in canteen, to place these actors convincingly among the real workers. And why do we believe they are real workers? Because we know it would have been vastly expensive, as well as totally unnecessary, to reconstruct such scenes in the studio. It is because these shots are used in exactly the way they would have been used in a documentary – that is, as articulating a general truth through the materiality of its constituents – that the fiction feels ‘grounded’.

But such a manner of socio-political engagement relies, I would argue, upon the nature of documentary during that period: the fact of its lacking the technology to record a continuously unfolding and spontaneous action but being required, instead, to disintegrate the world into its various components – for example picture and sound –and then to reassemble it not with the questionable innocence of unblemished record but as a willing projection of our ideals. The montage sequences in Millions Like Us come across not as token contextualisation but as a part of the narrative, and the ‘narrative’ in turn seems never to settle into being simply the story of the central family – who, indeed, rather fall by the wayside as the film progresses. The theme of this film is the supplanting of the family as the centre of the characters’ lives – even of the putative family of Celia and her airman – by the community of the factory and by society at large (again, in a fairly broad brushstroke, Celia is brought back into this shared world, after her husband’s death, by being encouraged to join in community singing of Waiting at the Church, a song that was played at their wedding). For this, two things are required: that the viewers should be capable of believing that there is such a thing as society; and that a language should be available in which such an idea can be articulated.

We experience the final sequence as being inserted into an actual factory lunchtime concert. Today such an assumption, even were we to make it, would carry no weight. When I say that younger viewers have difficulty with documentaries of the 1930s and ’40s, I do not of course mean it at the crudely denotative level – that they are unable to follow the plot. What has been lost with advances in cinematographic equipment is a certain form of cognitive engagement, of implicating oneself within the text: a way of reading geared to the assumptions within which such films were made. And how will viewers in ten or twenty years’ time read an ‘observational’ documentary of our period, lacking, as they will, any assumption of a direct relation between what they see on the screen and something that actually happened? When Tacita Dean frames and hangs in a gallery a strip of sprocketed acetate coated with ferrous oxide and with ‘mosquito’ scribbled on it in chinagraph, she is revealing the hidden poetry in something we did almost every day of our working lives: to hang up and ident a length of mag track. She is insisting that, on a certain linguistic level, this is a representation of a mosquito. But it is hard not to see it also as an epitaph to a lost mode of consciousness.

Dai Vaughan is one of Britain’s foremost documentary editors. He has written several books on the subject and also published a number of novels, most recently Totes Meer (pub. Seren) and the short prose collection Germs (pub. Y Lolfa).