Tuesday, November 18, 2014 at 7:30pm
Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain + Peter Watkins's The War Game

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Listen to Britain, Humphrey Jennings, 1942, 16mm, 19 mins
The War Game, Peter Watkins, 1965, 16mm, 48 mins

Produced by the Crown Film Unit of Britain’s Ministry of Information in the midst of WWII, Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain documents everyday life in the UK at a time when the country was being bombarded and every moment on the homefront felt defined by the war. The film’s masterfully edited soundtrack adds a level of emotional nuance rarely seen in a government propaganda film; passages of dance hall orchestras, soldiers’ songs, air sirens, the patter of the BBC, and Myra Hess’s legendary piano concerts held at the National Gallery proceed symphonically through the work. Yet these sequences do not merely encourage resolve, but acknowledge—and thereby comfort—a culture steeped in melancholy and loss. Writing about Jennings, Lindsay Anderson concluded that “his wartime films stand alone; and they are sufficient achievement. They will last because they are true to their time, and because the depth of feeling in them can never fail to communicate itself. They will speak for us to posterity, saying: ‘This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us.’”

In a sense, Peter Watkins’s The War Game could be seen as a subversive, latter-day variant of the government propaganda film, this time for the era of the Cold War. Made under the auspices of the BBC, the film aims to provide information regarding the consequences of a nuclear assault as experienced by the general public. Watkins called his film a documentary, despite its fictional, speculative nature, set as it was in an alternative present-day. He based his script on military reports of the likely tactics of thermonuclear war, historical data on its physical effects on the populace based on studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as historical records of how disease and social breakdown occurred in the wake of events like the Dresden firebombings. The episodes are pictured through mock-interviews with non-actors shot in real English locations, and the results provide a dramatic counterpoint to the ennobling spirit of Jennings’s film. While both works are extraordinary considerations of the social and psychological realities of civilians during wartime, Watkins takes the prevailing ethos of Listen to Britain—Britain Can Take It!—and turns it into a question for a new age of geopolitical conflict—Could Britain Take It? The War Game responds resoundingly, terrifyingly, in the negative. There are no victors in Watkins’s scenario, nor is there any promise of honor, or hope.

Humphrey Jennings on Listen to Britain:

It is half past nine—the children are already at school and the teacher is calling out the orders to a PT class in the playground. Just over the school wall a housewife is washing up the breakfast. The sound of the children comes in through the window. She stops for a moment—looks across to the mantelpiece, to a photo of a boy in a Glengarrie: a great wave of emotion sweeps over her—the sound of the pipes played not in the hills of Scotland but in the sand dunes of Syria where her lad is away at the war. And then she comes back to the washing up, and the kids in the playground go on with their PT.

All over Britain, the morning’s work is now in full swing: and at 10:30 the BBC comes “Calling All Workers,” and in the factories all over the land half-an-hour of “Music While You Work” peps up production: the production of the tools for finishing the job.

Peter Watkins on The War Game:

By late 1964 Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour Government had already broken its election manifesto to unilaterally disarm Britain, and was in fact developing a full-scale nuclear weapons programme, in spite of wide-spread public protest. There was a marked reluctance by the British TV at the time to discuss the arms race, and there was especially silence on the effects of nuclear weapons - about which the large majority of the public had absolutely no information. I therefore proposed to the BBC that—using one small corner of Kent in southeastern England to represent a microcosm—I make a film showing the possible effects, during an outbreak of war between NATO and the USSR, of a nuclear strike on Britain.

...The BBC read the script of The War Game, reluctantly agreed to give me a budget, but warned that the film might not be completed. This warning was a result of the British Home Office (in charge of Civil Defence, into which the government was pouring great amounts of money and propaganda) having telephoned the BBC to inquire why I was making a film on this subject. As part of my research, I had sent a letter to the Home Office inquiring how many hospital beds, etc. the Civil Defence would be able to provide following an all-out nuclear strike on the UK, and this had naturally prompted their query to the BBC.

...My purpose, as in Culloden, was to involve "ordinary people" in an extended study of their own history - only this time the subject involved potentially imminent events, for the threat of full-scale nuclear war was a very real one at that time. There was, however, an important stylistic difference in this film. Interwoven among scenes of “reality” were stylized interviews with a series of “establishment figures”—an Anglican Bishop, a nuclear strategist, etc. The outrageous statements by some of these people (including the Bishop)—in favour of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war—were actually based on genuine quotations. Other interviews with a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc. were more sobre, and gave details of the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and mind. In this film I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced “reality.” My question was—“Where is ‘reality’? ... in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day, or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?”—and to that end I consistently inter-cut said interviews. Obviously beyond and above the question of form was my concern to use the film to help people break the silence in the media on the nuclear arms race.

The BBC panicked when they first saw the film, and sought government consultation re showing it. They subsequently denied this, but the sad fact remains that the BBC violated their own Charter of Independence, and on September 24, 1965, secretly showed The War Game to senior members of the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Post Office (in charge of telecommunications), a representative of the Military Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Burke Trend, Secretary to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. Approximately six weeks later, the BBC announced that they were not going to broadcast the film on TV—and denied that their decision had anything to do with the secret screening to the government. To this day, the BBC formally deny that the banning of The War Game was due to pressure by the government, but a review of now available documents reveals that there was (is) much more to this affair than was admitted publicly.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.