Notebook: The soul of Britain measured in 35mm

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The Independent Online
A COUPLE of weekends ago I made a mistake and took our children, aged five and six, to see Doctor Dolittle at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank.

It was the wrong Doctor Dolittle. Not Rex Harrison but Eddie Murphy - a new version of the story, set in California, street-smart and utterly charmless. Hey, yo get yo ass ovah heah, Ah'm gonna kick you in the the butt, and so on. We walked out after 15 minutes (our girl began to cry when a talking dog had a thermometer shoved up his ass), and went to the cinema shop to buy a compensatory video. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seemed about right, so I picked that up and then noticed a trilogy of documentaries by Humphrey Jennings on the next shelf, three short wartime films made for the Crown Film Unit and collected on one tape by the Imperial War Museum.

In what may have been an anti-American spasm - God rot the global conquest of their popular culture and particularly Eddie Murphy - I bought that too and settled down later that night to watch Britain as it once was; stoic, noble and in black and white.

Jennings had a short career as a film-maker - he died in 1950, aged 43 - but during theSecond World War he made a series of brief, poetic films about Britain that are as fine as anything the British cinema has produced. They were distributed by the Ministry of Information to keep spirits up, and the marvel about them is that, contrary to the bombastic patriotism of the First World War, their original intention can still affect you.

We tend to think of the official British cinema of that time in terms of Harry Enfield's stiff and lordly Mr Cholmondley-Warner. Some of Jennings' films have their Cholmondley-Warner moments - a field of waving wheat to the tune of Rule Britannia - but mainly they let pictures of everyday Britain do the work. Hitler is never mentioned. As David Thomson writes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: "They are war films without an enemy."

I thought of Humphrey Jennings again this week when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown launched via a series of speeches and interviews what the Chancellor called "the battle for Britain". The threat this time isn't Germany and Hitler but Scotland and Alex Salmond, and the possibility that early in the new century Scotland will be a separate state.

Many things point in this direction: opinion polls north of the border, ripples of English nationalism south of it, the fashionable orthodoxy that Britain was an imperial construction which will inevitably break down into its constituent parts, that "Britishness" has no meaning.

For some time now the Government, rich as it is in Scottish ministers, has not known quite what to do; a Scottish member of the Cabinet told me he hardly dared to mention the word "Britain" in Scotland because focus groups told him to steer clear of it.

Now, with a few months to go before the first election of a Scottish Parliament, Brown and Blair are at last staking out "the case for Britain"; what both England and Scotland stand to lose. A lot of it is eminently rational - a shared economy and history, a far greater mixing of populations than blood-and-soil patriots like to allow, political influence in the world - but rationalism often loses the argument against nationalism, which has the vision thing.

So what is the vision for the British nation, if it can still be called that? Gordon Brown proposed the shared values of "openness, internationalism, public service, fair play, social justice, social cohesion, democracy, tolerance, and enterprise". Fine thoughts, but all abstractions and just as easily poachable by a separate Scotland or England (or Dagestan).

Film-makers have the luxury and power of the concrete. In Listen to Britain, made in 1942, Jennings shows us nothing but an apparently random series of scenes and sounds. It's probably his best film. A Cholmondley- Warner character (Leonard Brockington, KC) introduces the film and thereafter there is no commentary. In 19 minutes, we see:

- Spitfires (the sound of aero engines)

- a farmhouse at dusk (the sound of the BBC pips)

- dancers at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool (the band plays Roll Out the Barrel)

- miners with lamps (railway wagons clinking)

- a railway signal clanking to the stop position

- a simmering locomotive coming to a halt

- Scottish-Canadian troops inside a railway carriage (singing Home on the Range)

- an aircraft factory (the sound of lathes)

- Big Ben (and the chimes of)

- radio masts ("This is London calling ...")

- the countryside at dawn (birds sing)

- some spectacularly smoky factory town (dray-horses clopping)

- Workers' Playtime (Flanagan and Allen)

- Myra Hess playing at a lunchtime concert in the National Gallery (Mozart).

The cuts are quick and clever. In one brilliant sequence, introduced by the sound of a school piano, the camera shows children dancing and clapping in a playground, then a woman clearing teacups from a breakfast table, then the same woman watching the children from her window. A child's faraway voice ("Mummy!") briefly punctures the sound-track and the woman glances at something in the room. We see a framed photo of a kilted soldier. In a few seconds, Jennings has established absent fatherhood, sweet childhood, gentle domesticity: the fighter and the worth fighting for. The implication throughout the film is that the Britain depicted - so everyday, so ordinary - is also the Britain under threat.

It would be fair to say of Jennings that he had a strong streak of industrial romanticism. He loved machines, cooling towers and smoke, perhaps because he grew up so far away from them in Walberswick, Suffolk, where his father restored country houses and founded the Walberswick Peasant Pottery.

Jennings went from there to Cambridge and into stage design. He didn't see northern, industrial England and its workers until he was 32, and it is odd now to think that the mines and factories which seemed so thrilling and important to him have proved a less permanent way of living than his father's (peasant potteries, though not mines, being two a penny).

It would also be fair to say of him that he mistook Britain for a Greater England, which is the source of some of the present difficulties. We have come a long way since then, shedding industry and empire; there is no great manufacturing class stretching from Greenock to South Wales, and Rolls-Royce cars are German, despite the Spitfires. But I think it is hard to watch Listen to Britain and not take from it the idea that there was and is something called British culture. The documentary movement, of which Jennings was an important part, was a joint English, Scottish (and Welsh) enterprise. A Scot, John Grierson, gave Jennings his first film work. Britishness rather than mere Englishness flourishes inside the BBC and the media at large. The mood of hope and need for social change in Jennings' films eventually gave us the NHS. Certainly England and Scotland each have their own social and cultural differences, but isn't the political manifestation of them (to quote Michael Ignatieff, quoting Freud) "the narcissism of the small difference"?

Listen to Britain was made in a different time for different circumstances. I don't imagine for a minute that it contains practical lessons for Brown and Blair in their attempt to resurrect the virtues and benefits of a British identity. Save, perhaps, for one: that they may need some cunning, concrete poetry.