Behind The Lines – Women and WWII British Film

Their Finest producer Stephen Woolley writes about the female-focused wartime films that make up his Girls Like Us season, and how the breakthrough had a galvanising effect on the industry as a whole.
Their Finest
Their Finest

Producer Stephen Woolley has selected two of his highlights from his recent Girls Like Us season at BFI to be screened at Cinema Rediscovered. The season - about female-focused wartime films - was inspired by the making of his film Their Finest (which we also screening, with an introduction from Stephen, on Fri 28 July). Ahead of Cinema Rediscovered Stephen writes about the background of the season and Their Finest below, which we have reproduced with kind permission from Sight & Sound Magazine.

The Ministry of Information's efforts to target all sections of the population during the war gave an inevitable boost to the role of women in British film, a breakthrough which had a galvanising effect on the industry as a whole and which is dramatised in Lone Scherfig's latest film 'Their Finest'.

By Stephen Woolley

When I was given Lissa Evans's novel Their Finest Hour and a Half eight years ago, I approached it with enthusiasm. An editor colleague recommended it because it had three elements he knew I would relish: the making of a 1940s British film, an original story and a distinctive London setting. Lissa's jigsaw puzzle of a yarn is told from four perspectives: that of a seamstress, a has-been matinee idol, a Dunkirk survivor and a fledgling scenario writer. Beginning in 1940, just after the disastrous defeat and withdrawal of Allied troops from Dunkirk, the novel paints a portrait of producers, writers and directors scrambling around for ideas for propaganda films dressed up as entertainment. They were under government instruction to inspire an equally confused public, desperate to be amused and distracted from the onslaught of the Blitz, but also cynical and depressed by the likelihood of inevitable defeat.   

Harrowing yet utterly hilarious, the book breathes the gallows humour that carried so many through the dark days of the Blitz. How could I possibly resist making a film about a time when movies really were, to coin a title, a matter of life and death? 

The Ministry of Information was charged with creating films of "authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation", which may sound like a hypocritical task, but under the auspices of Jack Beddington, head of the  MoI's Films Division, it came close to pulling it off. Using such high-calibre filmmakers as Michael Balcon, Powell and Pressburger, Humphrey Jennings, Noel Coward and David Lean, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Anthony Asquith, Harry Watt, John Grierson, Terence Rattigan, Carol Reed, Alberta Cavalcanti, Leslie Howard, Sidney Box and others, the shorts, documentaries, comedies, dramas and features it produced for a while knocked its American competitors off their British box-office perch.

Beddington's main task – and the challenge to the entirely male film industry hierarchy – was to address the needs and desires of a predominantly working class, disenchanted, under-served and under-respected female audience. The women, it seems, wanted heart-swelling encouragement and entertainment but gave short shift to anything that didn't smell of reality. And since cinema was one of the few propaganda tools available to Churchill's government, some of these movies had also to reach out to American audiences. After the disastrous loss of life in World War I, Americans weren't keen to join another European nightmare. They needed persuading. 

Inspired by the richness of this conundrum, the idea of making a film based on the premise of Lissa's book became a reality for me. So to better understand that 1940s world, and in the hope of aiding screen writer Gaby Chiappe's script and my producing partner Amanda Posey (and later director Lone Scherfig), I decided to view as many British feature films produced and released during the wartime period as possible. I was armed with some great female accounts of surviving the Blitz, including Frances Faviell's memoir A Chelsea Concerto and Barbara Nixon's book of her experiences as an air raid warden in Raiders Overhead: A Diary of the London Blitz. The excellent Nobody Ordered Wolves by writer-director Jeffrey Dell and The Celluloid Mistress by writer-director Rodney Ackland gave me a contemporaneous window into the industry background.

I was also gifted the phenomenal research Evans had compiled for her novel. I had imagined that through years of watching black-and-white British war films on the BBC in the 60s, and reissues in rep cinemas like the Rex Upper St in Islington as a child, I knew what to expect. But I was beguiled, educated and informed by the journey back to a time when national identity was an omnipresent theme and jingoism was surprisingly lighter than in many of the movies that followed the Allied victory. 

The Spoils of War

But before we turn to the story of women in the wartime film industry, let's sketch in the background to give a sense of the environment in which the British film industry was operating, with the call for it to support the war effort. The first-and possibly worst-full-length World War II propaganda film was The Lion Has Wings (1939), hastily thrown together by producer Alexander Korda within weeks of the announcement of war, and with the aid of at least three directors. It was in cinemas in record time and at its best it's a laughable curate's-egg of documentary footage and stiff upper lip acting from Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon. Its worst crime was suggesting that German planes would never reach London, turning back in fear at the sight of barrage balloons. Although it was popular at the box office in 1939, many relatives of the victims of the Blitz cursed it in future years. 

According to Guy Morgan's superb survey of how British cinemas coped with the Blitz, Red Roses Every Night, there were some 289 British movies released in cinemas in the UK during this period (roughly September 1940 – May 1945). Many released in 1940 were made before the outbreak of war, or were rereleases. By the end of the year, however, most British films reflected the conflict in a patriotic manner. This range of production featured home-front domestic dramas such as The Briggs Family (Herbert Mason, 1940), Old Bill & Son (Ian Dalrymple, 1941) and Salute John Citizen (Maurice Elvey, 1942). Balcon and Ealing's commitment to the 'people's war' was reflected in such heroic tales of ordinary folk as The Foreman Went to France (Charles Frend, 1940) and The Bells Go Down (Basil Dearden, 1943). 

Interspersed with these were 'war' films such as Convoy (Pen Tennyson, 1940) and In Which We Serve (Coward and Lean, 1942); British spy movies Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940) and 'Pimpernel' Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941); fifth columnist German spy detective mysteries Unpublished Story (Harold French, 1942) and The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942); and comedies such as Let George Do It! (Marcel Varnel, 1940) and Gasbags (Varnel, 1941). One of the most robust genres, surprisingly, was the European Resistance film, with such titles as Pastor Hall (Ray Boulting, 1940), Freedom Radio (Anthony Asquith, 1941) and Tomorrow We Live (George King, 1943). These last covered most of occupied Europe, including Holland, Yugoslavia, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany, but they were shot mainly at Denham, Pinewood, Highbury, Shepherd's Bush and Shepperton studios. Almost everything made in Britain in those four years was in some way tinged with propaganda. 

While some of these films seemed mundane on paper, they often confounded expectations, and the making of them was, by all accounts, often surprisingly enjoyable. The gusto and enthusiasm filmmakers invested is still palpable. Little-known directors like George King shone with wartime thrillers such as Candlelight in Algeria (1944) and Tomorrow We Live; Marcel Varnel's occasionally surreal comedies starring George Formby, The Crazy Gang and Will Hay are still remarkably amusing; and Lance Comfort's sensitive melodrama Great Day (1945) shows how women in a society without men can thrive.

Whatever the film's genre, the actors were always extremely adept and often weirdly familiar – the same two or three hundred would circulate between all the films. Take George Cole and Harry Fowler, two young evacuees whose radio interviews about their experiences shot them to instant fame. They turn up time and again, often playing evacuees: George saves the day in Asquith's Cottage to Let (1941), which featured John Mills as a Nazi spy; Harry Fowler does likewise in Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942), which had Leslie Banks as a Nazi spy. Their sparky, determined teenage counterparts Peggy Cummings (in Harold French's English Without Tears, 1944) and Sally Anne Howes (Rodney Ackland's Thursday's Child, 1943) honed their craft in half a dozen home-front movies between them. Comedy genius Irene Handl seemed to appear in almost every movie, stealing scenes in every role: as a Nazi ticket collector in Night Train to Munich an SS officer in The Flemish Farm (Jeffrey Dell, 1943), a brilliant comic foil to George Forrnby in Get Cracking!(Marcel Varnel, 1943), and an unsympathetic landlady in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's Millions Like Us (1943).

Many actors grew in confidence and popularity as the war progressed. The little-known Phyllis Calvert, for instance, began the war playing in comedies opposite Arthur Askey and Alastair Sim, and ended it as one of Britain's top box-office stars. Certain older actors, including Edward Rigby and Godfrey Tearle (very much like Ambrose Billiard, the character played by Bill Nighy in Their Finest) were granted a new lease of life playing the forgotten men of WWI. But in terms of quality of writing and serious intent, it was the female roles that really began to blossom, and the reason why is central to our film, Their Finest.

The War of the Sexes

In 1940, before conscription was enforced, the government needed women to volunteer to replace absent male factory workers. That urgency was more forcefully expressed at the outbreak of the Blitz, when the MoI resorted to 'informationals'- short films sandwiched between the features, so that audiences couldn't escape. Filmgoers were familiar with short features. A successful American movie would usually be supported by a 'quota quickie', a low-budget British film made to fulfil exhibition quotas. Despite their typically poor quality, many filmmakers who achieved later success – for instance, David Lean as editor and Michael Powell as assistant director – cut their teeth making quickies. The filmmaking community adjusted to driving home the prescribed message of the MoI in less than ten minutes – at a cut price, with actors working for 'scale', the minimum permitted by unions. As documentaries and newsreels became more successful and necessary, small city centre cinemas, usually at train stations, were dedicated to screening newsreels. The short films attempted to combine all film media styles: part public information, part scripted drama (casting real actors as people) and part documentary. Audiences usually tolerated rather than embraced them.

To keep the films as contemporary as possible, the turnover and production time, including the scripting, was conducted at a ferocious pace. Inevitably with this kind of time pressure and lack of budget, some were doomed to fail, the most notable being A Call for Arms! (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1940). It re-enacts the story of two strippers (or 'nudies' as they were known) who throw in their rather glamorous-looking lifestyle to join the female workers at the Woolwich Arsenal making bullets. Despite the excellent talents attached in front of and behind the camera, it was booed off the screen. We use the footage from the film rescued from the archives to introduce us to the cinema world in Their Finest.

Sidney Bernstein, who controlled the Granada cinema chain and was an advisor to the MoI, asked his staff to note audience reactions and this recorded comment speaks volumes: "We had to take the film off ... 'another million bullets by morning' has become a term of derision in Glasgow." The film's writer, Rodney Ackland, had a different view. He claimed at the time that although "the MoI derided our munitions propaganda effort as melodramatic and unreal – which indeed it was – the effect of the picture on younger generations of feminine cinema-goers ... was exactly what Brian and I intended: Labour exchanges were besieged by young women demanding to be sent to munitions factories."

However, this was probably far-fetched and the  MoI felt chastened by the experience. Henceforth it strove to be less patronising in its dramatised informationals, especially towards women. The production of shorts attracted top calibre directors and writers, even if onscreen crediting was notoriously fickle in the war years. In a lecture entitled 'Screen Writing' given at the British Film Institute's 1945 Summer School on Film Appreciation, Bridget Boland, the screenwriter of Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson, 1940) and Freedom Radio, described how dispensable writers were during that time: "At any stage ... a second or third or even ... a 12th writer may be called in. Sometimes each stage is handled by a separate writer or team of two. Almost invariably the final dialogue is the work of someone other than the original scenario or treatment writer. All too often on British pictures none of these ideal stages are gone through at all, and the script is finally written on the floor on the backs of envelopes and continuity sheets as it is shot."

Among the most talented women working in Britain's wartime film industry was the one woman in the Ealing 'writers' room', Diana Morgan. Although hired to pen what was referred to by some as the sentimental 'nausea' (women's dialogue) at Ealing, Diana echoed Boland's comments when she recalled to critic and former Sight & Sound editor Penelope Houston in 1992, "Sometimes you got credit for something you hadn't done, or you wrote most of the picture and you didn't get a credit. We didn't worry about things like that." Diana had to be thick-skinned to survive. Many female writers came to Ealing and left in tears. "They used to say, 'We'll send in the Welsh bitch [Morgan] to put in the nausea."'

Morgan was partially the inspiration for the character of Catrin in Their Finest (played by Gemma Arterton in the film), although the real Morgan wasn't quite as innocent of the world of showbiz as Catrin. She began her career as an actor and chorus girl in 193I, and wrote satirical revues for Max Wall and Hermione Gingold. After a career with Ealing, which began in 1940 and stretched into the 50s, she became one of the creators behind ITV's Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-1967), writing 112 episodes of the groundbreaking soap.

We know Morgan had a hand in The Foreman Went to France, Went the Day Well?, The Halfway House (Basil Dearden, 1944), Fiddlers Three (Harry Watt, 1944), Pink String and Sealing Wax(Robert Ham er, 1945) and the short Go to Blazes (Walter Forde, 1942), starring an incompetent Will Hay being taken in hand by his wife Muriel George and daughterThora Hird. Although not a masterpiece, Go to Blazes illustrates how the  MoI and Ealing were willing to show men being too incompetent or preoccupied to handle the simple task of putting out a fire bomb.

This opening up of films to include their audience's newfound experience can be seen in Went the Day Well?. Adapted from a Graham Greene short story, this classic film suggests that, in the absence of men, women should take up arms and kill the enemy (in one scene, with a hatchet). While men conspire, including the 'squire', women across the class divide form a bond to protect their community. That male authority figures cannot be trusted is a sentiment echoed in Ealing's The Foreman Went to France and The Next of Kin. Although Balcon was committed to making Ealing movies that propagated the 'people's war', often in opposition to  MoI directives (Penelope Houston claims "one is left with the impression that Balcon found the  MoI more trying than the Germans"), and was also not particularly against the female angle, he certainly didn't think women should be allowed behind the camera, a view shared by every other production head.

Despite the wartime emergence of writers Diana Morgan, Lesley Storm, Clemence Dane, Katherine Strueby, Kathleen Butler, Jill Craigie, Bridget Boland, MoIe Charles and Elizabeth Baron, there were no British female feature film directors and only a handful of short films directed by women. Ruby Grierson, Louise Birt, Muriel Box, Mary Francis, Kay Mander and Jessie Matthews broke into the entirely male-dominated domain making shorts and  MoI informationals, but only a few went on to direct features after the war.

Nonetheless, female characters dominated British screens. Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Patricia Roe, Anna Neagle, Deborah Kerr and Celia Johnson were box-office darlings, with a host of rising stars crowded behind them, including Googie Withers, Anne Crawford and Jean Simmons. In the Bernstein questionnaire (an annual audience poll initiated by the Granada Cinemas chain in 1927), the top six actresses of 1937 were American. By 1946, there were only two Americans, Bette Davis and Greer Garson; Lockwood was number one and the list also included Calvert and Roe. Such was the newfound popularity of British films.

Two feature films commissioned by the MoI that exemplify the arrival of the new face of female cinema were Millions Like Us and The Gentle Sex (Leslie Howard, 1943). The latter, which has no male lead, was one long recruitment film exhorting women to join the women's branch of the army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and the former designed to encourage women to take on factory work and relocate to places like the Midlands to live in all-female dormitories. Sidney Gilliat, co-director of Millions Like Us, said, "We were greatly impressed with the fate... of the conscripted woman, the mobile woman. And that's what we would have liked to call the thing if it hadn't been such a silly title! The  MoI said they greatly liked the script, but it wasn't the extensive documentary they'd been expecting. However, they strongly recommended Gainsborough to make it with their blessing and co-operation. The reaction of one Mass-Observation respondent, a 25-year-old bombardier, summed up how people felt: '[It] presents Britain and life as it is - we must have truth and integrity in our films."'

The Gentle Sex was a surprising box-office success. According to the film historian Antonia Lant: "The Gentle Sex premiered on 18 April 1943, coinciding with the peak of female wartime employment and forming part of the first wave of wartime films to focus on women. It is extraordinary among them in including almost no male characters ... Part of the appeal lay in the scope the film gave to female experience and especially the representation of female-to-female relations ... The Gentle Sex had been 'rescued' from production difficulties by Leslie Howard ... [who] asserted that the part played by women 'these days' was 'so far-reaching and important that the least a mere maker of films' could do was 'express on the screen the significance of their work'."

As Aldgate and Richards point out in their book Britain Can Take It, "By 1943, 90 per cent of all single women between 18 and 40, and 80 per cent of married women with children over 14 were working. Women were also being conscripted into the armed forces. This did not necessarily result in instant equality. Women were for the most part denied equal pay with men and they got less in compensation for industrial accidents than men. But there was an inevitable increase in their sense of responsibility and independence, their mobility and self-esteem. As Mass-Observation noted of women in the services in 1944. they were 'being forced to think for themselves instead of falling back on some opinion taken ready-made from husband or father'." The underlying message of Millions Like Us was that, by contributing to the war effort by working in factories or joining the ATS, women could find the same comradeship in the British Army as men.

Robert Murphy, in his book British Cinema in the Second World War, finds another reason for the Mol to make The Gentle Sex. There were questions in the House of Commons about the nature of the ATS. "The ATS attracted rumours of sexual promiscuity, and a parliamentary committee was set up in November I94I to investigate. It found 'no justification for the vague but sweeping charges of immorality which have disturbed public opinion' and offered this explanation for their prevalence: 'The British, though they fight when called upon with unfaltering courage and determination, are not a military race. They cherish a deep-rooted prejudice against uniforms; consequently ... The woman in uniform becomes an easy target for gossip and careless talk.' By 1943 the ATS was considered sufficiently respectable for the 18-year-old Princess Elizabeth to join the Transport Corps, and The Gentle Sex offered further reassurance."

It would be crazy to suggest that through the success of these films there was a seismic shift in attitudes towards women and their role in society. But what is true is that without the Mol's influence and desire to reach the widest possible audience, British cinema would not have achieved the level of honesty, truthfulness and realism that had hitherto been side lined in favour of faux Hollywood glamour and reinforcement of the status quo.

Another factor that contributed to the general freedom for filmmakers was that, while the day-today job of film censorship remained with the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), the MoI was able to exert pressure as to what sort of films were made. The BBFC employed a proscriptive regime, prohibiting the filming of controversial or sensitive subjects- politics, sex, race and royalty, for instance, and anything which might be regarded as immoral or in bad taste - whereas the MoI played a more positive role.

Granada's Bernstein, who was the liaison between the government and the filmmaking community, emphasised the control the MoI had at the time: "Whenever the Ministry had approved a subject, we gave every help to the producer in obtaining facilities necessary ... For instance, we helped them get artists out of the services, we aided them to secure rawstock, travel priorities and so on." It was clear that the underlying importance of keeping morale high and motivating the home front was rather more important than the censoring oflight entertainment. The Mol also controlled all the raw film stock and vetted every script.

Not only were women in cinema controlling their own destinies, but movies were being made with a new kind of freedom. The war brought together filmmakers who were not only charged with producing cinema that reflected the world around the audience, but also a world they experienced first-hand themselves.

London's Burning

In the book The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins, Brian Desmond Hurst - the director of Dangerous Moonlight (1941), one of the more successful WWII propaganda films, about a Polish pilot in London – beautifully describes what it was like living and making films during the Blitz (his experiences are reflected in Their Finest). "I went up with Terence [Young] and Sally Gray, one of the stars of the film, to have dinner at the Ritz. We were in the downstairs dining room when the bomb fell that destroyed Green Park station. A sort of fuzz came through the ventilators and people panicked, thinking it was gas. The dead and dying from the station were carried into the foyer of the hotel, which was soon awash with blood. The women were tearing their dresses and their underwear to make bandages for the wounded. We finally got everyone away in ambulances and the three of us came out of the Ritz and into Piccadilly. Long Acre was burning in the background and all the shattered glass was lying in the gutters with moonlight shining on it. As we stood there, some thirty or forty ranks of young people, ten deep, in uniform and out of uniform, moved towards us up Piccadilly from the Circus. They were singing, and at first we couldn't make out what, and then we heard it – 'There'll Always Be an England.' The next morning we went back to Denham Studios to discover fire bombs had burned all of our offices and dressing rooms and they were searching for our bodies. We continued to work although we were always getting bombed – sometimes six times in one day. When the sirens went, I have never seen electricians come down from the gantry so fast!"

The unique experience of making films about resistance on the very edge of possible annihilation would have been exhilarating and adrenalin-fuelled and led directly or indirectly to a golden age of British cinema. Certainly Powell and Press burger would never have made 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944) or A Matter of Life and Death (1946) without being prompted by Beddington and the Mol. Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), with its combination of stark realism and conspiratorial intrigue, would have been hard to imagine without his experiences in London during the Blitz, creating The Way Ahead (1944) and the documentary feature he eo-directed with Garson Kanin, The True Glory (1945), which was shot in liberated Europe.

Would Brief Encounter (1945) have made it to the screen if Noel Coward (desperately needing to get back into public favour after his song 'Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans' was banned by the BBC!) hadn't plucked David Lean from the editing room to direct In "Which We o Serve? And if Celia Johnson, who disliked films - she abhorred early mornings - hadn't been persuaded by Reed, of all people, to step off the West End stage to take part in MoI informationals, then her performances in In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter may also never have happened. Anthony Asquith, with a trio of films starring the now underrated Tohn Mills Cottage to Le~ We Dive at Dawn (1943) and The Way to the Stars (1945) – achieved some of his finest work in the guise of creating propaganda. Ealing's post-war classics – It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), Hue and Cry (1947), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), etc – were born out of this age of entertainment with a realistic edge, as were the post-war comedies of Launder and Gilliat like The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954).

But if one overriding conclusion emerged for me from absorbing en masse these wildly different films, it was how unified they were in creating a closeness with their audience, the filmmakers successfully creating a bridge between the screen and 'the one and nines' (the cheaper seats towards the back of the cinema) that I found still lingers in the frames today and is most affecting. It's something found in Lissa's book and in Lone's film. The humiliation and desperation of being bombed-out or bereaved is palpable, and gives the actors and the often flimsy storylines so much credibility. Watching the films in a continuing, but not consecutive loop, I became mesmerised into imagining I was an audience member, ignoring the awful model shots or clumsy special effects, and embracing the emotional honesty. After all, none of those performers needed to be directed to convey the emotion of losing a loved one or working in a factory or simply watching bombs falling on London. There was an authenticity in putting on lipstick, or sharing a rock cake that was Ioo times more convincing than Errol Flynn's swashbuckling. When, in our film, the audience member says, "It's our film, they're our girls," it's not because their accents are working class or the situation was necessarily a mirror of reality, it is because the cast and crew were most likely going through the same experiences as the audience and yet were maintaining their dignity and a shared (ridiculous!) faith in a positive outcome. Like a pantomime in a PoW camp, the laughter is shared through mutual suffering and hope.

If there was one key aim that the MoI had in its propaganda ambitions it was to unify a diverse classridden nation. As Quentin Reynolds intones in one of the most effective MoI shorts, London Can Take It! (1940), made in London at the height of the Blitz: "Dr Paul Joseph Goebbels said recently that the nightly air raids have had a terrific effect upon the morale of the people of London. The good doctor is absolutely right.

That unity depended on 'housewives' and the conscripted 'mobile' woman, and British cinema played a majorrole in that essential unification. Actresses came to the forefront during the war, and though the propaganda machine may have excluded female directors, the war demanded stories that reflected something closer to women's lives, told not just by men but also by female scriptwriters and producers. A seed was sown for future generations in front of and behind the camera. One important discriminatory barrier had been successfully manoeuvered- a victory of sorts, though the unjust war for an equal voice is still quietly raging today in the film industry and across society.

Republished with thanks from Sight&Sound magazine, May 2017

Posted on Wed 12 Jul 2017.