Silent Bystanders in the Archive (2): ‘Calling Blighty’ from around the Empire

‘Skype’, ‘Teams’, ‘Zoom’, ‘Facetime’, ‘Houseparty’. Over the past few weeks we’ve all been introduced to a whole new lexicon of communication. Even if you were a busy and up-to-date executive who regularly dialled into ‘Teams’ meetings from your regional office, the chances are that chatting to Auntie Vi or Grandad, or even your own dear life partner using exclusively this kind of technology is a relatively new experience. Nevertheless, such technology is nothing new. Long before the advent of the internet, people were already sending intimate, profound and mundane messages of love to each other via audiovisual technology. In Maurice Elvey’s sci-fi fantasy High Treason (1929), a sort of early video-phone is imagined alongside the silver lamé boiler suits and leather jodhpurs of the future. Back in the realm of reality, the cinema had already facilitated the communication of separated loved ones, albeit only in one direction. In World War One,  Roll of Honour films allowed audiences in cinemas at home to celebrate and salute their sons who were serving or perhaps had died at the front. Examples of these strange films – made for specific cinemas and containing only the still images of men related to regular patrons of those houses – survive from Preston and from Braintree (although we know others were produced for other areas).

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High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929)

It was the Second World War iteration of this communication-through-cinema idea that was highlighted at film archive symposium that I attended just before the lockdown. Steve Hawley presented on the Calling Blighty films and his project on them with the North West Film Archive. Almost four hundred issues of Calling Blighty were made between 1944 and 1946 to allow British service personnel serving in the Far East to address their family and friends sitting in cinemas back home. Sixty-four of them survive and they are remarkable, excruciating documents. Typically they show a group of men ‘interrupted’ in a task by the camera. The men come up in pairs, and each in turn speaks straight into the camera to their mothers, wives and children, with an awkward self-consciousness that is made even more present by the fact that they must remember, at the end of their short message, to introduce the next speaker: ‘and now I’d better move over and let another Stockport man speak to his family. Here’s Sergeant Hoyle…’ Hawley’s work focussed on the codes of masculinity that the films encapsulate – the potent contrast between the affectionate but self-conscious ‘Hello darling’ address to camera and the much more natural seeming interactions between the men onscreen. He showed a short experimental film he’d produced which edited together numerous moments of awkward silence with the men, standing together in shot, waiting patiently or nervously for the cue to speak.

Paul Fussell, writing about the letters home from the front written by the troops of the First World War, notes with surprise how utterly generic they are, and how totally uninformative. He quotes Robert Graves offering a typical example: ‘This comes leaving me in the pink which I hope it finds you. We are having a bit of rain at present… Fags are welcome, also socks.’[1] It’s the simple act of communication that is important rather than the content, it seems. The Calling Blighty films are just like that. Man after man comes up to the camera and gives a variation of the statement made by Peter Broom (No.166 at 5.52 mins – I’ve chosen it at random):

Hello Nelly darling… Brenda – Hello love. Well, I hope you’re okay. As you can see I’m quite alright, and… quite well. Hello Mother – I suppose you’re there too. Alice, Jessie, Marie and the kiddies. All my love. Keep smiling all – and this goes for all of you in the audience. Keep smiling. It won’t be long now, so cheers. All the best. Cheerio.

Watching the films is a sort of hypnotic experience. They are at one and the same time both incredibly boring and intensely emotional. One finds oneself welling up at random – perhaps not from any particular gesture or statement being made on screen, but simply because periodically the accumulation of affectionate messages and of familial longing is overwhelming. It’s the deviations in the pattern that perhaps stand out, although even these deviations are repeated again and again. The men are often self-conscious and leave uncomfortable pauses while they try to collect their thoughts. Sometimes they dry completely (166:1.19), or have to be prompted by their mates even when they have prepared written notes (199:7.17). In one example a wag of the company is distracted by a comment from the men behind him. His response is evidently spicy enough to have to be ‘blooped’ out by the filmmakers, and he shoots a sparkling look of mischief into the camera as the film goes mute. When the sound returns he is timidly asking if the cameraman can ‘roll back’ but on being told to continue, he starts the message again, revealing it to be a carefully memorized performance rather than an ad lib (132:5.10).

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Calling Blighty No. 132: 5 mins 10 secs

The men also frequently refer to the cinema itself, conscious of the fact they’ll be shown ten feet high on the screen of their hometown picture house, and clearly imagining the view from that position. ‘Keep Colin quiet down there in the front row’ (132:1.48) says one, while another asks his loved ones to ‘save a couple of seats down there’ (132:1.20), and a third hopes his wife is ‘down in the front row, getting a good eyeful’ (203:10.0). They often offer a comparison between themselves and film stars, or evoke the idea that now they’re on the screen they may be mixing with other stars of the film world. ‘I haven’t met Dorothy Lamour yet, but I’m still living in hopes’ says one man (132:5.59) while another admits ruefully of his performance that ‘I never expected to be on the films, but I don’t think Robert Taylor has got anything to worry about’ (199:10.11 see also 191:6.36 ‘you’ve remarked before that I’m not much of a film star – well these are the results!’). A third man recalls seeing George Formby in an ENSA performance the previous week – ‘he said that he made two films a year… well 30 seconds is quite enough for me, so cheerio, and all my love!’ (199:9.28).

The awkward contrast between the intimate message to loved ones at home, much missed and perhaps longingly thought of, and the easy bluff and camaraderie of the homosocial army unit is emphasised by the shot set-up in many films, which shows every member of the company sitting behind the speaker, waiting for their own turn to speak and watching, hawk-like, for slip-ups and missteps – fodder for a later ribbing. Perhaps because of this, Bombardier Johnson of Oldham chooses not to appear on film at all, instead he sends a message via his mate asking to be remembered not to his blood family, but to ‘all his boozing family at the Woolpack Hotel’ (199:13.29). At the other extreme, one man of the royal artillery creates hilarity among the men behind him when in a moment of abstraction he asks his mother to ‘keep my bed warm’ (132:4.44). Issue 89, destined for the Brighton area, has a different set-up which allows a slightly more intimate address – instead of watching the messenger, the men in the background are occupied in an nonchalant game of darts, allowing more intimate messages of love, including that of Charles Dawes who after greeting Bob and his mother, addresses his wife – ‘and you darling, you know what I would say if all these people weren’t looking and listening, don’t you?’ (89:8.28)

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Charles Dawes, Calling Blighty No. 89 8mins 21secs

On the whole then, perhaps it’s understandable that the messages are so brief, and convey so little information. Their chief value for the men seems to be the fact that they offer visual evidence of bodily health – something that they repeatedly refer to, both in passing and in more elaborate statements. ‘I’m keeping well, as you can see’ is a phrase that recurs again and again in the films, along with other references to the way the film gives indisputable proof of physical completeness and wellbeing. ‘Look at me, I’m ok!’ (132:5.05). ‘I’m glad of this opportunity to let you see that I’m keeping fit’ (132:7.24). Many of the men ruefully suggest the film as a superior alternative to a photograph long promised but as yet unsent, statements in which there is the lingering hint of an apology for not writing, ‘Here’s that photograph at last – the one I promised you’ (89:5.19 or for two of many alternatives, see 199:6.15-6.30). Charles Dawes again perhaps exemplifies the general impulse when he tells his family that he’s ‘glad to have the opportunity to assure you that I’m really as well as my letter states’ (89:8.21), although others are more explicit about the need for such reassurance – Sergeant Downes of Sale for instance, admits that he’s recently come out of hospital but, ‘as you can see I’m keeping quite well… I hope you don’t think I was walking around on crutches or something’ (199:14.26).[2]

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Sargeant Downes (centre), Calling Blighty no. 199: 14mins 26secs

There’s an elephant in this room. Earlier I posted about silent bystanders in the archive, and while I’ve mentioned plenty of bystanders in the account above, the ones I’ve discussed have been pretty vocal and active – waiting for their turn to take part in the primary business of the film. But some of these films contain other bystanders who do not come up and speak to loved ones. Instead they stand in the background, impassive, watching, silent. Their presence is a reminder that these films are not just about the ‘sons of Blighty’, for Blighty is the centre of an Empire and this is in fact an Imperial war. The silent bystanders are, of course, colonised peoples. The films are made in colonial theatres of war – Burma, Malaya, India, Ceylon. Those made in India are often made in a studio mocked up to look like a mess. Men sit around at tables drinking, or playing darts, and weaving between them are Indians in white robes and turbans, serving drinks to the men. They function purely as background detail, not looking at or interacting with the camera at all. By contrast, some of the films shot in Burma take the opportunity to use temples and local landmarks as a background, and in some scenes the Burmese people are used to denote the country itself in a similar way. In one sequence for instance, the ‘callers’ stand in front of two bullocks hitched to a cart in which sit two Burmese drivers. ‘How do you like my taxi I’ve just come in?’ asks Sam Wilson of Manchester, ‘two-bullock-power!’ He indicates the bullocks behind him, but the drivers are apparently invisible to him (and, incidentally, to the cataloguer at the NWFA). They gaze silently into the camera from behind the shoulders of the white men in the foreground, stripped to the waist, displaying the brownness of their bodies. A glance between them on the mention of the bullock cart is their only reaction to the proceedings (203:4.15).

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Calling Blighty no.  203: 4mins 15secs

Film number 199 is particularly prone to this set up. Men are posed in twos and threes and in the background of the shot, gazing into the camera throughout the proceedings, stands a watching ‘native’. At 7.38 it is a small child, apparently being cared for by the man waiting his turn to speak. The child submits to this procedure, holding the man’s hand for a little while, but soon tries to rush off to the left, and has to be caught and brought back into the frame under protest. The man who has just delivered his message retreats and takes over. He fares slightly better, getting the child to sit on his knee happily through the rest of the sequence. As further men enter the shot to deliver their messages, a reframing briefly reveals the two women squatting on the ground a little to the left, who have been the target of the child’s efforts to retreat to comfort and safety. What do they make of this performance, one wonders? In later sequences a Burmese man in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt stands far back in the frame, apparently caught in the act of hanging some clothes out to dry. He doesn’t continue his task though, but stands motionless looking at us, as in the foreground four individual messages are delivered to camera. Another sequence shows three men (including Sergeant Downes, just recovered from his operation) seated on the ground in front of a hut. Behind them, on a slightly raised piece of ground a little further back, two men sit cross-legged, looking on as the three white men each take a turn to give their message. The impassive stillness of the background figures suggests an instruction from the filmmaker. They are prominent enough in the frame that any movement on their part would draw attention away from the men giving their messages. What is their function here? They’ve been carefully and deliberately placed to provide background colour – like the judiciously arranged bookshelf behind the head of a participant in a ‘Zoom’ meeting.

It’s difficult to determine the ethnicity of the men in the background in this scene. The man on the left could be from south Asia, but the man on the right looks more likely to hail from Africa. That’s quite likely, since the film is showcasing the 11th East African Division of men serving in Burma. It’s not just the white men who are far from home – the majority of the division is from Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland, Tanganyika, Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo. Did the African servicemen get to send messages to their loved ones too? It seems unlikely. The film only makes contact with them explicitly in its opening and closing sequences, and here the colonialist context of the enterprise is brought into painfully sharp focus. The opening is extraordinary. African servicemen, stripped to the waist, carry logs and pile them up by a dirt road in the jungle. They are interrupted by a short white man in khaki who enters the frame with his back to the camera and remonstrates with them loudly in their own language. After some back and forth, a Sergeant Major enters the frame and addresses his comrade: ‘Bombardier, Bombardier!’ he gestures the Bombardier towards the camera, ‘…your mother’s waiting…’ When he turns and ‘discovers’ the camera, the man’s extreme youth and baby-faced looks are revealed. ‘Hello mother, I didn’t see you there! Well, while we’re here I suppose I’d better say a few words, and just say how you do, after so long?…’ The complete contrast between the confidence and aggression with which he has just ordered the African servicemen around and the halting timidity with which he addresses his own mother is… potent. The tall athleticism of the African soldiers, contrasted with this man’s stocky, pasty, baby-faced bravado is also perhaps a cliché of colonialist literature. As he delivers his message the men behind him continue their work silently, moving the props around under the direction of the Sergeant Major, who in his turn comes up to the camera and gives a message to his family. In all, five white soldiers deliver addresses to camera as the black soldiers silently work in the background, or simply stand watching the film being made. They don’t take part in the film again until its closing moments.

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Calling Blighty No. 119

Most of the films end with a scene of communal entertainment. The men are gathered around in the fake mess in the Bombay film studio to listen to a virtuoso boogie-woogie piano performance, or in a clearing in Burma for a communal rendition of ‘She’s a Lassie from Lancashire’ or ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’at’. Such performances insist on the men’s identities as inextricably bound up to their regional origins – the Lancashire and Yorkshire exhibition destinations for the films themselves – despite their current situation marooned at the outer reaches of Empire. The ending of Calling Blighty number 119 perhaps attempts to do the same for the African troops whose families back home will never see it – or perhaps it simply fits into the trope of colonised people performing their cultural identity for the entertainment of their colonisers. It falls to Sergeant Dawes to introduce the scene at the end of his message to his family. ‘And now, people of Manchester,’ he says, ‘having seen your relations in the East African forces, you can now see the Africans relaxing in the evening. We’re going to show you what we call an Ngoma. We enjoy it very much when we see it.’ And the final shot reverses the shots I’ve described above. In the foreground a group of the African servicemen, still stripped to the waist, some adorned with armbands holding heads of grass-seed or feathers, beating drums and whistles, dancing and chanting, as a the row of white soldiers behind them watch, facing back into the camera from the distance – silent bystanders to the scene.

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Calling Blighty No. 199 – finale

Thanks to George A. Webster and Simon Greenacre for their help in the preparation of this post.

[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: OUP, 1975), p. 182.

[2] Ironically he’s seated in the film, so it doesn’t actually offer indisputable evidence of his complete recovery.

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