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Spare Time 1939
Description: Documentary short by Humphrey Jennings
Released: 01 Jun 1939 Director: Humphrey Jennings Writers: N/A Actors: Laurie Lee Genres: Documentary, Short, Sport
Trailers and related videos:

See Spare Time (1939) - extract on youtube.

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Spare Time Reviews:

Marvelously elusive war-time propaganda documentary that is both patriotic and mysterious. It is about the leisure activities of miners, steel-workers and cotton-mill employees, mostly musical.The stage that annoyed the social realists at the time was the kazoo band of the millworkers, who enjoy Rule Britannia and produce an elevated tableau of the Britannia figure with her shield and trident. It is almost André Kertész in its surrealism (Jennings was a member of the UK Surrrealist group). But the movie is moving too in its believe in the folks it presents, a believe tempered with strangeness, angularity and some type of apprehension of darkness, as in the last shot of the miners descending in their cages. There is no fight fever in it at all. It is almost the Blakean view of what it is to be English (I speak as a Hungarian...)


Spare Time is a nice tiny movie that shows a lot of tiny features about life in Britain in the late 1930s.The movie is narrated by the distinguished writer Laurie Lee (best known for Cider With Rosie) but he is only there to reflect on the meaning of spare time in general terms, and the movie doesn't say us what all the various activities taking zone are, it simply shows them in elegant movie clips.The activities range from those still common today, to some traditional working-class pursuits that are actually dying out, to the highly esoteric. Folks go cycling and watch sports, but there's also a lot of melody making - from the colliery band to the millworkers' kazoo jazz band. There are also scenes of very serious-looking boys drinking in a bar, and a pigeon fancier and a greyhound owner. Some sections flash by very quickly while others receive a tiny more detail, particularly the kazooists parading with a girl dressed as Britannia.Jennings focuses on three industries: a coal mine, steelworks, and a textile mill. Because only the third employs women, there's inevitably a focus on male leisure pursuits, but some of the activities of the girls of the mill are shown, and there are features of kids playing. But for those interested in women's social history, the movie doesn't present a nice deal of women's lives.The documentary movement of the 1930s and the Mass Observation tool both seemed to involve a fresh interest in documenting the lives of ordinary people, considering even the smallest feature of people's lives to be important. Sometimes you might receive the impression that highly-educated middle-class folks analysing working class lives might be patronising or even a software of social control (and the Mass Observation movement did influence early store research and opinion polling in Britain) but Jennings is genuinely concerned with rendering the small, daily facts of peoples lives and turning them into something truly poetic.In contrast to Jennings' wartime surveys of the nation, such as Listen to Britain, there is no propagandist or overly patriotic aspect to the film. It is simply a collection of photos of a nation at play, and fascinating and valuable because of that, as much as for its artistry.


"Spare Time" was one of a number of documentary movies produce in the 1930s by the GPO Movie Unit. The original purpose of the unit was to create movies publicising the work of the British Post Office, and it did indeed create a number of movies on this theme, such as the popular "Night Mail". Many of its film-makers, however, interpreted their brief much more widely, producing a series of documentaries about all aspects of British life, and "Spare Time" is one of these. The director was Humphrey Jennings, also a founder of Mass-Observation. Although this organisation existed purely to carry out sociological research, its game has everytime struck me as slightly sinister, as though it had been set up because someone somewhere felt that the masses required to be kept under close observation otherwise who knows what they might receive up to. "Spare Time" reflects Jennings' fascination with the daily life of the Common Man. It was made in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, and features the leisure-time activities of three working-class communities, the steel workers of Sheffield, the cotton workers of Bolton and the miners of South Wales. Notification is mostly conveyed through pictures alone; there is very tiny commentary. (What there is is provided by Laurie Lee, at the time working as a scriptwriter for the Movie Unit but soon to become popular as the creator of "Cider with Rosie"). I gotta admit that I couldn't see what the mission of this movie was. The interest of old documentary movies like these is generally the insights they give into social history, but the running-time of "Spare Time" is far too short to give a comprehensive picture of Britain's leisure habits in the thirties, and does tiny more than recycle a several clichés which were probably over-familiar even at the time. It has, for example, long been a widely-held view in Southern England that each working- class Northerner spends his leisure hours racing pigeons, breeding whippets or testing in a brass band, and the typical Englishman's mental picture of Wales contains the notification that each self-respecting Welshman, and certainly each self-respecting Welsh miner, is a member of a male voice choir. (Or, as Flanders and Swann were to place it "He works underground with a lamp in his hat, And sings far too often, too loudly and flat"). There are a several striking visual images, but these are mostly of the industrial background to the movie rather than of the leisure activities which are its subject. On the whole, however, this was not a movie which said me anything I did not know already, and I doubt if it said folks in 1939 anything they did not know already. Except that in Bolton jazz melody was for some reason equated with a rendition of "Rule Britannia" on massed kazoos. Evidently recordings of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman were in short supply in the record stores of the Lancashire cotton towns.



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