It is customary for historians to pick holes in works of historical fiction. We dedicate our lives to the impossible task of trying to understand the past. We can then perhaps be forgiven for finding narrative flaws or examples of anachronism.
There are plenty of criticisms that could be made of Their Finest, Lone Scherfig’s tale of romance and propaganda during the London Blitz. But – as a historian who has researched the Ministry of Information – I think these should be outweighed by plaudits.
The film, which is adapted by Lissa Evan’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, centres on the character of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton). She is a young women seconded to the Ministry of Information’s Films Division with the task of writing ‘slop’ – dialogue for female characters in the Ministry’s propaganda films. Their Finest follows Mrs Cole as she attempts to produce a feature documentary about the evacuation from Dunkirk. It proves to be far from simple.
Their Finest introduces many of the problems facing the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Ministry was thought to be responsible for maintaining civilian morale and did have to balance ‘authenticity with optimism’. The Ministry also had to resolve the competing wishes of other government departments, the military, and commercial interests. And its staff were aware of the distinction between ‘truths’ and ‘facts’. Successful propaganda had to be believed, and information had to be seen to be truthful. The scepticism of the British public meant that this was not an easy task.
The Ministry of Information believed that film could help achieve its aims. Over 20 million cinema tickets were sold each week in Britain during 1940, and films could reach people who did not read newspapers or listen to the radio. Between 1939 and 1945, the Ministry produced or sponsored almost 2,000 films. These ranged from informational trailers to feature-length documentaries. Some were distributed commercially, while others were shown in village halls, factory canteens, and department stores by the Ministry’s own display units.
Some of the Ministry’s earliest films were beset with the sort of problems depicted in Their Finest. But the Film Division quickly became one of the most successful in the Ministry. Among its successes were feature documentaries that aimed to connect British audiences with the war effort. Films like Target for To-Night (1941), which followed the planning and implementation of an RAF bombing raid, were well-received by audiences and critics alike.
FOOTSTEPS IN THE NIGHT: THE PRODUCTION OF A MINISTRY OF INFORMATION FILM AT ELSTREE STUDIOS, ELSTREE, HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND, UK, MAY 1941© IWM (D 3391)
The Ministry’s films were produced by an eclectic staff of temporary civil servants seconded to aid the war effort. Women, like Mrs Cole, accounted for 8 of the Film Division’s 35 headquarters staff in 1942. Our records show that one of these women, a Miss E.A. Price, was employed as an ‘Assistant Specialist’ responsible for scripts. And, yes, she probably would have been paid less than her male counterparts.
Their Finest also provides an evocative picture of life during the Blitz. It shows the random and destructive nature of bombing, the squalid conditions endured by many, and the destructive potential of war. It is only a representation (and one that does not include the violent fires caused by incendiary bombs, which outnumbered high explosives throughout the Blitz). But it is an important reminder that there were more civilian than military casualties in Britain during 1940.
But what emerges most from Their Finest is Lissa Evans’ passion for the subject. Her novel was the result of a life-long interest in the ‘Home Front’ and was based on careful research. The results of her research are obvious in the semi-fictionalised characters. Mrs Cole was inspired by the Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan. Her producer, Gabriel Barker (Henry Goodman), is based on Alexander Korda. And her director, a foul-mouthed Scot referred to only as Alex (Michael Marcus), seems to be a homage to the founder of the British documentary movement John Grierson.
As a historian, the biggest disappointment of Their Finest is the film within the film. Mrs Cole’s effort is a parody of 1940s cinema. Special effects are painted on glass, studio shots are spliced with newsreel footage, and there are farcical comic asides. The irony is that many of the films produced during the Second World War are far more coherent than Scherfig’s effort. I only hope that Their Finest brings them to a wider audience.
Dr Henry Irving works with the AHRC-funded project ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’ - http://www.moidigital.ac.uk/