28 September 2012 | JamesHitchcock
In which we learn that, in Bolton, the kazoo is regarded as a jazz instrument
"Spare Time" was one of a number of documentary films produce in the 1930s by the GPO Film Unit. The original purpose of the unit was to make films publicising the work of the British Post Office, and it did indeed make a number of films on this theme, such as the famous "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 title has always struck me as slightly sinister, as though it had been set up because someone somewhere felt that the masses needed to be kept under close observation otherwise who knows what they might get up to. "Spare Time" reflects Jennings' fascination with the everyday life of the Common Man. It was made in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, and details 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. Information is mostly conveyed through pictures alone; there is very little commentary. (What there is is provided by Laurie Lee, at the time working as a scriptwriter for the Film Unit but later to become famous as the author of "Cider with Rosie").
I must admit that I couldn't see what the point of this film was. The interest of old documentary films 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 little more than recycle a few clichés which were probably over-familiar even at the time. It has, for example, long been a widely-held view in Southern England that every working- class Northerner spends his leisure hours racing pigeons, breeding whippets or playing in a brass band, and the typical Englishman's mental picture of Wales includes the information that every self-respecting Welshman, and certainly every self-respecting Welsh miner, is a member of a male voice choir. (Or, as Flanders and Swann were to put it "He works underground with a lamp in his hat, And sings far too often, too loudly and flat").
There are a few striking visual images, but these are mostly of the industrial background to the film rather than of the leisure activities which are its subject. On the whole, however, this was not a film which told me anything I did not know already, and I doubt if it told people in 1939 anything they did not know already. Except that in Bolton jazz music 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 shops of the Lancashire cotton towns.