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29 July 2012

Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder

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Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder', the extraordinary and widely acclaimed opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, has revealed in a Guardian article that a major inspiration for the work was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  Of the creative process with director Danny Boyle he writes:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children's literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings's astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show's opening section ended up named "Pandemonium".

'Pandaemonium', as the BBC commentary noted on the night, was the name that John Milton gave to the capital of Hell in his epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. It is also the title of Humphrey Jennings’ posthumously published book which is a collection of nearly 400 contemporary texts dating 1660-1886 that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, illustrate ‘the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers’.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) is generally recognised to be among the greatest of all British documentary filmmakers. In films such as London Can Take It! (1940, co-directed with Harry Watt), Listen to Britain (1942, co-directed with Stewart McAllister), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1946), Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture. Often described as a poet among filmmakers, he applied a poet’s synthetic vision to the British condition at a time of national crisis. If you have not knowingly seen one of his films, you will have undoubtedly come across sequences from them, because they have been ceaselessly plundered by television for footage illustrating the impact of the war on Britain. For example, Andrew Marr’s piece on the history of London that featured as part of the BBC’s build-up programme ahead of the opening ceremony used several shots from London Can Take It!

That poet’s synthetic vision was also applied to Pandaemonium, a collection of texts (or Images, as Jennings described them) which he worked on between 1937 and his accidental death in 1950, without ever shaping the material into a finished manuscript or finding a publisher. It was not until 1985 that his daughter Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (like Jennings a co-founder of the social investigation organisation Mass-Observation) edited a version of the work that was close as could be hoped to Jennings’ conception.

Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’ vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold ...

The quotation at the head of this post comes from notes Jennings wrote for an introduction to the work, and it confirms the influence Pandaemonium had on Danny Boyle and his creative team (not least in their sly critique of the corporately-sponsored Olympics themselves, with the Olympic rings being forged in the furnaces of the dark Satanic mills). Pandaemonium has been built, and continues to be built – the task is to transform it into Jerusalem. So Boyle and Boyce do not look for a return to that green and pleasant land portrayed at the start of ‘Isles of Wonder’. Instead they look with hopes toward what has and can still be built out of it, to fulfil the vision expressed in William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

Vision is the operative word. In his introduction (as reconstructed by Charles Madge), Jennings says that his Images, whose construction he likens to 'an unrolling film', illustrate ‘the Means of Vision and the Means of Production’. The Industrial Revolution he sees as the victory of Production over Vision, of materialism over poetry, which has failed to keep up with, or to master, the changes brought about by industrialisation:

It would take a large work on its own to show, in the great period of English poets 1570-1750, the desperate struggle that poets had to keep poetry’s head into the wind: to keep it facing life. But by 1750 the struggle – like that of the peasants – was over. In other words poetry has been expropriated.

Boyle and Boyce were inspired by Jennings, but they also sought to show how the argument has moved on since Jennings’ time, to show that there could be a greater balance between production and vision. ‘Isles of Wonder’ was divided into three main sections (with comic interludes featuring the Queen and Mr Bean). The first, 'Pandaemonium', showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, but also the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. The second, ‘Second Star on the Right and Straight on Till Morning’ took children’s literature as its theme, pitting its villains (Cruella De Vil, Lord Voldemort) again the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and a host of Mary Poppinses. It can also be seen as representing the revival of poetic sensibility and responsibility, the human urge towards the greater good, defeating the forces of Mammon. From thesis to antithesis to synthesis, and the third part, 'Frankie & June say …Thanks Tim' finds great hope in another revolution, the digital revolution (Tim being Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web). Here an interconnected society, themes from which we had seen prefigured in the earlier parts, overrides the forces that have divided it in the past, moving forward to – perhaps – Jerusalem.

 

Extract from Listen to Britain

Humphrey Jennings could never have conceived of such a spectacle as ‘Isles of Wonder’, but he might have understood the technique, not least with reference to his own documentary films. Listen to Britain (which could almost have been a subtitle for ‘Isles of Wonder’) is a portrait of national unity illustrated through the songs and sounds of a country at war. There is no narration, only images of the different corners of the land and different strata of society, bound together by effort and by sound (factories, Myra Hess playing piano at the National Gallery, variety entertainers Flanagan and Allen). Spare Time (1939), a film closest in conception to Jennings’ brief involvement with Mass-Observation, shows how Britain’s working class enjoys its leisure time, from pubs to wrestling matches, from allotments to marching kazoo bands. Such films succeed through a subtle association of ideas, one image illuminating the next by association. As with his films, so it was with the unrolling film of Images in Pandaemonium, and now with ‘Isles of Wonder’

If you're trying to celebrate a nation's identity, you have to take things that are familiar parts of the landscape and make them wonderful.

So writes Frank Cotterell Boyce, and they are words to explain the art of Humphrey Jennings as well. It is what a great documentary filmmaker can do: capture images of common stuff, and transmute them into something wonderful. To do so, it is necessary not just to photograph your subject well, or to edit with a satisfying rhythm. You must have a governing idea to give those images meaning. Humphrey Jennings wanted to see Jerusalem built once more; Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce have encouraged us all to dream of the same.

‘Isles of Wonder’ and the full  London 2012 opening ceremony were recorded by the British Library as part of its off-air television news service, Broadcast News, which we are planning to make available to onsite Library users from the end of September 2012. More news of this, and other moving image and sound services currently in development, will follow soon.

28 February 2010

Wendy Toye

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Toye_piccadilly

Wendy Toye (left) teaching Anna Neagle to dance boogie woogie on the set of Piccadilly Incident (1946), from Personality - Meet Anna Neagle, available at www.britishpathe.com

How sad to learn of the death of Wendy Toye. Most film histories don't mention her, but that's the usual fate of choreographers, not to mention women directors. Toye was both, and though she directed just a handful of films, there is one cast-iron classic among them, and as a choreographer she kept British films on their toes for a decade. She was also a dancer and a choreographer and director for the stage and a delightful person to know.

She started out as a dancer at a very young age. Born in 1917, she first appeared on stage before she was four, and she can be seen dancing in a 1927 cinemagazine item from the Eve's Film Review series, entitled 'Something New in Cabarets', dancing on board the R.M.S. Berengaria (the copy online at British Pathe unfortunately has the sequence missing, but the complete film is held by the BFI National Archive). By 1935 she was dancing in and then choreographing British films, working with Lilian Harvey (Invitation to the Waltz, 1935), Margaret Lockwood (I'll Be Your Sweetheart, 1945), and Anna Neagle (Piccadilly Incident, 1946). There is a delightful short film on the British Pathe site in which Toye teaches Neagle how to dance boogie woogie, followed by the classical versus modern dance sequence from what was the most popular British film of the year.

But for the film connosieur, it is Toye's work in the 1950s and 60s that merits her place in the history books. Firstly, she directed five feature films - The Teckman Mystery (1954), All for Mary (1955), Raising a Riot (1955), True as a Turtle (1956) and We Joined the Navy (1962) - and co-directed a sixth, Three Cases of Murder (1953). All are light, accomplished entertainments typical of their period, but what is most remarkable is that she was able to direct them at all. Toye was the only woman apart from Muriel Box to direct a British feature film throughout the 1950s and 60s, such was the chauvinism that existed throughout the film industry at that time.

It is the short films she directed that are exceptional. On the Twelfth Day... (1954) is a delighful exercise in artfully controlled chaos as the subjects of the song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' gradually fill up the screen. The King's Breakfast (1963) is a jaunty intepretation of the A.A. Milne poem, demonstrating an astute eye for movement that the choreographer can bring to film direction.

Strangerleftnocard

Alan Badel in The Stranger Left No Card, from www.theauteurs.com

And then there is The Stranger Left No Card (1952). This bids fair to be regarded as one of the finest short films of all time. A curiously-garbed stranger, played by Alan Badel, visits a British town (Windsor) and beguiles the inhabitants (and us) until he reveals his plan for the perfect murder. It all takes place to the precise beat of a metronome and the hynoptic sound of Hugo Alfvén's Swedish Rhapsody, and is executed with such wit and panache. It won the prize for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival and continues to entrance audiences every time it is screened. There's a tribute to the film, with evocative frame grabs, on the Auteurs site, written by David Cairns.

Toye enjoyed an extensive career beyond film. She danced for Ninette de Valois with the Vic Wells Ballet and for the Anton Dolin Ballet. She choreographed shows, musicals, theatre, pantomime and revue. She co-devised and directed the 1972 Noël Coward revue Cowardy Custard at the Mermaid Theatre. She worked in television from the 1960s onwards (including remaking The Stranger Left no Card as Stranger in Town for the 'Tales of the Unexpected' series in 1981), and served as an advisor to the Arts Council. I was honoured to meet her when I organised a special evening devoted to her films at the National Film Theatre back in 1995. The show was a sell-out, and Wendy herself was as vivacious a 78-year-old as you are ever likely to see.

There is some material that relates to Wendy Toye here at the BL beyond the standard film reference sources. She is praised for her work as a stage director in interviews done for the Theatre Archive Project and there are interviews with her or that refer to her in our Sound Archive. But if you get any sort of a chance to see The Stranger Left No Card (it's not available on video but there's a copy at the BFI National Archive and it has been screened on television) then do. It's a wonderful work to have left to posterity.