Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front Review
World War II was not just a war fought abroad, in Europe, Africa and the Far East. It was also a war fought at home, by the women and men not in the front line. The British government was concerned to keep morale up on the home front. The Ministry of Information had functioned during the Great War, and it was reinstated in the Second, in an effort to instruct the public to make the best of the sacrifices they had to make, to get the best out of the rationed foodstuffs available, and to preserve a sound body and mind to keep the country productive. Part of the way they did this was by means of short public information films, which were shown in cinemas as part of the supporting programme to the feature a nation of cinemagoers had gone to see. Not that the public always appreciated this: they often used them as an excuse to visit the Gents' and Ladies', or to buy cigarettes and chocolate from the kiosk outside the auditorium. However, looked at more than seventy years later, outside their original context, these films give us an often fascinating impression of how a nation saw itself, or rather was encouraged to see itself, as it steeled itself to defeat its enemy.
Ration Books and Rabbit Pies is a collection of short films kept in the BFI National Archive, released as part of an austerity-themed pair with the 1941-made, 1930-set Love on the Dole. The short films are divided into five thematic groups, each with a Play All option.
As an island nation importing some eighty percent of its food from overseas, Britain was at risk of food shortages, so a constant theme was how to become more self-sufficient, by growing more vegetables and to cut down on waste. The short films gathered under "Cookery Tips" aim to show its audience economic and effective ways to prepare food, and especially to encourage healthy eating. Often this is as dry as a voiceover in the patrician tones of Max Munden telling us how to make oatmeal porridge and constructing a hay box oven to cook it in, but at others it's the launching pad for a surreal flight of fancy from New Zealand-born Len Lye, in "When the Pie Was Opened". Much of this was inevitably aimed at the women in the audience, and to twenty-first-century ears some of this sounds quite patronising, even in the work of a prolific woman filmmaker of the time, Mary Field. But this is from a time where commentators were meant to be instructional figures, not ones to be related to, people to be listened to, not people like us.
Economy was the watchword, and "Save Your Shillings and Smile" brings together films designed to help us save and to cut down on waste. Often well-known comedians of the time were pressed into service, such as Claude Hulbert in "Did You Ever See a Dream Talking", playing a Home Guard volunteer prone to spendthriftness rather than being sensible and saving his pounds, shillings and pence, complete with a dream intervention by an angel and a devil (both Hulbert) battling for his psyche. Elsewhere, another big star, Tommy Trinder, turns up in "Save Your Shillings and Smile", made at Ealing Studios. There were twenty shillings – twenty bob – in the pound, and a short animation "Bob in the Pound" exhorts you to save one of those twenty, and "Get Cracking" does involve eggs – and a portrait of Hitler – but is designed to encourage you to buy savings stamps.
"Make Do and Mend" deals with themes of salvaging and what we would now call recycling, lessons we can learn from Nature in "Wisdom of the Wild", directed by Mary Field and featuring nature photography by Percy Smith and others and in which we learn that Madam has not the sense of a leafcutter bee. Elsewhere comedy in the form of "Mrs. Mopp Entertains" tells us to make our clothes last longer, as clothing had been rationed from 1941. "The Wicked Witch" riffs off Shakespeare in order to use washing powder instead of boiling clothes and wasting fuel. And Halas and Batchelor give us a short animation, "Dustbin Parade".
Meanwhile, a nation was meant to stay in good health, and "Fighting Fit" shows us how. Mary Field appears again, directing "4 and 20 Fit Girls", part of a series of shorts called "Fighting Fit", here showing us how women in particular can exercise, at a local community hall. Elsewhere, we hear how to prevent the spread of colds, the importance of vitamins (just A,B, C and D then) and how to maintain good posture, demonstrated by an old man, a well-off woman and a less-well-off female factory worker.
The Dig for Victory campaign was to encourage people to grow their own vegetables and crops, as shown in the last group of films. This takes the form of advice from radio gardening expert of the time C.H. Middleton to hapless Claude Dampier. Otherwise, we see how the Devon village of Bampton organised its Food for Victory week in December 1941.
At the end of each section are several "Food Flashes", short pieces, all under thirty seconds each, some well under, on a particular culinary topic, how to get your new ration book, or – in the final one on this disc – how rats work for the enemy by destroying our food supplies. Report them to your council immediately!
A full list of the short films on this DVD is as follows:
Cookery Hints No. 1 : Oatmeal Porridge (1940) (5:44)
When the Pie Was Opened (1941) (7:50)
Mrs. T and Her Cabbage Patch (1941) (11:34)
Two Cooks and a Cabbage (1941) (5:53)
Tea Making Tips (1941) (10:05)
Food Flashes: Milk, Fish and Potatoes (1942-44) (1:10)
Save Your Shillings and Smile
Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) (6:13)
Keep Them Safe Keep Them Happy (1939) (1:45)
Bob-in the Pound (1943) (2:13)
Save Your Shillings and Smile (1943) (6:46)
Get Cracking (1944) (0:32)
Food Flash: Bread and Dough (1942-44) (0:23)
Make Do and Mend
Salvage with a Smile (1940) (6:04)
Wisdom of the Wild (1940) (12:21)
Sabotage! (1942) (1:19)
Mrs Mopp Entertains (1943) (2:02)
The Wicked Witch (1943) (1:53)
Dustbin Parade (1942) (5:18)
Little Annie's Rag Book (1942) (1:19)
Little Miss Muddlehead (1943) (1:50)
Food Flash: Ration Books (1942-44) (1:13)
Fitness Wins: 4 and 20 Fit Girls (1940) (10:52)
A-Tish-Oo! (1941) (5:55)
ABCD of Health (1942) (8:24)
Round Figures (1944) (8:27)
Food Flash: Eggs, Cocoa and Cod Liver Oiil (1942-22) (0:56)
Dig for Victory
The Backyard Front (1940) (16:01)
Bampton Shows the Way (1941) (5:19)
Food Flashes: Canteens and Rats (1942-44) (0:42)
Ration Books and Rabbit Pies is released by BFI Video on an all-regions DVD. The individual films, and the sections they are grouped into, are listed above. There is a Play All option for the whole 150 minutes' worth on the main menu, and each section has a Play All option as well. There isn't a menu where you can select an individual section: you have to go to the first one and press Next on your remote to go through the sections in turn. The DVD has been exempted from classification. While I doubt that young children would be the primary audience for this, there's nothing in it I could see that would take it beyond a U certificate.
All of the films were shot in black and white and Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and are presented on this disc in 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement necessary. Some of the films were mastered in high definition, others in standard definition, and some of the original materials are clearly in better shape than others, with some scratches visible, but nothing too distracting. In some of the SD-derived films, contrast is off with whites somewhat blown out, but I don't doubt that reflects what was available, and other films are in very pleasing shape.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. Unfortunately, though, there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available, which is an unusual lapse for the BFI.
There are no on-disc extras, but there is a twenty-six-page booklet. After an introductory essay by Juliet Gardiner, there are credits and notes for each short film by Ros Cranston, Jez Stewart, Steve Foxon, Rebecca Vick, Robin Baker, Sue Woods, Vic Pratt, Patrick Russell, John Oliver, Bryony Dixon and Katy McGahan. Also in the booklet are stills, transfer notes and DVD credits.