'Good-Natured as any Folk in the World': The Ministry of Information Film and British Humour during the Second World War

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In July 1940 the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit of the Ministry of Information released the film Britain at Bay. It documents that specific tense and fractious moment in the war as Britain stood alone in Europe having watched much of the continent fall to the Nazi war machine, with real fear that the invasion of British shores was not only likely but imminent. The film looks to the past, for example Britain’s defiance of Napoleon, and the present, for instance the swift formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, to highlight Britain’s fortitude in the face of the enemy. The film was written and narrated by noted author and broadcaster J. B. Priestley whose infamous weekly Postscripts talks had commenced the previous month. As part of his narration he declared: ‘These people of ours are as easy-going and good-natured as any folk in the world, who’ve asked for nothing belonging to others but only fair dealing among nations’. Leaving aside the glaring tension between such a statement and Britain’s role as an imperial power, Priestley makes clear a central tenet of British self-identity in this period: good humour. Historian Sonya Rose describes a ‘lauded British sense of humour and camaraderie as a national and masculine characteristic, one which was popularized in the wartime song lyrics that advised those having a difficult time to “keep smiling through”.’ Yet, despite the ubiquity of this sentiment the way humour manifested itself in wartime culture has never been directly addressed by historians, a lacuna this chapter will begin to fill by examining wartime propaganda films.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritish Humour and the Second World War
Subtitle of host publication‘Keep Smiling Through’
EditorsJuliette Pattinson, Linsey Robb
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781350199477, 9781350199484, 9781350201682
ISBN (Print)9781350201668
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023

Publication series

NameNew Directions in Cultural and Social History
PublisherBloomsbury Collections

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