Thursday 23 April 2020

On national projection

On St George's Day I want to celebrate a remarkable and visionary civil servant named Stephen Tallents (1884 - 1958) who, in 1933, published a slim volume called The Projection of England in which he set out what amounts to a manifesto, addressing Britain and the British Empire as a hypothetical client. 

It's a fascinating document, couched in the language of the time yet strikingly modern in its description of a global village, of sovereign interdependencies and the vital importance of communication within and across borders. This publication was produced at a time when a quarter of the world's surface and a quarter of the world's population were under British rule, and is offered as a guide to how England (that is to say, the United Kingdom) can effectively promote its values  to the rest of the world.

There is an urgent need, Tallents asserts, to produce and disseminate material reflecting 'the English characteristics in which the outside world is most interested', and this can best be achieved by 'breaking up of the fame of England into its primary colours', by which he means both national institutions (he cites the Monarchy, the British Navy and the English Bible, Shakespeare and Dickens) and national virtues. Of the latter he offers the following patriotic litany of 'reputations':

In international affairs - a reputation for disinterestedness
In national affairs - a tradition of justice, law and order
In national character - a reputation for coolness
In commerce - a reputation for fair dealing
In manufacture - a reputation for quality
In sport - a reputation for fair play

Less buoyant appraisals of the national character were in circulation at the time yet these ideals, despite accumulating evidence to the contrary, had - and until recently continued to have - a tenacious appeal, although the fact that they were not self-evident but had to be asserted by Tallents may suggest a wobbly foundation for his claims. But they were certainly not without validity for the Establishment .

Tallents supports his thesis with examples of other British (or English) traditions and institutions that he believes exercise an imaginative appeal to overseas audiences: 

          At the other end of the spectrum might be found such events as the Grand National,        
          the Trooping of the Colour, the Boat Race, Henley, Wimbledon, the Test Match and the 
          Cup Final. 

          But between these two extremes comes a medley of institutions and excellencies, which 
          every man may compile for himself according to his humour and his ingenuity. 

         My own list would include:

Oxford and St. Andrews
Piccadilly, Bond Street, Big Ben and Princes Street, Edinburgh
The English Countryside, English villages, the English home and English servants
The Lord Mayor of London
The Times, Punch and the Manchester Guardian
The Metropolitan Police and Boy Scouts
The London omnibuses and Underground Railways
Football and Foxhunting
English bloodstock and pedigree stock
The arts of gardening and of tailoring

As a list this 'medley of institutions' is, shall we say, partial. Some of his choices - not only fox-hunting and English servants - will certainly strike the 21st century reader as parochial, smug, reactionary and class-bound. Some contemporary critics were also unimpressed, but we have to acknowledge that, for Tallents and his peers, these were precisely the qualities that could and should define Britain to the Empire and the other nations of the world. He avoids such abstractions as democracy and tolerance, he doesn't mention the Church of England, free speech or democracy. He also, and tellingly, avoids any mention of the Empire itself, of its origins and history. 

The 'special assets' he believes Britain can count on to manage a projection of these values are the English language and 'the dispersal of British citizens around the world, with whom a common history is shared'. He then launches into a rousing description of Britain's international role:

She controls or can influence the machinery of government, including the service of education, in the Colonies and close/sympathetic contacts with the sister Governments of the Dominions. She provides a market for the produce of countless countries, with all the net- work of commercial and personal relationships and needs, the interdependence in well-being, which that provision involves. Her cable companies and news agencies girdle the earth. Her shipping companies control one-third of the world's tonnage, and have their agents in every part of the globe. Her steel rails bind whole countries together. Her bankers and merchant houses, her insurance companies and chartered accountants operate the world over. Englishmen are at work in most of the greater English-speaking newspaper offices. Wherever ships are steered or metals won from the earth, there the ships' engineers and the mining engineers of England are posted.

Tallents was the driving force behind the formation of the Empire Marketing Board (which later became the celebrated Post Office Film Unit) and we can see many of the documentary movement's future subjects here, pitched in language designed to appeal to government sponsors. It is only Russia, Tallents points out, that expresses its point of view and purposes seriously through film, the greatest modern medium of international expression. By the mid-1930s Russian film in particular enjoyed a cultural prestige equal to that of Russian ballet and literature before the Great War. Tallents was a Film Society regular and Russian films were a mainstay of Society screenings, not least because few suitable English films were available. He cites as examples The Cruiser Potemkin [sic], Pudovkin's Storm over Asia, Turin's Turk-Sib and Dovjenko's Earth, adding that Britain is capable of taking such subjects from home and Empire and improving on them. The central themes of such films would be 'English adaptability, industry, industrial quality, modernity.' 

In promoting this initiative to sceptical Whitehall mandarins Tallents really hits his stride:

We need, I suggest, to create, in the borderland which lies between Government and private enterprise, a school of national projection. They must have something of the sense of responsibility, the prestige and the opportunities of Government, and entry to the fields of Government activity; but they must be more free to make experiments and, like all experimenters, to make mistakes, than the ordinary Government Department dares to be. It must seek to inspire, but never to regulate them (i.e. the agencies).

There is a need to balance prestige and creative experiment, to offer this 'school of national projection' a freedom to explore the medium without restraint and interference by its government paymasters, the Whitehall officials who are sure to take a cool view of an activity with no objectively measurable benefits. Tennant concludes by setting out the conditions under which such films would be produced, anticipating the workplace atmosphere of the Unit as it developed under Grierson:
[T]he only sensible prescription is to pick out the best team that can be found, to put them to grips with their problem, and to leave them, free of undue pressure or interference, to follow, like Socrates, withersoever it leads, the argument in which their own intimate handling of the material all quickly engage them.

Tallents was a public relations genius, although his role in the creation of the Post Office Film Unit and his subsequent influence over its direction has been either undervalued or wholly overlooked. Without him the Unit, had it ever come into existence following the closure of the Empire Marketing Board, would have been a very different entity - churning out tub-thumping propaganda rather than films that, more than eighty years later, continue to attract our attention and admiration.

What would a modern-day equivalent to Tallents do to address the chaotic identity of 'this country of ours, where nobody is well'?

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