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British History

British Talkies and the “Correct” Female Voice

Affairs_of_Anatol_cast

The cinema of the interwar era (1919-1939) is commonly acknowledged as being an essential factor in influencing girls and women. From their fashion choices and hairstyles to what was considered at the time to be “unfeminine” behaviours like smoking and drinking.[1]  With the introduction of sound to the cinema in 1927, a new attribute that could be influenced was acknowledged, the voice.

In 1927 a Daily Express columnist claimed that ‘we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens’.[2] The increasing popularity of Hollywood films over British films perpetuated the fear of Americanisation of the British culture and its perceived effects on demoralising society, by introducing their lax attitude towards manners, morality and speech. The perception that Hollywood promoted democratising and egalitarian values to a British population who had nearly tripled their electorate with The Representation of the People Act (1918), presented a danger to the concepts and ideals of Britishness.

Films with synchronised sound and dialogue, dubbed “talkies”, soon became the primary experience of the film viewing public, replacing silent pictures as the new norm. Film played an important part in offering a presentation of “proper” British speech, behaviour, and morality that could be consumed and imitated by audiences. With the introduction of the Hollywood talkies, the concern of American influence was exacerbated due to the alleged corruption of the British language with Americanisms and slang.

The preferred voice of the British screen was that of “Received Pronunciation” (RP), the uniform way of speaking to allow not only for the audience to understand the dialogue without confusing regional dialects, but to introduce a “correct” way of speaking by broadcasting the ‘superior speech’.[3] Yet in what Rachael Low calls ‘class-ridden Britain’, the audiences complained more about the ‘oxford accent’ and the ‘BBC voice’ associated with RP than the American slang and idioms of Hollywood films.[4] But how did this affect the relatability of female characters? Did hearing the voice of an actress ruin the illusion created of her on the silent screen, or would young women be more inclined to embody her, including the way she talked?

The female voice was subjected to unsubstantiated concerns over its suitability for broadcast, as women were considered incapable of retaining the attention of listeners because their voices were less commanding and could be at times “monotonous […] and shrill”, creating an unpleasant listening experience. Claims even went as far as suggesting that even if women’s voices were used, they wouldn’t have anything interesting to say anyway.

The introduction of sound to pictures only increased the list of things that a woman could be criticised for and added another aspect of femininity that could be idealised, learnt and conformed to. Larraine Porter suggests that sound cinema ‘created a vogue for particular kinds of voices’ and expected women’s voices to transform towards feminine desirability.[5]

Before the introduction of sound to film, cinema had already created visual forms of women that represented feminine desirability, sexuality, and the different tropes of female characters, to be instantly recognisable to an audience. This meant that women’s voices needed to match the aura of the character; high-pitched and girly for a youthful innocent image, lower-pitched for one of sexual promiscuity, and even manlier images. With the wrong voice, she may ruin her allure, desirability, and feminine image.

Cinema-goers when watching their favourite star had already formed an idea of their voices despite never hearing them which made it near impossible for actresses to meet expectations of their on-screen persona. The impossibility for these already successful silent actresses to meet vocal expectations set them up for inevitable criticism at every turn, they may be too high, too low, too monotonous, too fast, too slow, too weak and thin or too strong and mannish. Each critique set back the female voice, becoming evident that women were being punished for speaking at all, for occupying what radio considered to be a male vocal space.[6]

In The Film Gone Male written by Dorothy Richardson in 1932, she argued that the silent film was a feminine space that had been masculinised by the introduction of sound. The silent film produced images of feminine experiences and realities, and these male voices took away from the female audience’s experience, describing women as ‘humanities silent half’.[7] In silent film, the female audiences could easily envision themselves or insert their own voices and experiences onto the female characters being portrayed. Antonia Lant too, argues that the silent film was considered by female audiences to hold a feminine universalism, transposing onto silent film the value of femininity. After the introduction of the more dominant male voice in cinema, many women critics felt like on-screen women lost their voice, and in turn women in British society did too, suggesting that men became established as the possessor of the voice.

The arrival of sound to British film cemented pre-existing silent film gender tropes and set a precedence for the marginalisation of women’s vocal presence in film. Despite the fact that the majority of cinema audiences were made up of women, early sound cinema had developed an aversion toward the female voice that remains in film to this day.

Rachel Bogush is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on modern femininity in interwar British media. She tweets at @rachelbogush.

Cover Image: Exhibitor’s Herald, April 9th 1921. Still of the cast and production crew from the American comedy drama film The Affairs of Anatol (1921). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


[1] C. Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain, (2014), p.3

S. Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, (2000),

[2] Daily Express, 18 March 1927, p. 6.

[3] A. Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars, (1991) P.215

[4] R. Low, The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Film making in 1930s Britain, (1985), p.89

[5] L. Porter, ‘“Have You a Happy Voice?” Women’s Voices and the Talkie Revolution in Britain 1929–1932’, MSMI, Vol.12:2, (2018), p.141

[6] Ibid., 152

[7] Richardson, D., Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male (1932), in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, (1983)

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Marie Stopes’s Married Love and the National Library for the Blind

stopes

In 1924, the National Library for the Blind’s (NLB) secretary and librarian, Constance Bellhouse, wrote to publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons asking for permission to produce braille copies of Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918). Users of the NLB had heard about the book in Horizon, a braille magazine produced by a trade union for blind people as an educational resource.[1] Bellhouse told the publisher that because Stopes’s was ‘one of the most valuable [books] in the English language,’ the NLB was ‘anxious’ to give their readers ‘what they want’.[2]

The commercial success of this sex instruction book transformed Stopes into a household name, her book having gone through 39 reprints and sold half a million copies by 1925.[3] Reaction and controversy cemented this publication as central to the development of popular sexual knowledge in 20th-century Britain. Its popularity is so well-known, that it features in today’s cultural understandings of how interwar Britons learnt about sex. Stopes has even been given a few brief mentions in Downton Abbey.

Despite the fame of the book, the correspondence between the NLB and Putnam’s reveals another, lesser-known story about Married Love and other 20th-century sex instruction books, of which there were many. It begs the question of how blind people who relied on braille to read may have participated in this particular moment where private sexual knowledge was being pushed into public consciousness through books.

The NLB’s services were a boon to many, especially in the interwar and postwar years when servicemen and civilians blinded during the World Wars had to learn to navigate their lives in a different way. Supplying books through two main branches and consignments to libraries and institutions across the country, the NLB provided blind readers with access to popular sexual knowledge in braille.

Stopes’s Married Love was one of a number of sex instruction books and pamphlets that became available to blind readers through the NLB between the 1920s and the 1950s. They could borrow anatomical texts, general health literature, and religious literature on birth control including Successful Marriage (1941) by Presbytarian minister Herbert A. Gray.[4] Helena Wright’s The Sex Factor in Marriage (1930) was available in braille by 1952, alongside pamphlets from the Marriage Guidance Council. Much of the sex advice literature the NLB supplied had religious and eugenics framings, and represented only a small amount of the thousands of volumes the organisation translated and lent out. Nevertheless, this anecdote represents the important role the NLB held in providing blind readers access to the developing debates about sex and marriage in Britain during the 20th-century.

Since coming across Bellhouses’s letter, I have been grappling with the question: how can we meaningfully situate the NLB’s supply of sex instruction books within historiographical debates? Historian Douglas Baynton notably claimed that disability is pervasive in history, yet it has often been marginalised or sidelined in mainstream narratives.[5] This has certainly also been the case with histories of sex and sexuality, where disability does often feature in relation to eugenics-based understandings of ‘normal’ bodies and reproduction, but is rarely the main focus of our writing. Efforts are being made to centre disability in sexuality histories, and there is an opportunity to bring this into conversation with histories of sexual knowledge.

In particular, scholars have done little to explore how blind people found out about, accessed, and engaged with sex instruction books, and subsequently sex itself, through the institutions that supported and served them, like the NLB. Acknowledging that this was part of the service the NLB provided is a starting point for thinking about how histories of sex intersect with histories of disability generally and blindness specifically.

Furthermore, this case-study allows us to begin asking questions about what access to sexual knowledge meant in a historical context. Why did the NLB want to supply sex instruction texts to its readers, beyond the suggestion that they were in demand? What was the significance of the fact that the books they chose to supply were mostly based on religious and eugenicist thinking? How does the availability of sex advice books through the NLB compare with—or differ from—other libraries, including those for sighted people? And how did blind readers engage with these books, and what impact, if any, did they have in their lives? As a starting point, this anecdote expands possibilities for a history of blindness in 20th-century Britain with sex and sexual knowledge explicitly at the centre. It draws together the well-known source material of sex instruction books with disability histories to complicate our understanding of what it meant and felt like to learn about sex through books in this period.

Phoebe Gill is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her PhD research focuses on sexual knowledge and publishing in Britain and Ireland, 1910s-1960s. She tweets at @phoebeg_7.


[1] Matthias Reiss, Blind Workers Against Charity: The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970, pp. 90-92.

[2] Penguin Random House Archive, Marie Stopes Papers, letter from Constance Bellhouse to Constant Huntington, dated 19 August 1924.

[3] Alexander C.T. Geppert, ‘Divine Sex, Happy Marriage, Regenerated Nation: Marie Stopes’s Marital Manual Married Love and the Making of a Best-Seller, 1918-1955’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 8:3 (1998), pp. 395-396.

[4] British Library, W24-9611, NLB Catalogue of Books (1937); 11919.bb.24 NLB Catalogue of Books (1952).

[5] Douglas Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ in P.K. Longmore and L. Umansky, (eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York, 2001), p. 52.

Thank you to RNIB Heritage Services for copyright permission to use these letters.

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And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

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British Abolitionism Revisited

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Britain’s abolition of slavery, and the slave trade before that, has been a longstanding source of pride within the public imagination. As Michael Bennett has shown recently, during recent discussions about modern racial injustice, many were swift to invoke Britain’s antislavery legacy. This popular narrative goes something like this: the abolitionists, a group of religious reformists led by enlightened individuals like William Wilberforce, fought vigilantly against the economic heavyweights of the day to secure the liberty of the slaves. 

Thankfully, since Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), this view has been revised, at least within scholarly circles. Williams was suspicious of the ‘saint-like’ status of Wilberforce and others, arguing abolition actually relied on economic forces, rather than on moral considerations. 

Subsequent historians have also shown that British abolitionism was a complex mass-phenomenon that relied upon multiple sources in British society and beyond, particularly on the contributions of women and importantly on the resistance of the slaves themselves. The most recent studies in the field extend this critical interpretations, notably the contributions of Michael Taylor, Hannah-Rose Murray and Bronwen Everill – all published in 2020. Yet, the disparity between this evolving historiography and a pervasive self-congratulatory popular narrative calls for a revision of the public knowledge of British emancipation.    

Taylor’s swashbuckling monograph declares war on this traditional popular? narrative. Taylor critically interrogates the notion that Britain swiftly mutated from a slave-owning imperium into a purported “antislavery nation” (xvi). This linear interpretation, he argues, neglects the intense resistance to emancipation by proslavery factions within British politics. Thus, rather than celebrating abolition, Taylor exposes how it almost did not occur. 

As Taylor argues, new histories must be written on British slavery. This should not be a “national bout of self-loathing”, but rather a just and necessary corrective to years of self-congratulation (309). More importantly, shifting this narrative to stress Britain’s role in slavery will open up the possibility for potential reparations to those historically affected by slavery. In the wake of Taylor’s work, studies on Antislavery can no longer ignore how this movement was partially prevented by many in Britain. 

Murray’s work confronts this popular narrative in a different way. It explores the itinerant activism of African-American abolitionists, notably figures like Frederick Douglass, who was also active in Britain after the 1834 Abolition Act. Murray’s book thus reaffirms that British antislavery was not a national ‘success.’ Rather, it was rooted in transatlantic links to confront the truly global issue of slavery. Moreover, emancipation across the world was fundamentally driven by the “advocacy” and “testimony” of those affected by slavery. Thus, Murray punctures British nationalistic claims about high-profile white British activists ‘securing’ freedom for the slaves.  

Everill’s new book provides a more nuanced critique. For Everill, British slavery debates must not be observed purely as a discussion of morals. Rather, abolitionism was shaped by evolving ideas about commerce and economic agency (4). Antislavery activists harnessed a climate of global economic change to argue that emancipation was a form of “ethical capitalism” (22-4). So, whilst popular memory remembers abolitionists as selfless objectors, Everill re-explores connections between antislavery and self-interested capitalists.           

Taken collectively, these three new books all challenge, though differently, the classical historical narrative on British antislavery. They show that abolition’s success was not inevitable, rested on the agency of slaves, and was shaped by material forces, rather than on Britain’s supposed ‘superior’ morality. 

However, in demonstrating this, these academic texts also illuminate that public knowledge about British antislavery still requires much improvement. But how can this more honest historiographical account of British emancipation be broadcast to a wider public? It has been almost eighty years since Williams first raised suspicions over the tales of self-congratulation. Yet the social debates since the summer of 2020 have done little to suggest many in Britain have moved beyond the mythology of national success. This is unsurprising when high-profile figures describe efforts to remove memorials to slave-traders, as ‘lying’ about history. As Michael Taylor notes, the “British ‘remember’ that Parliament abolished slavery but not that Parliament spent 200 years encouraging it” (310).

Tobias Gardner is an MA in Historical Research student at the University of Sheffield, and is writing his dissertation on the interactions between antislavery, radicalism and reform movements in nineteenth-century Sheffield.

Cover Image: Robert Cruikshank, ‘JOHN BULL taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question!!’ (London, 1826), Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

References:

Everill, Bronwen. Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. (London, 2020).

Murray, Hannah-Rose. Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles.(Cambridge, 2020).

Taylor, Michael. The Interest: How the British establishment resisted the abolition of slavery. (London, 2020).

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Netflix’s Munich–The Edge of War: A film for our time?

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In this ‘dia-blog’ historians Alan Allport (Professor of History, Syracuse University, New York) and author of Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941 (2020) and Julie Gottlieb (Professor of Modern History, University of Sheffield), share their thoughts about the new Netflix film Munich– The Edge of War (2022). 

The film uses the suspenseful days of the Four Powers Conference that took place in Munich on 29-30 September, 1938, as the stage for a political thriller. Based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich (2017), the plot aspires to cut to the heart of the strategically and psychologically terrifying situation faced by Europe should Hitler’s escalating demands for Lebensraum not be met. Hitler was forcing the ceding of the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to the Reich. While the Czechs themselves were not invited to the negotiating table, Britain, Italy and France agreed to Hitler’s demands in order to avert war, and Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a further document of Anglo-German understanding to press the same point. 

In the film our sympathies are meant to lie with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation has swung, for decades, from that of the celebrated saviour of peace and wise old gentleman with only the best intentions, to that of the ‘provincial undertaker’ and Hitler’s gullible dupe. 

Neville Chamberlain showing the Anglo-German declaration, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The force of historical fiction cuts like a double edged sword for the historian. The power of film (and fiction) is that it captures the imagination. It visualises, it engages or enrages by romanticising or villainising, but inevitably in ways that can distort the historical record. For example, now that we have seen Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, will most of us ever again be able to unsee the suave and smoothly-spoken actor when we animate Chamberlain in our mind’s eye? In real life Chamberlain was rather sepia toned in pallor, and not just because of the yellow-tinge of 1930s photography. 

Considering this is a work of historical fiction that began as a novel, do you feel the novel has been successfully adapted for screen?

Allport: Well, in terms of the plot, the movie remains fairly faithful to the book. A few subplots are trimmed down or excised and some of the minor characters have been omitted or altered but these are the sorts of changes you’d expect to happen in a film adaptation. 

I think the more important question is how well the story succeeds via the medium of cinema as opposed to literature. Munich is not a counterfactual history like Robert Harris’s book Fatherland, so the main political events unfurl in the film just as they did in real life – Chamberlain and Daladier will go to Munich, the Sudetenland will be ceded to Germany, and presumably the war will break out in September 1939 as in real life. The problem then is to inject some tension into a story with a predetermined outcome. 

My own feeling is that Harris’s historical novels have always been more effective at evoking a certain mood of the past through meticulously well researched detail than by providing a lot of suspenseful plot twists for the reader to follow. It’s easier to do this in book form than on the screen, I think. I didn’t feel the on-screen version of Munich absorbed me as much in the subjective sense of what it must have been like to sit in the conference chamber with Hitler and Chamberlain. This is an aesthetic rather than a historical complaint, however!

On the topic of the aesthetic qualities, film has the ability to capture mood, feeling and details of material culture in living colour. How well does the film express the general atmosphere of the September Crisis?

Gottlieb: My own approach has been to consider the history from below of the Munich Crisis, and to better understand how opinion, reactions and emotional responses ranged across class, gender, generational, regional lines and, of course, political lines. 

Here and there the film gestures to ordinary people and the deep impact of these events on quotidian lives– evacuation, gas masks, protests, mass celebrations like it was Mafeking night, allusion to the gratitude of ‘millions of mothers’ in Europe, and a few glimpses into domestic interiors. This was all backdrop and background, but generally well observed and well placed nonetheless. 

The subtitle of the film ‘the edge of war’ is evocative (the novel has no subtitle), reinforcing the cliff-hanger feature of the political suspense genre, but also suggestive of the edginess and nervousness experienced by populations across Europe and beyond. 

Still, the story Munich tells is about great/guilty men and a few good women, narrating it in the same conventional way as so much of the top-down scholarship. 

On that note, as it is hard to get away from the fact that most of the scholarship has focused on the political leaders, how does the film correspond to the historiographical reassessments and revision of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and his reputation? 

Allport: Harris’s book is more strident in its defense of Chamberlain. Because many of the contextual scenes and conversations in the novel are not present in the film, it presents a less well developed and coherent case for Chamberlain’s foreign policy. The result is an odd mixture of arguments (implicit or openly stated), some of which would be familiar to the real life Chamberlain, and others not. 

The final scene in the aircraft as the British diplomats return home from Munich is particularly interesting in this regard. Chamberlain (Irons) argues that by getting Hitler to sign the ‘piece of paper’ agreeing to resolve future differences peacefully he has created a trap which will expose the German leader as a liar in the eyes of the world if he continues to seek conflict. This will give any war against Hitler a moral authority it would otherwise lack. I could imagine Chamberlain perhaps saying this, although he sincerely hoped and believed Hitler would be true to his word. However, Irons goes on to say that he’s willing to risk looking a fool if he is proven wrong. I very much doubt the extremely vain Chamberlain would ever knowingly risk such a thing!

In the credits the film baldly states that the Munich agreement ‘bought a year’s time’ for Britain to rearm and was therefore crucial in the eventual defeat of Germany. It’s a rather strange assertion to come so late and the movie hasn’t really prepared the case for it for the audience. Historians remain divided as to whether it’s actually true or not.

Gottlieb: As Alan has said, Munich–The Edge of War is very pro-Chamberlain. Filmgoers may wonder where Winston Churchill is hiding in the film. Indeed, Churchill isn’t even alluded to, at least not by name. Is it justified to airbrush Churchill out? One could argue that Churchill’s star has shone brightly on the big screen for long enough, most recently in The Gathering Storm (2002), The Darkest Hour (2017), Churchill (2017) and Netflix’s The Crown. Although Churchill would have the last word– in fact, hundreds of thousands of words– about the Munich Agreement and its shameful consequences, he was a minor player in the diplomatic events in the autumn of 1938. He was not even the most obvious leader of the anti-appeasers, a group that in any case lacked organisational coherence and consensus about an alternative foreign policy. Opinion polls and pundits speculated that were Chamberlain to go, he would be succeeded as PM by either the former or the current foreign secretary, Anthony Eden or Lord Halifax. Incidentally, it is Halifax who is much less justifiably airbrushed out of the film.

You could say that the fictional male protagonists Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann serve as stand-ins for the appeasement sceptics and would-be resistors, embodying their sentiments and sensibilities, not to mention their elevated social status. In other ways, the fictional leads are less plausible. In order to make the plot work they are like passepartouts, with access to space, places and leaders– this just doesn’t ring true.   

The mood of the film is a kind of pre-Churchillian Britain, almost a prelapsarian Britain of a milder and less heroic age. The architecture is grand and solid, the characters and the crowds well behaved, well dressed, and quite prosperous– with few signs of the Slump and only a few inklings of the aerial war to come. Berlin and Munich are also shown with more grandeur than grit. 

Coming back now to the ambivalent power of film, will you be happy to use Munich–The Edge of War to introduce students to the topic? How can historians frame historical fiction like this to generate discussion in the classroom? 

Allport: Teaching history through film offers students an interesting set of questions to consider. How important is it that the film sticks rigidly to historical fact, or is some artistic license permissible? Should we judge a fictional movie by the same standards as a history book? Are all omissions and deviations from the historical record equal, or do some matter more than others? In the case of Munich: The Edge of War it might be particularly useful to compare the characterization of Neville Chamberlain with that in 2017’s Darkest Hour.  Both are quite different but neither is inherently the objectively ‘right’ one. Why have the filmmakers presented such different Chamberlains to the audience? Neither depiction would satisfy all historians. Is it even possible to put a Chamberlain on the screen that everyone could agree is ‘realistic’? And is that a useful historical or dramatic objective anyway?

Gottlieb: To conclude, all representations, fiction and nonfiction, reveal as much about the time they are produced in as about the historical period they seek to depict. Munich–The Edge of War is entertainment as well artifact in that sense, a film for our time!

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Interwar Britain (2015), and co-editor and contributor to The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (2021). 

Alan Allport is a Professor of History at Syracuse University, New York. His most recent book is Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941 (2020).

Cover image: Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich — The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)

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The ‘What if’ Women of Munich-The Edge of War

Munich – Edge of War

During the past eight decades there have often been historical parallels with the Four Powers Conference and the so-called Munich Crisis of September 1938, when Britain, Germany, Italy and France met to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia and acceded to Hitler’s territorial demands for the Sudetenland in a bid to avert war in Europe.Munich—The Edge of War, out on Netflix on 21 January, is not a dramatization of this pivotal event but a work of ‘what if’ historical fiction, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 political thriller. What about the ‘what if’ women of Munich? The vast majority of ruminations about the historical plausibility of the film will focus on the characterisation of the leading great or guilty men. The fictional male leads Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann are loosely based on the British A.L. Rowse and the German Adam von Trott, a good deal of poetic licence taken regarding their respective political insights and foresight and their proximity to the centre stage of diplomatic events.

The film aims to be relatable by subtly but no less deliberately framing the strategic and ethical quandaries faced by the appeasers and the would-be-anti-Nazi resistors in ways that will resonate with audiences in our own age of crisis and rising extremism. Indeed, some commentators are comparing the current crisis in the Ukraine to the Munich Crisis.

The portrayal of Neville Chamberlain is nostalgic, highly sympathetic and (perhaps, too) attractive. Jeremy Irons’ Chamberlain is the saviour of peace, the epitome of respectability, good manners and tradition— a striking foil for the current resident of 10 Downing Street, a PM who uses the same austere spaces for, we now know, far less serious business. 

Munich-The Edge of War speaks to modern audiences in other ways too, for instance, with integrated casting (casting without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity). In a similar vein, the filmmakers have worked on what we might call ‘gender-blind’ casting. What I mean by this is creating strong, intelligent, well-informed women characters whose actions have a direct bearing on events. The ‘what if’ genre allows for an attempt to right the wrongs of the very real male-exclusivity and unexamined sexism of interwar diplomacy. 

There are four key but still supporting women characters in the film, serving important symbolic, romantic and dramatic functions. There is Lenya, the German-Jewish friend of both fictional male leads, whose body will eventually wear the marks of Nazi persecution. There is Pamela Legat, the protagonist’s wife, who stands in for British mothers, faced with the terrifying prospect of a war from the air, making wrenching decisions about evacuating children, and looking at this new world through the dehumanizing visor of newly acquired gasmasks. Third, the film takes one of Chamberlain’s typists on a flight of fancy, so to speak. She is given the name Joan Menzies. While women typists did accompany Chamberlain by airplane to the Munich Conference, as far as we know none served overt or covert functions in the negotiations. Fourth, on the German side, there is Helen Winter, widow of a General, holding some kind of administrative ministerial post, and both von Hartmann’s love interest and co-conspirator—the pretty face of German anti-Nazism. 

These token women are all ‘great’ rather than guilty women, with assorted qualities of courage, heroism, pathos, insight and intuition, not to mention sex appeal. They are all variations of the mythical Cassandra, speaking truth to power and issuing predictions about the consequences of the naive acts performed by men. 

To their credit, the filmmakers have included a number of reminders that the Munich Crisis was not an all-male affair in its impact on the population at large. Women are evoked as the ‘millions of mothers’ who will be thanking Chamberlain for saving the peace. Women are extras in the scenes of political protests. An anonymous German girl presents Chamberlain with a bouquet upon his arrival in Munich. Women are a high proportion of the jubilant crowds receiving Chamberlain when he arrives home with the document promising ‘Peace for our time’.  

To avoid giving away the plot, I won’t give any more detail. But in terms of the historical record, some spoilers are called for. Indeed, the main problem with plot devices and the dramatic functions assigned to these women characters is that women just did not have this kind of access to power, certainly not in an official capacity. 

To say that women would not have been able to act in the events as they do in the film is not to say that women were absent from the history, even at the level of high politics and diplomacy. I suspect elements of the life story of Shiela Grant Duff have been mined for the composite heroines. Grant Duff and von Trott developed a close friendship at the University of Oxford in the early 1930s. They fell out over politics when he became a supporter of the Nazi regime, and as a woman she blazed a trail as a foreign correspondent, and expert on and advocate of Czechoslovakia. Her best-selling Penguin Special Europe and the Czechs (1938) was published just days after the Munich Agreement was signed. 

Shiela Grant Duff, by Howard Coster, 1939. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Moreover, a small handful of women MPs from the small group of women who were MPs in the late 1930s were formidable critics of appeasement, including the Independent Eleanor Rathbone, Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson, and Chamberlain-scourge the Conservative Duchess of Atholl who made sure that all British MPs were presented with the unexpurgated translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Other women MPs led from the front as Chamberlain’s fan base, including Conservative MPs Nancy Astor, Florence Horsbrugh and Marjorie Graves, and the political hostess Edith Lady Londonderry. 

Munich—The Edge of War, a brooding and evocative fictionalisation of the Munich Crisis, does a commendable job of writing women into the drama and inviting audiences to take a gender-blind view of the event. It is also a welcome invitation to look more closely and carefully at the historical record, and acknowledge the opportunities as well as the significant constraints real women faced in the 1930s to play the kind of decisive roles created for them in this film.

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her publications include ‘Guilty Women’ (see cover below), Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), and she is co-editor of The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021).

A slightly different version of this blog post was published earlier on The Conversation.

Cover image: Lenya in Munich— The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)

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