Spirit of ’45 – A review

The special launch screening of Director Ken Loach’s new film “Spirit of ‘45” was sold out at my local cinema, but this weekend I eventually made it along to watch this documentary charting the creation of the British welfare state.  The film is described by the Director as “an impassioned documentary about how the spirit of unity which buoyed Britain during the war years carried through to create a vision of a fairer, united society.”  It draws on historical film archives combined with contemporary interviews to examine key post-war social policies to nationalise public services and create a National Health Service as well as demonstrating their profound impact on peoples’ lives.

Particularly fascinating are a number of interviews with patients and professionals reflecting on their memories of the period and the contrast between living conditions before and after the creation of the NHS.  One gentleman recalls the slum housing conditions of his childhood, and a former doctor remembers with pride the first day of the NHS when he was able to attend to sick patients who could not have otherwise afforded the cost of a doctor’s visit and the necessary medicine.  Such personal accounts alongside archive film footage really drive home the difficulties of working-class life before the existence of the National Health Service.


Spirit of ‘45 provides an engaging overview of social history from the 1930s to present.  VAHS blog readers may be disappointed by its relative neglect of charitable contributions to welfare both pre- and post-welfare state, although brief reference is made to the role of hospital contributory schemes and the pre-war voluntary hospitals that were later appropriated by the emerging NHS.  Rather, the film’s central focus is the changing role of the State in the provision of welfare services and public utilities.  Shot primarily in black and white, the film has a distinctly nostalgic feel and succeeds in capturing a sense of pride and achievement in the creation of the welfare state (imagine, for instance, the historic moment when a leaflet explaining how the NHS would operate landed on every doormat).

After its journey though the early years of the welfare state, the documentary  jumps ahead to the Thatcher era and the welfare retrenchment policies of the 1980s.  Here, footage of police brutality during the Miners’ Strike and coverage of the privatisation of a range of public utilities and services (right up to current attacks on the NHS) inevitably make for gloomier viewing.  Despite this, it is clear that Spirit of ’45 is intended to inspire its audience, and act as a call to action for those concerned about current policy directions and the future of public services.  In the closing minutes, one participant urges older people who grew up with the benefits of the welfare state in its heyday to talk to the younger generation about what its loss would represent – a powerful reminder of the importance of understanding and remembering our social history and of its contemporary relevance.

Have you watched Spirit of ’45?  How well do you think the film captures the history of the rise and decline of the welfare state? Did you find it depressing or inspiring?

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6 Responses to Spirit of ’45 – A review

  1. George Campbell Gosling says:

    Thanks for this review of a film I have been meaning to get to see. I guess I’m interested to see how well it does two different jobs, both of which it is explicitly laying a claim to – unless I’m mistaken. One is as a campaign film, where it sounds like it does the job of using the past to inspire to action today. The other is as a documentary putting forward an interpretation of the past.

    To any historian, the use of history is a difficult matter. We don’t want to just end up talking to ourselves, so we want to draw links with contemporary debates and help everyone to understand their own heritage. However, at the same time, we don’t like seeing history becoming a means to an end, rather than treating understanding the past on its own terms as an end in itself. And there are already some things that worry me here.

    The fact that it jumps the 1960s and 1970s sounds odd. The questioning of and disenchantment with the 1940s settlement is an important chapter in the history of the welfare state and one that helps to make sense of what happened next. Contrasting the optimism of the 1940s with the assault of the 1980s bizarrely makes the opposite problem from usual in talking about history: it fails to make use of hindsight. The ‘rediscovery of poverty’ and the rise of new organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group are important because the show the questioning of and disenchantment with what the spirit of ’45 delivered.

    I wonder if anyone who has seen the film has any thoughts on how successful it is as a historical documentary?

  2. Lindsey Metcalf says:

    Thanks for adding your thoughts, George.

    I think Spirit of 45 was an enjoyable film and does work well in the ‘campaigning’ sense you describe. Yes, as a historical documentary it does skim over some important developments (I was also thinking of CPAG’s work and other developments in the 60’s / 70’s) – but I suppose if you wanted a comprehensive documentary on the history of welfare since 1945, you’d need a whole TV series, not just a 90 minute film!

    You raise some really valuable questions – I’d also be very interested to hear others’ thoughts and reflections on the film.

  3. Dr Dave Neary says:

    I was fortunate enough to get tickets for the premiere of Spirit of 45 at FACT at the start of March that was attended by Ken Loach and several of the local participants. I have to say that I found the film deeply moving and inspiring in terms of providing a decent overview of the spirit of the 1940s and how Britain changed for the better compared to the era of the Great Depression and total war.

    Of course the historical narrative is a little bit broad brush on the 1940s. I thought that the non-discriminatory nature of bombing – rich people could die or be injured just as easily as poor people in their homes or bomb shelters – and the impact of evacuation on the consciences of middle England were a little bit under done but the social solidarity of the era was eloquently expressed by the dwindling number of survivors.

    We can debate the degree of continuity and change in the post-war settlement but it has become increasingly apparent that the central features of it have gradually been eroded. The social security system was far from perfect but now we have welfare (scroungers and skivers) and no mention of SOCIAL SECURITY in the face of economic insecurity that flows from the changed world of work. The story of nationalisation was robustly told and we are still grappling with how to organise industries that are natural monopolies. The most moving part of the Spirit of 45 was the difference that the NHS made to the lives of people across the country. Socialising and collectively financing health care was undoubtedly the greatest achievement of the Attlee government and the re-dis-organisation of the NHS under the Coalition is a dreadful piece of social and political vandalism.

    Loach is a passionate socialist and the post-war settlement gave us Keynesian Social Democracy with inherent tensions that Thatcher and the neo-liberals have ruthlessly exposed over the last 35 years. The lesson that I took from the film was that now is not the time to accommodate, like New Labour generally did, but to offer a vision of a bold alternative. That probably isn’t going to come from the Labour Party but a truly socialist party is unlikely to emerge as a powerful electoral force.

    I would urge people to go and see the Spirit of 45 as it is an inspiring film that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. I doubt we can recapture the spirit of 45 in the near future…but it has got to be worth trying to build a better world!

    • Lindsey Metcalf says:

      I’m jealous that you had tickets for the premiere – I tried to get a showing of that Q&A with Ken Loach by satellite – but it was sold out. I agree it is a very inspiring film – and I like your optimism (or at least, ‘it has got to be worth trying to build a better world’). Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

  4. George Campbell Gosling says:

    Gavin Esler: “If we judge this as a historical documentary… his history is a bit off.”

    Reviewed from 9.20mins in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01rxfsx/The_Film_Review_13_04_2013/

  5. Lindsey Metcalf says:

    Thanks for that link, George – enjoyed hearing the BBC discussion. Yes, they felt ‘his history is a bit off’ but the film still got a glowing review. Interesting they point out the coincidence of DVD release and Thatcher’s funeral on the same week!

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