This documentary made to familiarise American troops with British mores is more than a historical curiosity for two reasons. Firstly it’s an example of a ‘self reflexive’ documentary that draws attention to the making of itself. Bill Nichols, who theorised about different modes of documentary, saw this as a late development; for example he cites Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (US, 1988). So Welcome to Britain was well ahead of its time. In it the narrator, and co-director with Anthony Asquith, Burgess Meredith discusses with two generals, who are greeting arriving troops, what to say in the film. We see Meredith directing the camera and marshalling the sound. It’s works well as a folksy technique that’s designed to get soldiers to listen to friendly advice.
The rest of documentary eschews the self-reflexive, though Meredith continues to chat to camera. Suitably enough he starts in the pub, a key location in Britain. What follows is pedestrian by today’s standards though there are some good jokes: Meredith asks a guy if he’s been living in his cottage ‘all his life’? The reply: “Not yet.” Bob Hope has a cameo and his huckster persona is put to good effect.
The second reason this is an interesting document is when a ‘nice old lady’ invites a, what the documentary terms, ‘niggra’ (negro) soldier and Meredith to tea. The latter explains to camera that this sort of thing happens here because the British are less prejudiced. In his excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga relates how a white soldier attacked a black one when he found they’d both been invited to tea. Apparently the British liked black soldiers more because they were polite; no doubt because they had learned to tread on eggshells, particularly when talking to white women. The brazen admittance of prejudice is quite shocking to see but at least it is honest.
Asquith went on to have a long career in film and Meredith became best known as ‘the Penguin’ in the 1960s Batman television series.