Where to begin with Humphrey Jennings

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the wartime cinematic poetry of Humphrey Jennings

David Parkinson

Humphrey Jennings on location for The Silent Village (1943)

Humphrey Jennings on location for The Silent Village (1943)

Why this might not seem so easy

The notion of Humphrey Jennings as British cinema’s war poet is so set in stone that it’s tricky to find a new angle. It’s usually considered that he did his best work between The First Days (1939) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), as he found his métier in reminding his compatriots of the need for unity and in showing friend and foe alike how the British responded to the daily business of keeping calm and carrying on. But such a war-centric approach does a disservice to the films of his 1930s apprenticeship with the GPO Film Unit and the postwar period of relative independence that came to such a tragic end when the 43-year-old Jennings fell to his death while scouting locations on the Greek island of Poros in 1950.

This accident meant that Jennings would always be considered a documentarist, as audiences never got the chance to see how he might have fared with his proposed adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and H.E. Bates’ The Purple Plain. He also remains something of a miniaturist, as he only completed a single feature, Fires Were Started (1943), which anticipated the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini in Rome, Open City (1945) and forged a link between the British Documentary Movement and Free Cinema and social realism. Yet this is rather apt, as Jennings was a painter by inclination and a filmmaker by necessity. Indeed, he only began working for the GPO after he had exhausted the annuity on which he had been living while trying to make an artistic breakthrough. 

He would help organise the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London and never stopped painting. But the sponsored documentary gave him a degree of security while also affording him the platform to espouse causes and express opinions that were dear to his heart. As a patriot (albeit one who tended to think of England rather than Great Britain), he discovered his passion in celebrations of the national character and the shared culture that had shaped it across the centuries and the class divide. In promoting diversity within unity, Jennings found a way to urge an embattled population to pull together against an enemy that had betrayed its own rich cultural heritage.

Spare Time (1939)

Spare Time (1939)

The best place to start – Spare Time (1939)

It’s often said that Jennings was a poor fit for the GPO Film Unit, as boss John Grierson had very fixed ideas on its educative remit. But, when it came to “the creative treatment of actuality”, Jennings found like minds in Brazilian avant-gardist Alberto Cavalcanti and New Zealand animator Len Lye (with whom he worked respectively on Pett and Pott, 1934 and The Birth of the Robot, 1936). Indeed, the former produced Spare Time, which was made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and took its inspiration from Jennings’ brief involvement with the Mass Observation project. 

Eschewing the social problems addressed in other Grierson shorts, this celebration of the commonplace presented people from Sheffield, Bolton, Manchester and Pontypridd in their own space on their own terms, as they snatch some leisure away from the grind of the steelworks, cotton mills and coal mines. With a commentary by Laurie Lee and a method of cross-cutting between static images for poetic effect, the film prompted fellow documentarist Basil Wright to accuse Jennings of having a “patronising, sometimes almost sneering attitude towards the efforts of low-income groups.” But nothing could be further from the truth, as he seeks to show how free time affords us “a chance to be most ourselves”.

He would revisit this tactic in both The Dim Little Island (1949) and Family Portrait (1950), in order to reaffirm his faith in the characteristics that had helped Britain win the war and would now be required to help it survive the peace. Including contributions from cartoonist Osbert Lancaster and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the former urged viewers to ditch the impression the country had gone to the dogs when it actually had the potential to embark upon a second renaissance. 

Produced for the Festival of Britain, the latter echoed George Orwell’s 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, and Jennings’ own rattlebag volume on the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Pandemonium, as it linked the rural and the urban, the public and the private, the materialist and the spiritual, the traditional and the modern, and the poetic and the prosaic to commend the distinctive nature of English civilisation, which “stretches into the future and the past” to persist like “a living creature”.

Fires Were Started (1943)

Fires Were Started (1943)

What to watch next

Frequently working with producer Ian Dalrymple, editor Stewart McAllister and sound man Ken Cameron, Jennings sought unique audiovisual ways to boost home front morale, reassure potential allies and defy a pitiless enemy. Having teamed with Harry Watt and Pat Jackson to chronicle the Phoney War in The First Days (1939), Jennings focused on the contributions of the food-producing countryside in Spring Offensive (1940) and the northern industrial powerhouses in The Heart of Britain (1941). He also enlisted journalist Quentin Reynolds to provide a Blitz bulletin for isolationist America in London Can Take It! (1940).

He would go on to pay compelling tribute to the Auxiliary Fire Service in Fires Were Started and the Czech mining community of Lidice in The Silent Village (1943), before reflecting the doodlebug menace in The Eighty Days (1944) and looking to the future in A Diary for Timothy. But he proved at his most potent, poignant and poetic in the Oscar-nominated Listen to Britain (1942), which followed the text-heavy, Laurence Olivier-narrated Words for Battle (1941) by letting sound and music speak for themselves in what might be called a ‘country symphony’ that makes inspired use of audio and visual transitions to reveal a multifaceted people united in a common purpose. 

Cross-cutting between rural and industrial settings, Jennings and McAllister (who is credited as co-editor-director) use droning aircraft engines, rustling treetops, birdsong, hooves on cobbles and the clanking of machinery to create a soundscape that is complemented by the band playing for the dancers whirling around Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, Flanagan and Allen entertaining factory workers during their lunch hour, Canadian soldiers crooning ‘Home on the Range’, a female ambulance volunteer treating colleagues to a rendition of ‘The Ash Grove’, and pianist Myra Hess playing Mozart for Queen Elizabeth in a denuded National Gallery. The audio segues sublimely reinforce the notion conveyed in the footage that we are all in this together and that nothing can prevail over our individuality, inclusivity and indomitability.

The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944)

The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944)

Where not to start

Lindsay Anderson rated Jennings as “the only real poet that British cinema has produced”. But even he cranked out the odd journeyman offering, such as the drab description of transatlantic communications in Speaking From America (1938), the awkward mix of archive footage and staged drama in The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944) and the unusually unsympathetic study of postwar Germany in A Defeated People (1946). But the most dispiriting picture is The Good Life (1951), which was completed by Graham Wallace after Jennings fell from a Greek clifftop. It’s impossible to determine who contributed what to this survey of improvements in European healthcare, yet its views on continental co-operation remain incisively relevant.

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