Humphrey Jennings has been described as the only real poet of British cinema. His documentary films employ a range of representational approaches – including collagist narrative structures and dramatic re-enactment – in ways that transcend accepted notions of wartime propaganda and revise the strict codes of British documentary film of the 1930s and 1940s. The resultant body of work is a remarkable record of Britain at peace and war. This study examines a productive ambiguity of meanings associated with the subtle interaction of images and sounds within Jennings' films, and considers the ideological and institutional contexts and forces that impacted on the formal structure of his films. Central and lesser-known films are analysed, including Spare Time, Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, The Silent Village, A Diary for Timothy and Family Portrait. Poet, propagandist, surrealist and documentary filmmaker – Jennings' work embodies a mix of apprehension, personal expression and representational innovation. This book examines and explains the central components of Jennings' most significant films, and considers the relevance of his filmmaking to British cinema and contemporary experience.
This chapter sheds light on the life and work of Humphrey Jennings, a filmmaker of extraordinary talent and one of the very few authentic exponents of cinematic language in the British cinema. Jennings is one of the most remarkable imaginative intelligences of his generation, who gained his sense of the visual from his painting and from his poet's understanding of the power of language. His outstanding talents as a documentary filmmaker were initially developed within the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, and subsequently within its successor, the wartime Crown Film Unit. In 1950, the year of his untimely death at the age of forty-three, Jennings was working for the independent film company Wessex Films. He fell to his death from a cliff on the Greek island of Poros while scouting for locations for a film to be included in a series called The Changing Face of Europe (1951).
The assessment of Humphrey Jennings' early career generally was passed by biographers and other writers on their way to discussion of the mature work. Jennings' early films are either ignored or noted only briefly, although his foundational films do connect with and inform his early and ongoing intellectual preoccupations. This chapter analyses some of the aspects – modernity, myth, colour and collage – of his earlier works. Jennings' lifelong concern with aspects of technological modernity is evident in his earliest films, Post Haste and Locomotives, with their focus on locomotives as symbols of modern experience. In another way, his films The Farm (1938) and English Harvest (1939) apply and exploit features of a myth of rural England, an ideological strain that Jennings analyses in his studies of British poetry and which he also deploys in various forms in a number of later films. Jennings' early work also includes a number of films shot in colour.
Spare Time was Humphrey Jennings' first, and the last major, film of the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit before it became the Crown Film Unit late in 1940. This chapter discusses different elements of one of the best films the GPO ever made, Spare Time. The general purpose of the film was to show that workers of all grades have a secondary life, over and above their working life, in which colliers may become musicians, musicians may become engineers, and engineers may become dog-fanciers. The film is in three sections; each one is devoted to an industrial city or region and associated leisure activities. The three industries are steel (Sheffield), cotton (Bolton and Manchester) and coal (Pontypridd). The combined effect of the three sections is a reflection on aspects of English character and culture through a focus on region and leisure, with the latter contrasted to scenes and spaces related to work.
The connection between national identity and the experience of war forces a question relevant to all home-front accounts of World War II: how to adequately portray a nation at war? That is the question which centrally motivated Humphrey Jennings' films Words for Battle (1941) and Listen to Britain (1942). This chapter explains how, in addressing this question, Jennings constructed representations that departed radically from extant practices characteristic of the nonfictional forms of newsreels. It discusses the way Jennings utilised the elements such as sound, image and nation in those films. In Words for Battle, Jennings uses extracts from literature and other texts as the basis of a commentary that cues images which expand the meanings and metaphorical connotations inherent in the texts. In Listen to Britain, the commentary is replaced by the masterful juxtaposition of sounds and images as the vehicle for narrative.
Humphrey Jennings' films Fires Were Started and The Silent Village involve a different variety of experimentation in the form of dramatisation and re-enactment. Such practices were ingrained within the British documentary movement, though a heightened degree of dramatisation, especially in Fires Were Started, raised issues of authenticity. This chapter discusses the strategies Jennings adopted in his films Fires Were Started and The Silent Village. Critics argue that Jennings has gone all arty in Fires Were Started by including snippets of Raleigh and Shakespeare within a speech by one of the characters. What the arty criticism of Jennings' inclusion of poetry ignores is that a person quoting poetry or literature may in itself be authentic. For Jennings, whose understanding of national character and personal experience were informed by the words of Milton, Shakespeare, Blake and other prominent poets and writers, the literary extracts were natural components of everyday life.
This chapter provides a clear picture of Jennings' film, A Diary for Timothy, which focuses on the first year in the life of one Timothy Jenkins, born on the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The film's six sections, each of which is marked by a fade out to a black screen, relate events in the European war and incidents in Timothy's life. A further structural pattern is established through reference to the activities of Alan, a farmer; Goronwy, a miner; Bill, a train driver; and Peter, a wounded RAF pilot. A voice-over commentary, spoken by Michael Redgrave, narrates events and action, and poses questions of the future in store for Timothy and the nation in the wake of the war. A Diary for Timothy more rigorously incorporates images shot specifically for the film, displaying them in formal compositions within the frame.
This chapter discusses the film Family Portrait, Jennings' most personal work, as noted by a number of observers who have called the film a personal essay, personal in the sense that it is Jennings' summing-up of his notions about England. Family Portrait, which was praised at the time of its release as a vibrant and creative work, won applauds for its masterly style and its fine balance of camerawork, editing, voice-over and music. It negotiates a theme running through Jennings' work concerned with national identity, which, in this case, is framed within a particular moment within modernity in Britain. The ambiguity at the core of modernity is recast within Family Portrait at the intersection of the past and the future. Within this context, Family Portrait celebrates Britain's past achievements in the fields of industry, science, exploration and the arts, and also looks to the nation's future.
This chapter examines the legacies of Jennings' films in relation to the history and memory of the British home front during World War II; a number of trends and specific works from the field of film and television; and ongoing questions of national identity and patriotism. Although Jennings' films may not seem directly dedicated to one's dilemmas, they can still stir and inspire with their imaginative and moral impulse, and continue to do so precisely because they continue in various ways to raise issues relevant to the present. However, within acknowledgments of the importance of Jennings' films to the history of documentary representation, certain assessments of his filmmaking have unintentionally denied legacies by arguing that his work is too idiosyncratic for emulation. This may well be the case when referring to Jennings' use of collage and ambiguity, formal characteristics that are not commonly copied or duplicated in documentary filmmaking.