Humphrey Jennings - A Cinematic Genius by Bill Barrett
In 1929 the young Scots film maker John Grierson made a film ‘Drifters’ about the North sea herring boats which has become a classic. A few years before he had decided to use the word ‘documentary’ for films such as this, which derive their power to hold the audience not from invented dramatic situations, but rather from the presentation of factual material.
Not long after Grierson’s film, a surrealist artist and critic named Humphrey Jennings followed in his footsteps. Jennings was born in Walberswick in 1907 in the Gazebo and his father Frank was an accomplished architect. The family home was Marsh Way: both houses still exist.
The young Jennings joined the renowned GPO Film Unit in 1934 and began to make a series of perceptive and moving documentaries on various aspects of life in Britain. His artistic background stood him in good stead and he was, with good reason, described as the only real poet produced by the British cinema.
The Second World War was his making. After a few small films the first of his several masterpieces was ‘Listen to Britain’ which he co-directed in 1941. The film spoke with economy, but with extraordinary power, about how the British people faced up to the war. Jennings combined image and natural sound with an often unexpected and usually emotionally charged effect. The pianist Dame Myra Hess is seen playing Bach in a lunchtime concert in the National Gallery, with an RAF man turning the pages for her. Outside, service men and women hurry through the London streets carrying gas masks. A goods train is seen in an industrial setting and the scene changes abruptly to a toolroom in which young women are working at lathes. ‘Music while you work’ – a radio programme of the time – is heard, with the young women joining in a current popular song ‘Yes, my darling daughter’. There is no narration and it is astonishing how Jennings could select or create this material and anticipate the effect which it would have on those watching it.
‘Fires were started’ is widely regarded as his finest achievement. It tells the story of firemen struggling all night to contain a blaze in the docks following a German raid and of a ship, saved from the flames, sailing the following morning. The firemen are shown coming on duty. As they arrive one by one to collect their equipment and face the dangers to come, the station officer plays ‘One man went to mow’ on the piano. One is well prepared for the story of bombs and fires which is to follow.
In contrast to the poetry of the film, one of the crew has described prosaically how the making of the film required fires to be lit deliberately. On one occasion in the London docks, Jennings had got a good blaze going and was surveying his handiwork when the sirens sounded to announce the nightly arrival of the German planes. As people trooped to the air raid shelters a woman screamed at him 'You'll get us all bleedin’ killed’ but Jennings, absorbed in his art, was quite oblivious to the consternation he caused. He was by no means oblivious to human suffering, indeed his work was to draw attention to it, but he was a dedicated artist.
Towards the end of the war, in 1944, he made a unique film ‘A Diary for Timothy’. Highly formal yet intensely personal, and with a deeply felt respect for the individuality of ordinary people, it remains widely regarded as the finest achievement of the British documentary cinema. The film bids us to look at a baby and consider the world into which that child would grow up. ‘There are big changes afoot, Tim, and there are huge forces at work’ speaks the unseen narrator. It focuses attention on a point in time sharply and it was a brilliant follow–up to the wartime films which preceded it.
The war over, a bright future for his genius in the then thriving British film industry seemed assured. But it was not to be. In 1950, while surveying a mountain scene in Greece for a film project, Jennings fell and was killed. A lamp which had been lit in the village of Walberswick only forty odd years before had been cruelly snuffed out.
Humphrey Jennings’ remarkable collection of contemporary observations of the coming of the machine was published after his death in, Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (eds), Pandaemonium 1660-1886 (1985 and later in pbk).
Bill Barrett, Kenton, June 1999
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