The life and work of a great English war poet. This essay was written for Image Entertainment’s 2002 dvd release of Listen to Britain and Other Films by Humphrey Jennnings. Parts were adapted and appeared as “Listen to Britain,” in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.
Humphrey Jennings was one of the greatest figures in the celebrated British Documentary film movement, and he is most remembered for the way his work reflects the concerns and conditions of World War Two-time in the United Kingdom. He is undoubtedly of great historical importance, but the ultimate justification for the present gathering of work is that Jennings was a great filmmaker who made uniquely beautiful films. Contained within this one man was a seemingly impossible array of artistic abilities. He had a poet’s command of film language, a painter’s eye for evocative imagery and composition, a musician’s ear for rhythm and tone and counterpoint, a Soviet’s sense of juxtaposition, a journalist’s nose for the concrete and the factual, and a compassionate man’s love for the people he portrayed.
It may seem paradoxical that an artist of such positively Romantic parts should have laboured almost exclusively in the documentary realm, with all that it implies of subordination to subject and sponsor. But Jennings’ particular talents emerged at a time of very particular need, and that seeming subordination to a cause is in fact the key to the continuing resonance of his work. In the incongruous coupling of the Cambridge aesthete and the British propaganda machine, both parties turned out to be anxious to compromise for the sake of the union. In these pictures, Jennings’ impressive aesthetic arsenal helped to expand the scope and the vocabulary of documentary. In turn the documentary idea, especially in time of war, served to focus and direct his aesthetic impulses to public ends. The result was a short, shining, perfect marriage.
The breadth and the depth of Jennings’ films owe much to the rather roundabout course by which he became a filmmaker. He was born in 1907, in a village on England’s eastern coast. His mother and father were guild socialists, sharing that movement’s reverence for the past, its love for things communal, and its deep suspicion of industrialization and the machine age. Their son, who would come to know much of both arts and crafts, and who would eventually be uniquely successful in melding tradition and modernity, was well-educated and well read, and his interests ranged very wide indeed. He received a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied English literature, and where all of his youthful enthusiasms coalesced into a remarkable flurry of activity and accomplishment.
Jennings excelled in his chosen field, effecting an extraordinary immersion in the major movements, the signal works and authors, the main periods and issues in English literature. He also founded and wrote for a literary magazine. He oversaw an edition (from the quarto) of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and his doctoral work—unfinished, as it turned out—on the 18th century poet Thomas Gray had, by all accounts, great merit and promise. The fact that he didn’t finish his dissertation had something to do with all the other fields in which he also chose to work. All through his studies Jennings was heavily, and eventually professionally involved in theatrical production. He was an actor, and a designer of real ambition and genius. In connection, he had a passion for painting, gravitating toward modern idioms. Wishing not only to paint, but also to agitate on behalf of the new forms, Jennings founded and ran briefly an art gallery. Not incidentally, he also found time to get married.
Jennings’ abilities, and his ambitions, were not matched by his means. He scrambled through the early 1930s, continuing to paint, publish occasional poetry and work in the theatre. In 1933 he and his wife Cicely had the first of two daughters. Finally in 1934 the weight of this increased domestic responsibility brought him to John Grierson’s General Post Office (GPO) film office, and to a degree of steady employment as a filmmaker.
John Grierson was the major figure in the British documentary film movement. Feeling that commercial cinema had little interest in anything but escape, Grierson set forth what he felt to be the proper aims of a documentary alternative. Films were to consider the everyday realities of everyday people, treat them creatively and, in so doing, alert those people not only to their great value, but also to their great responsibilities. Just as importantly, Grierson also found a way to fund the production, distribution and exhibition of these same films out of the public purse. First at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), and from 1934 through the auspices of the General Post Office, Grierson and his cohorts produced a great many documentaries which, at their best, informed the citizenry at the same time that they pushed the sponsoring governments toward reform.
For the next five years Jennings worked within this ferment. Unlike the taylorized job divisions of Hollywood production, filmmaking at the GPO was roundly collaborative, even communal. Jennings worked closely with many other colleagues, primarily as an editor, a designer, and, slightly, a director. But he did not immediately attain the distinction that so typified his earlier work. The fact is that Jennings did not thrive under Grierson. To the schoolmasterly Scot Jennings’ previous eclectic involvements seemed like so much dabbling. A documentarian’s task was to roll up his sleeves, to advocate and to educate, and to Grierson the aesthetical Jennings seemed ill-equipped for the job at hand.
It is significant that in the subtlety and indirectness to which Grierson objected lie the key to Jennings’ mature work. But this work was yet some years distant. For now, Jennings learned film production as a ‘prentice hand at the GPO. And, as before, he sought outside engagements which, as it turned out, would nurture the poetic qualities within him, and ultimately make of him the next link in the evolution of the documentary film …
… Continued in pt. 2: