Humphrey Jennings – ‘poet’ of the British Cinema

Still from London Can Take It

Humphrey Jennings – ‘poet’ of the
British Cinema

by Stuart Millson

Just a few years after the Second World War, a small film company – Wessex Film Productions Ltd. – issued a “short” – an information film (for the Central Office of Information) – with the title, The Dim Little Island. The subtitle was, for such a modest film, quite lengthy and intriguing: ‘A Short Film composed on some thoughts of our past, present and future from four men.’  The four men in question came from very different walks of life: the great composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams; a naturalist, James Fisher; John Ormston of Vickers Armstrong; and the artist and illustrator, Osbert Lancaster.

The aim of the Producer and Director, Humphrey Jennings, was to examine the idea, prevalent in that time of post-war austerity, that England and Great Britain was, despite its victory in war, an exhausted country, with little to be optimistic about. Jennings had spent most of his life producing “films to order” – documentary, even propaganda films (if you take the cynical view), but with sensitivity, subtlety, and a sense of involvement for the audience. His aim was not just to convey the view of government ministers, but to show the best of the country – and the truth of life in Britain. Even when presenting its less appealing aspects, such as “dark, satanic mills” or unemployment (Jennings was both a patriot and a social reformer), there was an emotional and moral purpose to what he did. If the works of author George Orwell contained a fusion of what (on the face of it, at least) are the two separate ideals of traditional nationhood and the welfare state, then it was Humphrey Jennings who celebrated – and fused – those ideals for the British cinema.

In The Dim Little Island, the smoke from the industrial chimneys gives way to the clouds over a pastoral landscape; the secrecy of the Suffolk coast (introduced by the naturalist), with its meres, marshes and fens, finds a curious echo in the noble scene of ships on the Tyne – the industrial world of John Ormston. With Jennings, Englishness was not just the England of the village green: it was, instead, the village green which could, and should, be enjoyed by ramblers and walkers from the big cities, escaping the factories and their cramped conditions. And in using the voice and thoughts of Vaughan Williams, classical music from the Elizabethans to the present day, and the great British virtuoso performers, became, through the lens of Jennings, something for everyone, and for everyone to be proud of. The “dim little island” had talents of all kinds; naturalists and musicians working for our spiritual recreation, and industrialists and skilled craftsmen attending to the industries which kept us alive. And this was the film-maker’s creed, the idea of the people taking heart from their own qualities – tested so fully between 1939 and 1945 – but looking forward to a better future; ideals that were very much part of the post-war Labour Government and the consensus of the time.

Frank Humphrey Sinkler Jennings was born in the August of 1907, in one of Suffolk’s most unusual coastal villages, Walberswick. The River Blyth flows out to the North Sea by Walberswick’s sand dunes, cottages, and black weatherboarded houses (which stand on stilts – a necessary protection against unruly tides). Southwold town and lighthouse keep watch on the other side of the river. Barn owls circle over the saltings in the evening, and even today, there is a vague atmosphere of eccentricity in the village – a place which seems to have attracted many thinkers and artists, including the English impressionist, Philip Wilson Steer. The Jennings family probably fitted well into this culturally-earnest milieu – Humphrey’s parents being very much in the mould of the English radical. Both were Guild Socialists – not the Socialism of out-and-out revolution, but the ideals of a peaceful, co-operative society of trades and crafts, as imagined by William Morris, or perhaps, Richard Jefferies.

Academically gifted, Jennings at first began a career as a scholar, a student of English literature, but after postgraduate studies, gravitated toward a bohemian existence – displaying a keen interest in all of the arts, including theatre, film and photography. In 1934, he enlisted in the small but influential GPO Film Unit (later, the Crown Film Unit), the artistic fiefdom of John Grierson, and also met the avant-garde film-maker, Alberto Cavalcanti, who became a significant artistic figure in Ealing Studios, conjuring within those essentially English films an underlying current of mystery, oddity and tension. Jennings was also greatly interested in the surrealist movement; and something of this hunger for new ideas, the juxtaposing of striking images, the unusual use of shadows and darkness, the movements of urban life, machinery and everyday, ordinary things – all find an echo even in his most straightforward films. Surrealism, and even the pleasure of shocking conventional audiences, has always been relished by English artists – from Wyndham Lewis to Paul Nash, and composers such as Walton, in the 1920s, enjoyed a reputation for unorthodoxy. The young film-maker fell into the same category, and in 1936, helped to organise a surrealist exhibition in London; a role similar, perhaps, to that taken by the poet Laurie Lee, some 15 years later, at the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Eccentricities (which, apparently, included an inflatable bus!).

But perhaps the best-known film by Jennings, a production lasting about three quarters of an hour, is the thoughtful, and sometimes unsettling Diary for Timothy: made in 1944-45, with an E.M. Forster script spoken by Michael Redgrave, and an original score by composer Richard Addinsell, who penned the famous cinematic Warsaw Concerto– here we find ourselves in a clean, bright, efficient hospital maternity ward, during the very period that saw the beginnings of the National Health Service. In one of the cots is a baby, young Timothy – blissfully unaware of the great events unfolding around him. The last months of the war are hard and anxious. There are setbacks, and life in wartime has been uncomfortable and cold – “fog and death”, the bombing of cities, and the loss of houses and roofs; and no news from those fighting abroad, although – as Jennings is keen to remind us – the battlefront is not just in Europe. As the film cleverly shows, the miners, industrial workers, farmers and train-drivers are also essential to the war and to victory; and an accident underground involving one Welsh miner, is viewed as every bit as serious as the wounds suffered by the shot-down RAF pilot.

But morale has been kept up by the work of many entertainers and artists, dance-bands, theatres, John Gielgud in Hamlet– and also by Dame Myra Hess and her renowned concerts at the National Gallery, which the Royal family famously attended. The black-out is over (lights are just dimmed now) and the Home Guard has had its stand-down ceremony. A new wind seems to be blowing from the East: the relentless war efforts of Soviet Russia are cheered, and news comes of the huge, pitiless destruction taken to Berlin by the Allied bombers. What sort of future could be unfolding for Timothy “and all the other babies”?

How lucky it is, says the narrator, that Timothy has not been born in a slum; and the infant is shown in his warm home at Christmas-time, with family all around. Their local church is decorated with holly, and the Oxfordshire countryside is still and holy under snow, frost and slanting winter sunshine – a quality which is strangely enhanced by the “unsophisticated” black-and-white film of the ‘40s. The message is careful, and never over-emphasised, but clear: a better, more comfortable society has to come out of the war, with no broken homes, poverty or people left for dead after accidents in mines or factories. Jennings asks us to think about many things: how a nation that has mined coal for 500 years could still allow such appalling conditions to exist in its mines; that Myra Hess’s audience is taking solace from a composer, Beethoven, from the country with which we are at war.

Some 13 years ago, a television documentary (using the best techniques established by the master film-maker) retraced the life of Jennings, and even tried to find the citizen who was once baby Timothy. The TV production for Channel 4 which was directed by Kevin Macdonald (grandson of Emeric Pressburger – screenplay writer for The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) blended biography with other evocative touches – skilfully bridging the gap of the wartime years with our own: the crackle of Reith’s BBC airwaves and broadcasts merging into the sounds of the Britain of today – commercial radio, the ever-present multi-channel media, all a world away from the society of the 1940s. A camera shot in Macdonald’s film shows the National Gallery, an echo of one of Jennings’s famous scenes – but the news-stand in the modern street announces some disturbing news: in a random attack in London, the hands of a leading contemporary pianist have been slashed. And the destiny of Timothy was also revealed… he taught for many years in an Inner London school, but had died in middle age. Despite our many material advances, and the hopes of the Jennings generation, so much has changed since the end of the Second World War. It all seems like an elegy for high hopes, even an elegy for England.

For post-war film-maker, Lindsay Anderson, Jennings was the “only real poet that British cinema has yet produced”, a true and accurate summary of an outstanding talent, devoted to recording the life he saw around him. Without Jennings, it is unlikely that the documentary movement would have developed in this country as it did. If he had remained in the academic world, and had not flirted with surrealism, or met Cavalcanti, would such directors as Ken Russell, Derek Jarman or Lindsay Anderson have emerged to lead an at times provocative post-war film culture?

Humphrey Jennings died before his time, in 1950 – just 43 years of age – as a result of a fall. He was in Greece that year, scouting for film locations by some cliffs when he accidentally slipped. But his legacy is a film archive of rare quality – a diary of Britain during the most momentous times of the 20thcentury, and a recording and celebration of our “dim little island” with all its faults and facets.

Still from Fires Were Started, courtesy BFI

Stuart Millson is QR’s Classical Music Editor

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1 Response to Humphrey Jennings – ‘poet’ of the British Cinema

  1. David Ashton says:

    From Vince Cable to the BAMELGBTQI+ agitprop-daily known as “The Guardian”, so-called “nostalgia” is under direct, explicit and current attack. Unfortunately records of better times exist not only inside our heads but in print, on disc, and in pictures from family photos to films which have not been lost or yet destroyed. So also Jennings to a large extent. The Enemies Within know this – hence e.g. books attacking our icons, such as one that focuses significantly on John Mills. Buy your pre-PC Jeffrey Richards books now.

    Maybe nostalgia will be the next thought crime – after misogyny. Progress Denial.

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