All 5 entries tagged Humphrey Jennings
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April 10, 2008
Listen to Britain (1942): Dir. Humphrey Jennings
A Scots regiment singing 'Home on the Range' in Listen to Britain
For formal perfection, for essence of Jennings - albeit extracted by McAllister - probably 'Listen to Britain' would be the one to put in the time capsule. It never palls I must have seen it hundreds of times, but still every time I notice something I hadn't seen before. Somehow it has captured life's rhythm and texture. To watch it is to experience life afresh with an awareness that usually eludes us. The tiniest things...There's the pleasure of recognition, but also I think a revelation of the poetry in the everyday. (Drazin, 2007 pp 155-156)
The Importance of Naturalness
Jennings seemed to be better than most at capturing people being very natural 'capturing it how it was'. Jennings didn't work to much of a preconceived script which was to be disadvantageous when it came to trying to raise money for a feature film, but it worked brilliantly in documentary. Listen to Britain has certainly proved to be a very influential film for Britian's documentary and realist film makers as Mike Leigh notes:
I also admire Jennings's Listen to Britain. It is a fantastic piece of film-making for all of us (and this includes me) who in our films have tried to build film stories in an atmospheric way, using all kinds of elements, including sound and music. Listen to Britain does this extraordinarily well, and with an incredible ease of editing. Although it is not a narrative film, it is an exemplary piece of film storytelling and it raises the hairs on the back of your neck every time. (Mike Leigh Channel Four Website)
Probably to be great at documentary you have to be opportunistic and take advantage of moments of serendipity. Drazin discusses how in the shooting of Listen to Britain at a primary school it was impossible to shoot inside because of the lighting conditions so the children were asked to do a dance in the playground. One of the girls had made a mistake and the cameraman wanted to do a re-shoot Jennings wanted the naturalness of a child making a slip:'... the child's half-stumble, with its quality of truth made the scene.' (Drazin, 2007 p 157). However the Film Maker Mike Leigh makes an interesting point about the way many people are scratching on Jennings films:
If you look very closely at Jennings's work, you start to see some very interesting behavioural detail. For example, he often gets people to scratch - all over the place, across all of his films. You can see that he told them to do it when the camera gets to a certain moment. On your first viewing, you just accept it as part of the texture but it actually does look very self-conscious. The reason he's doing it is to introduce some kind of realistic movement into the very static style of documentary at that time. Don't forget that it wasn't until after the war that BBC radio realised that you could interview a working-class person spontaneously. Before that, they used to go out and talk to ordinary people, then write a script, and then get them to read the script. (Leigh ibid)
Despite his powerful intellectual capacity Jennings and his own taste for so-called 'high culture' he was concerned to capture tastes and cultural practices across the board. The filming of Flanagan & Alan doing a show in a factory canteen has a well timed cut to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery to the Queen amongst others. There was nothing judgemental there, all were enjoying themselves and the music they loved providing a unity in difference. Jackson points out in his introduction to the Humphrey Jennings Reader that Jennings:
...would not turn people into allegories or types, no matter how benign the typing might be, and the outcome was that he was able to show the British at war as nobody else could. Those singing factory girls are neither dupes of capitalism nor Stakhanovite heroines: they are the women Jennings chanced to meet when he took his cameras down to the shop floor, and thier faces are vivid and unforgettable after half a century. (Jackson, 1993 p XV).
In the Editing Room
Jointly on the credits with Humphrey Jennings is Stewart McAllister an editor with whom Jennigs worked a lot. Joe Mendoza who was a young assisstant in the GPO film Unit at the time was asked to work with Jennings because he was the only person who could read a musical score in the unit. This was a prospect he found intimidating as Jennings had a reputation for shouting at people according to Drazin. Mendoza thought that Jennings had the visual brilliance whilst McAllister worked more on the issue of the music and creating a progression thorugh the film giving it some structure even though it isn't a narrative documentary.
In Listen to Britain McAllister has been credited with several important sections such as the build up of aircraft sound over the cornfield and the crucial cut from the Flanagan and Allen factory floor show to Myra Hess in the National Portrait gallery. Creative editing was especially important in teis film as around 25% was taken from existing sources note Aldrich and Richards.
Despite the importance of McAllister's contributions and his ability to work well with Jennings Aldrich and Richards comment:
Nevetheless it is hard to to accept that the overall conception, the continuing preoccupations, the structure even of the films are not ultimately those of Jennings. (Aldrich and Richards p 224)
They point out that Jennings always did the scripting and of course all the shooting of the footage and even where some of this was spontaneous it was also done in the framework of the masterplan in Jennings' mind. It is they note Jennings belief in a pattern but one in which:
...artistic form was a wider reflection of British history and of English life and culture. It is this consistent and coherent world view which ultimately marks Jennings out as the directing intelligence of the films... (Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 225)
Critical Reception of Listen to Britain
In many quarters a jingoistic 'up and at them' form of propaganda was the only thing worth having, Aldgate and Richards cite Edward Anstey of the Spectator who was a s scornful of the film as were the documentary purists writing in Documentary News Letter who were scathing about Words for Battle:
By the time Humphrey Jenings has done with it, it has become the rarest bit of fiddling since the days of Nero. It will be a disaster if this film is sent overseas. One shudders to imagine the effect upon our allies should they learn that an official British film-making unit can find the time these days to contemplate the current sights and sounds of Britain... (Cited Aldgate and Richards 2007, pp 222-223)
However, in reality it went down well with audiences in fact the description below sounds closer to a rock group reception than a 'documentary' screening. The deputy head of non-theatrical distribution for the Ministry of Information (MoI) reported that:
All sorts of audiences felt it to be a distillation and also a magnification of their own experiences on the home front. This was especially true of factory audiences. I remember one show in a factory in the Midlands where about 800 workers clapped and stamped approval. (Aldgate and Richards 2007 p223)
Roger Manvell then working as the Films Officer in the South West and later North-West of the country reported that he always showed a Jennings film because of the :
...poetic and emotional life they gave the programmes as a whole. I do not exaggerate when I say that members of audiences under the emotional strains of war ... frequently wept as a result of Jennings' direct appeal to the rich cultural heritage of Britain.... (Manvell cited Aldgate & Richards 2007, 223 )
Overall Listen to Britain is a powerful film which through a very creative notion of documentarism manages to not only capture fragments of everyday life but unify them in a way which is at the highest level of myth-making thus comfortably achieving the aims of the MoI. The Spectator commentator was proved spectacularly wrong. This geninely was propaganda as art an extraordianry feat and one which Triumph of the Will doesn't come near thankfully.
Screenonline: Listen to Britain
Screenonline: John Krish. Editing asisstant on Listen to Britain
Pembroke College International Programme: Theory and Practice of Documentary Film
British Cinema and The Ideology of Realism Chapter 1. (Somebody's interesting looking thesis)
Please follow link to the British Cinema Bibliography
April 07, 2008
Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings
Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
It is difficult to write anything but personally about the films of Humphrey Jennings. This is not of course to say that a full and documented account of his work in the cinema would not be of the greatest interest: anyone who undertook such a study would certainly merit our gratitude. But the sources are diffuse. Friends and colleagues would have to be sought out and questioned; poems and paintings tracked down; and, above all, the close texture of the films themselves would have to be exhaustively examined. My aim must be more modest, merely hoping to stimulate by offering some quite personal reaction, and by trying to explain why I think these pictures are so good.
Jennings’ films are all documentaries, all made firmly within the framework of the British documentary movement. This fact ought not to strike a chill, for surely "the creative interpretation of actuality" should suggest an exciting, endlessly intriguing use of the cinema; and yet it must be admitted that the overtones of the term are not immediately attractive. Indeed it comes as something of a surprise to learn that this unique and fascinating artist was from the beginning of his career in films an inside member of Grierson's GPO Unit (with which he first worked in 1934), and made all his best films as official, sponsored propaganda during the second world war. His subjects were thus, at least on the surface, the common ones; yet his manner of expression was always individual, and became more and more so. It was a style that bore the closest possible relationship to his theme – to that aspect of his subjects which his particular vision caused him consistently to stress. It was, that is to say, a poetic style. In fact it might reasonably be contended that Humphrey Jennings is the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.
He started directing films in 1939 (we may leave out of account an insignificant experiment in 1935, in collaboration with Len Lye); and the date is significant, for it was the war that fertilised his talent and created conditions in which his best work was produced. Watching one of Jennings’ early pictures, Speaking from America, which was made to explain the workings of the transatlantic radio-telephone system, one would hardly suspect the personal qualities that characterise the pictures he was making only a short while later. There seems to have been more evidence of these in Spare Time, a film on the use of leisure among industrial workers: a mordant sequence of a carnival procession, drab and shoddy, in a northern city aroused the wrath of more orthodox documentarians, and Basil Wright has mentioned other scenes, more sympathetically shot – “the pigeon fancier, the ‘lurcher-loving collier’ and the choir rehearsal are all important clues to Humphrey's development”. Certainly such an affectionate response to simple pleasures is more characteristic of Jennings’ later work than any emphasis of satire.
If there had been no war, though, could that development ever have taken place? Humphrey Jennings was never happy with narrowly propagandist subjects, any more than he was with the technical exposition of Speaking from America. But in wartime people become important, and observation of them is regarded in itself as a justifiable subject for filming, without any more specific "selling angle" than their sturdiness of spirit. Happily, this was the right subject for Jennings. With Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Pat Jackson he made The First Days, a picture of life on the home front in the early months of the war. On his own, he then directed Spring Offensive, about farming and the new development of agricultural land in the Eastern counties; in 1940 he worked again with Harry Watt on London Can Take It, another picture of the home front; and in 1941, with Heart of Britain, he showed something of the way in which the people of Northern industrial Britain were meeting the challenge of war.
These films did their jobs well, and social historians of the future will find in them much that makes vivid the atmosphere and manners of the period. Ordinary people are sharply glimpsed in them, and the ordinary sounds that were part of the fabric of their lives reinforce the glimpses and sometimes comment on them: a lorry-load of youthful conscripts speeds down the road in blessed ignorance of the future, as a jaunty singer gives out ‘We're going to hang out our washing on the Siegfried line’. In the films which Jennings made in collaboration, it is risky, of course, to draw attention too certainly to any particular feature as being his: yet here and there are images and effects which unmistakably betray his sensibility. Immense women knitting furiously for the troops; a couple of cockney mothers commenting to each other on the quietness of the streets now that the children have gone; the King and Queen unostentatiously shown inspecting the air raid damage in their own back garden. Spring Offensive is less sure in its touch, rather awkward in its staged conversations and rather over-elaborate in its images; Heart of Britain plainly offered a subject that Jennings found more congenial. Again the sense of human contact is direct: a steel-worker discussing his A.R.P. duty with his mate, a sturdy matron of the W.V.S. looking straight at us through the camera as she touchingly describes her pride at being able to help the rescue workers, if only by serving cups of tea. And along with these plain, spontaneous encounters come telling shots of landscape and background, amplifying and reinforcing. A style, in fact, is being hammered out in these films; a style based on a peculiar intimacy of observation, a fascination with the commonplace thing or person that is significant precisely because it is commonplace, and with the whole pattern that can emerge when such commonplace, significant things and people are fitted together in theright order.
Although it is evident that the imagination at work in all these early pictures is instinctively a cinematic one, in none of them does one feel that the imagination is working with absolute freedom. All the films are accompanied by commentaries, in some cases crudely propagandist, in others serviceable and decent enough; but almost consistently these off-screen words clog and impede the progress of the picture. The images are so justly chosen, and so explicitly assembled, that there is nothing for the commentator to say. The effect – particularly if we have Jennings’ later achievements in mind – is cramped. The material is there, the elements are assembled; but the fusion does not take place that alone can create the poetic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And then comes the last sequence of Heart of Britain. The Huddersfield Choral Society rises before Malcolm Sargent, and the homely, buxom housewives, the black-coated workers, and the men from the mills burst into the Hallelujah Chorus. The sound of their singing continues, and we see landscapes and noble buildings, and then a factory where bombers are being built. Back and forth go these contrasting, conjunctive images, until the music broadens out to its conclusion, the roar of the engines joins in, and the bombers take off. The sequence is not a long one, and there are unfortunate intrusions from commentator, but the effect is extraordinary, and the implications obvious. Jennings has found his style.
Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, A Diary for Timothy. To the enthusiast for Jennings these titles have a ring which makes it a pleasure simply to speak them, or to set them down in writing; for these are the films in which, between 1941 and 1945, we can see that completely individual style developing from tentative discovery and experiment to mature certainty. They are all films of Britain at war, and yet their feeling is never, or almost never, warlike. They are committed to the war – for all his sensibility there does not seem to have been anything of the pacifist about Jennings – but their real inspiration is pride, an unaggressive pride in the courage and doggedness of the ordinary British people. Kathleen Raine, a friend of Jennings and his contemporary at Cambridge, has written: “What counted for Humphrey was the expression, by certain people, of the ever-growing spirit of man; and, in particular, of the spirit of England.” It is easy to see how the atmosphere of the country at war could stimulate and inspire an artist so bent. For it is at such a time that the spirit of a country becomes manifest, the sense of tradition and community sharpened as (alas) it rarely is in time of peace. “He sought therefore for a public imagery, a public poetry.” In a country at war we are all members of one another, in a sense that is obvious to the least spiritually-minded.
“Only connect.” It is surely no coincidence that Jennings chose for his writer on A Diary for Timothy the wise and kindly humanist who had placed that epigraph on the title page of his best novel. The phrase at any rate is apt to describe not merely the film on which Jennings worked with EM Forster, but this whole series of pictures which he made during the war. He had a mind that delighted in simile and the unexpected relationship. (“It was he” wrote Grierson, “who discovered the Louis Quinze properties of a Lyons’ swiss roll.”) On a deeper level, he loved to link one event with another, the past with the present, person to person. Thus the theme of Words for Battle is the interpretation of great poems of the past through events of the present – a somewhat artificial idea, though brilliantly executed. It is perhaps significant, though, that the film springs to a new kind of life altogether in its last sequence, as the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg are followed by the clatter of tanks driving into Parliament Square past the Lincoln statue: the sound of the tanks merges in turn into the grand music of Handel, and suddenly the camera is following a succession of men and women in uniform, striding along the pavement cheery and casual, endowed by the music, by the urgent rhythm of the cutting, and by the solemnity of what has gone before (to which we feel they are heirs) with an astonishing and breathtaking dignity, a mortal splendour.
As if taking its cue from the success of this wonderful passage, Listen to Britain dispenses with commentary altogether. Here the subject is simply the sights and sounds of wartime Britain over a period of some twenty-four hours. To people who have not seen the film it is difficult to describe its fascination – something quite apart from its purely nostalgic appeal to anyone who lived through those years in this country. The picture is a stylistic triumph (Jennings shared the credit with his editor, Stewart McAllister), a succession of marvellously evocative images freely linked by contrasting and complementary sounds; and yet it is not for its quality of form that one remembers it most warmly, but for the continuous sensitivity of its human regard. It is a fresh and loving eye that Jennings turns on to those Canadian soldiers, singing to an accordion to while away a long train journey; or on to that jolly factory girl singing “Yes, my Darling Daughter” at her machine; or on to the crowded floor of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom; or the beautiful, sad-faced woman who is singing “The Ash Grove” at an ambulance station piano. Emotion in fact (it is something one often forgets) can be conveyed as unmistakably through the working of a film camera as by the manipulation of pen or paintbrush. To Jennings this was a transfigured landscape, and he recorded its transfiguration on film.
The latter two of these four films, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, are more ambitious in conception: the second runs for about forty minutes, and the first is a full-length “feature documentary”. One’s opinion as to which of them is Jennings’ masterpiece is likely to vary according to which of them one has most recently seen. Fires Were Started (made in 1943) is a story of one particular unit of the National Fire Service during one particular day and night in the middle of the London blitz: in the morning the men leave their homes and civil occupations, their taxi-cabs, newspaper shops, advertising agencies, to start their tour of duty; a new recruit arrives and is shown the ropes; warning comes in that a heavy attack is expected; night falls and the alarms begin to wail; the unit is called out to action at a riverside warehouse, where fire threatens an ammunition ship drawn up at the wharf; the fire is mastered; a man is lost; the ship sails with the morning tide. In outline it is the simplest of pictures; in treatment it is of the greatest subtlety, richly poetic in feeling, intense with tenderness and admiration for the unassuming heroes whom it honours. Yet it is not merely the members of the unit who are given this depth and dignity of treatment. Somehow every character we see, however briefly, is made to stand out sharply and memorably in his or her own right: the brisk and cheery girl who arrives with the dawn on the site of the fire to serve tea to the men from her mobile canteen; a girl in the control room forced under her desk by a near-miss, and apologising down the telephone which she still holds in her hand as she picks herself up; two isolated aircraft-spotters watching the flames of London miles away through the darkness. No other British film made during the war, documentary or feature, achieved such a continuous and poignant truthfulness, or treated the subject of men at war with such a sense of its incidental glories and its essential tragedy.
The idea of connection, by contrast and juxtaposition, is always present in Fires Were Started - never more powerfully than in the beautiful closing sequence, where the fireman's sad little funeral is intercut against the ammunition ship moving off down the river – but its general movement necessarily conforms to the basis of narrative. A Diary for Timothy, on the other hand, is constructed entirely to a pattern of relationships and contrasts, endlessly varying, yet each one contributing to the rounded poetic statement of the whole. It is a picture of the last year of the war, as it was lived through by people in Britain; at the start a baby, Timothy, is born, and it is to him that the film is addressed. Four representative characters are picked out (if we except Tim himself and his mother, to both of whom we periodically return): an engine driver, a farmer, a Welsh miner and a wounded fighter pilot. But the story is by no means restricted to scenes involving these; with dazzling virtuosity, linking detail to detail by continuously striking associations of image, sound, music and comment, the film ranges freely over the life of the nation, connecting and connecting. National tragedies and personal tragedies, individual happiness and particular beauties are woven together in a design of the utmost complexity: the miner is injured in a fall at the coal face, the fighter pilot gets better and goes back to his unit, the Arnhem strike fails, Myra Hess plays Beethoven at the National Gallery, bombs fall over Germany, and Tim yawns in his cot. Such an apparently haphazard selection of details could mean nothing or everything. The difficulty of writing about such a film, of disengaging in the memory the particular images and sounds (sounds moreover which are constantly overlapping and mixing with each other), from the overall design has been remarked on by Dilys Powell: “It is the general impression which remains; only with an effort do you separate the part from the whole ... the communication is always through a multitude of tiny impressions, none is isolation particularly memorable.” Only with the last point would one disagree. A Diary for Timothy is so tensely constructed, its progression is so swift and compulsive, its associations and implications so multifarious, that it is almost impossible, at least for the first few viewings, to catch and hold on to particular impressions. Yet the impressions themselves are so rarely unmemorable, not merely for their splendid pictorial quality, but for the intimate and loving observation of people, the devoted concentration on the gestures and expressions, the details of dress or behaviour that distinguish each unique human being from another. Not least among the virtues that distinguish Jennings from almost all British filmmakers is his respect for personality, his freedom from the inhibitions of class-consciousness, his inability to patronise or merely to use the people in his films. Jennings’ people are ends in themselves.
Other films were made by Jennings during the war, and more after it, up to his tragic death in 1950; but I have chosen to concentrate on what I feel to be his best work, most valuable to us. He had his theme, which was Britain; and nothing else could stir him to quite the same response. With more conventional subjects – The Story of Lilli Marlene, A Defeated People, The Cumberland Story – he was obviously unhappy, and, despite his brilliance at capturing the drama of real life, the staged sequences in these films do not suggest that he would have been at ease in the direction of features. The Silent Village – his reconstruction of the story of Lidice in a Welsh mining village – bears this out; for all the fond simplicity with which he sets his scene, the necessary sense of conflict and suffering is missed in his over-refined, under-dramatised treatment of the essential situation. It may be maintained that Jennings’ peacetime return to the theme of Britain (The Dim Little Island in 1949, and Family Portrait in 1950) produced work that can stand beside his wartime achievement, and certainly neither of these two beautifully finished films is to be dismissed. But they lack passion.
By temperament Jennings was an intellectual artist, perhaps too intellectual for cinema. (It is interesting to find Miss Raine reporting that, “Julian Trevelyan used to say that Humphrey's intellect was too brilliant for a painter”.) It needed the hot blast of war to warm him to passion, to quicken his symbols to emotional as well as intellectual significance. His symbols in Family Portrait – the Long Man of Wilmington, Beachy Head, the mythical horse of Newmarket – what do they really mean to us? Exquisitely presented though it is, the England of those films is nearer the “This England” of the pre-war beer advertisements and Mr Castleton Knight’s coronation film than to the murky and undecided realities of today. For reality, his wartime films stand alone; and they are sufficient achievement. They will last because they are true to their time, and because the depth of feeling in them can never fail to communicate itself. They will speak for us to posterity, saying: “This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us.”
March 30, 2008
British Directors (Non-Contemporary) Hub Page
For current or recently passed away British Film Directors please go to the Contemporary British Directors Hub Page.
This page is designed to allow visitors to access information on a range of past British diectors and where appropriate informational hubs and critiques of specific films as these are developed. The links are both internal and external ones
Non-Contemporary British Film Directors
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Lindsay Anderson (Above)
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Anthony Asquith (Above)
Roy and John Boulting (Above)
Box Muriel (1905 - 1991)
Muriel Box (Above)
Alberto Cavalcanti (Above)
Jill Craigie with Husband Michael Foot (Above)
Douglas, Bill (1937-1991)
Dupont, E.A. (1891-1956)
Forbes, Bryan (1926-)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
John Grierson (1898-1972)
Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)
Hamilton, Guy (1922-)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
David Lean on set
Lee, Jack (1913-2002)
Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)
Lester, Richard (US 1932-)
Losey, Joe (US but made many important films in Britain 1909 - 1984)
Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Tony Richardson (Above)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Russell, Ken (1927-)
Watkins, Peter (1935-)
Young, Terence (1915-1994)
For a useful range of biographical information also see the Screenonline Directors in British and Irish Cinema
March 17, 2008
Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950)
One always hopes - without too much presumption - that one is helping to keep the work alive...Yet as the years pass these films, which should be familiar to every schoolboy and girl in the country, seem to be seen and known by fewer and fewer people. (Lindsay Anderson, cited Drazin 2007 p 159-60.)
Above Humphrey Jennings' Swiss Roll which is in the Tate collection
It is only recently that there has been some attention paid to the legacy of Humphrey Jennings yet many consider him to be one Britain’s best filmmakers if not the best yet the medium of documentary shorts that he worked in doesn’t gain the attention of the more flamboyant aspects of feature film narrative cinema. It was gratifying to find a comment which I very much agree with in book which arrived yesterday by Charles Drazin (2007) who draws attention the the fact that Sir Dennis Foreman who was director of the BFI in the early 1950s put on an exhibition of British films for the Italian government showing only Jennings films. Foreman reported that:
The Italians were absolutely stunned. They said "This is neorealism 10 years before we invented it"' (Foreman cited in Drazin 2007 p160)
Jennings was renowned for his very ‘poetic’ style of documentaries. Jennings studied English at Cambridge working as a poet and painter specialising in surrealism. 1934-36 he worked as a designer, editor and actor at the GPO Film Unit. Jennings was one of the least likely people to be in the British Documentary Movement given that’s its style of documentary realism was very distant to the sort of activities Jennings participated in. His restless eclecticism meant his energies were spread across a range of activities. Jennings partook in intellectual activities and was a poet, painter, critic, an organiser of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition which famously featured Salvador Dali speaking in a deep-sea diving outfit. In 1936 he also founded the Mass Observation Movement with two others. On top of all this he was a film maker.
Jennings: from GPO to Crown Film Unit
In 1936 he was one of the three founders of the Mass Observation movement along with Madge and Harrison. In 1939 he made Spare Time for the GPO film unit. It was only around ten minutes long yet its Kazoo band scene is highly memorable for Jennings’ more than almost any other film maker was able to capture the surrealism of everyday pastimes in which strange juxtapositions and ‘found objects’ are but a natural cultural occurrence.
During the war he made many ‘propaganda’ documentaries including London Can Take It!, Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942) as shorts. His full length drama documentaries were Fires Were Started (1943), The Silent Village (1943) reconstructing the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice by the Nazis. Diary for Timothy was shot in 1944 and the beginning of 1945.
MacDougall has commented that documentaries influenced by the Grierson School had been the film maker confronting reality rather than exploring the process of reality as a ‘flow of events’. They could be seen as a style of synthesis which used images to develop an argument or impression. In this style comments MacDougall:
Each of the discrete images... was the bearer of a predetermined meaning. They were often articulated like the images of a poem, juxtaposed against an asynchronous soundtrack of music or commentary. Indeed poetry was sometimes integral to their conception, as in the The River (Lorentz, 1937), Night Mail (Wright and Watt, 1936), and Coalface, (Cavalcanti, 1936)”. (MacDougall in Nichols, 1985 p 277).
On this argument it can be seen that Jennings’ Listen to Britain - for many his ‘masterpiece’- belongs to this sub-genre of documentary. Certainly it was entirely observational in attitude as might be expected from one of the founders of the Mass Observation Movement. It is also clearly a propaganda film but one with a ‘voice’ which is very different from the propaganda documentary of a Leni Riefenstahl. As Dalrymple who became head of the Crown Film Unit commented:
“When we make propaganda we tell, quite quietly, what we believe to be the truth. The Nazi method is to bellow as loudly and as often as possible, what they know to be absolutely and completely false…We say in film to our own people ‘This is what the boys in the services, or the girls in the factories, or the men and women in the civil defence, or the patient citizens themselves are like and what they are doing. They are playing their part…be of good spirit and go and do likewise.” (Dalrymple cited Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 219)
Above a range of stills from Listen to Britain. At the bottom the Queen listening to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery which is bereft of pictures as they have been sent to the safety of old slate mines.
Whilst the approach of Dalrymple is clearly very patronising towards the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ it is also a denial of the myth-making of national ideologies that is essential to a propaganda agenda - where propaganda can be taken to be having specific aims and objectives or a strong preferred reading. What is especially interesting about Jennings’ wartime output is how they tended to avoid making direct reference to the Nazis altogether the fact that the Queen was in the National Portrait Gallery listening to a concert of German composers strongly signified an internationalism not an anti-German position. In Listen to Britain, Britain effectively became the defender of the civilised world for at the time it was made Britain and Greece which was about to fall were the only two European countries not under Nazi control apart from neutral countries. One must remember at that moment the Hitler – Stalin pact was still in force. But what Dalrymple said can certainly be applied to Listen to Britain for Jackson (2003) points out it is ‘free of these Riefenstahlian properties’ (bombast, overblown rhetoric and melodramatic theatricality). It seems to be commonly accepted that his wartime output were probably his best films.
"Voice" in Documentary
Bill Nichols suggests that as the documentary has developed one of the major contests between different forms has been centred upon the question of “voice”. “Voice” he argues is a narrower concept than style. It gives a sense of the text’s social point of view and of how the materials are organised to present the materials. Therefore “voice” isn’t restricted simply to one code or feature - spoken commentary for example: “Voice is perhaps akin to that intangible, moiré-like pattern formed by the unique interaction of all a film’s codes, and it applies to all modes of documentary”. (Nichols.B, 1985, p 260-61).
Nichols points out that very few documentary filmmakers are prepared to accept that “through the very tissue and texture of their work that all film making is a form of discourse fabricating its effects, impressions and point of view”. Jennings’ Listen to Britain is clearly a documentary form which isn’t reflexive in the way that the work of Dziga Vertov is and is clearly in a different ‘voice’. Man With a Movie Camera isn’t merely a symphony to the modern industrial city, or modernity in general it is modernistic in its reflexivity about the very making of a film itself as well as incorporating audience and exhibition. By comparison Jennings’ work has a deeply poetic quality which seduces the viewer. With strong justification the filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson described Jennings as “the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced”
Pat Jackson another director who was working with the Crown Film Unit at the time described him as a painterly director:
“It was terribly like a painter in a way; it wasn’t a storyteller’s mind. I don’t think the dramatic approach to a subject, in film really interested him very much. It was an extension of the canvas for him. Patterns, abstractions appealed to him enormously, and those are what people remember most you know”. (Jackson cited Aldgate and Richards 2007 p 220)
Jennings went to Germany in 1945/46 and made the short documentary A Defeated People (1946)
The film is an excellent piece of visual reporting, ably assembled and edited with a pointed and impartial commentary. There is no attempt to work up pity for the Germans, only a desire that we should realise what the war they started has brought back to them on recoil. The film ends with shots of children dancing in their schools, alternated with shots of German judges being sworn in to administer justice in the new Germany of democratic control. (Monthly Film Bulletin review March 1946)
Jennings' Postwar Period
Many suggest that his post-war period was less fruitful than during the war where he reached the height of his powers. Jennings’ last film before his tragic fatal accident falling of a cliff in Poros Greece whilst doing location work for a film was a documentary short for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Graeme Hobbs in a MovieMail review describes it as follows:
a film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.
Seemingly Jennings was always engaging with the enigma that is the ‘national’ character. Certainly he was never patronising towards those he represented and he carried his brilliance lightly able to empathise with his subjects who were ordinary people well before the Italian neo-realists started to carry out their post-war aesthetic approach. Arguably Jennings was a neorealist in methods before his time his content was far more poetic represented than Rossellini’s and was probably a more powerful representation of nation and a call for unity than a film such as Paisa. Hopefully Jennings will not always remain so under-recognised and hopefully he will be inspirational to new film makers who could do worse than to study Jennings closely.
- The Changing Face of Europe (1951) (segment 6 "The Good Life")
... aka The Grand Design (UK)
- Family Portrait (1950)
... aka A Film on the Theme of the Festival of Britain 1951 (UK: subtitle)
- The Dim Little Island (1949)
- The Cumberland Story (1947)
- A Defeated People (1946)
- A Diary for Timothy (1945)
- Myra Hess (1945)
- The Eighty Days (1944)
- V. 1 (1944)
- The Silent Village (1943)
- Fires Were Started (1943)
... aka I Was a Fireman
- The True Story of Lilli Marlene (1943)
- Listen to Britain (1942)
- The Heart of Britain (1941)
- This Is England (1941)
- Words for Battle (1941)
- London Can Take It! (1940) (uncredited)
... aka Britain Can Take It!
- Spring Offensive (1940)
... aka An Unrecorded Victory
- Welfare of the Workers (1940)
- Cargoes (1939)
- The First Days (1939)
... aka A City Prepares (UK)
- Spare Time (1939)
- S.S. Ionian (1939)
... aka Her Last Trip
- Design for Spring (1938)
- English Harvest (1938)
- The Farm (1938)
- Making Fashion (1938)
- Penny Journey (1938)
- Speaking from America (1938)
- Farewell Topsails (1937)
- Locomotives (1934)
- Post-haste (1934)
- The Story of the Wheel (1934)
Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings: Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Humphrey Jennings The Man who Listened to Britain. Channel Four documentary available on DVD
English Heritage awards Jennings a Blue Plaque. (Recognition at Last).
Simon Garfield on his book Our Hidden Lives about the Mass Observation Movement
Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Humphrey Jennings Issue (Winter, 1961-1962)
BBC The Film Programme Radio 4. You can download a Realplayer file here of a discussion with Kevin Jackson Biographer of Jennings
Radio Prague pages in English on Lidice and Jennings portrayal of the Nazi massacre there. Many Associated links.
Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey.2nd Ed. 2007. Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War. London: I. B Tauris
Jackson, Kevin (ed.) 1993. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader. Manchester: Carcanet
Jennings, Humphrey (ed.).1987. Pandaemonium. London: Picador
Jennings, Mary-Lou (ed.)1982. Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet. London: British Film Institute
Lovell, Alan and Hillier, Jim. 1972 Studies in Documentary. London: British Film Institute/Secker and Warburg,
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 1986. 'Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist observer'. In Charles Barr (ed.). All Our Yesterdays (London: British Film Institute,
Orwell, George, 'The Lion and the Unicorn', in Sonia Orwell (ed.) Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1970)
Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI
October 21, 2007
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British 'New Wave'
with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experiment are severely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. you can give indications. you can make poetry. (Programme notes to Free Cinema 3)
The Free cinema movement in Britain is rightly described on the cover of the BFI three disc set called Free Cinema as a "highly influential but critically neglected" movement in cinema history. This article sets out to help publicise and establish a wider critical discourse around this body of films. Free Cinema itself started out as a cultural event at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in 1956. This proved to be extraordinarily popular and allowed Karel Reisz who was programme planner at the NFT at the time as well as an active film-maker to hold another five programmes which went on until March 1959. The films themselves were documentaries which were made in the spirit of the quirky at times quasi-surrealist fashion tradition of Humphrey Jennings rather than in the more seemingly "objective observer" tradition of Grierson. The full six programmes afforded enthusistic audiences to see a range of films that would have been almost impossible to see otherwise and all the screenings were a sell out. Critical and audience success are the two benchmarks by which we can judge the success of the movement.
An International Dimension
Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson were responsible for putting together the six programmes and their own films were screened in Free Cinema, Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain and Free Cinema 6: The Last Free Cinema. Importantly the other three Free Cinema programmes screened the work of Foreign Directors including Lionel Rogosin, Georges Franju and Norman McLaren in Free Cinema 2. Free Cinema 4: Polish Voices screened work by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowcyzk and others. Free Cinema 5: French Renewal screened work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. When one looks at the directors who made their films in Britain as a part of this series of programmes one can see that there was a strong committment to opening up the cinema to a wide range of international mainly European influences including some from behind the Iron Curtain which must have taken some organising only a couple of years after the infamous Hungarian uprising.
Movement or Tendency?
According to Lindsay Anderson this film movement or tendency coincided with the seminal theatrical work of the period John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956). Anderson was responsible for assembling the programme of shorts and documentaries which were to be shown at the National Film Theatre. The concept of being ‘free’ cinema meant that the films were made outside of the framework of the industry and because the films were personal statements about contemporary society. Hayward (1996) suggests that tendency is a better term than a movement in so far as the Free Cinema programme was eclectic and international rather than being comprised of directors who had a common style and common ideals. There were three directors who did form the basis of a movement, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. According to Tony Richardson the term free cinema was originally invented to describe the documentary films made by these directors during the 1950s. Later Anderson was to deny that Free Cinema could be described as a movement.
Regarding the documentaries they considered that these should be made free of all commercial pressures and based upon a humanistic and poetic approach. In espousing these sentiments their work owed more to the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings than to the more positivist sociological inflections of John Grierson. The intellectual backdrop for this approach came from the magazine Sequence which Anderson had founded in 1946. Many articles had focused upon the conformity and apathy engendered by the documentaries of the time whilst others targeted at the feature film had criticised the lack of aesthetic experimentation.
In Sequence Anderson and Reisz concentrated upon issues of style and criticised the conformity in feature films in terms of the narrative structure which was largely based upon the Hollywoodised ‘classic narrative cinema’. They also attacked the bourgeois nature of this cinema and accused it of lacking reality because of its very weak representation of the working class. They also criticised the industrial giants Rank and ABC (part of Warner Bros) which were the only two feature film companies in distribution and exhibition at this time.
Overall I tend to come down on the side of the argument that argues it was a movement, for the notion of tendency seems to imply a much looser milieu whilst this one was relatively compact and just like Neorealism and much of the French New Wave the leading members had been working on the same critical magazine. If it wasn't bound by a tight manifesto it was more than just a bunch of people drifting along as the following quotation from Anderson taken from the Free Cienam 1 programme indicates:
Talking with Karel, Tony and Lorenza about the miserable difficulty of getting our work shown I came up with the idea (at least I think it was me) that we should form ourselves into a movement, should formulate some kind of manifesto and thereby grab the attention of the press and try to get a few days showing at the National Film Theatre. (Booklet accompanying the BFI Free Cinema DVD).
Anderson notes later that even though they got an interview on Panorama the manifesto was a ploy to get Momma Don't Allow, Oh Dreamland and Together all screened. It is clear that they were overtaken by thier success and that there was an audience out there wanting more and different content. The problem with manifestos is that they can act as poles of attraction and create their own impetus.
These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday.
Despite Hayward's doubts there were a number of features in common between the British made films. They were all made in black and white using hand-held Bolex cameras that were only capable of 22 second shots at the maximum. They were documentaries and they largely avoided the use of didactic style voice-over commentaries.There tended to be a lack of narrative continuity and sound and editing was fairly impressionistic. There was also a conscious decision to go out of the studio and film the reality of contemporary Britain. The possibilities for this were improved as the revolutionary HPS (hypersensitive) film stock from Ilford came onto the market. Although the use of this has become associated with the French New Wave in an interview with Walter Lassally the main cinematographer of the British Free Cinema he points out that he drew the attention of the French directors to the use of the high speed Ilford film allowing for nighttime shooting. Another distinguishing feature which makes the work of these three directors a movement is the use made of Walter Lassally as the camera-person on four out of the six films which belong to this oeuvre. Because of the low funding available all were very low to low budget films.
When it came to making their own films unsurprisingly Rank was not forthcoming with finance for these trenchant critics of the British film making institutions. The British Film Institute (BFI) Experimental Film Fund and more surprisingly Ford’s of Dagenham which commissioned a series of documentaries called Look at Britain two of which were made by the Free Cinema directors: Anderson, Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). The BFI provided funding for Momma Don’t Allow (Richardson and Reisz, 1956).
Momma Don't Allow
Momma Don’t Allow explored the leisure particularly looking at jazz and dance and noting a mixing of the classes on the dance floor. The editing reflected the jazz syncopation and the importance of jazz and dance and emerging popular music was an important facet of the later New Wave features with Johnny Dankworth providing the music for Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as well as for Losey’s The Servant (1963) -a film not usually classed as British New Wave but one which can be seen as part of the whole changing culture of Britain none the less. Dankworth also did the soundtrack for Schlesinger’s Oscar winning Darling (1965), which takes both his and Julie Christie’s career post-British New Wave and into London’s 'Swinging Sixties' with representations of a new media and show biz glitteratti and people trying to make it.
In Britain the cinematic ‘New Wave’ was born out of the conjunction of two tendencies with Richardson playing an important part in both. Firstly there was the growth of new sentiments emerging through the theatre and its responses to the growth of social consensus developed in Britain in the 1950s. Secondly there was the influence of British Free Cinema. In this sense it is perhaps better to talk of a rapidly changing cultural milieu especially in London which both senses and participated in changing British society and was made up from a range of generally younger artists operating in various branches of the arts.
The Free Cinema Films
Free Cinema Programme 1
Cinematographer Walter Lassally
O Dreamland, (1953): Directed Lindsay Anderson
Momma don't Allow (1956) Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson
Momma Don't Allow
Together (1956) Lorenza Mazzetti
Free Cinema Programme 3
Wakefield Express (1952): Lindsay Anderson
Nice Time (1957) Claude Goretta & Alain Tanner
Picadilly Circus from Nice Time
Everyday Except Christmas (1957) Lindsay Anderson (winner of the documentary prize at the Venice film festival)
Everyday Except Christmas
The Singing Street (1952): McIsaac, Ritchie, Townsend
We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) Karel Reisz
We are the Lambeth Boys
Refuge England (1959) Robert Vas
Enginemen (1959) Michael Grigsby
Food for a Blush (1959) Elizabeth Russell
The End is the Beginning
Unlike many artistic movements the Free Cinema movement was very clear about the sixth programme being the last one. It is extremly hard work being underfunded and on the edge. Prizes had been won and recognition had been won. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson were in a position to move on to making proper feature films. As the Times of 1959 noted they had made documentaries for thier generation in a style which marked the changing times for it was very different to the Griersonian method of 30 years ago.
It is important to recognise just how much they were part of a wider socio-cultural movement in the country as the Times notes. Richardson had co-founded the English Stage Production Company with George Devine. He had directed Osborne's very successful and groundbreaking Look Back in Anger in 1956 and this led to Osborne ad Richardson establishing Woodfall Films in 1959.
The new opportunities and the shift in culture allowed the full length features of the British Social Realist movement to emerge. This would probably not have happened had the Free Cinema not emerged in the first place.
This BFI page is a route into some excellent resources which are unlikely to be bettered.
Lindsay Anderson writing in Sight and Sound on Humphrey Jennings who was a core inspirational force for the Free Cinema directors.
Geocities on Free Cinema. This is an example of a website which only partially knows its facts. It asserts that it was founded on the precepts of Italian neorealism. In fact Humphrey Jennings had far more influence and he was a neorealist before neorealism! Second point is the argument that it was heavily influenced by the French New Wave. As it was Walter Lassally who passed over ideas to the French cinematographers about shooting on Ilford 400 ASA this doesn't quite add up, neither do the dates. The reality is that the most imaginative young film makers in both countries were developing different approaches to film making. The issue of how far there was an inter-relationship and cross-fertilisation of ideas is what needs to be explored.
Vertigo Magazine 2004 on: Documentary is Dead – Long Live Documentaries! This makes important reference to Free Cinema as well as considring the state of documnetary now in relation to TV. Julian Petley's comments about regulation are of particular interest.