Great Briton

By Dai Vaughan

fires-were-started-humphrey-jennings.jpgFires Were Started, 1943

The achievements of the multi-talented Humphrey Jennings continue to resonate today

As the 20th century was drawing to a close, Gilbert Adair included Humphrey Jennings in a series of profiles of people whose reputations, he believed, would not survive the 21st.  

It is therefore heartening that Carcanet should have chosen the present moment to bring out a new paperback edition of Jennings’s written material (The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, edited by Kevin Jackson). The decision to open with the most substantial section, that relating to his film work, was presumably dictated by a wish to entice readers through the most familiar door. Those not requiring such enticement may prefer to begin with sections II and III: his early essays on various subjects and his late ’30s broadcasts mainly concerning The Poet and the Public.

Jennings’s reputation rests upon a handful of his documentaries made between 1939 and 1945: films which to this day provide a benchmark for what documentary can do. The prevailing view of him is as a dabbler – in painting, in poetry, in sociology, in surrealism – whose mind was brought into focus only by the need to make a living, by the war and by the collaborative nature of film production, in particular with editor Stewart McAllister. What is wrong with this description is not so much its substance as its slant: the overwhelming English contempt for intellectual adventure as summed up in such phrases as ‘Jack of all trades and master of none.’ And what this Reader achieves above all is to demonstrate both the development of Jennings’s thinking and the underlying coherence which linked all of his seemingly diverse concerns.

The latter is seen most clearly in relation to the project Pandaemonium, the compendious compilation, not brought to fruition in his lifetime, of texts relating to the experience of the Industrial Revolution – the tattered manuscript of which, according to some colleagues, he carried with him everywhere. This turns up first in Section II in the form of a piece published in the London Bulletin in 1938, under the title Do Not Lean out of the Window!, comprising six texts, three of which occur in the version of Pandaemonium eventually assembled by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge and published in 1985 by Andre Deutsch. But in Section IV, devoted to poems, we find a group of prose Reports dated 1934-36 which appear to be collaged from similar (and in some cases certainly thesame) sources. Such use of the material we may be inclined to take less seriously today; but these Reports did inspire David Gascoyne to write his Three Verbal Objects of 1937, which he dedicated to Jennings after the latter’s death.

Finally we discover that his last film, A Family Portrait (commissioned for the Festival of Britain) was intimately related in his mind to the Industrial Revolution project. Indeed, he seems at times to have been trying to compress all the wealth of Pandaemonium into its 20 minutes, with the result that the shots become overburdened with symbolic gravitas, unmalleable, so that even the usually resourceful McAllister seems not to have been able to do much with it. But then Jennings’s temper did not incline to the reductive. The strength of Pandaemonium, as we now have it, lies precisely in its opening up of contradictions, its refusal to simplify. To the extent that A Family Portrait was an attempt to celebrate the British character through its heritage, it makes a strange contrast with the essay The English, of August 1948, where many of the same ideas are presented in a decidedly jaundiced tone.

Jennings is often portrayed, in the anecdotes of those who knew him, as a temperamental and self-centred man. Doubtless he could behave like that. But the documents here tell an interesting story. Having selected the mining village of Cwmgiedd as the location for The Silent Village, he returned to find that the villagers had appointed a Film Committee to oversee the proceedings. His reaction was to accept this, and to report to the committee for discussions two evenings a week. I can think of few of today’s television directors who would demonstrate such humility.

Another striking illustration of his growth, both in character and in dedication, is the long sequence of research notes for a proposed film about the London Symphony Orchestra. For this, he attended a series of rehearsals and performances over a period of five months making detailed jottings, getting to know the musicians as individuals, taking the measure of the conductors, observing the often dismal surroundings in which they had to work. There are surprisingly few suggestions for actual shots, so that we have to supply Chick Fowle’s framing for ourselves. Some of the detail is fairly repetitive; but the decision not to prune it was the right one, emphasising as it does Jennings’s determination to get inside his subject. By this time he had been in the business 15 years. Many directors would have taken the view that they knew by now how to knock a film together, and did not need to put in such gruelling preparation.

Unavoidably, since this is not an art book, Jennings’s painting receives short shrift. The six monochrome reproductions hint, but only for those who already know, at the extent to which his visual explorations take up the same themes as his other work. Not only that, but some of his drawings and paintings have their origins in frames from his own films: women in factories, flanagan and Allen in the canteen, and so forth. And again, his poem The Plough reads like a description of one of his own paintings. Such re-working of pre-existent imagery anticipates developments of the late ’50s and 1960s. Jennings could properly be represented – in a two-person display – as the precursor of Richard Hamilton. Perhaps Tate Britain might think about it.

Dai Vaughan is a writer and documentary editor. Recent publications include the novel Totes Meer (Seren) and the prose collection Germs.