Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings (August 19 1907 – September 24 1950), was an English filmmaker and one of the founders of the Mass Observation organization. Jennings was described by film maker Lindsay Anderson as: "the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced." [Anderson,L: "Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey Jennings", "Sight and Sound" Vol.23 no.4, Spring 1954]


Early life

Born in Walberswick, Suffolk, Jennings was the son of an architect father, and a painter mother and attended The Perse School, Cambridge. Later he read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where when not studying, he created advanced stage designs and was the founder-editor of "Experiment" in collaboration with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski.

Early career

After graduating with a starred First Class degree in English from Pembroke College, Cambridge, Jennings did a number of jobs - including photographer, painter and theatre designer. In 1929, he married Cicely Cooper. He eventually found his niche in John Grierson's GPO Film Unit in 1934.

In 1936 Jennings helped with the organisation of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, in association with Herbert Read and André Breton. It was at about this time that Jennings, along with Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson helped found Mass Observation and co-edited with Madge the text "May the Twelfth," a montage of extracts from observer reports of the 1937 coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for Mass Observation.

The War years

With the outbreak of World War II, the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit, a movie-making propaganda arm of the Ministry of Information, and Jennings joined the new organisation.

Jennings made only one feature length film, the 70-minute "Fires Were Started" (1943), also known as "I Was A Fireman", a wartime propaganda movie detailing the work of the Auxiliary Fire Service, which blurred the lines between fiction and documentary. This film, which uses techniques such as "montage", is considered one of the classics of the genre.

He made a number of notable short films, inclusively patriotic in sentiment and very English in their sensibility, such as: "Spare Time"; "Our Country", "The Dim Little Island", "A Diary for Timothy" (with the narration written by E.M. Forster), "Words for Battle", "London Can Take It!", and "Family Portrait" (his last film, which tells of the Festival of Britain). Co-directed with Stewart McAllister, Jennings' best remembered short film, made 1942, is "Listen to Britain". Excerpts are often seen in other documentaries, especially portions of one of the concerts given by Dame Myra Hess in the National Gallery while its collection was evacuated for safe-keeping.

He died in Poros, Greece in a fall on the cliffs of the Greek island while scouting locations for a future film on post-war healthcare in Europe. He is buried near T.H. White at the Protestant Cemetery in Athens.


Humphrey Jennings' reputation always remained very high among film makers, but had faded among others. His films appear strikingly different from the 'social critique' approach which typified the documentaries of Grierson and his "school" of the 1930s and the feature films of the 1960s and 70s such as Lindsay Anderson's"This Sporting Life" (1962) or Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960).

After 2001 this situation was partly rectified: firstly by the feature-length documentary by Oscar-winning documentary-maker Kevin Macdonald, "Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain" (made by Figment Films in 2002 for British television's Channel 4); and secondly by Kevin Jackson's monumental 450-page biography "Humphrey Jennings" (Picador, 2004). In 2003 two of his films, "Listen to Britain" and "Spare Time", were included in the Tate Britain retrospective, "A Century of Artists' Film in Britain" which featured the work of over one hundred filmmakers. As of 2005, nearly all the films of Humphrey Jennings are available on DVDs.


As director

* "Family Portrait" (1950)
* "The Dim Little Island" (1949)
* "The Cumberland Story" (1947)
* "A Defeated People" (1946)
* "A Diary for Timothy" (1945)
* "V. 1" (1944)
* "The Silent Village" (1943)
* "Fires Were Started" (aka: I Was A Fireman)(1943)
* "The True Story of Lilli Marlene" (1943)
* "Listen to Britain" (1942)
* "Words for Battle" (1941)
* "London Can Take It!" (1940)
* "Cargoes" (1939)
* "The First Days" (1939)
* "Spare Time" (1939)
* "Design for Spring" (1938)
* "The Farm" (1938)
* "Making Fashion" (1938)
* "Farewell Topsails" (1937)
* "Locomotives" (1934)
* "The Story of the Wheel" (1934)

As producer/creative contributor

* "The Birth of the Robot" (dir. Len Lye 1936)
* "" (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti 1934)

ee also

*Edgar Anstey
*Alberto Cavalcanti
*EM Forster
*Tom Harrison
*John Grierson
*Robert Flaherty
*Stuart Legg
*Charles Madge
*Stewart McAllister
*IA Richards
*Paul Rotha
*Harry Watt
*Basil Wright


Further reading

* Aitken, Ian ed. "Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film". Routledge (2005)
* Jackson, Kevin (Ed.). "The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader" (Carcanet, 1993)
* Jackson, Kevin. "Humphrey Jennings" (Picador, 2004).
* Winston, Brian. "Fires Were Started-" (BFI, 1999)

External links

* [ Bibliography of books and articles about Jennings] via UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
* [ Channel 4 site about Jennings]
* [ the BFI's "screenonline" site about Jennings]
* [ Review of Kevin Jackson's Jennings biography]
*Find A Grave|id=7471220

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