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Humphrey Jennings and British

Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

For Wendy, Amy and Ellen

Humphrey Jennings and

British Documentary Film:
A Re-assessment

PHILip c. logan
Independent Scholar

Philip C. Logan 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
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Philip C. Logan has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be
identified as the author of this work.
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Logan, Philip C.
Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment
1. Jennings, Humphrey. 2. Documentary films--Production
and direction--Great Britain--History--20th century.
3. World War, 1939-1945--Motion pictures and the war.
I. Title
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Logan, Philip C.
Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment / Philip C. Logan.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Includes filmography.
ISBN 978-0-7546-6726-1 -- ISBN 978-1-4094-2739-1 (ebook)
1. Jennings, Humphrey--Criticism and interpretation. 2. Documentary films--Great Britain-History and criticism. 3. Motion pictures--Great Britain--History--20th century. I. Title.
PN1998.3.J455L76 2011
ISBN 9780754667261(hbk)
ISBN 9781409427391(ebk)




Part I: Art and Politics: 190738

1 An Education for Life: 190733

The Artist as Agent: 192936


The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


Colour Film: 19358


The Artist as Agent: 19378


Part II: The Documentary Film: Art, Politics and

Propaganda 193850

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941



Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941



History as Myth: October 1941July 1942



A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943



Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944 243


The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945



The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946



Wessex Films: January 1947May 1950


Postscript: Berlins Hedgehog




In his introductory essay to The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Kevin Jackson
Jennings is, in a few words, a man whose place in British culture and world cinema
ought to be beyond dispute: our greatest documentarist (Gilbert Adair), the
only real poet the British cinema has so far [sic] produced (Lindsay Anderson),
and a true war artist, in the way that Henry Moores drawings in the Underground
and Evelyn Waughs Sword of Honour trilogy transcend war and reassert the
primacy of the human imagination (David Thompson). Add to these the other
accomplishments as painter, photographer, anthropologist, actor, poet, editor,
scholar, critic, theorist, intellectual historian, and the sum is a man who has
been more or less forgotten.

As an assessment of his films and their relation to his other accomplishments

Jacksons comments still have pertinence today. Jennings may, as Lindsay
Anderson stated in 1954, be the only real poet that the British cinema has
yet produced but as Gilbert Adair opined Why in heavens name should
the poor man be destined for the chop? Virtually everyone in the film-critical
community acknowledges his achievement. Attempts to bring his films to a
wider, non-specialised public are still fairly frequent, but to no avail. For Adair
and other film critics Jennings reputation as a great documentary film maker
is established in a trio of minor but authentic (wartime) masterpieces Listen
to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945),
masterpieces of a quintessentially national character. These films, along with
Spare Time (1939) and to a lesser extent Heart of Britain (1941), Words for Battle
(1941) and Family Portrait (1950), have received most attention in an attempt
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. xvii.
Anderson, L. (1954). Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey
Jennings. Sight and Sound Film Quarterly (AprilJune): 1816.

Ibid.; Adair, G. (1999). Too Fey for the Fast-Forward Future: Twentieth-Century
Classics that Wont Last No.4: Humphrey Jennings. Independent on Sunday. Culture, p. 2.

Adair, G. (1999). Too Fey for the Fast-Forward Future: Twentieth-Century Classics
that Wont Last No.4: Humphrey Jennings. Independent on Sunday.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


to explain the distinctive character of a Jennings film. In these films the notion
of poetic realism comes to the fore. Higson defines this form of representation
as that which makes the ordinary strange, even beautiful but, above all, which
has emotional depth and integrity.
Andersons article, Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey
Jennings (1954), written four years after Jennings death in 1950, has become
something of a touchstone in the discussion about Jennings and his film work.
But as he readily admitted, by concentrating on those films he felt to be his best,
his aim was to stimulate interest by offering some quite personal reactions,
and by trying to explain why I think these pictures are so good. As the title
makes clear it is only some aspects of Jennings work upon which Anderson
deliberates and he acknowledges that he lacks detailed knowledge about the
man, his life and work. The only comprehensive text on Jennings was written
by Anthony W. Hodgkinson and Rodney Sheratsky nearly 30 years ago.
Humphrey Jennings: More Than a Maker of Films provides a general discussion
of the influences which shaped his art and film work and gives brief descriptions
and evaluations of the films. This text and The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader
(compiled by Kevin Jackson), which includes a collection of Jennings written
correspondence, poetry, film scripts, critical articles and selected transcripts of
radio presentations, and also Jacksons biography Humphrey Jennings, were the
main publications in English which attempt to rescue the reputation of this
distinctive artist, poet, intellectual and film maker from the unjust obscurity
and neglect into which he has fallen. The lack of appreciation may in part arise
from the past, superficial understanding of the connections between Jennings
life and film career. The standard delineation begins in 1907 with his family life
in the village of Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. It then continues with his
education at Perse School, Cambridge and progresses through his university
studies and other activities at Cambridge to London. Here, between 1934 and
mid 1938, alongside his paid film work in the documentary and colour film
sectors, he engaged in a profusion of artistic activity. As Jackson implies with
the list of his achievements, Jennings became: a poet, painter, surrealist and
Higson, A. (1997). Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain,
Clarendon Press. p. 191.

Anderson, L. (1954). Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey
Jennings. Sight and Sound Film Quarterly (AprilJune): 1816.

Ibid., p. 181. The films referred to support his argument are Heart of Britain, Words
for Battle, Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings: More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador.



mass observer. The wide range of his pursuits are explained by reference to his
artistic talents, fine intellect, strong personality and quixotic mind which would
not or could not stay still; he dominated discussions, moving between ideas and
enterprises which attracted him. He was, according to Adair, an intellectual with
a magpie sensibility.10 Apart from his existing personal explorations in painting
and poetry he now began to publish critical essays and revues, engage in a form
of report writing and undertake historical research. He also became involved
in a series of collaborative ventures which included support for surrealism, the
instigation of mass observation, the running of an art gallery and the writing and
presentation of a series of radio programmes broadcast on BBC national radio.
In July 1938 he returned to the General Post Office Film Unit to make one of
the most interesting of the pre-war documentaries, his mass-observation film
Spare Time (1939). Then out of the specifically intense experiences of wartime
bombing his masterpieces of home front wartime propaganda were forged.
However as the war became more distant from civilian life and finally drew
to a close, the dramatic impetus of that time dissipated. The later wartime and
post-war films he made between 1944 and 1950 are generally seen as lacking
that earlier vitality, certainty and formal precision. These are seen as signifiers
of an underlying disillusionment with life and a growing uncertainty about the
direction of his professional career.
Although historically accurate in highlighting a series of convenient
periods into which Jennings life falls, as a summary of his life and career it is
partial; deficient in important details, nuance and understanding. It lacks an
appreciation of the broader historical context within which his life was lived
and the immediate conditions and concerns which helped shape his intellectual
and artistic activity. It reveals little for example about his attitude to life, his
intellectual and artistic development, his shifting political consciousness, the
interrelated nature of his artistic activities and film output or his professional
position within the documentary film movement. Recently two new scholarly
texts have appeared which specifically focus on Jennings artistic life and film
career. Both Elena V.K. Siambanis Humphrey Jennings: Le poete du cinema
britannique and Humphrey Jennings by Keith Beattie build on previous
information and discussions of his films while exploring and extending themes
often related to the poetic or aesthetic dimensions of his work articulated
by previous writers.11 An appreciation of those aspects identified by Beattie
Adair, G. (1999). Too Fey for the Fast-Forward Future: Twentieth-Century Classics
that Wont Last No.4: Humphrey Jennings. Independent on Sunday. Culture, p. 2.
Siambani, E.V.K. (2008). Humphrey Jennings: Le poete du cinema britannique,
LHarmattan. Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. With
reference to ideological issues and the conditions of production, for Beattie, the primary

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

and Siambani are central to any understanding of Jennings documentary

output. However, as Jacksons list of Jennings accomplishments implies,
little consideration has yet been given to the idea that his involvement with
film constitutes one facet of a much wider and more coherent body of artistic
investigation; an investigation that encompasses more than those intellectual,
ideological, social and political notions referred to by Beattie and often with
a lineage which stems into the nineteenth century and earlier. An objective of
this study is to rescue Jennings reputation from the condition he referred to as
the sleep of selectivity; in other words the failure of the imagination to make
connections. This condition has resulted in his reputation being handicapped
by the application of singular designations such as painter, writer, surrealist
or documentary film maker. Rather, what is required is the recognition that his
poetic imagination links all these activities together.
Similarly, in relation to Jennings wartime and post-war output, there has
been reference to but comparatively little systematic and detailed analysis of
those institutional, bureaucratic and practical factors surrounding both the wider
and more immediate context of production which often shaped the nature of
propaganda messages found within his films. Such factors often influenced the
quality of the finished film and sometimes, particularly in relation to Fires Were
Started and The Dim Little Island, impinged directly on the subsequent form
of the narrative and the associated readings that become available. In particular
stress is laid upon how Jennings used his artistic ideas and techniques for
political and propaganda purposes and how his ideas and techniques manifest
and articulate themselves within the formal structure and content of his films.
Through the application of a historical-biographical approach the overall aim
of this book therefore is to revise the existing understanding of Jennings life,
intellectual and artistic interests and films by locating then tracing his life and
professional film career in a wider and more immediate historical context.
Part I: Art and Politics 190738
The years of Jennings life, 1907 to 1950, were some of the most troubled times
in modern European history. The international and domestic concerns of
Britain in the nineteenth century were overlain by distinctly twentieth-century
focus of his discussion is the formal and aesthetic aspects of Jennings films and their narrative
structure. Reference is made to a selected number of films that includes Spare Time, Words for
Battle, Listen to Britain, Heart of Britain, Fires Were Started, Diary for Timothy and Family
Portrait as well as less appreciated productions such as Post Haste, Locomotives, English
Harvest, The Silent Village and The Dim Little Island.



problems. From his birth until his premature death Jennings life was framed
by a series of long-term national changes and more immediate political and
economic crises and cultural debates which became manifest up to the outbreak
of the Second World War in 1939. With reference to a variety of sources (such
as letters and articles written by him, the reminiscences of friends as well as
historical information relating to the shifting intellectual and cultural milieu
over the period), the first part of the book reflects on the changing nature of
that intellectual, social and cultural environment within which Jennings was
active. It highlights a series of ideas, events and experiences which helped shape
his intellectual preoccupations and artistic interests between his birth and his
return to the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit in July 1938. Chapter 1
considers how, initially filtered through the ideas and activities of his parents
and teachers, he gained a particular understanding of modern urban-industrial
life, poetry and art. Later at university this understanding was influenced by
a combination of distinct but reciprocal theoretical English and continental
ideas about artistic and poetic practice. Specifically what became central to his
worldview was the need for the artist/poet to live the moment in order to catch
the spirit of the times and then, through the application of artistic technique,
communicate their findings to the people in an accessible form. These aims
were intimately linked to forms of artistic and poetic technique which were
then applied to articulate a particular critique about the impact, on past and
contemporary society and culture, of an increasingly corporate, bureaucratic,
industrially commercial market economy. Except for his work in the theatre and
articles contributed to the university magazines Experiment and The Cambridge
Review, his intellectual and artistic pursuits were at this time primarily for
himself and he came to the conclusion that the appropriate medium for his own
poetic expression was painting.
Chapter 2 traces the shift in Jennings political disposition from his time as
a student at Cambridge until his involvement with the International Surrealist
Exhibition held in London in June 1936. During this time, between leaving the
university for London in late 1933, gaining employment at the GPO Film Unit
(19345), then in the expanding colour film industry at Gaspacolor (19356),
he found contemporary events increasingly melding with his concern over the
direction of modern life and the role of the poet in society. He became involved
in an array of personal and collective activities, which were increasingly infused
with a growing political awareness. Arriving in London he made contact with
past Cambridge associates and became part of a growing and vibrant artistic
community swelled by artists fleeing fascist persecution in Europe. So in this
artistic milieu, interrelated with and running parallel to his film work, he became
involved in a series of collaborative artistic and poetic ventures which saw him

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


create report style poems or statements built from a collage of contemporary

and/or historical sources. Because of international events these would take on a
significant political dimension.
Meanwhile Jennings found that his early involvement with film at the GPO
and then Gaspacolour drew on and incorporated those enduring concerns he had
about artistic technique and the broader condition and direction of the modern
world. Chapter 3 considers his initial induction and relatively brief involvement
with the GPO Film Unit. Mention British documentary and the name most
likely to come to mind is John Grierson.12 Not only was Jennings to benefit from
the standard induction and approach to making documentary films favoured
by Grierson but initially, under the tutelage of the recently arrived Alberto
Cavalcanti, he was implicated in the first experimental productions using the
new GPO sound system. Chapter 3 considers Jennings involvement in these
experiments and the ensuing debate between Grierson and Cavalcanti about
documentary film practice. This debate signified a fundamental difference in
approach which would later emerge and find expression in criticisms of Jennings
own films by members of the documentary film movement after his return to the
unit in 1938.
Chapter 4 attempts to provide a better understanding of Jennings
involvement with the advances in colour film production during the second
half of the 1930s. This allowed him to contribute to the technical and aesthetic
debates surrounding the use of reliable and cost effective colour film stock
and the implications of its application in the wider feature film industry. On
a practical level his experiences enabled him when he eventually rejoined the
GPO Film Unit in July 1938 to quickly assume the role of unit director. During
this time he made a number of advertising and information films which were at
the forefront of colour film development. In comparison to the striking colour
animation of The Birth of the Robot (1936), the subject matter of the other films
appears ordinary. However, like those early films made with Cavalcanti, beneath
the surface of Birth of the Robot, English Harvest, Farewell Topsails and Making
Fashion, can be detected references to an implied socio-economic critique that


In 1990 Ian Aitken provided a particularly revealing analysis of the philosophical,

aesthetic and ideological influences which shaped Grierson and his vision for the function
of the documentary film expressed through appropriate techniques of practice. In 1998 he
acknowledged that a focus upon Grierson detracted from other important figures within
the movement; identifying both Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti as worthy of further
assessment. Aitken, I. (1990). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary
Film Movement, Routledge. Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An
Anthology, Edinburgh University Press.



seems to reflect his other experiences outside the film industry between 1936
and 1938.
After the International Surrealist Exhibition in July 1936, the outbreak of the
Spanish Civil War accentuated an already ominous international situation. The
defence of the Spanish Republic against fascism mobilised many left-wing artists
including Jennings. For Jennings and his friends the Governments refusal to send
aid to the beleaguered Spanish Government, while showing no apparent desire
to constrain the actions of the British Union of Fascists, appeared disturbing. It
became clear that art and politics had become so intertwined that choices had to
be made and opposition to fascism at home and abroad demanded action as much
as words. Chapter 5 considers Jennings activities after the outbreak of the civil
war until his return to the GPO Unit in July 1938. In 1936, inspired by Charles
Madges experiences working in Fleet Street, he and Madge began to create a
collective form of poetry based on individual day reports. This experiment
was quickly subsumed in early 1937 within a more ambitious national project
known as Mass Observation. Today the Mass Observation is best remembered as
a form of popular social anthropology promoted by the other founding member
of the movement, Tom Harrison. For Madge and Jennings the project included
a political aim: to reunite the socially detached intellectual (poet/artist) with
ordinary people and through a pooling of skills and knowledge learn from
each other and transform society for the better. After the publication May 12
1937 Jennings vision lost impetus and he withdrew from direct participation.
However it was through Mass Observation that in the summer of 1937 Jennings
visited Bolton and the surrounding area of Lancashire. It was the first time he
had travelled to a centre of traditional northern industry and come into direct
contact with the industrial working class. It was an experience which began
his re-education and transformed his understanding of the social and political
life of Britain. His previous interests were now not only infused by his new
international and domestic political awareness, but also by an appreciation of
a wider popular culture which had grown and adapted to a fundamental shift
in human experience forged at the time of the first industrial revolution. He
began to read widely about the social and economic history of England and
started to collect information from many sources for a book, Pandaemonium
which, unpublished in his lifetime, was to illuminate the impact of this immense
transition on the human imagination.13
Although Jennings participation in Mass Observation ceased in early 1938,
he soon found other avenues through which to engage in a dialogue with the
Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium:
The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

general public. Around the turn of the year he was contracted by the BBC to
present a series of radio talks and discussions about poetry and its relevance
in contemporary society broadcast between December 1937 and the end of
June 1938. At the same time he began to collaborate with E.L.T. Mesens, the
Belgian art dealer and surrealist, on the promotion and organisation of modern
art exhibitions at the London Gallery. His involvement culminated in the
organisation of a major exhibition The Impact of Machines ( July 1938) with
a theme that synthesised those elements which had been part of his life since
childhood; namely art, industrial life and the imagination.
Part II: The Documentary Film: Art, Politics and Propaganda 193850
By the time of his return to the GPO Unit in July, the same month as The
Impact of Machines exhibition, Jennings worldview in social and political terms
had undergone considerable refinement since his arrival in London in 1934.
Now this, along with his distinctive intellectual and aesthetic considerations
and poetic style, would begin to find expression in his films. Part II focuses in
detail on each film Jennings produced and directed between mid 1938 and
1950. These films were frequently inspired or shaped by wider events as well
as the conditions of production and the fortunes of Jennings own film career.
The themes and content of his films and his professional status within the film
industry mirror significant phases during the pre-war, wartime and post-war
eras. Drawing on a range of primary evidence, including personal letters, film
treatments and official correspondence from the wartime Film Division of the
Ministry of Information, the conception and development of individual films
and the progress of Jennings film career can be illuminated. When these sources
are combined with secondary information from various academic studies
of the GPO and Crown Film Units and correlated with histories recounting
British wartime and post-war propaganda policy and general wartime or postwar events, the factors and processes which in turn influenced the form and
quality of Jennings completed films, and the messages embodied within their
narratives, can be better understood. Also included are examples of the critical
responses to his films at the time of their release. These responses helped raise the
professional status of Jennings within the documentary film community but are
often in marked contrast to later academic assessments. When appropriate these
later critical interpretations of his work are included. Together this evidence,
combined with a detailed analysis of his films, which is related to the political
dimensions of his thought, provides a more critical and nuanced appreciation of
Jennings film career.



Chapter 6 discusses the four films Jennings made before the outbreak of
war in September 1939; Penny Journey, Speaking from America, Spare Time and
SS Ionian. Of these it is Spare Time which has attracted most attention from film
and cultural historians.14 Apart from Penny Journey, each film includes some
reference to increased international tension and the growing prospect of war.
The declaration of war provides a convenient historical moment to demarcate
Jennings peacetime films, from his much larger wartime output. The danger is
that in emphasising this momentous watershed, the continuity of the themes
and editorial style of Jennings films which can be detected over the period
193941, is obscured. Both Spare Time and SS Ionian represent the beginning
of a distinctive technique of cinematic representation which Jennings, later in
collaboration with his editor Stewart McAllister, was to make his own. It was
a reportage style of documentary which drew on the technique of collage
he had previously utilised in his report style poems. The subsequent wartime
films, Heart of Britain, Words for Battle and Listen to Britain, progress towards a
remarkably high degree of sophistication.
When discussing Jennings wartime films the general descriptive phrase, the
Second World War, lacks clarity. The home front experience was transformed
as events unfolded through a series of wartime phases until final victory in May
1945. During the six years of conflict these experiences on the home front fed
into existing pre-war debates and posed new questions about post-war domestic
and international reconstruction. The military conflict which began in 1939
was primarily a European event before becoming a truly global one at the end of
1941. The involvement of Russia in June 1941, then Japan and the United States
in December changed the whole tenor of the war. From 1943 onwards an allied
victory became increasingly certain. By 1945 Britains domestic situation and
standing in the wider world had been considerably altered. What is captured
in Jennings wartime films, from the immediate threat of invasion, through
the intense bombing raids to the long haul to triumph and a growing domestic
debate over the nature of the post-war domestic and international world, is the
shifting nature of these experiences and the concerns that were raised. Therefore
as a body of work the films Jennings made between 1939 and 1945 articulate
propaganda fit for the moment. Simultaneously the narratives which he creates
adumbrate a mythology surrounding a just war; a war involving deprivation
and sacrifice for all and which therefore warranted fair post-war rewards for all.
Between the cessation of hostilities and Jennings accidental death in 1950 the
Spare Time, a cinematic record which captures aspects of industrial working class
leisure during the inter-war years in South Wales and the industrial north, has been mistakenly
regarded as a form of domestic social anthropology related to Mass Observation. See Beattie,
K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. p. 33.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

country had to address this new era. Similarly the films produced and directed
in the aftermath of the conflict deliberate on immediate and long-term issues
surrounding European and domestic post-war reconstruction. His last films
turn to the future of a British nation faced with domestic challenges and a new
polarised international order.
As well as shifts in the progress of the war and the challenges of the post-war
era, his films also reflect changes in the fortunes of his film career. What has
not been fully appreciated is how much Jennings relied on collaboration with
his production team and producer. The combination of a sympathetic producer
and a consistent and supportive editor and team of creative technicians were a
significant influence on the quality of his films. They provided the opportunities,
material and editorial expertise which enabled him to create striking visual
images and aural impressions which have led to the application of the term
poetic realism to his work. His success as a director was reflected in the critical
response to his films at the time of their release. As a result his professional status
within the film unit and film community rose. This brought not only further
creative opportunities but also increased official responsibilities.
Apart from A Diary for Timothy (1945, but released in 1946) and Family
Portrait (1950) his later wartime and post-war work has received less attention.
This has been justified on the grounds that they exhibit a marked decline
in quality and optimism because of his apparent loss of personal motivation.
Particularly after 1943 the tension between official demands and a desire for
creative freedom contributed to a growing ambivalence in his attitude towards his
professional position within the Crown Film Unit and help explain his decision
to eventually leave the unit and move to Wessex Films in 1947. Whether or not
this represented a decline in his motivation and vision is debatable. At Wessex
he completed his last two films the Dim Little Island (1949) and Family Portrait
(1950) which together, it can be argued, reflect in terms of film making a return
to technical form matched by a tempered realism about life.
As mentioned earlier to fully appreciate the messages embodied within his
films it is necessary to be aware of the broader and more immediate conditions
which contextualised the production of each film. Without this the films
critiques and propaganda messages cannot be clearly delineated or understood.
This is particularly relevant to the production, during the early part of the war,
of Spring Offensive, Welfare of the Workers, Heart of Britain and Listen to Britain.
It must also be remembered that the gestation, development and production
of a film often overlapped with other considerations and priorities. This could
easily influence when a film was ready for release, which in turn meant that the
wartime situation under which they were originally conceived, developed and
produced, had changed and the general remit governing home front propaganda



had shifted. If each film is considered in terms of the historical moment of

production rather than the specific date of release, what becomes clear is that
these films made between 1939 and 1950 record the evolution of home front
preoccupations and the specific needs of Government propaganda. Following
the historical sequence of production the following chapters are allocated
to phases that relate to the progress of the war and then immediate post-war
Chapter 7 covers the period from just before the declaration of war on 3
September through the aerial Battle of Britain to the beginning of the intensive
German bombing campaign known as the Blitz. During this period Jennings was
involved with a number of collaborative projects as well as his own films. With
very little evidence of persistent and heavy bombing raids on the home front
it was a time of tense preparation. Before analysing the two films he directed,
Spring Offensive and Welfare of the Workers, consideration is given to the short
uncredited film A Midsummer Days Work. Over the weeks following the
declaration of war, the unit collaborated to record the response and preparation
of Londoners to the threat of bombing raids on the capital. Comment on the
first wartime propaganda film The First Days will focus, not only on Jennings
contribution, but on the inflection given to events. The criticisms it received
from the wider documentary film community provide a portent of what the
unit and Jennings films would face in the future. In his own production, Spring
Offensive, Jennings applies aspects of the drama documentary promoted by
Cavalcanti. He also introduces through the main character on which the story
pivots, what would become a reoccurring motif in many of his future films:
seemingly ordinary but in fact exceptional individuals who contribute to the
success of the war effort. There follows a discussion of Welfare of the Workers
with consideration given to the circumstances of its production and subject
matter which may account for Jennings failure to create a satisfactory film.
Jennings films which correspond to this next phase of the war are discussed
in the following three chapters. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 respectively focus on The
Heart of Britain, Words for Battle and Listen to Britain. All three were produced
with a relatively unchanged production team: Chick Fowle (photography), Ken
Cameron (sound), Stewart McAllister (editor) and Joe Mendoza (assistant with
music). Together they cover the period between 1940 and the Blitz, the German
invasion of Russia in June 1941, the Japanese attack on the United States in
December 1941 and the ensuing declaration of war by Germany which turned
the war into a truly global conflict between the allied United Nations and
the Axis powers. The Heart of Britain, Words for Battle and Listen to Britain
reflect not only changes in the propaganda remit at the time but also articulate
three distinct yet simultaneous messages. These are: the idea and promotion


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

of national unity, the need for civil and military aid from the United States,
and finally a call to the British civilian army and people to recognise that the
experiences of war have unleashed a new strength and confidence with the
potential to transform future social and political relations. To achieve the poetic
expression and vision Jennings wanted, Heart of Britain, Words for Battle and
Listen to Britain increasingly draw their emotional power, not from strident
exhortation, but from increasingly refined use of cinematic technique. This
culminated in Listen to Britain which is based throughout on the formal reversal
of the standard documentary relationship between image and sound.
The main focus of Chapter 8, The Blitz September 1940January 1941, is
the impact of the bombing and his collaboration with McAllister. Reference is
made to managerial changes within the unit which were to be highly significant
for Jennings and his film career. The film units collaborative production at the
start of the Blitz of London Can Take It! is referred to but attention centres on
the production then editing of the film which was eventually released as The
Heart of Britain. Its production and the impact on the outcome of the film of
the dramatic raid on Coventry are described. In this film Jennings poetic vision,
given impetus through the narrative drive of the film, markedly improves the
overall impact of the propaganda message. Consideration is given to the influence
of McAllister whose skill in the combining of music and image in certain set
sequences of the film, provides an exemplar of editing technique which was to
be extended in the following two films.
After the completion of Heart of Britain the country experienced a short
lull in the intensive bombing raids until May 1941. Britain, in this uncertain
period of desperate defence metaphorically stood alone. Chapter 9 considers
Words for Battle. The film is an appeal both to the British people to sustain
their efforts and to the United States to join the conflict. As the title implies
this was an opportunity for Jennings to show the public the relevance of poetry
to the contemporary situation. Analysis of the narrative structure will reveal
how, through a collage of texts, two forms of expression words and film are
married into a sophisticated montage of sound and image to build a multi-layered
propaganda message. Again the influence of the partnership with McAllister is
Chapter 10 focuses on one of the most celebrated of his films, Listen to
Britain. Initially conceived in the period of British isolation, the film implicitly
recognises the extension of the conflict and the forging of an unholy alliance
between the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States. This chapter traces the
fragmented nature of its production then analyses the editing. The collaboration
that had started with Heart of Britain now comes to fruition as Jennings and
McAllister both share credit for direction and editing.



Subsequent chapters are contextualised within the beginning of the allied

build up for counter-attack. The war on the home front was quieter and
the volunteer civilian army was giving way to a conscripted workforce and
increased regulation. A shift in the fortunes of war on the home front was not
reflected in the balance of the overall global conflict. The necessity to maintain
national morale was critical in order to improve and maintain high levels of
war production to sustain what would be a long allied offensive. Changes on
the home front atmosphere and organisation were mirrored in the relocation
of Crown to Pinewood Studios and changes to Jennings professional position
in the Crown Film Unit. Over this period Jennings made another two films
in collaboration with Stewart McAllister. Fires Were Started and The Silent
Village provided the opportunity to move from contemporary reportage to the
production of documentary dramas about the recent past. Although radically
different in subject matter these films offer two representations which would
supplement the formation of myths about the war. Chapter 11 considers the
circumstances surrounding Jennings career and the production of Fires Were
Started. This film was to seal Jennings reputation as a major documentary film
maker. Yet at the same time his experiences while making the film mixed pleasure
with frustration and anger with unease. He was worried that official interference
would affect the integrity of his next film and this created concerns about his
professional situation.
Sandwiched between Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and the later Diary
for Timothy, The Silent Village has received little detailed consideration.15 Yet in
terms of his intellectual and artistic aims he probably ranked The Silent Village as
his greatest achievement. Chapter 12 maps out a remarkable production which
further enhanced his standing as a film director. The story features a Welsh
working class community of coalminers and their families who portray the
reconstruction of the Nazi massacre of a similar Czech mining village of Lidice.
It was a radical departure in documentary film production which relied on a
level of popular participation never before undertaken with any documentary
film. At this critical time in the allied offensive the production and release of the
film was framed by an ongoing dispute between the miners and Government
over declining levels of coal production and the long-term political question of
national rather than private ownership. The thorny issue of class politics at a time
of national unity had the potential to colour the narrative. Jennings negotiated
this issue in an imaginative approach to the depiction of the Nazi atrocity.
His next two films The True Story of Lili Marlene and A Diary for Timothy
also reiterate recent historical events and continue to add to the post-war image

Beattie does include the film in his book. Ibid. pp. 929.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

of the war. These films also mark a further transition both in his career and
the treatment of the subject matter. Chapter 13 outlines how, after the success
of his previous two films, his professional life at the unit became increasingly
problematic. Additional responsibilities and the absence of Stewart McAllister
coincided with an overhaul of the management structure and the departure of
Ian Dalrymple which had implications for the general morale of the Crown
Film Unit. The film he directed at this time, The True Story of Lili Marlene,
reflects the surrounding difficulties. As a result Jennings looked for work in the
commercial sector. A brief contract of employment with Two Cities Films was
unfortunately unsuccessful and on his return he found himself both filming and
acting as associate producer on a routine but collaborative film project about
the V1 rocket threat. With its mixture of filmed material, including film shot by
Jennings himself, The Eighty Days carries forward in its closing sentiments the
fact that the war, although progressing slowly, was being won. In addition what
was important for Jennings was that during his period of absence from Crown
and the production and filming of The Eighty Days, there occurred a beneficial
change in the atmosphere of the unit. He had also formulated a rather abstract
idea for his next film which would build on the closing words of the commentary
of The True Story of Lili Marlene and The Eighty Days.
Chapter 14 covers Jennings response to the final phases of the war in
Europe. Cinematically A Diary for Timothy signifies a return to his personal
style of reportage documentary. He was able to make the film under conditions
which were similar to those when Dalrymple had been in charge. The film
simultaneously addresses the past, present and future through the device of a
diary which recounts, for a newborn child Timothy, the last months of the
conflict. Again the film relies on the sophisticated interrelation of sound and
image, this time achieved without the presence of McAllister. In the past critics
have praised the film while focusing on what they see as its sombre, perhaps at
times pessimistic, tone. Compared to his other great wartime work it is argued
that A Diary for Timothy provides evidence that with the drama of the war
passing, Jennings was also losing a sense of direction. It is an understanding of
the film which will be contested.
The lack of direction detected in A Diary for Timothy, along with a general
decline in the quality of his film output, has been seen to continue with his postwar productions. Chapter 15 considers the last two films Jennings made for
Crown in the immediate aftermath of the war. A change in the management of
the Films Division, a deterioration in working conditions and a loss of direction
within the post-war documentary movement in general, colour this time.
Both films are concerned with problems about post-war reconstruction. For
the historian these films provide examples of didactic government propaganda in



response to international responsibilities and the domestic economic situation.

They lack the ingenuity and fluidity of previous productions. Made primarily to
educate, they still include some imaginative elements and a sense of purpose. Not
long after victory in Europe, Jennings was sent to Germany to film the situation
facing the British Military Government in their occupied sector of the country.
In the face of anti-German sentiment at home, the aim of A Defeated People is
to justify the cost of maintaining a military and civilian presence in the country
while British people faced a major economic crisis and stringent rationing.
The underlying themes of the film, which voice the arguments made for the
continued British presence, are explored. The second film, about the revitalising
of a rundown coalfield, provides a theme through which to articulate immediate
domestic government concerns over the direction of post-war reconstruction. As
a propaganda film The Cumberland Story illustrates the political, economic and
social arguments for the nationalisation of the coal industry by the post-war new
Labour Government. Jennings encapsulates in this film both his and the Labour
Governments vision of a new post-war industrial and political settlement.
It was clear by the end of the war that in domestic and international terms
Britain was at a crossroads. As with the First World War, it turned out to be
merely the prelude to the latest realignment in a continuing international
struggle. Fascism had now been discredited and seemingly eradicated from
Europe. In its place came the ideological Cold War between East and West
led by the new superpowers of the United States and Soviet Russia. While
Western Europe began the process of economic and political reconstruction
Britain also faced a new era with its uncertain economic conditions and its
international status in relative decline.
At the end of 1946 Jennings left Crown for Wessex Films. Here, once more
working for Ian Dalrymple, he was given the creative freedom to pursue ideas.
Chapter 16 considers the two productions he directed for the company; The
Dim Little Island and Family Portrait. Both elaborate themes introduced in
A Diary for Timothy and address Britains post-war future. Made to contest
the cult of gloom during the late 1940s, the morale-boosting The Dim Little
Island addresses the illusion of national domestic decline as against the evident
and future potential to be found in British industry (shipbuilding), culture
(music) and the countryside (natural heritage). This vision is extended with
Family Portrait to encompass the future role of Britain on the international
scene. Made for the Festival of Britain in 1951, Family Portrait is a celebration
of the unique history and character of the British people. Once more working
with Stewart McAllister, he created another complex and subtly edited film
which offers a positive patriotic image balanced by domestic and international
concerns. Both films recognise that Britain as a nation must adapt to the new


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

national post-war conditions and international order. Together they provide

a synthesis of Jennings thoughts about the formation of the British nation by
pointing out that, if the British people grasp this moment, their distinctive
qualities have the potential to reconfigure their position and influence this
new post-war world.
Finally the postscript Berlins Hedgehog includes reference to his illfated trip to Greece and provides a summary of the key points set out in
the preceding chapters. It takes note of the coincidental nature of Jennings
life as well as the other factors which helped to shape his films and raise his
reputation to that of possibly Britains greatest documentary film maker.

A number of people volunteered information during my research for which I
am very grateful. In particular David Jones at Perse School, Cambridge; Mrs
R. McDermott and Mr Philip Kett, residents of Southwold; Colin Moffat and
Brenda J. Grodzicki. I would also like to thank the BECTU History project
for allowing access to their sound recordings archive held at the British Film
Institute. Also the British Academy which provided financial support during my
research into the production of Jennings films Fires Were Started and The Silent
Village and the staff associated with Ashgate for their help during publication.
I would also like to thank Sue Hughes for comments on the text and in
particular my partner Wendy for her support over the years of research and
writing. Her willingness to read and comment on the numerous versions of each
chapter are greatly appreciated.

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Part I
Art and Politics: 190738

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Chapter 1

An Education for Life: 190733

Study of a period is valuable as a process of initiation into an authors secrets.

In 1944 Allen Hutt (writing under the pen-name George Pitman) remarked:
Jennings was arguing with me about the basic problem, that in his view, the
film director (i.e., he himself ) has to solve. Its the whole question, he said,
somewhat cryptically, of imagination in an industrial society. A close
examination of Jennings past reveals that from the moment he was born, his
future artistic and intellectual preoccupations would be shaped by this very
question of imagination in an industrial society. In 1907 when Jennings
was born Britain was moving towards a more mature and integrated urbanindustrial economy and away from local and regional forms of existence. A
rise in affluence and the move towards a more mobile society encouraged an
unprecedented increase in the tempo of life. A life increasingly characterised by
the mass production and consumption of commercially produced products and
services. Also new forms of popular entertainment and fashion, often American
in origin, gradually supplanted local and regional forms of cultural activity.
These processes were also accompanied by political change. For the governing
classes, the exercise of political power became increasingly dependent on a newly
enfranchised, yet potentially volatile, increasingly urban-based mass electorate.
A new class-based politics had the potential to emphasise social division, rather
than the traditional unity of organic pre-modern community relations. In
response more progressive politicians promoted the view that what was required
was a new social-democratic politics, based on earlier collectivist ideas which
advocated state intervention or management of social and economic change.

Jennings, H. (1928). King Arthur. The Cambridge Review 49(1206): 2334. p. 234.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time 3:

See Harris, Jose. (1994) Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 18701914, Penguin
Books and Hynes, S. (1991). The Edwardian Turn of Mind, Pimlico.

Foot, P. (2005). The Vote: How it Was Won and How it Was Undermined, Viking.

Harris, Jose. (1994). Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 18701914, Penguin.
pp. 2534. Stevenson, J. (1984). British Society 19141945, Pelican. Hynes, S. (1991). The
Edwardian Turn of Mind, Pimlico.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Home Life
Such trends caused Jennings parents to have concerns about the character,
quality and direction of modern life. Their decision to live in the coastal village
of Walberswick in a relatively remote part of rural Suffolk and to send him at the
age of eight as a boarder to Perse School, Cambridge reflected the strong beliefs
of a couple who were determined to put them into practice. Their choice to move
there reflected not only their desire to live in areas of the country untouched by
the more corrosive effects of modern life, but also to reconnect to the communal
spirit of an earlier age.
In his quest for authenticity, Jennings father dedicated his life to reclaiming
and painstakingly reconstructing Tudor buildings, including the family house
in the village, as close to the original design as possible and untainted by any
modern conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and electricity. It was his
mother, a talented painter, who secured the family finances by running a small
business in the village. The Walberswick Peasant Pottery Company initially
sold handmade pottery imported from Eastern Europe and France. The family
undertook extensive travels abroad in search of specimens [and] when the
import of pots was succeeded by their manufacture here, [ Jennings] helped in
the work and thus took a paint brush in hand for serious purposes.
His mothers workshop and his fathers architectural projects gave physical
expression to a set of ideas which were alternative to the dominant social and
industrial politics of the modern world. The products of their craftwork were
simultaneously forms of artistic and spiritual expression. Functional objects
implicitly made contemporary statements about the nature of contemporary
life: a pot could be filled with political and ethical import but barely touched
with fashionableness.
The beliefs, activities and rural environment, which implicitly offered a mix
of values and remedies for the problems of the day, created a distinct context
for Jennings early life. On returning home from Perse for the holidays, to
this relatively quiet rural backwater, Jennings was allowed to explore the area
unsupervised. The local landscape, ancient monuments and buildings such
as Blythburgh Church and the windmill, the elderly characters and village
religious celebrations, like the harvest festival, embodied the values his parents
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 17.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time 3:

Tillyard, S.K. (1988). The Impact of Modernism: The Visual Arts in Edwardian
England, Routledge. p. 10.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 25.

An Education for Life: 190733

wished to promote. Through craftwork and communal leisure activities, they

attempted to recapture a more authentic and harmonious existence, which
united the physical and emotional with the spiritual and the intellectual
aspects of life.10 In his home, literature was wedded to art and infused with
an aesthetic that emphasised the sensate relationship between the human mind
and the material world which in their household were connected through the
processes and techniques associated with craft labour.11 His parents subscribed
to the prophetically entitled magazine The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics,
Literature and Art edited by A.R. Orage.12 Between 1906 and 1922, this weekly
journal attempted to offer a rationale for a way of living that, in the words of
Jennings headmaster at Perse, W.H.D. Rouse, could assert the value of human life
against the deadening effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, bureaucracy
and the machine.13 The magazine provided a forum for writers and intellectuals
to discuss contemporary national and international political and social affairs,
as well as recent developments within philosophy and the arts. Through the
magazines pages Orage promoted, in articles by A.J. Penty, the principles of the
Arts and Crafts Movement and Guild Socialism which offered an alternative
political and economic vision to mass production and the centralised state.14
Perse Public School: 191626
It was in a similar vein that Orage promoted the innovative educational practice
of the English master Henry Caldwell Cook, at Perse School, Cambridge. It was
an exploratory and contingent style of learning, which mirrored the freedom
and practical involvement Jennings enjoyed at home. He arrived at Perse in
1916, at the end of a period when the school had attracted significant national
attention for its progressive system of child-centred learning. Rouse had become


Ibid. Ch. 1. Richard Stott and Derrick Allen residents of the Walberswick area
commented that These new people looked upon the indigenous population [of Walberswick]
as fellow human beings. Consequently they drank together in the pubs, attended functions
and most of them went to Church.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time 3:
1213. See Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Ch. 1.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 289.
Stray, C. (1992). The Living Word: W.H.D. Rouse and the Crisis of Classics in
Edwardian England, Bristol Classical Press. p. 37.
Martin, W. (1967). The New Age under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History,
Manchester University Press. pp. 20810.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

disillusioned by his experience of teaching the classics through traditional

methods of rote learning and drilling:
The 19th century, which is the age of machines, is also the age of books It is
more than 40 years since Mr Forsters Act organised elementary education
what that act did was, to gather the children together and drill them in book
knowledge Have we not heard the meaningless drone of recited poetry, and
seen the rows of children, stiff as so many wooden dolls, learning every day how
to talk in a Cockney twang in place of their native dialect? The future of England
depends on what we make of these masses of troubled children This means a
complete new-modelling of our system.15

Whereas Jennings parents engaged with the processes and values of preindustrial handicraft production, a particular concern for Rouse was to ensure
that his pupils would be able to use their leisure time wisely and intelligently.
Cook held a similar view: Education nowadays is study or at best training
Study, simply of itself is a means only; and training, as training, has always
some distant end or other.16 He vehemently opposed the suggestion that public
schools should focus upon developing public-spirited, wage-earning citizens
pupils [fit] for practical life:
[I]t is not the business of either primary or secondary schools to train boys for
specific callings Such work is the province of commercial colleges, the which
may God help when man shall realise them I appeal to the teachers of English,
you who have the poets of the past ages at your back and the poets of the present
at your feet, not to waver for any fear of your own fitness, from striving earnestly
and ever in pursuit of that one ideal which assures us all that education is the
fostering of a soul.17

For Cook, when the creative pleasure of engaging in physical and mental work,
what he referred to as Play, is lost the individual also loses their true value as
a complete human being. Rouse was keen to inculcate an appreciation of the
imaginative vitality of that lost pre-industrial life, the common cultural heritage
of Western civilisation and the value of poetry. For both men education would
focus upon the humanities and arts:
Rouse quoted in Stray, C. (1992). The Living Word: W.H.D. Rouse and the Crisis of
Classics in Edwardian England, Bristol Classical Press. p. 40.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). Towards the Play Way 2. The New Age 14(17): 5367.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). Letter: Mr. A.C. Benson and Education. The New Age
14: 285.

An Education for Life: 190733

There is no doubt in my mind that the preponderance of weight in school should

be given to the imagination and the mind, that is, to literary subjects, story and
poetry and drama, music and singing, gracious utterances of speech, graceful
walk and gesture and dance, study of beautiful pictures, buildings, carvings and
so forth; balanced by studies of measurement and number, and the use of tools,
not machine driven by outside power.18

Pupils would emerge with their critical faculties refined to appreciate the
physical and spiritual dimensions of life: My ambition was that this system
might produce a new type of public-schoolboy, one who would take delight
in his intellectual work and his physical games alike, with equal gusto: not an
expert specialist, but an all-round competent.19
Rouse and Cook wanted to encourage pupils to regard art and poetry
as relevant to their lives. The spirit of the Classics, the English Poets and
Shakespeare permeated the intellectual air and crept into every subject, except
for mathematics and science. Those who had a feeling for English, French and
history were particularly cultivated.20 Pupils learned how the artist and poet
had originally been the guardians of the human soul, and how, through their
imaginative creations, they explained, gave order to and commented upon the
nature and condition of life. Like the Guild Socialist, Arthur Penty, Cook saw
himself (as Jennings would eventually see himself ) as engaged in a struggle to
make poetry more valued and relevant to contemporary society and return it
to the place it had once held before commercialism and the market held sway:
The problem, of course, is not to secure pictures for the people or music for the
million, but in the words of Mr Penty, How to reconstruct society so that the
artist will once more become organic with it, instead of being parasitic upon it, as
he is today. How to reconstruct or unify the technical tradition of art, or language
of design, so that a medium of expression understood by all shall be common
property of the artist and the public. And how to regain for society such beliefs
and traditions as provide the subject matter for the higher forms of art.21

For Rouse and Cook, this demanded new styles of teaching which could form
the basis for remodelling the education system. Like the craft workers and
their material the teacher should respect the potential of children and allow
Rouse quoted in Mitchell, S.J.D. (1976). Perse: A History of the Perse School. 1615
1976, Oleander Press. p. 144.
Ibid. p. 144.
Hughes, S. (1946). Opening Bars, Pilot Press. p. 70.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). The Revival of the Arts. The New Age 14: 6224.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

them to express their inner qualities. Rouses Direct Method of teaching

Greek and Latin and Cooks Play Way system were, they argued, both morally
superior and more efficient than the existing forms of teaching practice.22
Attacked as outmoded for a modern society, Rouse reworked the content of
the Classics through a novel technique of learning, not based upon books, but
a combination of action and the spoken word: As a pupil got up from a seat,
walked away from it, returned to it and sat down, he uttered and pragmatically
learnt, the words surgo, ambulo, revenio, sedeo. Second and third persons were
learnt in similar fashion.23 Cook believed that a child does not think or act
in an ordered or systematic way, but imaginatively. His Play Way system
operated through a child like approach where learning was to be an immediate
and living experience of spontaneous engagement, imagination and intuition,
rather than the following of some rigid predetermined schema which was likely
to produce a troubled child with a dull and resentful mind. Instead work, by
its very nature, should be intellectually and spiritually rewarding: fall straight
away upon the actual work and you will find out what you are doing as you go
along; more and more you feel what you ought to do, and now and then if you
are lucky you manage to do it the fullness of inspiration that comes only in
the hour of doing.24
It was in the school theatre, The Mummery, that Jennings probably felt
most at ease. Here pupils would produce and present plays. It was a place where
[ Jennings] learned about drama, poetry, literature and design through direct
doing writing, acting, painting and building, dancing and declaiming.25
Jennings absorbed the idea that the poet or artist needs to use technique as a way of
communicating with and creating a response within the audience. He developed
a particular interest in theatrical costume and scenic design, particularly the
plagiaristic styles created at that time by Gordan Craig and Lovat Fraser which
combined traditional elements with contemporary ideas. Fraser used masks from
Greek drama, the pageants and masques of Elizabethan theatre, seventeenthcentury music and costume design with traditional and contemporary English
folk art, to create a highly stylised and symbolic form of theatre. Craig achieved

Cook outlined his philosophy and the progressive techniques he used at Perse School
in a series of articles published in The New Age. 19 February23 April 1914, 14: 1625.
Stray, C. (1992). The Living Word: W.H.D. Rouse and the Crisis of Classics in
Edwardian England, Bristol Classical Press. p. 20.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). The Revival of the Arts. The New Age 14: 6224.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 5.

An Education for Life: 190733

a similar aesthetic with a celebration of English folk heritage by promoting the

belief that theatre was art rather than the mere mimesis of life.26
From both his parents and school Jennings encountered a blend of culture,
artistic practice and political perspective that resisted the increasingly dominant
features of modern life. Rouse believed that the subject matter of the Classics
was as relevant as when first written:
To study these men is to learn self-knowledge, and to tremble at it Aristophanes
[with] his Parliament of Women came 2300 years before the suffragettes;
his pictures of the new democracy and utilitarian education might almost have
been made today; in his City in the Clouds the humbugs of our civilisation

Likewise Cook detested the money maker of modern commerce and industry
who through influence and fraudulent practice steals our brains and the work of
our hands to fill his pockets:28
The point I wish to make is this: Amusement and cupidity often masquerade as
interest. Of these, cupidity is easily unmasked, and shall be left for the present with
a mere list of some of its most transparent disguises: Imperialism, as the assumed
interest of British capitalists; Patriotism, as of mine-owners and Government
contractors in the Boer War: Noblese Oblige, as of Lord Willoughby de Broke
in his military service scheme; Literary culture, as of most publishers; Townplanning, as of soap-boilers and cocoa manufacturers; Public Benefit, as of

The question of resistance to the corrupted nature of modern life made its
presence felt in the Perse Senior Debating Society. In February 1924, Jennings
spoke against the motion That in the opinion of this House there should
be a more efficient censoring of the Press, the Stage and Literature.30 While
in early June, he seconded the motion That in the opinion of this House,
modern civilization is incompatible with the existence of the Fine arts:

Innes, C. (1983). Edward Gordon Craig, Cambridge University Press. p. 69.

Rouse, W.H.D. (1912). Machines or Mind: An Introduction to the Loeb Classical
Library, Heinemann. p. 6.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). Two False Friends. The New Age 14: 59091.
The Pelican. April 1924. p. 12.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


In subsequent debates, he spoke for the motion That this House would approve
of a bill, prohibiting the display of advertisements and hoardings; opposed the
motion That this House would approve of the introduction of prohibition into
this country; and proposed That this House welcomes the return to power of a
Conservative Government. In 1925, he went on to propose That in the opinion
of this House, that abolition of slavery is the abolition of Civilisation and to
support the motions That the evil outweighs the good efforts of wireless and
That Trades Unionism is a public menace.31

Here modern forms of technology and commercialism (the spread of radio and
mass advertising), industrial conflict (the post-war militancy of mass Trades
Unionism), the repressive power of government (to censor freedom of speech
and artistic expression) and electoral instability (the advent of three governments
in as many years), plus the scandal in national politics surrounding the sale of
honours, all pointed towards an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian society.
Idealistically, perhaps a return to a pre-modern social world based upon ancient
Greece and Rome would help society avoid collapse.
Although progressive in pedagogy, the school maintained the traditional
institutional character of the public school. Alongside the freedom of expression
in the classroom ran the more formal and authoritarian aspects of the boarding
school such as a school house and prefect system, basic military training,
corporal punishment, compulsory sports, prep time and the rules and regulation
governing uniform and appearance. These aspect of school life collided with the
instinctive feelings for liberty and personal freedom of expression, encouraged
within his family. Jennings distaste for the authoritarian side of school life and
the abuses by those who could wield power over him was immediate: I came to
school at 8 & hated it. I couldnt make friends & was bullied & hated boxing
which was compulsory: the agonies I went through trying to avoid certain boys
& pretending not to be seen when they passed!32 His antipathy to what he saw
as petty rules may have caused him to be dismissed from the school-run Officer
Training Corps and Scouts. The arbitrary and often violent punishment dished
out by prefects is captured in his poems A Lament: That Rules were Ever MadeAnd an Answer, The Tie-Pin: A Scholastic Tragedy and Scholastic Stoicism: A
Ballade and Walberswick.33
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 42.
Quoted in ibid. p. 37.
See Jennings, H. (1923). The Tie-Pin: A Scholastic Tragedy. The Player 11(1): 11
13 and 17 and Jennings, H. (1924). Scholastic Stoicism. The Player 3(1): 45. Jennings, H.
(1924). Walberswick. The Pelican. p. 43.

An Education for Life: 190733


Cambridge University: 192633

By the time he left Perse Jennings had become an exemplar of that all round
competent pupil Rouse wished to propagate.34 Arriving at Cambridge University
to read English literature in October 1926, Leonard Amey remembered him
as an avowed romantic with a classical education who deplored the whole
mechanization of modern life and on both counts found progressive
farming abhorrent. On Easter morning 1927 he outlined to me his ideas for
a countryside masque. The climax was to be the rout of a chorus of Marvellian
mowers by the devil riding on a reaping machine.35 He was part of the first cohort
of students to benefit from a revised and newly formalised English degree, which
drew students from across the humanities and sciences. Basil Willey recalled this
time as the golden heroic age of Cambridge English,36 as the innovative work of
I.A. Richards challenged the boundaries of accepted analysis and opinion in the
study of poetry and literature.37 With its international standing, the university
and town of Cambridge developed a reputation for innovative intellectual
and artistic activity. Tutors with whom Jennings came into contact such as
Maynard Keynes, Mansfield Forbes, Dennis Arundell and George Rylands,
had a significant influence on the cultural atmosphere of university life. They
stimulated a vigorous and diverse cultural climate which drew internationally
acclaimed artists and intellectuals into an academic and cultural environment,
already rich with indigenous talent.38 During his time at the university, Jennings
became a member of a highly talented student group, including William
Empson, Jacob Bronowski, Kathleen Raine and Charles Madge as well the
future documentary film makers Gerald Noxon, Stuart Legg, Arthur Elton
and Basil Wright. He acted in plays and revues, designed sets and costumes and
did serious research for a number of prestigious modern seventeenth-century
theatrical productions.39
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Ch. 1 particularly pp. 3744.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 6. Amey, L. (1971). Farming and Ecology. The Times. p. 12.
Willey, B. (1968). Cambridge and Other Memories, Chatto and Windus. p. 23.
See Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Ch. 2 and Willey, B. (1968).
Cambridge and Other Memories, Chatto and Windus. p. 23. Mulhern, F. (1979). The Moment
of Scrutiny, New Left Books.
Skidelsky, R. (1994). John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour 19201937,
Macmillan. p. 17. Hyman, R., ed. (1977). My Cambridge, Robson. Howarth, T.E.B. (1978).
Cambridge Between Two Wars, Collins.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 79 and Appendix B Some of Jennings Theatrical Activities
p. 175. Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Chs 2 and 3.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Anti-German sentiment during the First World War had led to an alteration
in the character of English studies, from the traditional emphasis on Germanic
philology, to a broader analysis of literature and poetry. Drawn from outside
the traditional field of English analysis, tutors such as Mansfield Forbes, C.K.
Ogden, I.A. Richards and E.M.W. Tillyard, encouraged a more inclusive model
of cultural analysis through the multidisciplinary method which borrowed
from a range of academic disciplines including history, behavioural psychology,
anthropology, Eastern and Western moral philosophy and aesthetics. The
Tripos, Basil Willey asserted, has always been the English Tripos, not the
English Literature Tripos and Literature has always been linked in the rubrics
with Life and Thought.40 It was an approach which reinforced and deepened
Jennings previous literary and theatrical studies. Texts were not evaluated
in isolation, but as social and cultural artefacts which expressed the evolving
relationship between history, culture and society.41
The Influence of T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards
A significant influence on this re-orientation came from the writings of T.E.
Hulme. Drawing on the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson,
Hulme argued that poetic expression should be understood as part of a general
worldview or Weltanschauung: an expression of an attitude towards the world
which adapts and changes to make sense of life as conditions change.42 Hulme
believed that changes in the character of late nineteenth and early twentiethcentury life heralded the emergence of a new Weltanschauung. New techniques
in painting, such as Post-Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism, had begun to
breach the boundaries of generally accepted forms of expression. For Hulme,
here was the evidence that artists had begun to apply new techniques and
forms of poetic language, in a creative struggle to communicate a new vision


Basil Willey quoted in Beston, M. (1996). A Reconsideration of Humphrey Jennings,

19071950, Essex. M.Phil. p. 12.
Mulhern, F. (1979). The Moment of Scrutiny, New Left Books. pp. 212. Carey,
H. (1964). Mansfield Forbes and His Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. p. 137.
Carey, H. (1964). Mansfield Forbes and His Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. p. 3.
McCallum, P.M. (1978). The Cultural Theory of I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis,
192248: A Critique of Some Aspects of their Methodology and Assumptions, University
of Cambridge. Unpublished Ph.D.
Bergsons Theory of Art, in Hulme, T.E. (1924). Speculations: Essays on Humanism
and the Philosophy of Art, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner. p. 14.

An Education for Life: 190733


which questioned existing notions of time, space and identity.43 These new
forms of expression, which would eventually be attributed to the cultural
movement known as modernism, caused controversy because they were beyond
the understanding of the general public and Art establishment.44 He saw the
language of contemporary poetry however failing to communicate, as he put it,
the individuality and freshness of things.45 In response, he attempted to develop
a new poetic style, known as Imagism; a technique in which a poetic image
presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time and in
doing so invokes within the reader a sudden sense of liberation which we
experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.46 This technique would
influence the first generation of modern poets and writers including James Joyce,
Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot.
Although Hulme was killed in action in 1917 his essays, lecture notes and
fragments of other material were collated and published as Speculations: Essays
on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art (1924).47 In the introduction Herbert
Read commented: [Hulme] knew very certainly that we were at the end of a
way of thought that had prevailed for four hundred years; in this and in his
premonition of a more absolute philosophy of life, he had advanced the ideals
of a new generation.48 In the same year of his death T.S. Eliot began his reassessment of the existing canon of English poetry. Like Hulme, Eliot focused
on the psychological disposition of the poet with an accent on poetic technique.
His belief in impersonality and the need to comment objectively and
dispassionately on the nature of the contemporary human condition, mirrored
Richards demand that students undertake a close reading of texts and that
criticism should be scientific in the sense of a dispassionate, disciplined and
precise technical analysis of the poem. Through a series of publications, Eliot
and Richards reshaped the nature of the literary canon and the study of English
during the 1920s.49

Ibid. pp. 1623.

Ibid. p. 163.
Ibid. p. 163.
Eagleton, T. (2002). A Good Reason to Murder Your Landlady. London Review of
Books 24(8): 1315.
Hulme, T.E. (1924). Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art,
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.
Introduction, in Hulme, T.E. (1924). Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the
Philosophy of Art, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner. p. xv.
After Tradition and the Individual Talent (1917) Eliot wrote The Sacred Wood:
Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920) and Dryden and the Metaphysical Poets (1921). In 1922
Richards contributed to The Foundation of Aesthetics with C.K. Ogden and James Wood. In
1923, again in collaboration with Ogden they published The Meaning of Meaning: A Study


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Compounded by the traumatic consequences of the First World War Eliot

and Richards shared a perception of a post-war world out of joint, characterised
by a mood of disenchantment and a collapse of moral certainty.50 What was
required they argued was a rebalancing of the modern psyche, through a
return to the notion of a dispassionate intelligentsia and a reclaimed and
revised poetic tradition.51 The poet had to develop a technique which would
allow a transporting [of ] a mental experience whole and entire from one mind
to another52 and for Richards, Eliot had achieved such a feat with his poem
The Wasteland.53 His application of imagery, the inclusion of contemporary
knowledge and experience, the conscious reference to history or previous works,
either separately or together, worked to create overlapping and diverse meanings
and sensations, to evoke that contemporary feeling of a ruined world, a botched
A New Post-War Generation: The Evolution of Debate
The ideas of Hulme and the work of Eliot and Richards became an integral part
of the debate amongst the young post-war generation of the English Tripos.
When Jennings entered university, a new sense that life must move on from
the war and its immediate aftermath emerged.55 In literary criticism, Laura
of the Influence of Language upon the Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. By 1926 this
had become a standard text on university courses in both Britain and the United States. This
was followed by The Principles of Literary Criticism (1925) and an offshoot the following year
Science and Poetry (1926).
These feelings found powerful expression in Eliots highly influential poem The
Wasteland (1922) and Richards Science and Poetry (1926). Similar anxieties found voice in
post-war Europe, with Oswald Spenglers Decline of the West (191922) and La Trahison de
Clerc (The Treason of the Intellectuals) (1927) by Julien Benda, both translated into English
in 1928.
See Levenson, M.H. (1986). A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary
Doctrine 19081922, Cambridge University Press. Particularly p. 219 and Richards, I.A.
(1970). Poetries and Science (revised edition of Science and Poetry (1926)), Routledge and
Kegan Paul. pp. 489.
Eagleton, T. (2002). A Good Reason to Murder Your Landlady. London Review of
Books 24(8): 1315.
Hynes, S. (1990). A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, The
Bodley Head.
Ibid. pp. 3424.
The collapse of the General Strike was a decisive moment, symptomatic of the closure
of a troubled post-war era. By the end of the decade there was an upsurge in books and films,

An Education for Life: 190733


Riding and Robert Graves published A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927)

which marked a critical shift in the discussion of post-war poetry. In their view
the immediate post-war generation of modern poets, like Eliot, were now part
of the past, regarded as part of a lost generation permeated with cynicism,
scepticism, depression, disillusion and seriousness. They addressed what they
saw as the failure of poets, like Eliot, to communicate effectively with the plain
reader, because of poetic techniques that relied on an excessively allusive and
self-conscious style.56 Poems such as The Wasteland, with its dense, cryptic text,
obscure references and footnotes, could only be fully appreciated by the erudite.
As Jennings later put it, by failing to address in an appropriate way questions
directly relevant to the people, the great big public thinks of poetry, particularly
modern poetry, as something highbrow and reading it in public an activity that
most people are ashamed of .57
The emergence of this new critique and a desire to look to the future was
reflected in student magazines, both at Oxford and Cambridge.58 In the late 1920s
and early 1930s, Jennings and his friends set out their agenda in the appositely
entitled Experiment (November 1928Spring 1931).59 Although contributions
came primarily from English Studies, there was an implicit scientific bias to the
character of the group; with Kathleen Raine and two editors, Jacob Bronowski
which used details from the memoirs of war survivors. This unburdening helped locate the
war in history, while reinforcing in the minds of the post-war generation the defining image
or myth of that conflict: a tragic waste of life caused by the self-serving and inept actions of
those in power.
Riding, L. and Graves, Robert (1927). A Survey of Modernist Poetry, William
Heinemann Ltd. pp. 2246. In the introduction to the 1930 edition of Shakespeares Venus
and Adonis: The Quarto of 1593 that Jennings edited he specifically refers to his indebtedness
to their book. Jennings, H., ed. (1993). Venus and Adonis: The Quarto of 1593, Alcess Press.
Jennings, H., The Modern Poet and the Public, in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The
Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 255 and Jennings, H., Poetry and National
Life, in ibid. p. 279.
At Cambridge the progressive Experiment (November 1928Spring 1931) was
matched by the more conservative The Venture edited by Anthony Blunt, Robin Fedden
and Michael Redgrave (November 1928June 1930). Meanwhile, with W.H. Auden at its
centre, an informal group of young poets at Oxford (Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis,
Louis MacNeice and Christopher Isherwood plus Edward Upward from Cambridge)
began publishing in the periodical Oxford Outlook and the annual collection Oxford Poetry.
Although differing in emphasis they shared a common concern over the health of the postwar world and the need to create a disinterested intelligentsia to comment on the prevailing
In the summer of 1929, Jennings graduated with a prestigious, double-starred first
degree in English; an achievement that enabled him to embark, that October, on postgraduate

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


and William Empson, having backgrounds in mathematics and the natural

sciences.60 Richards dispassionate and disciplined scientific approach to literary
analysis chimed with a resurgent post-war belief that science could help alleviate
the problems of the modern world.61 The genius of the scientist and artist,
Keynes pointed out, lay in their application of divine intuition: unusual powers
of continuous concentrated introspection, logical capacity, a feel for the salient
facts, style, many-sidedness, theoretical and practical gifts in combination.62 The
first edition made clear they would apply a scientific approach free from the
influence of existing authority and past opinion:
We do not confine ourselves to the work of English students, nor are we at pains
to be littered with the illustrious Dead and Dying. Our claim has been one of
uncompromising independence: therefore not a line in these pages has been
written by any but degreeless students or young graduates. It has been our object
to gather together all and none but the not yet too ripe fruits of art, science and
philosophy in the University. We do not wish so much that our articles should
be sober and guarded as that they should be stimulating and lively and take up a
strong line.63

As he and his friends immersed themselves in this flow of overlapping and often
competing ideas, the intellectual boundaries between the arts, the sciences and
philosophy blurred. Madge remembered that the group: had in common a sense
of the important shifts of vision which were taking place in the giant intellectuals
of the nineteenth century, and which changed the relation of prose and poetry
and undermined the older antithesis of the material and spiritual.64 Apart from
the work of Freud they read Newton, Faraday, Darwin for their poetic content,
that is their intellectual vigour, as much as for their science.65 Possibly, at this time,
Jennings was introduced to the work of Darwin, which, like the work of Freud,

Apparently the magazine had up to five editors: Jacob Bronowski, William Empson,
Hugh Sykes-Davies, William Francis Hare (Viscount Ennismore) with also some input from
Jennings. However according to Bronowski he took little part in editing as he did not care
for the organising of things.
Kumar, K. (1978). Prophecy and Progress, Penguin.
Skidelsky, R. (1994). John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour 19201937,
Macmillan. p. 411.
Anon (1928). Editorial. Experiment 1.
Madge quoted in MacClancy, J. (1995). Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass
Observation, of British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology. Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute 1(3): 495512. p. 496.
Merralls, J. (1961/2). Humphrey Jennings a Biographical Sketch. Film Quarterly
(Winter 19612): 2934. p. 31.

An Education for Life: 190733


Eliot and Blake, would have a significant impact on his thinking: the point being
[Allen Hutt wrote] that it was his first mature comprehension of the scientific
approach and method.66 Both Darwin and Freud, like Hulme, also explained the
human condition as one rooted in the past but evolving through contingency,
struggle and uncertainty. Human survival was one of continual struggle within an
uncertain world, a process of creative destruction of birth and death, desire and
loss.67 Reality is in fact the product of deeper more powerful forces of which we
are mostly unaware. Like the French surrealists and Eliot, they shared a facility
for bringing unforeseen meaning to the seemingly trivial. In doing so, both
sought in the past a key to the present.68 Raine remembers that, like the moderns
of the early twentieth century, the Experiment Group felt itself to be at the
forefront of a new intellectual debate, a sense of being involved, individually and
collectively, in the advancing frontiers of, not so much knowledge in the abstract,
as the consciousness of our generation. We felt ourselves to be a growing-point
even when we were in the bud.69 Drawing on these ideas and the spirit of the
Tripos, terms such as detachment and weltenschauung informed the groups
questioning spirit. It was necessary Jennings believed: To discover what really
is our place, is our business. There is no place for us in human society, at present,
because everything else is wrong: the whole pack wants reshuffling.70
A Shift in Artistic Emphasis
Around 1926/7 Jennings told Leonard Amery: as to my progress in art, I am as
usual, torn among painting, literature, and the theatre. I love each infinitely in
turn and I feel that I get on well in each but where it will all end in which,
I dont know.71 Within two years, he had decided to concentrate on painting,
and by 1931 he had no other desire than to become a full-time artist. His
experience of working in the theatre made him increasingly unhappy with the
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.
Phillips, A. (1999). Darwins Worms, Faber and Faber. pp. 8 and 29.
Wallace, J. (1995). Introduction: Difficulty and Defamiliarisation Language and
Process, in Amigioni, D. and Wallace, J., eds, Charles Darwins The Origin of Species: New
Interdisciplinary Essays, Manchester University Press. pp. 1213.
Raine, K. (1991). Autobiographies, Skoob Books. p. 146.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 92, Jennings italics.
Letter to Leonard Amery reprinted in Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney
(1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 56. See also Jackson,
K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Letters p. 93 and Ch. 3.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

professional theatrical establishment. In Design and the Theatre (Experiment

No.1 November 1928), he unleashed a critical broadside against commercial
managers and producers with their preference for stock ideas, hired sets and
costumes, which showed their ignorance and lack of respect for the role of the
designer and the creativity of design.72 In Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam
(Experiment No.2 February 1929), he turned his attention to the authorities
responsible for the new wing of the Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum that, for
him, displayed a complete absence of architectural imagination and progressive
boldness: The whole thing is so timid: and is put to shame by an average Dutch
power station [it is] a building spoilt by compromise why cant we be wholeheartedly modern? he demanded.73 The displays in the original building, with
their juxtaposition of good and bad art, fulfilled for him one of the key aspects
of appreciation: anything, aesthetically or archaeologically, is essentially a
discovery but in the new wing everything is laid out in exquisite precision and
one hardly dare tread and if everything is set out in perfect order half the joy of
discovering it is lost. This seemed to be a premonition of worse to come:
it cannot be that the present glorious mix-up will remain; there will be tidying-up
and sorting-out, a re-arranging and a re-hanging, and that muddle of sculpture,
old clothes and superb water-colours which is the Fitzwilliam will have departed
for ever.74

His words contrast markedly with the cool analysis found in Notes on Marvell
To His Coy Mistress (Experiment No.2 February 1929) and the co-authored
(with James Reeves) A Reconsideration of Herrick (Experiment No.7 Spring
1931). Both examine the technique of plagiarism, highlighting the historical
referents and associations through a precise examination of language, imagery
and symbolism. He and Reeves single out misconstrued readings of the
texts and identify how the choice of mythical elements mutate the subject
matter and help shape the readers understanding and sensibility. In a similar
vein, while acknowledging the work of Graves and Riding his revised edition
of Shakespeares 1593 quarto of Venus and Adonis (1930) reprinted for experts,
modernised for plain readers, and annotated for students strips away the

Jennings, H. (1928). Design and the Theatre. Experiment (1). In Jackson, K., ed.
(1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 1814.
Jennings, H. (1929). Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam. Experiment (2). Reprinted in
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 1846.

An Education for Life: 190733


linguistic accretions and other editorial modifications of time, to reveal a more

truthful representation of Shakespeares use of language.75
Probably these experiences in the theatre and in English Studies confirmed
that both the theatre and literature were means of expression too compromised
to allow poets to express themselves adequately. For him literature had become
a muddle of unrealised images and inadequate techniques.76 His postgraduate
research supervisor, I.A. Richards, was of little use to counter such thoughts
being absent from the university between autumn 1929 and August 1931. By
the time of his return, Jennings had become deeply absorbed in the aesthetics
and practice of painting. Painting, as an intense and relatively isolated activity,
opened up a more rewarding path of artistic and poetic investigation for Jennings.
He had come to the conclusion that as the word, the phrase, the poetic image
are not sufficient in themselves the image must be particularized, concrete
and historical, never invented. To him, physical manifestation was the final test
of imaginative truth.77 His existing knowledge of art, already provided examples
of innovative techniques, that, like poetry, reworked traditions to achieve a new
sensibility. Around 1928 a family relation had introduced him to contemporary
developments in European modern art, which probably included surrealism.78
Surrealism was not so much an art movement, than in Patrick Waldbergs words,
a state of mind, a disposition of the soul, and an entire mode of knowledge
and being.79 The techniques of Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism
and Cubism, had already undermined accepted forms of visual representation
now the French surrealists under the leadership of Andre Breton, had recently
become the most vital and influential force.80 The vibrant, fractious, selfpromoting collective of initially writers and poets, questioned the very basis
and meaning of contemporary life and art. Jennings awareness coincided with a
surge in activity which included the promotion of painting.
Jennings, H., ed. (1993). Venus and Adonis: The Quarto of 1593, Alcess Press.
Madge, C. (1951). A Note on Images. Paintings: Humphrey Jennings 19071950,
Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Merralls, J. (1961/1962). Humphrey Jennings a Biographical Sketch. Film Quarterly
(Winter 19612): 2934. p. 30.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213. The friendly uncle mentioned by Hutt may have been his uncle George who
had ambitions as a painter and lived in Paris for a number of years. See Jackson, K. (2004).
Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 20.
Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate. p. 19.
See McMillan, D. (1975). Transition 192738: The History of a Literary Era, Calder
and Boyars. p. 80.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Although often regarded as a surrealist, Allen Hutt has qualified this

description. Although affected artistically by contact with the Surrealists,
Jennings, he states, was never of them but, as he says, they had at any rate
the notion that somehow or other painting and life were related.81 What was
particularly attractive was not only their attitude towards the contemporary
world but their experimental techniques, novel forms of representation
and their understanding of the role of art in contemporary society. Their
criticisms of modern life and their concerns about the impact of capitalism and
commercialism on the nature of contemporary life and art were very similar to
those voiced by Jennings in Design and the Theatre (the suffocating influence
of theatrical authorities) and Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam (the imposition
of the rational space and loss of the chance encounter). In fact the surrealists had
much in common with Hulme, who had pointed out that individual actions in
the modern world were not really free, as most human activity was trapped
within forms of routine behaviour. They too saw the human imagination
trapped within what they referred to as the means-ends rationality of modern
The aim of the surrealists was broadly twofold: first, to encourage a space
where the emotional and spiritual needs of the individual could be met in a
world dominated by science, rationalism and the market economy and, second,
to undermine accepted notions of artistic representation and artistic genius,
by denying the idea of a specific artistic style and the uniqueness of the artistic
product. In their activities Jennings could recognise an attempt to deconstruct
the routine of everyday existence and life could be uncovered. As Hulme put
it, in moments of social and psychological tension: the outer crust [is] broken
by the inner self breaking through and you get what may be called a free act,
a condition where the individual may choose in defiance of what is generally
called a motive allowing unforeseen and novel things to happen and thereby
opening up the possibility for real change.82 To encourage the release of the
inner self the surrealists turned to psychology and the exploration of dreamsymbolism, automatism and techniques such as automatic writing to reveal
the immanence of true reality. They celebrated the revelatory impulse in the
idea of chance by looking for the unpredictable in the mundane of daily life,
the discovery of the objet trouve or the incongruous disposition of images or
events which may stimulate the imagination and reveal something new. Any
art or writing, past or present, which was regarded as embodying the essence
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.
Hulme, T.E. (1924). Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art,
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner. p. 191.

An Education for Life: 190733


of surrealism was incorporated into their cause. They embraced contemporary

artists who used plagiaristic styles and techniques such as collage and montage
and/or incorporated mass-produced objects, such as photographs and newspaper
clippings, in their paintings, writing and installations.
Returning from Paris just after Christmas 1929, Jennings wrote to William
Empson and speculated on what he saw as the prevailing situation facing the
contemporary artist and poet:
I think we are now in, or entering, or re-entering a period (state of mind)
not corresponding to the earlier stages of the system, but to an earlier state
[Herbert] Read says there was a period earlier in which man was definitely
afraid of nature and in which poetry and painting were protective instruments
(spells, totems) instead of being imitative & celebration ritual I suggest that
poetry and painting are now back in their position of protectors, not to protect us
from Nature (the macrocosm) but from ourselves (the microcosm) We may get
to some state of equality with ourselves in the future & a sense of glory return.
This is hinted at in Blake: I will not cease from mental strife but we are not there
yet. What is wanted is certainly a new system but it cant be found lying about.
The difficulty of finding it, the battle against ourselves for it the dream-symbols
of the surrealists & of Alice in Wonderland are on the right track.83

At this time in England, very little was known about the movement. An
appreciation or application of their ideas and techniques was partial, slow and
uneven. Jennings however gained a substantial understanding of what they were
attempting to achieve and became an articulate critic. Through the early 1930s
frequent visits to Paris were followed by longer stays in France, to paint and
visit exhibitions. Magazines such as Cahiers dart, transition (later re-launched
as Transition), Documents and Minotaur and English publications such as The
Studio, enabled him to keep abreast of recent developments, and: Together with
his friends Gerald Noxon and the painter Julian Trevelyan, he now established
the Experiment Gallery devoted to the latest movements in painting and other
visual arts [It] was meant to be a commercial enterprise, a way for Jennings to
supplement his meagre income.84 His research deepened from 1928 onwards.
Noxon remembers that the creative act of applying paint to the canvas became
for him an integral part of his daily existence, a form of self expression and
self-revelation through painting which, with detailed study of styles of drawing

See Appendix Letter from Jennings to William Empson reprinted in Jackson, K.

(2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 38990. Jennings italics.
Ibid. pp. 1001.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


and brush work, became part of his explorer-adventurer technique in the arts.85
Kathleen Raine found him pre-occupied for months with the problem of where
the first brushmark, that determines the whole painting, should be made on the
canvas;86 a form of artistic activity which corresponds closely to the avant-garde
practice known as mediated chance:87
not the result of blind spontaneity in the handling of material but its very opposite,
the most painstaking calculation. But that calculation only extends to the means,
where the result remains largely unpredictable In the principle of construction,
there lies a renunciation of the subjective imagination in favour of a submission to
the chance of construction.88

It is a form of practice that plunges the artists into what Hulme refers to as real
time; an actual living process of thought, where the artist gains real freedom
outside the routines of the everyday, to achieve what Jennings called the
realization of free desires:89
There are two underlying principles everywhere, which, when found in humans
are called intellect and emotion both essential but working in diametrically
opposed ways emotion tends to be overwhelming & it is the business of the
intellect to restrict it to a reasonable size The best things are not overdone one
way or another: they are in the middle For us now, it is essential that both
intellect and emotion should be genuine I want the intellect to be in the right
place [and] from my point of view as a painter I must be true to the vision in

See Gerald Noxon quoted in ibid. p. 109.

Raine, K. (1951). Humphrey Jennings. Paintings: Humphrey Jennings, Institute of
Contemporary Arts. During the mid-1930s Len Lye recollected Jennings interest in and
practice of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy: because he reasoned that if you are handling
brushes and handling paint, this is the ultimate, this is the end, so you should know how to
handle a brush to perfection, how to handle paint to perfection, and thats it, you dont have
to do another thing. Bouhours, J.-M. (2000). Uniting Form and Movement, in Horrocks,
R. and Bouhours, J.-M., eds, Len Lye, Centre Pompidou Paris. p. 203. See Gerald Noxon
quoted in Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 109 and Merralls, J. (1961/2).
Humphrey Jennings: A Biographical Sketch, Film Quarterly (Winter): 2934. Mellor, D.
(1982). Sketch for an Historical Portrait of Humphrey Jennings, in Jennings, M.-L., ed.,
Humphrey Jennings: Film Maker, Painter, Poet, British Film Institute. p. 64.
Gerald Noxon quoted in Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 109.
Burger, P. (1999). Theory of the Avant-Garde, University of Minnnesota Press.
pp. 657.
The Theatre Today, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 213.

An Education for Life: 190733


me & do as it says, only with my intellect technique, work, etc shaping and
forming the more abstract vision down to the size of a picture.90

Consequently, as he attempted to express a marriage of thought and deliberate

planning with a spontaneous emotional vision his output was erratic and
primarily for himself; a process of personal investigation and experimentation
to achieve this genuine balance between emotion and the intellect.91
Rock-Painting and La Jeune Peinture
In his review of Cubism, Anthony Blunt concluded that with the publication
of Janneaus LArt Cubiste (1929), what had once been all that was most vital
and progressive in painting was now history. The mantle of newness had yet to
settle on a new form of expression, although its offspring surrealisme, he felt,
seemed to offer promise.92 At this moment Cahiers DArt (1929/30), published
photographs from an exhibition of ancient South African rock paintings along
with examples of new modern art in the article La Jeune Peinture. In 1930,
Jennings returned to Paris for several months, which allowed him to become
acquainted with recent artistic developments, which included the arrival of a
new surrealist periodical Le Surrealism au service de la Revolution, as well as
to attend the South African exhibition.93 On his return fired up by what he
had seen, his speculations on the contemporary condition and struggle of the
artist were addressed in a co-authored article with Gerald Noxon for the final
edition of Experiment magazine (Spring 1931). In Rock-Painting and La Jeune
Peinture, Jennings asserts that the exhibition is overwhelming to people who
have followed the course of modern painting beyond Cubism.94 He extends
Blunts discussion of Cubism with an informed assessment that connects the
South African wall paintings with the contemporary condition of new European
art: Painting in Paris, he asserts, has more promise and energy now than at any
time since the first period of Cubism. Using language reminiscent of Hulme, he
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 912. Jennings italics.
Madge, C. (1951). A Note on Images. Paintings: Humphrey Jennings 19071950,
Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Blunt, A. (1930) Cubism. The Venture 6.
Six issues appeared between 1930 and 1933. Spector, J.J. (1997). Surrealist Art and
Writing 1919/39, Cambridge University Press.
All quotes are taken from Jennings, H. and Noxon, G. (1931). Rock-Painting and La
Jeune Peinture. Experiment (7). reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 1914.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


considers the recent artistic technique of post-cubism and surrealism as revealed

in the La Jeune Peinture, to have an aesthetic affinity with the vitality and
directional feeling found in the exhibition of ancient tribal cave paintings.95
The naivety of their construction, with the unconscious superimposition of
figures over an unbounded physical area, creates a diverse unity with a mental
depth possessed of its own proper and particular mythology unrestrained in
form, time and space. This freedom had similarities with the vitality of postcubist expression, which had begun to break free from a previous cubist heritage,
which had degenerated into mere pattern making, dictated by preconceived
composition. This revolt against architectural composition, although escaping
the perversities and propensities of the past, had yet to achieve that fusion of
technique and myth found in the ancient wall paintings. As it is: The want
of myths following on from Cubism has been filled from various sources, preeminently by Surrealism But at the present the Surrealists (especially Ernst)
are exploiting the rather temporary emotive qualities of incongruity provided
by the juxtaposition of objects as objects (with literary associations). What was
necessary, Jennings concluded, was something more fundamental, a regaining of
a heroic sense:
By heroic we [ Jennings and Noxon] mean the co-ordination of a great number
of emotions than painting has some time managed to use; a grasp of problems
as complete as that which Rubens had of the muddle of the sixteenth century
painting, and as in Rubens, the use of technique as technique, to create mutations
in the subject, and the subject thereby to be in its proper place as the metamorphosis
by paint and not by literary substitution: producing a world of mutations parallel
to the heroic proportions of African painting.96

It is this heroic sense that Jennings wanted to capture in his own artistic practice
where, as he put it, matter (sense impressions) [are] transformed and reborn by
Imagination: turned into an image.97 A notion characterised as lying somewhere


Beston regards the article as an attempt to update and extend the arguments of
Hulme to the latest painting in 1931. Beston, M. (1996). A Reconsideration of Humphrey
Jennings, 19071950, Essex. M.Phil. p. 196.
Jennings, H. and Noxon, G. (1931). Rock-Painting and La Jeune Peinture.
Experiment (7). Reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. p. 194.
Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium:
The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. xxxviii, Jennings

An Education for Life: 190733


between an idea and a sensation, for it was more vivid than an abstract idea yet was
more intangible than a concrete sensation,98 or as Charles Madge explained:
The image becomes a point of ordonnance [that is a point of co-ordination]
in a universe of flux. It is not only verbal, or visual, or emotional, although it is
all these. It is not in the elements, but in their coming together at a particular
moment, that the magical potency lies.99

The English poets of the past, the poetry of Eliot and the history of European
painting had shown Jennings how images, handled with the appropriate
technique, could communicate a synthesis of thought and emotion which
emerged as a spontaneous vision appropriate to the time: Metamorphosis
by paint is in three words what Humphrey Jennings attempted as a painter
[He] returned again and again to certain subjects, in his battle to transform
them.100 The idea of a mythic image acting as a point of ordonnance operates
in a similar way to Eliots literary notion of the objective correlative, in that it
simultaneously correlates and expresses a series of emotions about the past and
the present.
Raine remembered: In painting he invariably worked on images from
postcards, prints or coloured plates, but never from nature. This he felt was
important because such images were already human currency.101 The subject
matter he chose was often drawn from the everyday, familiar and readily
accessible form[s] of representation. Critically, in terms of artistic technique he
was working within a tradition:
to be valid [subject matter] had to be discovered, not invented if it was to have
any worth [the image] had to be equally impersonal. Poets were not to create,
and could only communicate a kind of truth to the extent that the images they
employed were public, collective and historical. Thus an image was to be sought
out in the external world, in literature, or in the past.102

MacClancy, J. (1995). Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass Observation, of

British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
1(3): 495512. p. 497.
Madge, C. (1951). A Note on Images. Paintings: Humphrey Jennings 19071950,
Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Kathleen Raine quoted in Powell, D., Wright, B. and Manvell, R., eds (1951).
Humphrey Jennings 19071950: A Tribute, Humphrey Jennings Memorial Fund.
MacClancy, J. (1995). Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass Observation, of
British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Instead of the artist being conceived as someone special who leads a life separate
from the mass of humanity, the use of popular images allows their work: to be
taken as a manifestation, not of the individual working outside of time, but of
the community acting within time.103 The nature of the relationship therefore
between artist and audience is transformed from distinct artistic creation into
one of interrogation. His recurrent images of, for example, horses, farming,
trees, the English landscape, steam engines, national architecture (such as St
Pauls Cathedral), which appear in his poetry, painting and films are at once
specific, general and quintessentially English. They are endowed for him with
what he referred to as a revolutionary and symbolic and illuminatory quality.
I mean they contain in a little a whole world they are knots in a great net of
tangled time and space the moments at which the situation of humanity is
clear.104 These images, within which the spiritual, emotional, imaginative and
material coexist to express something about the human condition, also operate
as collective referents depicting fragments of a shared national heritage, culture
and identity.

1(3): 495512. p. 497.

Ibid. p. 497.
Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium:
The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. xxxv.

Chapter 2

The Artist as Agent: 192936

Jennings love of English heritage and tradition, combined with sympathy for an
iconoclastic modernism, has led to the suggestion that he needed to reconcile
apparently contradictory commitments to revolutionary idealism and to
conservative patriotism. But his patriotism did not include a desire to maintain
the existing status quo. Something recognised by Roland Penrose:
I dont mean to suggest that Humphrey was a patriot in the conventional way
at all. His patriotism was far deeper than that. He was certainly anti-military.
And anti-society when it became organized in an absurd way But he had great
feeling for the construction of English society, English landscape and English way
of living.

Like many Oxbridge students, during the 1920s, Jennings seems to have taken
little direct interest in party politics. However, he did hold strong opinions on
the character of advanced industrial society and the nature of contemporary
political life. In the spring of 1929, three years after the General Strike and the
extension of the vote to all men and women over the age of 21, he noted his
discomfort with the character of contemporary social and political life:
The trouble is that democracy has muddled up the farmer & the gentle man &
the result of teaching farmers to think is that they cease to be farmers! There
is you see, at the bottom of democracy, a snobbish idea that it is better to be a
gentleman than a farmer; without realising that in a well-ordered world there is
room for both and both are equally essential Men are not born equal, they are
born complementary.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 177.
Change life was certainly one of the war cries of all Surrealists, and Humphrey took
notice of that very much. But his way of changing life was more tactful, was more constructive
in a way than just iconoclasm which would break up everything. Quoted in ibid. p. 178.

Quoted in ibid. p. 178.

Hynes, S. (1976). The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the
1930s, Faber.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 90. Jennings italics.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The language and nature of these sentiments seem more suited to an earlier age
and to some extent this is not surprising. Both family life and education had
put him close to the romantic ideals associated with pre-industrial life, where an
organic social structure helped to sustain an integrated socio-economic system:
The idea of believing without thinking is an admirable one but of course doesnt
suit us because we are used to putting everything to intellectual tests. But it was
a good one during the Middle Ages for people who couldnt think anyway: it
stopped them trying to think, which was really a good thing since a plowman or a
farmer who goes on day after day without thinking is likely to be a better plowman
or farmer than one who is on the verge as it were of ideas the morbidness &
introspection we hate so is the result of having a brain in thinking order.

His antipathy to contemporary politics found its justification, for example,

in the poetry of William Blake and the commentaries of William Cobbett.
Their form of English radicalism grounded in notions of individual liberty and
freedom from overweening authority, would provide one touchstone for his
own political disposition throughout his life. Their stance was reactionary, in
that they wished to secure and sustain what they regarded as the best of the
past, while opposing the growing rationalism and vested interests of the modern
world. For Blake, new scientific and economic ideas fettered the mind with
beliefs which, as Jennings argued, put the brain in thinking order at the expense
of those intuitive connections between the spiritual and material dimensions of
life. His poetry and engravings were complemented by Cobbetts publications,
which attacked the economic, social and political forces that undermined
traditional freedoms and social cohesion. A combination of economic interests
and a corrupt unreformed Parliament, encouraged financial speculation and
the spread of a laissez-faire market economy. Cobbett noted how, dispossessed
of land and work by enclosure and mechanisation, these once independent
yeoman and farm workers, were forced to the manufacturing towns of the new
industrial age. Here under government laws and high taxation, and the vagaries
of the market, their lives were no better than slaves in their enforced idleness,
squalor and moral corruption. Like Blakes poem London, the city, for Cobbett,
was The Great Wen, the literal and symbolic heart of this new form of tyranny,
based on government and financial speculation. What Blake and Cobbett
fought against intensified over the centuries. The comparatively recent creation
of mass democratic politics was yet another dimension of this process, with the
abstract principles of democracy and equality replacing the traditional notions


The Artist as Agent: 192936


of liberty and fairness. The muddle Jennings complains of, not only represents
the destruction of an earlier set of relations based on reciprocity and respect,
but also real or imagined tensions created between different socio-economic
Politics and Society 192935
The period of Jennings postgraduate study between 1929 and late 1933,
coincided with what Steiner has called The Hinge Years; a time when the
desire for post-war peace and prosperity was overwhelmed by unprecedented
international economic failure, which brought mass unemployment and
social and political crises across the industrialised world. Triggered by the
collapse of the international financial system in late October 1929, talk of
military disarmament and free trade was replaced by economic protectionism,
rearmament and eventually war. In Britain, the Labour Government fell, to be
replaced by a National Coalition of politicians drawn from the three main
political parties. Even so, it was not certain that the National Government,
still broadly wedded to the economics of free trade, could effectively manage
the situation. Political opponents were in broad agreement that free-market
capitalism seemed to be on the verge of a complete breakdown and what was
required was some form of concerted intervention. While in Paris, Jennings
wrote pessimistically about the situation to Cicely: do not let your peoples
gloomy view of the future disturb you: I see no future and that leaves it open.
I have always assumed that things would inevitably get better and people
more understanding but [I] dont know people and things will continue
to be stupid and wrong for ever. At the trough of the recession in late 1932,
supported by disillusioned Labour and Conservative politicians, Oswald Mosley
launched the British Union of Fascists modelled on Mussolinis Italian system
of government. This and the installation of Hitler as Chancellor in January
Steiner, Z. (2005). The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919
1933, Oxford University Press.

Mellor, D. (1980). British Art in the 1930s: Some Economic, Political and Cultural
Structures, in Gloversmith, F., ed., Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s,
Harvester Press. pp. 185207. His attitude was summed up in letters to Julian Trevelyan. In
April 1932 he wrote: I sit about and paint and try not to lose my temper with this country
and its ludicrous inhabitants. In an undated letter of the same period: I am looking for a job
abroad I am tired of waiting about in this appalling island I sound miserable but am not
really so: only bored by England. Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 119.
Beston, M. (1996). A Reconsideration of Humphrey Jennings, 19071950, Essex. M.Phil.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

1933, saw a marked change in the English domestic political atmosphere, with
students at Oxbridge and other universities moving towards the political left.
Often Christian socialist and pacifist in nature, it was not based on the English
radical tradition Jennings had absorbed, but European Marxism. Students such
as W.H. Auden and his friends, embraced what Samuels refers to as Marxism
of the heart:
They espoused the communist position because it was presently the repository
for justice and freedom. [However] they rejected any entanglement with Party
discipline or Party bureaucracy. Communism seemed the only valid alternative,
but the British Communist Party at this time was distinctly unappealing.

Jennings kept his distance from such developments, and in March 1933 made
clear his thoughts on the political ardour of the left and right, which was
sweeping through the university:
The University is ahem going Marxist and Life and Letters has got the
Jouhandeaus and England is busy persuading itself for the seventh millionth
time that it is beginning to face reality. We are rather snugly situated here,
and managing to let existing slide off our ducks back The Audens and Day
Lewiss [sic] and so on are a positive menace. Bill [Empson] is well out of it in

By the end of the year, ideas of detachment and the poetic disposition
celebrated by Richards, along with the technique he was struggling to achieve
with his painting, were increasingly regarded as pass.11

Samuels, S. (1969). English Intellectuals and the Politics in the 1930s, in Rieff, P., ed.,
On Intellectuals, Garden City, New York. pp. 196247. p. 211.
Jennings, M.-L., ed. (1982). Humphrey Jennings: Film-Maker, Painter and Poet,
British Film Institute/Riverside Studios. p. 11.
Politics when it overtook our generation, meant for us the partial abrogation of a
passive, receptive, analytic poetry in favour of a poetry of the will and the directed analytic
intellect. Spender, S. (1978). The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics and People, Macmillan.
p. 17. By the end of 1933, we have arrived at a situation in which almost the only subject of
discussion is contemporary politics, and in which a very large majority of the more intelligent
undergraduates are Communists, or almost Communists As far as an interest in literature
continues it has very largely changed its character, and become an ally of Communism under
the influence of Mr. Audens Oxford Group. Bell, J. (1933). Politics in Cambridge. The New
Statesman and Nation.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


From Cambridge to London

On leaving Cambridge, Jennings could not escape the increasingly politicised
atmosphere.12 He arrived in London when the character of the metropolitan
arts scene was undergoing a transformation. The established circles of prewar intellectuals, figures such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot,
Virginia Woolf, Herbert Read and E.M. Forster, were being supplemented by
a rising post-war generation of poets and writers, such as Auden and Jennings,
who were soon augmented by another wave of younger poets, including Charles
Madge, David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas.13 This growing pool of domestic
talent was supplemented by foreign artists like Len Lye from New Zealand,
and from 1933 onwards an influx of European cultural entrepreneurs, artists
and intellectuals, fleeing the growth of fascism in Europe. For a brief period, as
the economic climate improved until the outbreak of war, London became the
centre of a new cultural dynamism, which saw an explosion in creative activity.
New theatre groups emerged to perform new plays, new literary magazines and
journals appeared and contemporary art exhibitions created debate amongst and
rivalry between differing artistic factions. There was also a significant expansion
in the size of the documentary film movement, the creation of the Left Book
Club and its affiliated activities and the Mass Observation movement.
It was through this vibrant artistic and social scene that Jennings moved
during the rest of the 1930s.14 Correspondingly, it became a busy and creative
time. Between 1934 and 1936 his GPO and colour film work firmly positioned
him as an artist working in the public sphere. Outside this he also engaged with
a number of personal and collaborative ventures. In the latter part of 1934 he
published a small collection of his own poems A Little Town in France (1934)
and contributed an essay The Theatre Today to the anthology The Arts Today
( January 1935). Towards the end of 1935 he contributed the brief article Eliot,
Auden and Shakespeare to New Verse (December 1935) and a collaborative
prose poem The Shape of Former Heaven to the winter edition of Life and
Letters (1935). In June 1936 Colour Wont Stand Dignity in World Film News
coincided with the release of Birth of the Robot. At the beginning of 1936 he

Samuels, S. (1969). English Intellectuals and the Politics in the 1930s, in Rieff, P.,
ed., On Intellectuals, Garden City, New York. pp. 196247.
Cunningham, V. (1995). British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford University Press.
Mellor, D. (1980). British Art in the 1930s: Some Economic, Political and Cultural
Structures, in Gloversmith, F., ed., Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s,
Harvester Press. pp. 185207. Cunningham, V. (1995). British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford
University Press.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

became involved with the organisation of the London International Surrealist

Exhibition which took place in July.
1935: The Theatre Today and Eliot, Auden and Shakespeare
Soon after leaving Cambridge Jennings sentiments about society expressed
themselves in a contribution to the anthology The Arts Today, with the
editor Geoffrey Grigson warning readers that Mr Jennings on the Theatre is
fundamentally and bitterly destructive.15 Reminiscent of his Experiment articles
Design and the Theatre and Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam, his chapter The
Theatre Today provides an excuse for a broadside against the forces he perceived
as rackets which controlled not only the commercial theatre but contemporary
English life:
Behind the performance of Iphigenia are ranged the powers of Church, State and
University, of the Societies for this and that Associations for that manifesting
through correspondence columns and vouched for by banks whose directors
are also governors of schools, trustees of collections, organizers of charities all,
whether they are aware of it or not, using this performance of Euripides for their
own ends the solidification of their own interlocking positions: the corporate
life of a Nation and what a body!16

The theatrical establishment (of producer, actor and theatre critic) and audience
reflected the parochial attitudes and lack of inspiration symptomatic of the
shams of modern life. Commercial theatre fed on the appetite of an uncritical
audience which desire nothing more than: Good entertainment: with these
words the critic not only boosts any particular production he is told to, but also
produces in his readers the required feeling that after all, one goes out to the
theatre to be entertained and not to be instructed. Like Cavalcantis jibes at the
expense of the middle classes in Pett and Pott, he caricatures the middlebrow
theatre-going public, who populate the afternoon matinees of vapid theatrical
events such as The Grey Cuckoo, Heartsease or March Winds. Constructed out
of stock ideas and characters, the plays delude the audience: into admiring
and imitating the virtues and not considering the work itself at all. Under the
pressure of commercialism both artist and audience understand the terms Art
Jennings, H. (1935). The Theatre Today. The Arts Today. G. Grigson, John Lane and
Bodley Head.
The Theatre Today, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 20218.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


and Entertainment to mean particular and qualitatively separate spheres of

activity. Inside these spheres artists are assigned identities or shapes such as (the
highbrow) poet, actor, painter or (the middlebrow or popular) comedian,
entertainer and singer which circumscribe both the audiences and artists
If there does appear anyone on the English halls with something to say the
audience has been so trained to regard him as entertainment only, and he has
been so trained to regard his work as theatre only, and to be unaware of what
it might be, that the possibilities of his touching anybodys existence (neither
entertainment nor education) are snuffed right out.17

There is little room for someone (like himself ) to effectively transgress these
boundaries: what place has so vulgar (so vulgar because so free) a thing as a
poet in England, let alone for him to be a dramatist or an actor.18 Occasionally
however some disrupt the expectations of the audience to bring them closer to
The audience is amazed to see actors who really appear to understand (i) ordinary
human thoughts and actions, and (ii) who realize and use the difference between
these and stock theatrical behaviour The audience is in fact so amazed and
delighted that there is a sudden danger of them recognising these thoughts as
their own Example of someone getting away with and putting over a good
proportion (say 50 per cent.) of what he really has to say: Eddie Cantor, who isnt
an actor, or a comedian, or a film star: those are all shapes like ready-made suits,
to look at: but Eddie on the contrary comes right out, at you: and literally alters

In this case further incorporation and containment is necessary: so the Marx

Brothers are camouflaged as crazy week, just as Ibsen has been camouflaged
as sociological and Lifes a Dream as a fantasy. And Sandy Powell singing

Ibid. Jennings italics.

He would again remark on this situation when his name was associated with the
newly formed English Surrealist Group in 1936: But for the English to awaken from
the sleep of selectivity, what a task. And to be already a painter, a writer, an artist,
a surrealist, what a handicap. Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism. Contemporary Poetry
and Prose (8). Reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. p. 221. Jennings italics.
The Theatre Today, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. Jennings italics.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Underneath the Arches is explained away as entertainment for the masses or a

good substitute for slumming parties.
The charade of the theatre had its parallel in the world of politics. For
those on the left and many liberals, the recent passage of the Incitement to
Disaffection Act (November 1934) was evidence of Britain sleepwalking into a
form of creeping fascism,20 where, as Jennings put it, a nation of busybodies like
the English is positively invited to telephone the police when they see anything
that they consider queer going on. It is a nation which hides behind clichs and
stock responses in an attempt to avoid reality and explain anything that may
disturb a complacent slumber.21
That there is nothing like a good laugh, that to have a sense of humour is to have
a sense of God (that pulpit chestnut), that we are all good fellows here, and so on
in a series of deception and self-deception to the conclusion that life on this right
little tight little island is fine as it is etc. (A conclusion resulting incidentally in
their voting national, buying the canned goods advertised in the same paper, and
so on.)

Cocooned and refusing to face up to reality, England he believed had lost the
capacity for imaginative reflection:
England hasnt got It and doesnt want to have: she is deadly afraid: she wraps
herself up in every kind of blanket Art, Culture, Entertainment against the
explosion of the terrible bomb But the bomb, dear Englishmen is inside not
outside you need a different type of blanket but there, Freud is already labelled
Foreign, Scientific, Interesting and its no good talking.22
The passage Incitement to Disaffection Act (November 1938) made it a crime
for persons endeavouring to seduce members of His Majestys Forces from their duty or
allegiance. Described as the most daring encroachment upon the liberty of the subject which
the Executive Government has yet attempted at a time which is not a time of emergency
by the Professor of English Law at Oxford concerns that it was a move towards Fascism
in Britain united a broad spectrum of the left and led to the foundation of the National
Council of Civil Liberties chaired by E.M. Forster. Radford, R. and Morris, L., eds (1983).
The Story of the AIA: Artist International Association 19331953, The Museum of Modern
Art Oxford. p. 12.
Her capacity for turning any fragment of news of foreign passions (themselves
explosions) which may have strayed into this country into blankets is really astonishing (She
is even managing to use Communism as one): that is what she wanted from this article. The
Theatre Today, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,

The Artist as Agent: 192936


Unfortunately, attempts in the non-commercial theatre to raise political issues

were unlikely to have appeal. Compared to the theatre of the past, when several
Englishmen used the theatre as they found it, for their own purposes of poetry
and analysis of behaviour connaisance, contemporary non-commercial theatre
had merely resuscitated a tired political and social realism:23
I am aware that this continued defence of the poet is regarded as very dilettante by
the now politically minded English. Art must now be social and useful. Alas! We
have been all over that ground only such a very short time ago and in the theatre
too. But Fabianism and Bernard Shaw and the social dramas of Mr Granville
Barker are already so unreadable that it is difficult to work up any enthusiasm
for another political drama.24

This opinion finds specific expression in his article for the December edition
of New Verse which compares recent productions of Eliots Murder in the
Cathedral and Audens Dance of Death to the technique of Shakespeare. Whereas
Shakespeare had used the theatre for his own purpose to create a poetry which
in analysing behaviour was built on notions of custom and natural justice; Eliot
and Auden fell into the trap of creating not poetry but splendid manufacture.25
Their oversystematised positions, springing out of their own beliefs and
attitudes, failed to present the world as it is, instead every writer in the world
puts his horrid self into his hateful works.26 The problem now, he asserts, is
how to present more of the world, by itself .27 His answer was to combine the
technique of plagiarism with his understanding of the image.
The Space of Former Heaven
Around the time of the appearance of Eliot, Auden and Shakespeare, Charles
Madge and Jennings submitted a report style commentary to the winter
edition of Life and Letters Today (1935), about the unfolding international

Left Theatre had made its debut in the commercial West End in 1934 with Sunday
evening performances of classic Russian and Irish plays. Also under the motto art should
serve life the collectivist Group Theatre began to offer a more contemporary and politically
conscious theatre with Clifford Odets Waiting for Lefty and W.H. Audens Dance of Death.
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 216.
Jennings, H. (1935). Auden and Eliot and Shakespeare. New Verse (18): 47.Grigson
describes him as not sentimental about society or the theatre.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


crisis surrounding Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Since his accession to power in 1922,

Mussolini was determined to make the Mediterranean Basin a future sphere of
Italian influence. This included the forcible colonisation of Abyssinia, which
would also help revoke a past national humiliation, when a better equipped
Italian army was routed by a force of local tribesmen at the Battle of Adowa in
1896. With a presence already in Libya, Eritrea and Somaliland the occupation
would put the vital international sea lanes of the Mediterranean and Suez Canal
under potential threat. Mussolini hoped it would boost his claim to the Italian
people that Italy was becoming a significant European and colonial power. To
the consternation of Britain and France, the invasion began early in October
1935, soon after the British General Election in which the new premier Stanley
Baldwin had promised to support the aims of the League of Nations. Towards
the end of the year, as the crisis grew, The Space of Former Heaven was
The report style technique brings together a collection of documents which
appear to have historical veracity, but may in fact be a mixture of the authentic
and contrived. These observations, apparently drawn from the writings of third
parties, highlight the consequences of the civilising missions of European states
in the creation of their Empires. These public accounts or images, deflect the
notion away from individual authorship towards one of messenger. The reader
is drawn into this collage of texts to evaluate the images and/or events that pass
before them, which in turn create associative thoughts and emotions.
The title of the piece may be a reference to a time prior to the arrival of the
Europeans, when Abyssinia was the undisturbed homeland of North African
tribes. It is both opened and closed by reference to the life and travels of the
American painter, Benjamin West (17381820). A subject of an English colony,
West journeyed to Rome to study then became a founding member of the British
Royal Academy. The power of the natural landscape in his native America is
echoed in the closing passage of his time in Italy. He learns from the artistic
practices of native Indians, in his homeland and travels to the capital of the most
recent coloniser, to further his education. In between, Madge and Jennings
provide an ironic commentary on the nature and consequences of colonialism,
with references to occupation and the horrors of confrontations between
colonisers and local natives. The aftermath of a battle, possibly in America, is
set alongside a description from that earlier Italian Abyssinian campaign. There
are references to native spiritual beliefs and rituals, and a journal extract in
italicised French and English, which appears to have been written by the artist
Jennings, H. and Madge, C. (1935). The Space of Former Heaven. Life and Letters
To-Day (Winter): 546.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


Arthur Rimbaud, who had been employed as an arms dealer in the Ethiopian
capital Addis Ababa, during the 1880s. This illustrates how colonisation follows
military conquest. Europeans acquire and export native goods, imprint on
the local landscape a modern infrastructure and create an extractive economy.
The import of foreign culture into the heart of the Empire is matched by the
export of violence and economic and cultural domination abroad. It finishes
with an assertion that indirectly relates to West: Changez les noms, ce fragment
sera lhistoire des sauvages dAmeriquevers le temps ou larrivee des Europeens vint
troubler leur naissante societe.29
Before returning to Wests journey to Rome, Madge and Jennings turn to
the response of Britain to the Italian invasion and the bureaucratic wrangling
of the League of Nations. Clothed in the language of peace and conciliation,
the most recent negotiations by Britain and France merely cloak the continued
international power struggle between rival European nations over the fate of
strategically valuable colonies. Between January and March of 1936 came news
of Italian military atrocities and the final capitulation of Ethiopian resistance.
The fear of a wider European war, and the weakness of the League of Nations,
allowed the French and British Governments to hand over two-thirds of the
country to Mussolini. Once the British public were made aware of the HoareLaval Pact, outrage swept the country.30 The success of Mussolinis belligerence
meant that an emboldened Hitler tore up the conditions of the Versailles Treaty
and moved troops into the neutral Rhineland, thereby exposing France once
more to a potential German threat on its eastern border.
These events provided a stark political backdrop to the British arts scene. The
successes for fascism and the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia, gave artistic
expression a sharp political dimension. From the mid 1930s, until the outbreak
of war in 1939, the value of art and artistic freedom became part of a broader
political and ideological struggle. The banning of decadent avant-garde art, by
the Nazi Party, found its equivalent in the Stalinist policy of socialist realism,
which required artists to apply only forms of expression regarded as accessible,
to the masses. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 the
international scene grew darker and the field of the arts became increasingly
Debate over the function of art and the role of the artist, the direction of
contemporary art and the need for political commitment, was carried forward
in magazines, journals, books and the newspaper reviews of art exhibitions.
You change the names, this piece will be the history of the savages of America around
the time where the arrival of the Europeans disturbed their growing society.
Brendon, P. (2000). The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, Jonathan Cape.
pp. 36062.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Since 1933 the British Communist Party had attempted to mobilise artists as
a political force against fascism, with the creation of the Artists International
Association (AIA).31 While they encouraged an appropriate artistic expression
for the times; namely a new social(ist) realism, semi-formal groups of artists such
as Unit One and the Seven and Five Society, continued to pursue abstract and
avant-garde forms of expression.
The London International Surrealist Exhibition
Until the formation of an English Surrealist committee, in April 1936, no
concerted attempt had been made to introduce surrealism to the English art
world or the general public.32 As Jennings implied in The Theatre Today, the
labelling of Dali as pathology was symptomatic of the general ignorance about
the movement and what it was attempting to achieve. Support and promotion
of surrealism had relied on the efforts of individual enthusiasts such as Jennings,
Hugh Sykes-Davies, Charles Madge, David Gascoigne and Roland Penrose.
Outside this small circle interest tended to be restricted to a coterie of often
highly bemused highbrow intellectuals and art critics. Jennings enthusiasm
for and knowledge of the movement, along with his fluent French, made him
an ideal candidate for the committee, whose aim was to mount, in June, an
International Surrealist Exhibition.33 Although the number of exhibits would
be just over half those shown at the AIA Artists Against Fascism and War
exhibition in November 1935, the surrealists would attract four times the
number of people.34
The very iconoclasm of the movement ensured that both the organising
and presentation of the exhibition would encourage controversy. Paintings
imported from Denmark were banned on the grounds of obscenity and the
hanging of works was radically reorganised immediately before the opening,
to discourage any logic to the presentation. Exhibits included tribal and ethnic
artefacts, found objects, the drawings of children, photographs and films, as well

Cliff Rowe founder member of the Artist International Association quoted in

Radford, R. and Morris, L., eds (1983). The Story of the AIA: Artist International Association
19331953, The Museum of Modern Art Oxford. p. 9.
See Harrison, C. (1981). English Art and Modernism 19001939, Allen Lane/
Indiana Press. Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate.
See Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 159.
Artists against Fascism and War attracted approximately 6,000 visitors whereas
The International Surrealist Exhibition over 20,000. Two thousand arrived for the opening
lecture by Andre Breton.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


as paintings, collages and sculptures from artists, designated by the organisers as

having a surrealist spirit, in Britain and across Europe. These sometimes nave
and bizarre exhibits provided a backdrop for a book stall and a series of strange
performance activities, including the well publicised Phantom of Liberty that
appeared in Trafalgar Square. Poetry readings and lectures by some of the leading
proponents of the movement, including Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and Paul
Eluard, rather than clarifying what the movement was attempting to achieve,
created further confusion and mystification in the large audience.35 Jennings
contribution was wide ranging. He helped to organise, through the North
London Film Society, a venue to show surrealist films, and collaborated with
David Gascoigne to translate poems by Benjamin Peret, subsequently published
in Roger Roughtons Contemporary Poetry and Prose. Roughton allowed his
magazine to act as a platform for the official voice of surrealism in Britain.36
To coincide with the Exhibition, a special Double Surrealist Number appeared
which included three of Jennings report style poems. At the exhibition itself he
gave poetry readings and submitted a number of artworks: an oil painting, two
collages and three image objects.
This subversion of the traditional art exhibition, combined with the
atmosphere of carnival, stirred considerable media attention. The national press
mocked the event as worthless, ridiculous or meaningless.37 Jennings found
himself caught up in the general furore, when the Daily Mirror reported that he
had been reprimanded for using an existing miniature in his collage Le Minotaure.
Like his other art and poetry, the images he utilised were already circulating in
the public sphere, so: Jennings brushed the complaint aside by saying that, from
a surrealist point of view, as far as he knew, the collage was not properly his.38
These responses, in turn, encouraged practical jokes at the expense of the art
exhibited, jokes which were embraced by the organisers as valid attempts to
enter the spirit of the exhibition. However, although this sensationalism raised
the profile of surrealism, it only provoked within Jennings a nauseating memory
of the mixed atmosphere of cultural hysteria and amateur theatricality which
combined to make the Surrealist Exhibition of June so peculiar a success.39 His
earlier jibe in The Theatre Today, that people were now sold Art like petrol,
Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate.
Hynes, S. (1976). The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the
1930s, Faber. p. 223.
Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate. pp. 767.
Ibid. p. 77. Remys italics.
Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism. Contemporary Poetry and Prose (8). Reprinted in
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 21921.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

was again confirmed by the co-opting of surrealism for commercial ends.40 The
controversy masked the broader political issues surrounding the movement,
which challenged the power of the art establishment and art market, to both
designate and commodify art. The exhibition had attempted to raise fundamental
questions about the notions of recognition (what is art), designation (who are
artists) and artistic expression, as well as how it should be consumed. Given the
political context, the exhibition implicitly asserted opposition to the cultural
politics of capitalist democracies and totalitarian states. Drawing the line between
the surrealist and communists, Breton attacked social realism for the deficiency
of its narrow materialist vision, which expressed only the manifest content of
an age [while] Surrealism proposes to express its latent content.41 A sentiment
which was expressed by Herbert Read in his introduction to the catalogue, where
he claimed that surrealism was a defiant and desperate act by artists convinced
of the rottenness of our civilisation. Afterwards Jennings took part in the public
debate about the social relevance of surrealism and contributed a review of the
book Surrealism published in the December edition of Contemporary Poetry and
Prose (1936) while he continued his personal explorations with photography,
painting and poetry.
The Spanish Civil War
On the 12 July, two weeks after the closure of the exhibition, came the outbreak
of the Spanish Civil War. It was an unequal struggle between the democratically
elected government of the Republic and Francos right-wing military junta,
assisted by Italy and Germany. Defending its policy of international neutrality,
the British Government, supported by the right-wing backbench pressure group
The Friends of National Spain, placed an embargo on the shipment of arms,
while allowing supplies to reach Francos forces through Britains oldest ally,
Portugal. The legitimate government was virtually isolated, reliant on aid from
Soviet Russia, a stream of international volunteers and smuggled weapons. For
Jennings and his friends, the war, government policy and the growing presence
of Oswald Mosleys British Union of Fascists and National Socialists (recently
remodelled on Nazi lines), confirmed their worst fears.42 In response, artists and
Beston, M. (1996). A Reconsideration of Humphrey Jennings, 19071950, Essex.
Harrison, C. (1981). English Art and Modernism 19001939, Allen Lane/Indiana
Press. p. 312.
Pugh, M. (2006). Hurrah for the Blackshirts Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between
the Wars, Pimlico. pp. 2678. Heinemann, M. (1988). English Poetry and the War in Spain:

The Artist as Agent: 192936


writers were galvanised into political action to resist the spread of fascism at home
and abroad. The August/September edition of Contemporary Poetry and Prose
declared: Support the Spanish People Against Fascism. Lending their names to
public meetings and art works for exhibitions to raise funds for the Republican
cause, they urged the British Government to act in the name of defending
democracy. In a show of solidarity, the newly formed Surrealist Group accepted
the invitation to join the communist influenced AIA. Almost immediately came
news of the first British casualty of the conflict. In August, the artist Felecia
Brown was killed in the street fighting of Barcelona.43 In September, it became
known that the renowned Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, had been
murdered. The October editorial of Contemporary Poetry and Prose announced
Fascism murders Art and demanded that intellectuals must choose between
fascism and anti-fascism. That same month, the republicans began the defence of
Madrid and the British International Brigade was formed. Artists, poets, writers
and documentary film-makers decided to engage directly with the conflict, some
to report on the situation, others to assist or fight for the Republic. In reaction
to the situation, Jennings reportage style The Funeral of a Nobleman, published
in the August/September edition of Contemporary Poetry and Prose, provides a
personal, although indirect comment, on the contemporary situation:
It was a delightful sunny day. The enthusiasm was immense. At Parkside the
engines stopped to take on water. Mr Huskinsson [probably William Huskinsson
the then President of the Board of Trade] having got down from his carriage, the
Duke [of Wellington] beckoned him to his side and they were just shaking hands
when a cry went up from the horrified spectators who perceived that the body was
that of Lord Byron being carried to Newstead. Reason never recovered from the
hideous coincidence. The journey was completed amidst a deluge of hostile rain
and thunder, missiles being hurled at the coach in which the Duke was riding.44

The substance of this hideous occurrence holds within it elements which

resonate with the contemporary domestic and international political situations.
Some Records of a Generation, in Hart, S.M., ed., No Pasaran: Art, Literature and the Spanish
Civil War, Tamesis Books Ltd. pp. 4664. p. 47.
It was not long before a further six British artist-volunteers were killed bringing the
tally to seven by November 1937. These were Julian Bell, John Cornford, Charles Donnelly,
Ralph Fox, W. Rowney (maro, the cartoonist) and Christopher St. John Sprigg. Left Review
3: 10, p. 575. Such sacrifice must have been given further poignancy for Jennings when
Cicelys younger brother Edward was killed in action along with the poet Charles Donnelly
at the battle of Jarama near Madrid in early 1937.
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 291.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The disruption of the natural and social order manifests itself out of coincidence,
which releases a repressed mass emotional response. Now a mythical point of
fixation, Byron, a critic of the establishment and advocate of social reform, died
while supporting the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottoman
Turks. As with The Space of Former Heaven, a critique of government policy
can be drawn through analogy and association. The vested interest of the ruling
class and the establishment dismissal of the sacrifice of a radical and popular
warrior poet, fighting for a just and democratic cause in a foreign land, is also
hideously coincident with the present.
As the bombing of Madrid reached a climax in November, the exhibition
Artists Help Spain was held and Contemporary Poetry and Prose issued a
Declaration on Spain, by the Surrealist Group in England. This analysis,
informed as much by Roughtons communism, articulates a tenor of thought
which Jennings could sympathise with, by associating international capital with
the character of fascism and the posture of non-interventionism taken by the
British Government.45 The conflict in Spain, the editorial exclaimed, exposed
the true and violent nature of international capital. Its values permeated national
governments and subverted the democratic will of the people for its own end:
No one can continue to believe that Fascism cares for or respects what is best
in humanity. In Garcia Lorca the foremost modern poet of Spain, they have
assassinated a human life which was especially valuable. Fascism was evolving
into an international phenomena and the British Government, hiding behind
the facade of neutrality, had revealed through its inaction conclusive proof of
its real sympathies:
no one can continue to believe that our National Government has any right to
speak in the name of democracy. And in the light of this knowledge we support the
popular demand that the ban on the export of arms to the Spanish Government
be lifted. We accuse our National Government of duplicity and anti-democratic
intrigue, and call upon it to make at once the only reparation. ARMS for the
People of Spain.

This atmosphere of crisis was summed up by Kathleen Raine: on the wall of the
Jennings room in Blackheath hung a painting by Magritte In the foreground
a cannon, emblem of coming war or revolution, was pointed towards a wall
Contemporary Poetry and Prose No. 7 (November 1936). The statement was signed by
Hugh Sykes Davies, David Gascoyne, Humphrey Jennings, Diana Brinton Lee, Rupert Lee,
Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, Valentine Penrose, Herbert Read and Roger Roughton. This
was virtually the same group that composed the English Committee for the International
Surrealist Exhibition.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


or flimsy screen, partitioned into sections fragments of the world to be

demolished when the cannon fired.46
For Jennings, it had become increasingly urgent to regain that heroic sense
in art, which he and Noxon had demanded at Cambridge. But any hope that the
English Surrealist Group would provide leadership was dashed by the publication
of a book of essays which followed up the June exhibition. Writing in the
December edition of Contemporary Poetry and Prose, Jennings took immediate
offence both to the book itself, entitled Surrealism, and the interpretation of the
movement it provided:
How can one open this book, so expensive, so well produced, so conformistly
printed, with so many and such mixed illustrations, so assorted a set of articles,
containing so protesting a number of English statements and so stiffly pathetic a
presentation of French ones, and compare it even for a moment with the passion
terror and excitement, dictated by absolute integrity and produced with all the
poetry of bare necessity, which emanated from La Revolution Surrealiste and Le
Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution, without facing a great wave of nostalgia.47

Bretons Second Surrealist Manifesto ( June 1930), had been uncompromising

in its commitment to absolute rebellion, total insubordination, and outright
sabotage. The periodical Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution ( July 1930),
put surrealist texts alongside political and ideological commentary, which were
allied at that time to the Communist Party.48 With their attempt to incorporate
the movement within the English tradition of art and poetry, the contributions
of Herbert Read and Sykes-Davies, he felt, were a travesty of what the movement
was really about. Falling back on their favourite theses a lecture on Coleridge,
and Mr Reads defence of Romanticism they misconstrued the contemporary
essence of surrealism: to settle Surrealism down as Romanticism is to cling
to the apparition with its special haunt. It is to look for ghosts only on the
battlements, and on the battlements only for ghosts.49 This incorporation into

Raine, K. (1991). Autobiographies, Skoob Books. p. 170. The painting referred to is

Au Seuil de la Liberte (Threshold of Freedom) bought at the London Surrealist Exhibition
for 90. Not an inconsiderable sum of money.
Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism, in Jackson, K., ed., The Humphrey Jennings Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 21921. Jennings italics.
Durozoi, G. (2002). History of the Surrealist Movement, The University of Chicago
Press. Ch. 3.
Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism, in Jackson, K., ed., The Humphrey Jennings Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 21921. p. 220.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


an established tradition raises grave doubts about the use of Surrealism in this
We all agree with Mr Read that the eternally fabricated eternal truths of classicism
constantly appear as the symbols and tools of a classical-military-capitalistecclesiastical racket Is it possible that in place of a classical-military-capitalistecclesiastical racket there has come into being a romantic-culturalsoi-disant
cooperative-new uplift racket ready and delighted to use the universal truths of
romanticism coeval with the evolving consciousness of mankind as symbols
and tools for its own ends?

Once again, the established order could this time marginalise and plunder
surrealism for its own ends: Our advanced poster designers and emancipated
businessmen what a gift Surrealism is to them when it is presented in the auras
of necessity, culture and truth with which Read and Sykes Davies invest it.
Rather as Hulme had shown and the French surrealists demanded the true artist
struggles free from existing ideas to rely on the non-selective power of sensations
to reveal the contemporary condition. The path to follow had been provided by
Breton and his associates:
Imagination says Eluard lacks the imitative instinct Creation is not the representation of the truth So it is that the enduring statements of Picasso,
early Chirico, Duchamp, Klee, Magritte, and of certain Dalis, are due to their
unquestioning acceptance of all the conditions of the moment: forgetting all
beliefs preceding the picture, which would deny the promise of the unknown.51

In May, prior to the London exhibition, Breton had organised a major exhibition
in Paris Exhibition of Surrealist Objects to illustrate the latent energy
and power contained within natural objects and human artifacts. Included
in a special issue of Cahiers dArt was his article Crisis of the Object, which
reinforced Jennings existing conception of aesthetics. In it, he argued that
human expression had, in the pre-modern era, found its precise representation,
that is a point of fixation between the material, the imaginative and spiritual, in
the Gothic castle and its accessories. However, since the emergence of modern
forms of rationalism, the scientific and artistic object had been stripped of this
mythical nexus by the dominant will to objectify. It was now necessary, he
believed, to uncover and liberate that overlooked latent energy and power and

Jennings italics.
Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism, in Jackson, K., ed., The Humphrey Jennings Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 21921. Jennings italics.

The Artist as Agent: 192936


thereby regain the poetic sense.52 Artists today must identify the most recent
forms(s) of physical manifestation. Breton was confirming what Jennings had
argued since his postgraduate days at Cambridge. He praised this assessment,
asserting: it becomes essential to discover what would be the equivalent for our
own period [my italics H.J.]. He continues to say surrealism has replaced the
coincidence for the apparition and we must allow ourselves to be guided
towards the unknown by this newest promise. Now that is talking.53
In early April 1937, at a meeting of the Surrealist Group, Jennings and
Roughton suggested that it should disband itself. They promptly resigned.54 This
may explain why Jennings name did not appear on the broadsheet We Ask Your
Attention, issued by the group at the AprilMay AIA Exhibition:
The text is a landmark in the evolution of the attitude of the group not only
does it criticize the governments non-intervention policy, but it also explains why
the pacifists approach is ostrich-like and why it becomes effectively the ally of
fascism. It concludes on the urgent need for radical action based on unity and
increased activity within the various organisations and the parties of the United
Front. The last call is Intervene as poets, artists and intellectuals by violent or
subtle subversion and by stimulating desire.55

It appears that his resignation was withdrawn or tactfully forgotten on all

sides56 and he continued to publicly defend surrealism. But more immediately,
his attention was drawn to the political potential of a more democratic form of
poetic exercise, that would help instigate the formation of the Mass Observation
movement. It would be a year before he would again become directly involved
in promoting modern art; this time in collaboration with the more purposeful
and dynamic Belgian surrealist and art dealer, E.L.T. Mesens, at the London

Durozoi, G. (2002). History of the Surrealist Movement, The University of Chicago

Press. p. 229.
Jennings, H. (1936). Surrealism, in Jackson, K., ed., The Humphrey Jennings Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 21921. Jennings italics.
David Gascoigne quoted in Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 191.
Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate. pp. 11011. The broadsheet
was signed by Eileen Agar, Hugh Sykes Davies, Norman Dawson, Merlyn Evans, David
Gascoygne, Erno Goldfinger, G. Graham, Charles Howard, Joyce Hume, Rupert Lee, Henry
Moore, Paul Nash, Roland Penrose, Herbert Read and Julian Trevelyan.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings. Picador. p. 191.

This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 3

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345

In October 1929, as Jennings embarked on his postgraduate studies, against
the wishes of their parents he married Cicely Cooper. In disapproval, Cicelys
father cut off her allowance, forcing them to live on his limited scholarship
funds. The beginning of his research coincided with a major international
banking crisis, which turned into a severe world economic recession. Mass
unemployment rose and university graduates found it increasingly difficult
to find paid employment. Fortunately, Jennings financial position improved
in early 1932, when he received a small legacy that left him relatively free
to continue both his research and artistic preoccupations. Eventually, with
the legacy nearly gone, he was impelled to take part-time work which
included a brief excursion into teaching, but mainly painting scenery at
the Cambridge Theatre. By late 1933, the couple were forced to move into
cheaper accommodation; a decline in living standards which coincided with
the arrival of their first child. At this point, they faced a serious financial
crisis and Cicely, who felt isolated in Cambridge surrounded by Humphreys
academic friends, with whom she had little in common, decided to return to
her parents retirement home in Duns Tew, Oxfordshire.
Jennings desire to build a career as a painter was unrealistic. By this
time, the market for modern art in Britain had virtually collapsed, with even
well known British artists struggling to find commissions or sell paintings.
With no immediate prospects of paid work and the theatre likely to close,
Cambridge connections came to his rescue. Aware of the couples predicament,
Gerald Noxon, then working for a London advertising agency, offered him
the chance to earn some money producing a short studio based advertising

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Chs 2 and 3. Raine, K. (1991).

Autobiographies, Skoob Books.

Stephenson, A. (1991). Strategies of Situation: British Modernism and the Slump
c.19291934. The Oxford Art Journal 14(2): 3051. Jacob Bronowski remembered that
both Jennings and Trevelyan had remonstrated indignantly with him when he bought
a large reproduction of a Matisse Jennings furiously insisted that he should stay away
from reproductions and support contemporary artists instead by buying original paintings.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 1001.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


film for the Socony-Vacum [later Mobil] Oil Company to be shown at the
1934 Olympia Motor Show:
They were launching a new motor oil with a huge press campaign. It was largely
based on the threat to the life of a car engine caused by the breakdown of
ordinary motor oils and the consequent formation of a mythical substance
referred to constantly in the advertising as SLUM. Beware of SLUM in your
crankcase, ran the big slogan.

Noxon recalled that Jennings had no notion whatsoever of going into film
production in any capacity and although he had absolutely no practical
experience of film direction He accepted [the job] instantly and in no time
at all made friends with the [experienced and cooperative] cameraman. This
foray into film production (which according to Noxon turned out to be a
minor triumph) was fortuitous in that it allowed him to draw on his theatrical
and artistic skills. He wrote the script designed the set, and worked out the
lighting which allowed him to apply his understanding of the image: Slum,
he said, is not a real substance. It is an idea, and what is more it is essentially an
emotional idea. Therefore its nature must be demonstrated in a way which will
produce a direct emotional response from the audience. His answer was to create
a concoction so horrible in its glue-like consistency, so deadly and menacing in
its vague lumpiness, so acutely threatening with its hints and glints of iron filings
and ground glass. His academic research now abandoned, between late 1933
and mid 1934 Jennings lived with his parents who had moved to Holland Park,
West London, where they had opened a shop selling imported craft products.
While he carried out the SLUM project, he helped in the shop and took the
opportunity to draw and paint, visit exhibitions and contact his old Cambridge
friends including Stuart Legg, Basil Wright and Arthur Elton who were now
working with John Grierson at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) making
silent documentary films to promote trade between Britain and the Empire.

Noxon, G. (19612). How Humphrey Jennings Came to Film. Film Quarterly

(Winter): 1926. pp. 223.

Ibid. pp. 223.

Ibid. p. 26.

Ibid. pp. 223.

Ibid. pp. 223.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


The GPO Film Unit

While Jennings was in London the EMB was dismantled and the film unit and
library transferred to the General Post Office (GPO). In this time of economic
stringency The unit, Wright remembers, had neither the finances nor
inclination to employ persons already conservatively established, so Grierson
engaged enthusiastic novices willing to work for wages lower than those in the
commercial sector. He encouraged a working environment, which helped to
create a strong sense of collective identity and purpose. Harry Watt recalled that
at the EMB it was almost impossible to remember who worked on what in the
very early days. We all mucked in on each others films on all sorts of jobs, and
the credits were arbitrarily decided by Grierson.10 As the Unit expanded this
collaborative approach was supplemented by after work discussions and Friday
night screenings, to review productions and other films Grierson felt were of
As things grew we became more and more a tightly knit ideological organisation,
or an ideological group if you like (left-wing of course); all of us in a way thought
the same The population of documentary was increasing at a tremendous speed,
but we always kept very close together. We always met in the evenings at some pub
or another in Soho. We were so agreed under Griersons leadership as to the line
of policy the basic, fundamental approach to the development of documentary
that we very seldom had to stop to ask anybody else. We made the decision
according to the policy which we were following.11

For Grierson, the documentary film had both a civilising and prophetic role.12
He, like Paul Rotha, believed that it was primarily a form of propaganda:
a weapon that can model the minds of the multitudes promoting social
The EMB was dissolved on 30 September 1933. See Aitken, I. (1990). Film and
Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement, Routledge. Chs 4 and 5.

Wright, Basil in A Tribute to Humphrey Jennings and the Crown Film Unit. British
Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Watt quoted in Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life
of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 33.
Basil Wright in Orbanz, E. (1977). Journey to the Legend and Back: The British
Realistic Film, Volker Spiess. pp. 1312.
For a discussion of Griersons politics and documentary idea see Aitken, I. (1990).
Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement, Routledge, and
Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh
University Press.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


awareness, education, reformism and citizenship, which required a form of

cinematic language which was clear in exposition, illustration and explanation.13
The films would not only illustrate the role of the Post Office, but reflect
broader contemporary life with its mix of the traditional and the new, including
traditional and modern work processes and the impact of technological change
and government policy on the character of society. In fact the GPO was itself an
expression of this condition. It combined the heritage of the postal service with
advanced technologies of communication, which helped to integrate the regions
of the nation and the nation with the wider world. By applying an apparently
objective or sober style of cinematic journalism, the camera would act like a
window on the world and through the creative interpretation of actuality the
documentary film would provide a source of imaginative release and everyday
inspiration, which would engage and resolve the dreams and ambitions of
the public.14 Politics and aesthetics therefore were closely aligned and became
expressed in a distinctive form of cinematic representation Nichols refers to
as the classic mode of documentary.15 It is a film style which intrinsically
articulates notions of economic pluralism, of consensus and reform, meritocracy
and social responsibility; in other words the principles of social democracy in
action.16 It was to be a reassuring representation of the common man, not in the
romance of his calling, but in the more intimate drama of citizenship17 which in
part drew its verisimilitude out of the economic necessities of production:
It costs five pounds, I believe, to have a professional commentator, but we never
thought of spending so much on so little. We do the job ourselves if we want a
commentary, and save both the five pounds and the quite unendurable detachment
of the professional accent. Better still, if we are showing workmen at work, we get
the workmen on the job to do their own commentary, with idiom and accent
complete. It makes for intimacy and authenticity, and nothing we could do would
be half so good. You will see the result in both Cable Ship and Under the City.18
Aitken, I. (1992). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film
Movement, Routledge. pp. 16872. See also pp. 347, p. 57 and p. 62.
Swann, P. (1989). The British Documentary Film Movement 19261946, Cambridge
University Press. p. 8.
Nicholls, B. (1991). Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary,
Indiana University Press. p. 23.
Aitken, I. (1992). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film
Movement, Routledge. pp. 624.
Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh
University Press. p. 159.
Grierson, J. (1934). The G.P.O. Gets Sound. Cinema Quarterly 2(4): 216.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


That intimacy and authenticity found expression through two archetypes: the
people as heroes of labour or as victims of circumstance these archetypes
[suggest Dai Vaughan] constitute what might be called the major and minor
keys of classical British Documentary.19 Griersons beliefs are clearly represented
in the short docu-drama A Job in a Million (1937), directed by Evelyn Spice,
which depicted the progress of a working class boy to the position of Post Office
telegram messenger. Here the Post Office is represented as a vital, enabling
institution which provides training, health welfare, self and social esteem
and worthy employment.20 Rather than a representative of his class, the boy is
regarded as an individual who through personal commitment, will and effort
successfully achieves his goal. In working hard and avoiding the potential pitfall
of being led astray by a less committed postal boy (and by extension the misery
and alienation of unemployment), he is transformed from a potential victim
(defined as personal failure rather than the consequences of structural shifts in
the capitalist economic cycle) into a dignified human being, with an assigned
but valued role within in a state organisation which supported the wider
The Arrival of Cavalcanti and Jennings
The transfer of the Unit from the EMB to the GPO brought the benefits of a
larger budget, a new head office, complete with a small viewing theatre located
in Soho Square, central London and sound recording facilities in Blackheath,
south-east London. As it expanded Grierson could not rely on his day-to-day
control of production. Time was now spent promoting the value of the nonfiction film through articles in specialist film magazines, in part to justify and
safeguard his growing enterprise.21 He was involved in administrative battles
with the Treasury and had to fend off the claims of private film companies
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. pp. 412.
Spice, E. (1937). Job in a Million. United Kingdom, General Post Office. We Live
in Two Worlds The GPO Film Unit Collection vol. 2 British Film Institute.
This included the founding of Cinema Quarterly (1932). In the autumn of 1933
he became involved with the creation of an Independent Film-makers Association whose
aim was to co-ordinate the efforts of those who are seriously engaged in the production of
experimental, documentary and educational films. Anon. (1933). Experimental Production.
Cinema Quarterly 2(1): 3. With the demise of Cinema Quarterly in 1936 he initiated and
edited World Film News (19369) which became the mouthpiece of the broader documentary
film movement. In conjunction with the left-leaning Group Theatre a Film School was
advertised in November 1936 to offer classes, lectures and screenings on all aspects of cinema


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

about unfair competition, as well as the suspicions of right-wing Conservative

politicians, over the legitimacy and value of the Unit. Particularly, the acquisition
of sound equipment outstripped Griersons technical knowledge as a film maker.
He now required someone to teach his protgs the necessary skills to bring
the documentary film into the sound era and for this role he turned to Alberto
[Cavalcanti] had gone to France [from Brazil] in the early twenties to study
architecture. Whilst in Paris he became involved with a group of French avantgarde film makers, including Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, and Jean Vigo, and made
two experimental films: Rien que les heures (19267) and En rade (1927), both of
which achieved critical acclaim Grierson was familiar with Cavalcantis work
because both these films had been screened at the London Film Society, and he
immediately offered him a temporary contract.22

For Cavalcanti, this was an opportunity to explore the relationship between

image and sound; something he was unable to do in the commercial sector
of the French film industry.23 Under his tutelage the Unit entered a phase of
increased production and a small amount of the budget was allocated for
experimental projects in the use of sound. Young recruits, such as cameramen
Fred Gamage, Chick Fowle and Jonah Jones, the sound recordist Ken Cameron
and editor Stewart McAllister were all beneficiaries of Cavalcantis expertise
and would later emerge as key technicians during the later 1930s and wartime
documentary period. Later Ian Dalrymple explained how Fowle experimented
with film exposure times and filters to capture prevailing light tone mood
of nature, or dramatic atmosphere of the scene portrayed; Cameron was to
make an imaginative rather than the strictly literal use of the soundtrack to
obtain not perfect sound, in the studio sense, but perfect realistic sound, while
McAllister mastered editing the fundamental art of picture making.24 Over the
coming years artists and composers, including Walter Leigh, Benjamin Britten
and Jack Ellit, the poet W.H. Auden, Len Lye, William Coldstream, Norman

production. World Film News was eventually superceded by Documentary Newsletter that
also promoted Griersons beliefs.
Aitken, I. (1990). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film
Movement, Routledge. pp. 1278.
Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. p. 49.
Dalrymple, I. (1941). London Calling (Overseas Journal of the BBC) (109). p. 7 in
the Humphrey Jennings Collection File 20. British Film Institute Archive.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


McLaren and Lotte Reiniger were hired for particular film projects, raised the
experimental profile and artistic prestige of the Unit.
Who was responsible for helping Jennings gain a position within the Unit, is
not so clear. His artistic and theatrical background had recently been put to use
by Noxon and old university friends like Stuart Legg, who knew his predicament
encouraged him to apply. Further support may have come from Cavalcanti
himself. According to Hutt, Jennings was the first like-minded person here with
whom [Cavalcanti] was able to converse freely and elaborately in French.25 They
had shared interests in architecture, art direction and scenic design, the Parisian
avant-garde and a range of artistic considerations, such as the poetic potential
of art to comment on the human condition. In June or July 1934 there came a
speedy invitation to join the Unit, nominally to train as a director, at what the
impoverished Jennings thought the generous salary of 4 a week.26
Unlike existing members of the unit, such as Basil Wright, John Taylor and
Jack Holmes, artists such as Jennings were not necessarily committed to either the
social vision of the documentary or the ideological camaraderie. But Cavalcanti
was different. Although a key member of the Unit he was not sympathetic to
Griersons views about the nature and role of the documentary film.27 He was
unconvinced by the argument that the documentary film was a distinctive form
of cinema, which differed in style and purpose from the commercial feature
film. Like Jennings, he understood social reality to be as much a creation of the
human imagination, as some external reality waiting to be discovered. Reality
was open to playful forms of interpretation and representation:
I thought films are the same, either fictional or otherwise, and I thought that
films ought to go into cinemas. Grierson little by little, started creating the theory
that they should be put in a different, what he called non-theatrical circuit, and I
thought that it was silly calling those films documentary. I said, if films are good,
they should be shown anywhere. There is no reason why they should be destined
only for the parsons and for the church halls, etc.28

Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.
Ibid. See also Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. Ch. 4, pp. 1447.
In fact, I hate the word documentary. I think it smells of dust and boredom. I
think realist films [is better] the first films I did, Rien que les heurs, En Rade, although
they had plots, were actually reconstructed documentaries. Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and
Fall of British Documentary, University of California Press. pp. 512.
Cavalcanti, A. (1975). Cavalcanti in England, in Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The
Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh University Press. pp. 18990.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Experiments at the Unit: 19345

On arrival, Jennings was pleased to find a working environment, which
while teaching a new entrant like himself the process of film production, also
encouraged individual experimentation and collective participation:
I have had such a day: learning to cut film, reading Scripts watching projections
in the theatre [one of the first films viewed was Evelyn Spices Spring on the Farm],
visiting the new GPO Studios at Blackheath (very nice) watching cameramen at
work at the Wimpole St Sorting Office (a film about lost letters [possibly 6:30

As the number of employees increased, the collaborative approach at Blackheath

was maintained through a system of teams which, under Cavalcantis guidance,
retained their own profile, with a spirit of healthy competition.30 Cavalcanti was
quick to appreciate the artistic and creative sensibilities of both Jennings and
Len Lye:
The two important boys Those were my favourite boys Its funny that they
both should have been painters to start with. I have seen very few of Jenningss
paintings, but I know that as soon as he touched films, he had a very acute sense.
Len Lye was not exactly the same character, but he was very inspiring, a very
adventurous kind of mind.31

At first, Cavalcanti began by applying sound to earlier silent productions but

through a number of experimental projects The Glorious 6th of June: New Rates
(1934), Pett and Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs (1934), Coalface (1935) and,
by the time Jennings had left, Night Mail (1936) he started to investigate the
relationships between sound and image, by exploring the three most important
factors in the use of sound: sound perspective, the selection of dominant sounds,
and the study of punctuation In certain instances it will be possible to put at
their side a fourth element, counterpoint.32
Letter to Cicely reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. pp. 34.
Cavalcanti, A. (1952). The British Contribution, in Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The
Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh University Press. p. 212.
Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. pp. 53 and 110.
Monegal, E.R. (1955). Alberto Cavalcanti. The Quarterly of Film Radio and
Television 9(4): 348.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


Soon Jennings wrote that they are taking me seriously enough and are
treating me as a director at once,33 which is probably a reference to the use of
his theatrical skills in The Glorious 6th of June: New Rates (1934) and Pett and
Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs (1934). These films also reflect a shift from
the traditional regional themes and occupations found in films such as Drifters
(Grierson 1929) and Oer Hill and Dale (Wright 1932), which were made at the
After 1933 a change of emphasis is identifiable as a rhetoric of modernity
encompassing representations of modern industry, technology and mass
communications began to challenge the preoccupation with rural and regional
experience in the early films. A similar shift of focus can be identified in relation
to the types of workers depicted in these later films between 1929 and 1934 the
focus gradually switches from manual to semi-skilled and skilled labour, and from
lower-class to lower middle-class workers.34

More importantly, they differ fundamentally from the Grierson documentary

ideal by commenting on the character and nature of the modern world
through fictional narratives, characterisation, contrived humour and technical
playfulness. Ostensibly The Glorious 6th of June advertises new telegraph rates
and Pett and Pott, the value of the GPO telephone service, but their message
is buried within a satirical critique of the aspirant and new middling classes,
which were dependent on the developing commercial and service industries
which exemplified the social character of the modern world. The characters in
both films become the satirical butt of the narrative.35 Whereas Job in a Million
would depict the trials and tribulations of an aspiring working class boy, The
Glorious 6th of June: New Rates offers:
A highly whimsical and parodic story-line which basically debunks the
institutions of the Post Office Similar to one of Cavalcants last French films,
the burlesque Tour de chant (1933) (Tour of Song, 1933) The Glorious 6th of

Letter reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. p. 3.
Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh
University Press. p. 12.
Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. Ch. 4, pp. 7087. Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An
Anthology, Edinburgh University Press. pp. 1316.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


June: New Rates employs overstated acting, parodic editing and conventions
derived from music-hall or boulevard farce.36

Jennings plays the role of the appositely named Albert Goodbody, a dedicated
and intrepid special GPO messenger attempting to outwit the machinations of
an evil gang, determined to stop him delivering a declaration of new charges to
Parliament. His character suffers a series of indignities at the hands of a group
of caricatured nineteenth-century music hall villains, complete with dark suits,
top hats (one with a cloak), false moustaches and beards. He is kidnapped, tied
to a tree and finally blown up. Blackened and dishevelled, he crashes through a
window into the Houses of Parliament to deliver his vital telegram. Pett and
Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs turns its attention to the lives of the new middle
classes. This was Cavalcantis first major sound lesson and Wright remembers
Cavalcanti saying Lets record all the sound first and then put the picture on
afterwards, a process which reversed what one would expect when creating a
documentary.37 Jennings was given a brief acting role as a grocer, but it was his
knowledge of scenic design which was put to good use. Wright recalls him being
fascinated by the short cuts, simplifications and economies that were used in the
studio.38 At the time he wrote: I am working immediately under Stuarts eye
[Stuart Legg] and to some extent with Cavalcanti which all seems promising,
& certainly it is very exhilarating stuff .39
This ironic fairy story uses the owning of a telephone as a device to contrast
two couples; the Petts (the good citizens) who purchase one for increased
security and domestic use and the Potts (the evil citizens), who hire a maid
instead who, as it turns out, is not only poor at her job, but criminally inclined.
Although they live in adjoining houses on a new expanding suburban housing
development, (described as Paradise Building Plots You Have Never Lived
Until You Have Lived Here!) there is minimal contact between them and they
have little in common. The epitome of respectable, cultured bourgeois family life
Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. pp. 7074.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than
a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 13. See also Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British
Documentary, University of California Press. p. 51.
A Tribute to Humphrey Jennings and the Crown Film Unit. British Academy of Film
and Television Arts. So here was Humphrey, with his considerable stage experience turned
on to doing sets. As we were a tiny studio he was very constricted, so he started to use false
perspective in a very ingenious manner. Wright quoted in Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky,
Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 13.
Letter reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 34.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


is represented by Mr Pett, a family solicitor, with wife and growing family of four.
They hold Christian values of fidelity, responsibility, hard work and prudence,
expressed in the name of their marital home Peacehaven. Next door in Kismet
(meaning fate or destiny) live the childless Potts. As a debt collector, Mr Pott
gains his rewards from the unfortunate circumstances of others. Their lives
(particularly Mrs Potts) are based on immediate gratification, self-indulgence,
social snobbery and hedonism, which eventually lead to disastrous results.
Cavalcantis technique was to accentuate a plot line which poked fun not only
at the supposed conformity and respectability of suburban middle-class life, but
also at the law, while simultaneously referring to the commercialism of modern
culture (romantic novels and sensational newspaper headlines) and hypocritical
moral standards. Further humour is created through the combination of jovial
music and sound effects:
The music was written to create the mood of the theme. The sound strip invaded
the silent strip and turned a womans cry into an engine whistle. Recitative was
used in the train scene instead of the usual sound of the wheels on the rail Other
effects included the joining of a drum and fife band with a domestic quarrel, and
the film showed the dramatic point that can be achieved by cutting from one
sound sequence to another.40

Coalface (1935) reverts to the more traditional documentary subject, the

importance of the coal industry and the consequences of the hazardous
occupation of the coalminer. Like the previous films it undermines the ideological
purpose of the documentary by detracting from the desired naturalism and
illusion of reality desired by Grierson.41 It celebrates the miners as heroic
individuals and as the class which sustains the industrial life of the country. This
is achieved through the innovative technique of combining commentary with
poetry (O Lurcher Loving Collier by W.H. Auden, choral singing and music
composed by Benjamin Britten). If Jennings did contribute to the film, a shot
depicting a small deformed tree, bent but resisting the power of a fierce wind
on a blasted moor, could be his. The image of a tree or trees would become a
recurrent image in many of Jennings later films. In this case, it could be taken as a
symbol which encapsulates the life of the miners with their bitter history of past
and contemporary struggle within the industry. It was Coalface, which formed
the experimental basis for the much celebrated Night Mail (1936). It is in the
Monegal, E.R. (1955). Alberto Cavalcanti. The Quarterly of Film Radio and
Television 9(4): 347.
Aitken, I. (1990). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film
Movement, Routledge. pp. 62, 71 and 116.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


romantic second passage of the film, with its sophisticated interplay of sound,
image and spoken poetry, that Griersons notions are again challenged.
It was not long before a lively debate developed between the supporters
of Grierson and those like Jennings inclined towards the approach of
Cavalcanti. Pett and Pott drew negative responses from Wright, Legg and
Taylor. For them, the film was the beginning of the division because he
[Cavalcanti] didnt understand what documentary was supposed to be doing
documentary was supposed to be for the service of the people. It wasnt
supposed to be in the entertainment industry.42 Grierson praised the film
as an historic technical and artistic exercise, but according to Taylor he
apparently attempted to ensure that nobody ever saw it.43 For Grierson,
this excessive experimentation could be a sign of indulgent artistic and/or
political romanticism, a disease of individual dreams and chaotic longings
because first and foremost it is a disease of the body politic.44 This perhaps
lies beneath his comparison of Housing Problems (1935), which fulfils his
requirements and Night Mail: Housing Problems is not so well made [as Night
Mail] nor so brilliant in technical excitements, but something speaks within
it that touches the conscience. These other films uplift. Housing Problems
transforms and will not let you forget.45
On the arrival of the painter William Coldstream, who took over scenic
design, Jennings began to hone his technical skills through the process of
editing existing film stock and studio based shots. He made three historically
based information films, which, in terms of their content, reflect his interest
in the processes of historical change in the nature and tempo of modern life.
Post Haste (1934) is based on quotations and documents from the British
and Postal museums. It illustrates 300 years of technological innovation in
the postal service from the first post boy of the seventeenth, to the express
train and air mail of the twentieth century. Then with money gifted to the
Unit, he made The Story of the Wheel (1935) and Locomotives (1935). These
form a two-part film, which uses a series of stills, filmed shots of pictures,
models and diagrams from the British and Science Museums and extant

Wright regarded it as a grotesque comedy [which had] nothing to do with

documentary while Legg remarked that the old sort of reactionaries among us thought,
Good God what are we coming to this light-hearted rubbish!. Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise
and Fall of British Documentary, University of California Press. p. 51.
Ibid. p. 51.
Aitken, I. (1990). Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film
Movement, Routledge. p. 71.
Aitken, I., ed. (1998). The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh
University Press. p. 159.

The Early GPO Film Unit: 19345


film footage, to tell the story of the evolution of communications from prehistoric times to the present day. Chapter 1, The Story of the Wheel, considers
the period between the Stone Age and the seventeenth century. Locomotives
picks up the story with the arrival of the industrial revolution and charts the
development of the steam engine from its primitive beginnings, through to
the high-speed locomotives of the 1930s and concludes with the shots of the
Cornish Express which picks up GPO mail bags at high speed from the side
of the line.46
During this first sustained period of employment at the GPO between mid
1934 and late 1935, Jennings was involved with two very different approaches
to the documentary film. With their differing assumptions and approaches,
Cavalcanti and Grierson provide significantly different critiques of the modern
world, which reflect the tensions inherent in managing change. On the one
hand, Grierson provides a vision of a country that, through technology and
the value of work, is both geographically and socially drawn closer together,
for the general good. On the other hand Cavalcantis vision shows that, beneath
the progress, we can detect a country which has underlying economic and social
divisions in part created by these very changes. Jennings sympathies lay with
the approach of Cavalcanti and even though his work with the Unit would now
cease until 1938, his concerns about the consequences of modern life would
find alternative expression with his involvement in the use of colour film in the
advertising industry.


National Archive Post Haste INF 6/298, Story of the Wheel INF 6/1009,
Locomotives INF 6/1003. Locomotives gives Jennings his first accreditation as director.
The shots of the pouch collection of mail was probably made before a similar sequence
in Night Mail (GPO Film Catalogue 1985). See Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings,
Picador. pp. 15053 and Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University
Press. pp. 1719.

This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 4

Colour Film: 19358

When opportunities arose, Grierson encouraged his staff to take up work
outside the Unit to gain further experience. Jennings could not rely on gaining
a permanent post and it seems doubtful whether he would have accepted
one, if offered. By 1934 the economy was showing signs of a recovery,
which registered in the gradual rise in the standard of living of those in
work. Particularly in the midlands and south-east, rising consumer affluence
triggered a growth in the public relations departments of large organisations.
Corporate companies in the motor vehicle industry (Ford), oil (Shell-Mex),
air transport (Imperial Airways) and shipping (the Orient Shipping Line),
Government departments such as the Ministry of Labour and public utility
companies, like the Gas Industry for example, began to sponsor their own
film units or engage film companies to document their work and/or advertise
their goods and services. Griersons recruits began to leave to form new
production companies. Edgar Anstey established the Shell Film Unit (1934),
Donald Taylor, Paul Rotha and Stuart Legg set up The Strand Film Company
Ltd (1935) and, with Griersons help, Associated Realist Film Producers was
formed to provide guidance and advice in making documentary and publicity
films. Meanwhile, Jennings was engaged to write a shooting script for J. Arthur
Rank about North Sea fishermen based on the novel by Leo Walmsley, Three
Fevers, but the project came to nothing. However, he did gain employment
in a highly experimental area of film production, where his artistic sense was
regarded as of considerable value.
At this time, the cost and use of colour film was both expensive and fraught
with technical difficulties, which made it extremely difficult to achieve
balanced and consistent colour tones. Consequently its use was limited
mainly to animated cartoons, newsreels, documentaries and educational

According to Cavalcanti Jennings was thinking of himself . Cavalcanti, A. (1972).

Interview. Screen 13(2): 43. Charles Dand felt that he was only flirting with films. Dand,
C. (1955). Britains Screen Poet. Films in Review 6(2): 738. Gerald Noxon also doubted
whether Jennings would have taken a full-time post and believed he would have returned to
painting if he had an independent income. Noxon, G. (19612). How Humphrey Jennings
Came to Film. Film Quarterly (Winter): 1926. pp. 223.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

films, or as experimental sections in feature films. In May 1935, the general

profile of colour film as an innovative film format gained considerable attention
in the national press and in artistic and film trade journals, when it was
announced that the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary and subsequent
public events would be filmed in the most advanced Dufaycolor film stock by
British Movietone News. This was followed, in July, by the premiere in London
(and general release in October) of the first full length Hollywood feature film,
Becky Sharp, shot in Technicolors new three-colour system. In early September,
Len Lyes novel Dufaycolor inspired Colour Box, promoted comment about its
cameraless technique and abstract style. At the end of October it gained the
Medal of Honour for best fantasy film at the International Cinema Festival
in Brussels. At about the same time as Colour Box was awarded its prize, Lyes
next film Kaleidascope, made to promote Churchmans cigarettes (again in
Dufaycolour), premiered at the London Film Society and opened a week later
in the West End at the Curzon Cinema. Like A Colour Box: the film was both a
public relations coup and a critical success with special praise being lavished by
reviewers on its use of colour. It was subsequently shown in the Granada chain
of cinemas. Another coup for Dufaycolor came in December, with the release of
the British Feature Radio Parade of 1935 which included two colour sequences.
Not until the 1950s would colour become an integral part of the feature film
industry. But in the mid 1930s, in a cinematic world of black and white, Lyes
Kaleidascope demonstrated that this arresting combination of colour and sound
could draw the attention of more enlightened individuals within the growing
public relations industry, to use colour film to advertise their products:
Cadbury, who spends something in the region of 20,000 a year in film
propaganda, has had considerable success with the Bournvita film Fun on the
Farm, another picture in Gaspacolor. This film is seen by something like
400,000 people in a year outside the ordinary cinema public for they organise
the showing of films in schools, institutes and at lectures. The Pink Guards on
Parade made by Euthymol Toothpaste and directed by [Oscar] Fischinger has
had equal success; while Horlicks may continue their policy of making cartoons
in colour.

Brown, S. (2002). Dufaycolor the Spectacle of Reality and British National
Cinema, Centre for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/

Horrocks, R. (2001). Len Lye, Auckland University Press. p. 143.

Big Audiences for Gasparcolor. World Film News October 1936, 1(7): 36.

Colour Film: 19358


The latter half of the decade was a period of rapid innovation and experimentation
in the development of increasingly reliable and versatile colour stock. Three
companies stood at the forefront, each offering a distinct three-colour film
format. Both Gaspacolor Ltd and Dufay-Chromex Ltd (Dufaycolour) were
initially based in Europe, while the third, Technicolor, came from the United
States. From the middle of 1935 until mid 1938, and his return to the GPO,
Jennings was to be employed by both Gaspacolor and Dufay-Chromex Ltd
(Dufaycolour). Up to the outbreak of the Second World War these rivals
competed to refine the technical and aesthetic qualities of their products in
their attempt to become significant players in the future colour film market.
The goal was to achieve a versatile and reliable colour film stock, which would
provide a textured palate of colours on the screen at a similar cost to black and
white film.
Fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, the originator of the Gaspacolor
process, Bela Gaspar, set up a London based agency in 1934 and hired Major
Adrian Bernard Klein as Technical Director. He was responsible for producing
a range of animated shorts, as well as the live action film Colour on the Thames
(1936). In October 1936, World Film News noted the company was making
considerable commercial headway gaining commissions to make short
advertising films:
Up-to-date Gaspacolor has been used exclusively for trick films. The average cost
of a picture such as The Red Fox Fantasy, directed for Gaspacolor by Paul Banchini
as an advertisement for Craven A Cigarettes is 1,200 The Red Fox Fantasy was
shown at the Academy early in 1935 where it ran for seven weeks; probably the
longest run ever accorded to an advertisement film. Between February and May
1935, the film was also shown in four hundred of the leading cinemas throughout
the country and was seen by an audience of over 4,000,000. But it was the Phillips
Radio picture, The Ship of Ether, which brought Gaspacolour to the notice of
British advertising departments.

Gaspars departure from Germany and Kleins change of name to Cornwell

Clyne, to emphasise his English nationality, along with Gaspars policy of hiring
artists and animators such as Banchini and Fischinger, were symptomatic of the
growing number of artists fleeing fascism to find refuge and work in Britain.
Knowledgeable about European art history and with an interest in the aesthetic
combination of sound and colour, Klein became a central figure in the debate

Horrocks, R. (2001). Len Lye, Auckland University Press. p. 146.

Big Audiences for Gasparcolor. World Film News October 1936, 1(7): 36.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


over the potential of colour film, by publishing two key texts at the end of
1936: Colour Cinematography and Coloured Light. If the technical and aesthetic
potential of colour was to be fully realised, he asserted, the industry must hire
artists. In particular painters are the most satisfactory people of all to whom
to show a colour film. They are always appreciative and never critical of the
illusion of failure but, he lamented, it is a great pity that so few men or women
of developed taste and artistic culture are engaged upon the design of films.
Jennings joined the company as a colour consultant and would later follow
Klein to the rival company, Dufay-Chromex, in mid 1937.
Experiment at Gaspacolor
Although the film colourist is free to compose mentally the major problem
facing the industry, Klein asserted, was to find those directors, cameramen and
technicians who could realise that potential: the powers of the mind demanded
are of a higher order in so far as colour composition [adding] another
dimension to the geometry of imaginative conception. If widely adopted,
colour film, Klein believed, had the potential to reshape the production
and aesthetics of cinema, but so far the opportunities had been squandered.
Most directors, cinematographers and other technicians had little, if any,
understanding of the colour medium. This lack of qualified personnel to use
colour appropriately combined with the use of colour film stock which could
not reproduce consistent natural colour tones, and the commercial pressures
to use colour to create the next major box-office draw, had created a situation
where there was little restraint in its use in the entertainment industry. In mid
September, the debate over the artistic value of colour appeared in the pages
of The Times. An anonymous article, The Colour Film: Potential Virtues and
Defects, registered opposition to the use of colour film on theoretical grounds
and outlined the contours of a vigorous discussion on notions of cinematic
realism, which would fuel further debate. The art of black and white cinema
had made it clear that it was not necessary to represent objects and events
realistically. Realistic representations of natural colour were not achievable
and, even if they were, the general audience would not be able to grasp the
intricacies of colour composition:10
Cornwell-Clyne, A. (1951). Colour Cinematography, Chapman and Hall. pp. xiixiii.
Cornwell-Clyne, A. (1951). Colour Cinematography, Chapman and Hall. p. viii.

Cornwell-Clyne, A. (1951). Colour Cinematography, Chapman and Hall. p. ix.
The Colour Film Potential Virtues and Defects. The Times 18 September 1935. p. 8.

Colour Film: 19358


In October 1935, the trade newspaper Todays Cinema discussed [the] article
which had appeared in the Times Rachel Low notes there were protests from
highbrows, to whom it seemed that the visual essence of film, the composition of
form in movement by the use of light in black and white images, was threatened
destroying the essence of film art.11

Jennings work quickly gained for him recognition as an authority on colour

film and, like Klein, he was able to contribute to a growing debate over the
implications of the technical practice and the aesthetic value of colour for the
broader film industry.12 In February 1936, in the pages of Cine-Technician,
Gaspacolor announced the arrival of its most flexible and versatile colour format,
as the London Film Society screened shots from the recent outdoor production
Colour on the Thames. Experimentation moved on in early 1936 when Jack
Beddington, the artistically inclined publicity officer at the Shell Film Unit (who
would later take charge of the wartime Crown Film Unit), and his producer
Charles Dand, approached Gaspacolor to make an animated advertisement for
the oil company. It appears that Jennings, who would be responsible for colour
direction and production supervision, recommended Lye for the animation on
the basis of his earlier puppet film Peanut Vendor. Lye, possibly knowing of Kleins
own experiments in colour music recommended Jack Ellit, who had provided
the musical soundtracks for Colour Box and Kaleidoscope, for musical direction
(here given the task of condensing Holsts The Planets for the soundtrack) and
John Banting, the surrealist painter, for art direction and puppet design. The
film was to be shot by the well-known Continental director-cameraman Alex
Strasser, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who had previously worked for the
prestigious German film company UFA.13
Brown, S. (2002). Dufaycolor the Spectacle of Reality and British National
Cinema, Centre for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/
In late 1935 Jennings was described as a painter and film director at present working
with the Gaspacolour Group. Life and Letters Today Winter Quarterly 13(2). Jackson notes
in his biography of Jennings (p. 158) that in January 1936 he was signing himself Production
Manager at the company. By mid 1936 he was referred to as connected with colour film
direction. Contemporary Poetry and Prose 1 June (1936) and by Oswell Blakeston as: one
of the ablest of the young cineastes. New Cinema No.1 (1936). By 1938 the MarchApril
edition of Cine-Technician described Jennings as Production Unit Director at DufayChromex. A position he may have held from the preceding October.
The film was apparently scripted by Charles Dand. Alan Farmer made the models.
World Film News May 1936, 1(2): 25. Horrocks, R. (2001). Len Lye, Auckland University
Press. p. 147.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The outcome was to be a seven-minute film, created by a team of contemporary

modern artists. Klein agreed to give the film special attention and promote it as
a showcase for the companys latest colour process. In the first edition of World
Film News (April 1936), Strassers article Must Colour Follow Nature, returned
to the debate found in the pages of Todays Cinema. He outlines the complex
problems that he, the team and the broader film industry, faced when attempting
to create realistic representations of colour on the screen. Among the major
concerns Jennings faced were technical questions about colour continuity and
colour truth, within and between shots. The application of colour filters to
camera lenses, in studios lit by coloured lights, ruled out the use of traditional
exposure meters and made it extremely difficult to achieve correct exposure times
when using colour film. This created a series of interrelated technical problems:
how to solve the colour relationships between even light and highlights, how to
create an appropriate balance of colour in and out of focus, as well as ensuring
that film stock sensitivity took into account the colour mixtures in objects and
lighting. Strasser felt that aesthetically these difficulties may lead to the creative
use of colour outside the obvious ideal of truth to nature.14 A month later, after
using the new film stock, he wrote: The colour film is on its way. Whether it will
supplant the black-and-white film completely, as the talkie superceded the silent
film, will depend on box-office reaction.15 This opinion was supported at least by
one pre-release review that had nothing but praise for the film:
The Birth of the Robot, produced by Humphrey Jennings and Len Lye for
Shell-Mex, will lead a new movement in colour production. This 600-foot film
represents the first serious British effort at colour animation. It is an unqualified
success. Its boldness of experiment and excellent animation will make it the meat
of every film society in the country. Its superb colour and high production polish
will recommend it to specialist exhibitors in spite of its publicity sponsorship.16

The Birth of the Robot (1936)

Ostensibly an advertisement to promote Shell oil and in particular the essential
property of oil lubrication, the film has been described by Ian Christie as
belonging to that distinctively English current of surrealism a tradition on
nonsense and mockery stemming from Lewis Carroll through to the Goon
Strasser, A. (1936). Must Colour Follow Nature. World Film News 1(5).
Anon. (1936). Birth of the Robot. World Film News 1(25).

Colour Film: 19358


show.17 It is an assessment however, which does not register that beneath the
quirky surface humour of the animated renditions and the brilliant colours, lies
an underlying critique of a life reliant on modern technology. The motor car
acts both as a symbol of technological advance, and also as a metaphor for the
attitude of man in the age of the machine. The film opens with a pre-modern
representation of the mythical understanding of human life. Myths not only
explain the intimate alignment and delicate balance between the natural order
and spiritual aspects of life but also contribute to the control of human behaviour.
In the past the idea of mechanics and the character of rudimentary mechanisms
could themselves act as metaphors to describe the harmony of existence and the
location of humanity within the universe.
The film begins with Father Time, who turns a carousel from which hang
representations of various planets given the human form of ancient gods such
as Mercury, Venus and Mars. Musical notes issue from a harp played by Venus.
As modern life supplants this universe of order, people lose connection with the
forces and rhythm of nature. A car is driven recklessly across a desert landscape
and wantonly up the side of an ancient pyramid. The ability, in the modern age,
to travel anywhere on the globe, even across the most inhospitable places on
earth, is matched by a disregard for the ancient world. Such hubris, however,
brings disaster. A sandstorm overwhelms and immobilises the car and the driver
dies. As the bones lie bleaching in the desert sun, the pre-modern intervenes
and the notes emanating from the harp of Venus become transformed into
drops of oil, bathing the skeleton and changing the bones into a robot. This
sleek representation of the corporate symbol of Shell epitomises the alienated
nature of modern man. It stands triumphantly astride the globe, continuing with
its dream of domination. The planet is rapidly encased by the paraphernalia of
motoring. Traffic lights and roads criss-cross and smother the world.
After a June screening in Londons West End the reviews confirmed to
Klein his belief that the emotional intensity of colour was capable of offering
cinema a new dimension of story telling and a permanent contribution to
imaginative life. Life and Letters wrote:
We get skies, so unlike Disneys coloured cardboards, alive with shadows and
suggestion. Everything lives in this film, there is nothing second-best and so it is
possible to be delighted that it can be shown that a film of this kind can be done in
this way; that the conventional is not the only way; and that imagination can, not
only hold its own, but beat non-imagination at its own game.18
Ian Christie quoted in Horrocks, R. and Bouhours, J.-M., eds (2000). Len Lye,
Centre Pompidou. p. 187.
Anon. (1936 Summer). Birth of the Robot. Life and Letters Today 14.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The New English Weekly agreed: The colours are almost prismatic in range, and
the shots over the car bonnet of the cavern of shifting varied colours gave an
illusion of sand storm for which Cecil B. DeMille would have spent millions. The
Advertiser Weekly proclaimed that Birth of a Robot was proof that the colour film
had entered a new stage.19
For supporters of colour film, the existing rules of film were being called into
question. The new Gaspacolor system had shown it was possible to reproduce any
shade of colour intensity and Herbert Kalmus, developer of the rival Technicolor
system, agreed that this development would have significant consequences for the
film director, set decoration and the use of make-up and lighting. Colour, Strasser
added, must become for the film producer, a medium with the same technical
perfection and practicability as black-and-white. The director must be in a position
to think and create in colour to realise his ideas to the fullest extent. It must aid
creation; it must not hamper it.20 Jennings now entered the public debate with
the short article Colour Wont Stand Dignity, which was published in the June
edition of World Film News and coincided with the release of the film. The release
of Becky Sharp was soon followed by the first outdoor colour film, Trail of the
Lonesome Pine. Regarded by American critics as a great development for Jennings,
it only highlighted the problems surrounding the ill-judged application of colour.
Avoiding the debate over the comparative artistic value of colour, compared to
black and white, he focused on appropriate artistic technique: The Trail of the
Lonesome Pine definitely establishes the following points, which are presented not
as highbrow speculation, but as part of an urgent problem of how to use colour.21
With its application, he states, anything faked faked sets or faked situations
shriek in colour where they could be got away with in black-and-white. To
achieve the desired effect one had to recognise that colour is hopelessly revealing.
It reveals not only the physical aspects and properties of objects, but becomes a
devastatingly accurate index of the mentality of the film-maker, and his approach
to his material in the smallest details.22 The problem, therefore, lay in the failure of
the film maker to appreciate the psychological appeal of colour as against black and
white. Black and white implicitly held a cerebral appeal. It lived on ideas. Colour,
Anon. (2 July 1936). Birth of the Robot. The English Weekly. Anon. (2 July 1936).
Birth of the Robot. Advertisers Weekly. Lye felt that the project was too restricted, describing
it to John Aldridge as his penance to someone elses version of the publicity angle Shell
wants. He was also dismayed that no two release prints had precisely the same colours.
Horrocks, R. (2001). Len Lye, Auckland University Press. pp. 1457.
Strasser, A. (1936). World Film News 1(2): 13.
Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. pp. 21819. Jennings italics.
Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in ibid. pp. 21819.

Colour Film: 19358


on the other hand, generates an emotional response as it is based on sensations.

Consequently, Colour and Ideas are fundamentally opposed.23 If inappropriately
applied, the sensual and emotional appeal of colour detracts from the realism of
the cinematic illusion: Colour has a horrible way of showing up the texture of
faces and sets, so that the studio tricks of special make-up, plaster sets and painted
artificial backgrounds are emphasised by colour systems.24
Far greater care has been taken in shooting Sylvia Sydney and Mac-murray than with
extras and log cabins. But thats just it; all that care shows little touches of blue
back lighting and dabs of powder look terrible, because you can feel the experts
putting them in there.25

Eventually, the major studios would have to reassess how they approached
cinematic realism and, in particular, the distinction between the fantastic and the
Jennings believes that the use of colour will compel producers more and more
to use natural locations and to break away from the studio conventions. I see no
reason why realistic feature pictures should not to a great extent be shot on location
with natural backgrounds. Hollywood is tending more and more to take semidocumentary themes as backgrounds for their stories. He instanced Wells Fargo,
Bengal Lancer, Florida Special. Colour Jennings went on, will divide very
sharply stories which are frankly hokum from stories that are supposed to bear some
relation to contemporary life. If it is to be hokum, let it be hokum and colour will
play its part. If intended to be realistic, colour can now produce a new realism that
is at the service of the story department.26

By the time Jennings voiced these opinions he and Klein had left Gaspacolour
to work for the rival company Dufay-Chromex whose colour system was far
more adaptable and suited to outdoor documentary and information films. In

Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in ibid. pp. 21819. Jennings italics.

Anon. (MarchApril 1938). Humphrey Jennings Declares for Special Colour
Stories. The Cine-Technician. p. 194.
Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. pp. 21819. Jennings italics.
Anon. (MarchApril 1938). Humphrey Jennings Declares for Special Colour
Stories. The Cine-Technician. p. 194.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


early July 1937, Klein was employed as Director of Colour Photography and,
by the end of the month, Todays Cinema announced that he would produce a
series of short films sponsored directly by the company, which would focus on
various aspects of English life; shipping, agriculture and industry generally.27 As
Production Unit Director at the company, Jennings, while experimenting with
the qualities of the new film stock, was also working on these projects. Freed
from the constraints of the studio, the versatility of the colour stock allowed the
team to experiment and shoot colour scenes in a variety of different conditions
and locations including from an aeroplane 5,000 feet up in small rooms on
location and exteriors in poor light.28 By early October, the company had reequipped recently acquired laboratories in Thames Dutton, near Hampton
Court, and work was practically complete on three short colour films:
One of these will be named English Harvest. The music is Beethovens Pastoral
Symphony. Another picture has been made of the last few top-sail schooners.
Advanced reports promise some superb colour photography. A third film is
promised in which an attempt is being made to break entirely new ground in
rhythm and colour. The films are being directed by Mr Humphrey Jennings whose
work in some recent colour films awakened considerable attention.29

At just under nine minutes in length, these short colour productions, Farewell
Topsails (1937) and English Harvest (1939), involved Jennings spending the
summer on location on the Cornish coast, the Thames Estuary and then the
countryside.30 The third seems to have been a studio based experimental abstract
colour film, possibly similar to the work of Len Lye, which appears to have been
abandoned because by the New Year he was directing a film about Norman
Hartwells spring fashion collection.31 The 20-minute Design for Spring (1938)
Brown, S. (2002). Dufaycolor the Spectacle of Reality and British National
Cinema, Centre for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/
Anon. (MarchApril 1938). Humphrey Jennings Declares for Special Colour
Stories. The Cine-Technician. p. 194.
Dufay Shorts Beethovens Pastoral Illustrated and Last of the Schooners. Todays
Cinema 5 October 1937.
Brown points out that English Harvest was originally advertised in 1938 but not
released until 1939. In 1938 The Farm was released. The 1939 release of English Harvest
consisted only of the second part of The Farm in which the harvest takes place. It seems that
Jennings had nothing to do with the first section of the film which for some reason was added
to the material shot and edited by Jennings.
Brown, S. (2002). Dufaycolor The Spectacle of Reality and British National
Cinema, Centre for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/

Colour Film: 19358


was ready by February but on release was criticised for being too much of an
advertisement for Hartwells designs. It was withdrawn, re-cut and re-issued in
May, in a shortened version as Making Fashion (1938) which played down the
Hartwell connection.32
Superficially, the films seem unconnected, as each focused on specific and
wholly unrelated forms of economic activity coastal sailing ships and the
trade in china clay between Cornwall and London; a day harvesting a cereal
crop and preparations for the haute couture fashion week. What they do share
is a somewhat romantic view of past working life, which is implicitly juxtaposed
with our understanding of work and industry in the present. As in The Birth of
the Robot there is concern about the impact of modern technology on traditional
life with each film recognising the value of traditional forms of labour. In Farewell
Topsails and English Harvest, life is firmly located within and connected to those
timeless rhythms of nature which have shaped the experience of employment,
community identity and heritage. In particular, Jennings experience of country
life comes to the fore with images depicting the routines of farm life. The opening
commentary proclaims Farming England the playground of the town, the
workshop of the country. Farming is a slow business but it never stops. Farmers
are shown labouring in the fields first with traditional scythes: Today one can
still hear the sound of the scythe and watch the beautiful rhythm of its swing
opening the road for the modern machine. The binder cutting the crop and
tieing it into neater sheaves than any made by hand. The crop is set in stooks to
dry then collected, stored and the land once more ploughed and made ready for
the next crop. Beer is taken at lunchtime and later tea is enjoyed with their wives
who have brought the refreshments out to the fields, described as a picnic scene
which hasnt changed since time out of mind.33
Farewell Topsails, on the other hand, recounts both the end of an era and
a way of life: Far down in the romantic West Country, Will the accordion
player, grinds out his haunting old tunes to an audience composed of the last
survivors of a great race of seaman. Accompanied by a series of traditional tunes,
the production and transport of china clay from St Austell to paper mills on
the Thames, provides the background to relate the end of this elderly form of
coastal seafaring. Cornish sailors watch from the coast as one of the last of the
half dozen traditional topsail schooners sets sail. They know that their skills and
Commentary taken from film soundtrack. Beatties discussion of the film emphasises
the articulation of the British rural myth. This notion, in part a nostalgic reaction to the
processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, provides the basis for his reading of
the narrative. Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 213.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


livelihood are at an end in this backwater of industry. Still reliant on traditional

methods of production and carriage the ships captain a great sailor with the
poetry of the sea in his soul runs this schooner at a loss because he couldnt
bear to see her hauled out onto the mud For him shes a person. Shes alive
and who can say he is wrong. With the advent of commercial pressures and new
technology these communities of the farm and coastal trade and the spirit that
goes with them are in inevitable decline. The wind powered schooner and the
labour in the fields are being replaced by steam then diesel powered ships on the
one hand and mechanised farming equipment on the other. These activities are
fragments of a passing time encountered within the interstices of mass modern
life. A similar message can be identified in Design for Spring. Its depiction of the
skilful creation of high quality fashion carries observations about tradition and
the survival of specialised production, which is reliant on the intense routine
labour of others. The production of the gowns, from initial conception to the
finished item ready for showing, simultaneously plays with a number of historical
and contemporary themes. The tradition of design is seen to provide Hartnell
with the inspiration for this coming spring collection:
[Exterior of British Museum] The cold of Londons winter In the British
Museum, this statue of Persephone, the ancient Greek goddess of spring, still
retains the ageless beauty of the time, 3000 years ago, when, under endlessly
blue skies, the fashions of the gods were created. [Wedgewood decoration above
mirror. Camera tilts down to show Hartnell in front of it.] Today in London, blue
and white memories of Greece decorate the studio of a famous creator of societys
fashions, Norman Hartwell. [Intercut shots of Hartnell watercolour paints, his
design, and Wedgewood bas-relief ] He makes as many as 1500 individual designs
in one winter. Blue and white Wedgewod has in fact suggested one of the most
beautiful of this years spring models.34

Hartwells bespoke gowns are made for a class of society women, for whom the
spring fashion collection is a key event in their annual social round. Whereas
traditional forms of farming and shipping are in decline, this social group, through
a combination of wealth and social convention, are insulated from the broader
mass of society and modern commercialism with a tradition of conspicuous
consumption, which enables Hartwells world to exist. But as Jennings shows,
the production of these hand-crafted expensive gowns is reliant upon the
detailed and time-consuming labour of the seamstresses. It is through Hartwells
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. Appendix A, p. 116.

Colour Film: 19358


studio and workrooms that these two social groups come into indirect contact,
though they rarely, if ever, meet. The studio is the world of the designer, his
personal assistants and models, where the refined accomplishment of Hartnells
creativity can be fully appreciated. Meanwhile in the workrooms, the assembly
of gowns carries on apace. Geographically close, but socially separate, the studio
and the workrooms have their own distinct social and cultural milieux. Here an
association between social class, labour and leisure is implicitly drawn:
[exterior shot of roofs and smoking domestic chimneys] As the January winds
tangle the smoke around the chimneys, thousands of starry sequins are then
threaded [Exterior shot shows work-girls entering back door, past commissionaire.
Then, in the work room, a long sequence of sequins being threaded and sewn on
dresses. CU [close up] work-girl. CU sequins. Repeat shot of chimneys].
[Seamstresses at work. CU of ones hands, which tilts up to picture on the wall of
Bing Crosby] From the workroom walls, the stars look down.
[CU of fitting and sewing the gown. Picture on the wall of Robert Taylor and
Spencer Tracy].35

The products of Hollywood, plastered on the walls of the workrooms, could be

seen as evidence of the power of the mass media to feed the emotional desires
and fantasies of impressionable young women. But on the other hand, they
may also represent a form of imaginative release from that world of routine
and the everyday. By humanising their personal space and giving expression
to those desires and fantasies, these women can imaginatively escape from the
routine of labour on products that they can never afford. The social world of
society women is able to defy nature itself: While the bare branches wait for
spring, artificial flowers for spring dresses are being made with scissors and
paste [Girl with artificial daisies, applies them to dress] In the graveness of
January, bright flowers from hothouses in the warm South come to decorate
the showroom.
In these three films, Jennings attempts to achieve colour application which
creates an aesthetic balance between the emotional and the intellectual:
Jennings does not over-engage with colour His is an integrated and
homogenous realistic world, the colour ostensibly presented in a purely
indexical way the colour is entirely integrated.36 His experiences with this

Brown, S. (2002) Dufaycolor The Spectacle of Reality and British National
Cinema, Centre for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

new colour stock led him to conclude that Dufay-Chromex film was the
ideal system for documentary work:37
In the future I believe that colour film stories will have to be constructed far
more in terms of the locations than has been the practice with black and white
films If colour can bring a greater realism, not only to the appearances, but
to the fundamentals of film it will have performed a notable service.38

Even though the companys future seemed assured Jennings stay turned out
to be relatively short-lived. He left during the spring of 1938.39 These films
of the latter half of the 1930s are similar in intent to those he made earlier
at the GPO, in that they are in general apart from The Birth of a Robot
educational and informative. In fact, some of the personnel working with him
on these projects were also GPO employees. The photography for Farewell
Topsails and English Harvest was undertaken by J.D. Davidson and Design
for Spring by Jonah Jones. Therefore, his connections with the Unit had
not been completely severed. What is significant is that over the four years
between 1934 and 1938, his critique of society had become sharper. While
working with Cavalcanti the subject matter was sometimes debunked and
treated with humour. The last three colour productions suggest changes in
Jennings understanding of contemporary life. Why this occurred can only be
explained by reference to changes in his political disposition, which became
increasingly part of his artistic activities.

Anon. (MarchApril 1938). Humphrey Jennings Declares for Special Colour
Stories. The Cine-Technician. p. 194. Apparently he told the actor Marius Goring that in
future he wanted to make all his films in colour. Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney
(1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 1921.
Anon. (MarchApril 1938). Humphrey Jennings Declares for Special Colour
Stories. The Cine-Technician. p. 194.
The company had orders for 80 short subjects in England alone with work being
done for companies in Denmark, Holland, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France
and Belgium. It was also expected that six feature films were to be made by George King.
To-Days Cinema 2 July 1938. Perhaps there were disagreements with Klein and possibly
the failure of the experimental colour film was also instrumental in causing him to resign.
Brown, S. (2002). Dufaycolor the Spectacle of Reality and British National Cinema, Centre
for British Film and Television Studies. http://www.bftv.ac.uk/projects/dufaycolor.htm.

Chapter 5

The Artist as Agent: 19378

In December Contemporary Poetry and Prose announced that in the spring of
1937 Jennings would have published a book entitled Reports and Photographs.
Nothing appeared. The reason could be that the venture was overtaken by a more
pressing project. Towards the end of 1936, Jennings and his family were joined
in Blackheath by his friends, Charles Madge and Kathleen Raine. It was in their
houses that old Cambridge friends and new associates, such as William Empson,
Julian Trevelyan, Stuart Legg, Arthur Elton, Basil Wright, Roger Roughton and
David Gascoigne, would congregate. Something akin to the spirit of the old
Cambridge Experiment Group was again evoked, as conversations turned to
the relationship(s) between poetry and society, industrial life, art and science
and surrealism. Out of these discussions, Jennings started to collaborate with
Charles Madge on a project, which stemmed out of Madges employment as a
reporter and sub-editor at the Daily Mirror. Here, he had become fascinated
by the intuitive nature of the group editorial process. The best sub-editors and
layout men, he believed, were dominated by what he called the mass-wish: All
they know is that their livelihood depends on their turning out a good page,
which is to say the page the public wants. He began to understand the queer
poetry of the newspaper and the advertisement hoarding and not to dismiss
it simply because it is sensational and vulgar but rather as vehicles for the
expression of the unconscious fears and wishes of the mass. He had stumbled
on what Breton and his friends were exploring within Parisian life: that sudden

Apart from documentary film both Stuart Legg and Arthur Elton had an interest in
the technological impact of the industrial revolution on society. The economics of coal and
steam pre-occupied Legg throughout his life, and enhanced his friendship with Humphrey
Jennings and Arthur Elton. Elton owned a massive collection of prints and engravings on
the history of technology. The Times 27 July 1988. p. 12. Later Jennings would utilise their
knowledge and resources for the exhibition The Impact of the Machine at the London
Gallery in 1938.

Madge, C. (1937). Press, Radio, and Social Consciousness, in Lewis, C.D., ed., The
Mind in Chains, Manchester, Frederick Muller Ltd. pp. 14763. pp. 1534.

Ibid. p. 160.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

chance encounters and coincidences could reveal signifiers of the underlying life
force, buried within the apparently banal reality of urban-industrial life:
Humphrey became enthralled by the secret messages in the juxtaposition of the
headlines of the Sunday papers. It was not a set performance; he was discovering
with astonishment that there was something to decode on every page Could
the sub-editors and make-up men realise what they were doing? we asked one
another Of course, the fancy was not trivial for Humphrey, who by that time
was making films, and considered any material could be given aesthetic interest by
pace and contrast on the cutting-floor.

It is not coincidental that The Shape of Former Heaven and the reportage style
poems Jennings created at this time have a similar feel to newspaper reports. The
Cambridge word detachment we no longer used Raine remembers, now we
were observers and like the surrealists, they began to focus on the landscape of
urban life. Quoting Eluard, Jennings proclaimed: to the poet everything is the
object of sensations and consequently sentiments. Everything becomes food for
his imagination:
To the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the
appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea Coincidences have the infinite
freedom of appearing anywhere, anytime, to anyone: in broad daylight to those
whom we most despise in places we have most loathed: not even to us at all:
probably least to petty seekers after mystery and poetry on deserted sea-shores
and in misty junk-shops.

Harnessing these ideas, they began a small social experiment based on Jennings
idea of the image. During the routine of daily life the attention of the individual
may register some particularly distinctive act or event. Madge stated that: In
order to get focused we have been experimenting on what for lack of a better
name has been termed the dominant image of the day. By recording, collating
and examining such individual experiences it was hoped to gain access to that
hinterland or background of social fantasy that lay beneath the consciousness

Durozoi, G. (2002). History of the Surrealist Movement, The University of Chicago
Press. pp. 1736.

Empson quoted by Haffenden, J. (2005). Willam Empson Volume 1: Among the
Mandarins, Oxford University Press. pp. 4234.

Raine, K. (1991). Autobiographies, Skoob Books. p. 171.

Surrealism Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet.
p. 220.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


of everyday life. The aim was to create a new form of democratic poetry through
a process similar to the surrealist activity of shared writing and collective editing.
The poems that would emerge would articulate collective thought, thereby
undermining the clich of the individually inspired poet.
Their choice of participants however did little to undermine either the
clich or promote a more accessible form of popular poetry. Twelve Oxford
undergraduates were asked to log any arresting moments significant events
and/or predominant images in their everyday life, over a three-week period.
The group selected the six most recurrent images. Then each person composed six
pentameter lines each containing these common images, after which six of these
lines were picked out by vote. Each person then composed a poem incorporating
those six lines. Finally, the twelve poems were passed round the circle for
evaluation, and the winner was decided by yet another vote.10

The winning poem published in New Verse (May 1937), Madge believed,
expressed a reflection of the immediate scene in which a sense of decay
and imminent doom characterizes contemporary Oxford. Cunningham
concludes that the scene at the university was as conventional as could be for
the time. Concerns about the approach of war, death and rebellion tinged with
revolution were by no means new amongst the student body.11
The importance of this venture lay in the technique of investigation. Towards
the end of the year, Jennings and his friends witnessed a number of events,
which seemed to them to expose that deeper malaise affecting the condition of
British life. After nearly a month on the road, the unemployed of Jarrow finally
reached London on 31 October. This Crusade to lobby Parliament for greater
economic assistance for the north-east, revealed the depth of poverty amongst
the long-term unemployed. Regional and national decline was given spectacular
symbolic expression exactly a month later, when the emblem of past British
industrial, cultural and imperial glory, the Crystal Palace, built to house the
Great Exhibition of 1851, was destroyed by an awe inspiring fire:
Thousands of people immediately recognized the meaning of that great glare, and
set out for the Palace by every means of transport, and every-where could be heard
Madge, C. (1937). Oxfordshire Collective Poem. New Verse (25): 1619.
Durozoi, G. (2002). History of the Surrealist Movement, The University of Chicago
Press. p. 196.
Cunningham, V. (1995). British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford University Press.
p. 339.
Ibid. pp. 33940.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

genuine expressions of regret for the end of the poor old Palace The glow in
the sky could be clearly seen from Guildford, and even as far away as Devils
Dyke, near Brighton. In North London hundreds of people went to Parliament
Hill, Hampstead, to see the fire, and the higher points of the Heath were densely
packed The large crowds eddying up and down outside talked of the Palace, not
so much as a great South London institution but as an old friend, suddenly dead,
who had been taken too much for granted in his lifetime.12

Two days later, on 3 December, this event was eclipsed when the Daily Mirror
broke the story that The King wants to Marry Mrs. Simpson: Cabinet advises
No. The Governments opposition to the marriage plans of the new monarch,
Edward VIII, appeared to encapsulate the problems of the time. Young,
handsome and with a cultivated Hollywood glamour, Edward brought with
him on his accession a distinctly modern and fashionable image. His affair with
the soon to be divorced American suggested that he held post-war values about
marriage: not as some form of contract but as a personal and emotional choice.
From his vantage point at the Daily Mirror, Madge had been able to watch as
the Government in collusion with the BBC and newspapers had attempted to
suppress news about an affair which was already public knowledge. Also while
on a visit to the depressed coal valleys of South Wales he had shown concern by
passing a comment that something will be done for his subjects who suffered
the scourge of poverty and long-term unemployment. His words spoke for the
people and implicitly seemed to be critical of a lack of government action.
For those sympathetic to Edward, he was a modern monarch pitted against
an outdated and unbending Government, who had left him with no option
but to agree to protocol or abdicate his position as King. The Governments
position was so unpopular within the upper class and Parliamentary opponents
that a Kings Party emerged in Edwards support. On the streets, Mosleys BUF
immediately put itself at the vanguard of popular support, by orchestrating
demonstrations in favour of the King. The arguments and emotions of the nation
spilled out through editorials, articles and the letter pages of the press. Until the
eventual denouement, eight days later, when Edward broadcast to the nation his
decision to step down from the throne, rather than give up the woman he loved,
the public were forced to watch as their head of state attempted to resist the will
of the Government.
Anon. (1936). The Crystal Palace Destruction by Fire. The Times 1 and 2 December.
By coincidence The Times also reported the arrival of 5,000 German volunteers to aid Franco
and the successful passage of the Parliamentary Bill to prevent British ships carrying arms to
Spain. 2 December. p. 14.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


The Inception of Mass Observation

If the concerns of Oxford students were of little interest to the general public,
the abdication had been altogether different. It provided a national point of
fixation which drew conflicting emotional responses. For Madge:
Millions saw the emergence of their own thwarted and concealed desires. The
possibility was no sooner revealed than it was overclouded again, first by the
abdication, then by the heavy words of an archbishop Silence is best. The tide of
repression had come flooding back.13

This experience, Madge wrote, was for me one major precipitant of the idea
that history and social-self-knowledge could be served by organised collective
observation.14 The Blackheath set began discussing the possibility of enlisting
volunteers for the observation both of social events like the abdication and also
everyday life, as lived by themselves and those around them.15 By coincidence,
on 12 December, the day after Edwards announcement, a letter appeared in The
New Statesman and Nation which commented on the tremendous amount of
correspondence received by newspapers about the King and Mrs Simpson from
obscure and eminent people alike. It seemed to suggest a primitive public
reaction to the abdication crisis. This reaction, the letter continued, provided
the material for that anthropological study of our own civilisation of which we
stand in such desperate need.16 Madge responded with a letter in the first edition
of the magazine of the New Year:
announcing that a group had already been formed for precisely that purpose. He
pointed out that fieldwork would have to proceed in a far more roundabout way
than in Africa or Australia. Clues might be found in the popular phenomenon
of the coincidence in fact, British society was so ultra-repressed, in a Freudian

Madge, C. (1937). Press, Radio, and Social Consciousness, in Lewis, C.D., ed., The
Mind in Chains, Manchester, Frederick Muller Ltd. pp. 14763. pp. 15960.
Madge, C. (1976). The Birth of Mass-Observation. Times Literary Supplement
5 November. p. 1395.
Ibid. p. 1395.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 35 and Calder, A. and Sheridan, Dorothy, eds (1985). Speak for
Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology 19371949, Oxford University Press. p. 3.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


sense, that perhaps clues could only be hit upon in this form. He called for mass
observations to create mass science.17

It was also a coincidence that printed next to Madges letter was the only poem
Tom Harrisson had published in his life. Harrisson, educated at Harrow then
briefly Cambridge, had led a colourful existence, eventually becoming a selftaught anthropologist. Then residing in Bolton and undertaking anthropological
fieldwork into industrial life, he contacted Madge and a meeting was arranged
approximately two weeks later in Blackheath. On arrival, he revealed his
activities and encountered those long discussions about surrealism, Blake, the
Industrial Revolution, Freud, the relationship between art and science, mass
wish-situations, and the phenomenon of coincidence, which Jennings saw as the
key to human behaviour.18 Unlike Harrissons project, what was being discussed
was primarily an extension of the Oxford poetry exercise. As Raine makes clear
to Charles the idea of Mass-Observation was less sociology than a kind of
poetry, akin to Surrealism.19 It would not observe everyday life as an end in
itself, but chart that hidden poetry of urban existence. By using the techniques
of surrealism, Madge and Jennings wanted to access the subliminal stirrings of
the collective mind of the nation, through the images thrown up in such things
as advertisements, popular songs, themes in the press and the objects with which
people surround themselves.20 What they seem to imply by the use of the term
observer, is a nuanced form of consciousness involving a heightened awareness
of surroundings. As Calder and Sheriden point out from the beginning, MassObservation [for Jennings and Madge] assumed that its untrained Observers
would be subjective cameras, each with their own distortion. They tell us not


The letter appeared on the 2 January 1937. Calder, A. and Sheridan, Dorothy, eds
(1985). Speak for Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology 19371949, Oxford University
Press. p. 3.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 34 and footnote 1, p. 180. Also Madge, C. (1976). The Birth of
Mass-Observation. Times Literary Supplement 5 November. p. 1395.
Raine, K. (1991). Autobiographies, Skoob Books. p. 168.
Kathleen Raine quoted in Ray, P.C. (1971). The Surrealist Movement in England,
Cornell University Press. p. 177. Mass Observation is a kind of surrealism in reverse
Surrealism wants to project the imagination onto the objective world to transform it;
Mass-Observation tries to recover the imagination that produced the vulgar objects and
images of the everyday world. Ray, P.C. (1971). The Surrealist Movement in England, Cornell
University Press. pp. 17780.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


what society is like but what it looks like to them. It was to be a form of social
The observer is to ask himself at the end of each day what image has been dominant
in it. This image should, if possible, be one which has forced itself on him and
which has confirmed its importance by recurrence of some kind. The image
may occur in a series of varying forms or may take the form of coincidence. For
example, the same name or object may forcibly strike the observers notice, from
within or without, several times on the same day The reactions of individuals
when plotted on a map may turn out to form a mass-picture, just as barometer
readings go to make up a weather map.22

The observers perspective(s) were the focus of the project from which they
hoped to access the hinterland, the background of social fantasy. At the meeting
Harrisson quickly realised that Jennings was not interested in recruiting
observers for an ethnographic study of social behaviour and he had no interest
in charting the subliminal and poetic:
what was wrong with that title Mass Observation was that Humphrey and
Charles really werent going to do any observing at all. People were just going to
document themselves [they had] developed the idea of setting up a nationwide
panel of people who would write about themselves as a sort of subjective literature,
an idea almost poetic in concept [It was] an approach which was unscientific
literary, or poetic-literary. It wasnt a question of social realism at all in fact,
just the opposite: a kind of social super-realism. Not surrealism, super-realism
I by chance, working in quite a different way, got absorbed in the methods of
observing people outside societies.23

Jennings and Harrisson competed to assert their respective positions and

Gascoinge felt the movement would end up going in either this direction or
in that.24 His perception was soon confirmed. Mass Observation, wrote Madge,
Calder, A. and Sheridan, Dorothy, eds (1985). Speak for Yourself: A Mass Observation
Anthology 19371949, Oxford University Press. pp. 56. Authors italics.
Madge, C. and Jennings, H. (1937). Poetic Descriptions and Mass Observations.
New Verse 24(FebruaryMarch): 16.
Hodgkinson, A.W. (1976). Humphrey Jennings and Mass Observation: A
Conversation with Tom Harrison. University Film Association Journal 27(4): 314. p. 32.
Hodgkinsons italics.
Mengham, R. (2001). Bourgeois News. New Formations 44(Autumn): 2633.
Haffenden, J. (2005). Willam Empson Volume 1: Among the Mandarins, Oxford University


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

was the result of several meetings of a group of young Left Wing writers and
The group has taken as title and slogan MASS-OBSERVATION. As a Marxist, I
have drawn Marxists implications from the work it sets out to do, but it is left to
any individual member of the group to draw his own implications. My statement
is therefore a personal one, with which some members of the group may agree, but
which is not binding for all.25

The differences emerged in the letter published in The New Statesman and
Nation on 30 January 1937, which announced the foundation of the movement.
Signed by Harrisson, Jennings and Madge and under the title Anthropology at
Home, rather than Mass Observation, the declaration expresses that division
between the ethnography of Harrisson and the poetic alliance of Jennings and
Madge. A sense of unity is provided by the appeal for a groundbreaking scientific
investigation of society, which builds on the work of key thinkers of the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries Darwin, Marx, Tylor (in anthropology), Freud
and Breur (in psychology). They note that neither anthropology nor psychology
has yet become more than an instrument in the hands of any individual, which
he applies (according to his individuality) to primitives and aboriginals. With
the help of 5,000 observers this scientific tradition would be extended to the
urban-industrial world of the twentieth century. Jennings, however, was unhappy
that Harrisson included a list of cultural phenomena that would demand the
attention of the observers:26
The following are a few examples of problems that will arise:
Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.

Press. p. 428.
Madge, C. (1937). Magic and Materialism. Left Review 3(1): 315. Jackson, K.
(2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 1889.
Nowell-Smith, G. (1986). Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist Observer, in Barr, C., ed.,
All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute. pp. 32133.

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Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.

Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

This skilful emphasis on eye-catching popular social anthropology with hints

of the exotic, immediately overshadows the comparatively esoteric interests of
Madge and Jennings which follow:
Other inquiries involve mental phenomena which are unconscious or repressed,
so that they can only be traced through mass-fantasy and symbolism as developed
and exploited, for example in the daily press. The outbreak of parturition-images
[images brought forth] in the press last October may have been seasonal, or may
have been caused by some public stimulus; continuous watch on the shifting
popular images can only be kept by a multitude of watchers.

It was Harrisons populist style that gained attention in the national press.
Described as an inspired organizer, an extremely gifted publicist and self-publicist,
and a talented writer who knew how to pen quickly in an endlessly entertaining,
but characteristically undisciplined style,27 his talks around the country and
newspaper articles led to an escalation in the number of volunteers.
About the time of the arrival of Harrisson, Madge had begun to organise
another more ambitious day report experiment. Similar to the Oxford collective
poetry exercise this time it would involve 30 individuals and begin on 12
February. These day reports were to be yet another attempt to reconfigure the
notion of the poet by creating: a poetry which is not, as at present, restricted to
a handful of esoteric performers. The immediate effect of Mass-Observation is
to de-value considerably the status of the poet. It makes the term poet apply,
not to his performance, but to his profession, like footballer.28
They had never met each other, they lived in widely scattered parts of the country
and they differed greatly from each other in their surroundings, their work and

MacClancy, J. (1995). Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass Observation, of
British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
1(3): 495512.
Madge, C. and Jennings, H. (1937). Poetic Descriptions and Mass Observations.
New Verse 24(FebruaryMarch): 16.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


their views about life. What they had agreed to do was to set down plainly all that
happened to them on that day. Thats how Mass-Observation began.29

This exercise was now extended nationally to the twelfth of each month, leading
up to and including the day of the Coronation of Edwards brother George VI
on 12 May.30 The aim was not only to chart the impact of preparations for the
Coronation on British life, but also to reverse that process of specialisation and
differentiation that had seen the intelligentsia disconnected from the people.
With the artist and scientist at last joining forces and turning back towards the
mass it was hoped that this new relationship could have political implications:
[Mass Observation] does not set out in quest of truth or facts for their own sake,
or for the sake of an intellectual minority, but aims at exposing them in simple
terms in all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus
constantly transformed. Whatever the political methods called upon to effect the
transformation, the knowledge of what has to be transformed is indispensable. The
foisting on the mass of ideals or ideas developed by men apart from it, irrespective
of its capacities, causes mass misery, intellectual despair and an international

According to Jennings and Madge, the strength of national unity varied at any
one time, because people tended to lead localised existences. It was hoped that
analysis of individual day reports would reveal how national unity was both
promulgated and sustained: The national plan starts from the individual
Observers and works outwards from them into the social surroundings. One
aim of Mass-Observation is to see how and how far, the individual is linked
up with society and its institutions.32 Both newspapers and national radio were
regarded as key in shaping social consciousness and national unity because the
listeners and readers are legion, but the voices which speak are few:33


Mass-Observation, First Years Work, 19371938, quoted in Hodgkinson, A. and

Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 36.
Preface, Jennings, H. and Madge, C., eds (1987). May 12th: Mass Observation DaySurvey 1937, Faber and Faber.
Harrisson, T., Jennings, H. and Madge, C. (1937). Anthropology at Home. The New
Statesman and Nation.
Jennings, H. and Madge, C., eds (1987). May 12th: Mass Observation Day-Survey
1937, Faber and Faber. p. v.
Madge, C. (1937). Press, Radio, and Social Consciousness, in Lewis, C.D., ed., The
Mind in Chains, Manchester, Frederick Muller Ltd. pp. 14763. p. 147.

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When surveys were made by Mass Observation of three normal working days,
February 12, March 12 and April 12, 1937 it was found that each day had been
carefully prepared beforehand. For example, newspapers, which played such a
part in the life of a day, were produced on the preceding day, while a great part of
their contents dated from earlier still. The days big advertisements were planned
months ahead, and so were B.B.C. programmes, films, plays, books, lectures,
conferences, sporting events, religious services etc.34

Analysis of the material collated from reporting of the preparations for celebrating
the Coronation, day reports and observations in the months leading up to and
including the Coronation would help explain the effectiveness of this process.
Until Jennings finally withdrew from direct participation in its activities, Mass
Observation had two relatively distinct theoretical and geographical strands.
There was the popular anthropology orchestrated by Harrisson roughing it in
Bolton, for which the movement is now particularly remembered. Meanwhile,
based in London, Madge organised the National Panel of volunteers, while
Jennings was primarily responsible, with his friends, for collating and presenting
the results of the monthly day surveys. Close inspection of the advertisements,
articles, letters to the press and personal reports, revealed a diverse mix of national
and commercial interests, social and personal beliefs shaping responses to the
event. However, making sense of that wealth of information, turned into an
insuperable problem: by shifting attention to the social dimension of an object,
[ Jennings and Madge] had created for themselves a problem of identification
because other than their concept of nationwide coincidences, they had no
satisfactory criteria for identifying which images had collective significance.35
This meant material for the ensuing book the first major Mass Observation
publication, May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day Survey 1937 was difficult
to organise, edit and index. Harrisson remembered:
later on, they were ready to abandon it, because they just got indigestible masses of
stuff because it didnt fit into any pattern. It wasnt structured in any way they
did in fact have awful difficulties in disciplining this material, and Humphrey was

Jennings, H. and Madge, C., eds (1987). May 12th: Mass Observation Day-Survey
1937, Faber and Faber. p. 3.
MacClancy, J. (1995). Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass Observation, of
British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
1(3): 495512. p. 508.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


much more interested in the purely poetic, and soon well, he didnt exactly lose
interest, but it wasnt satisfying him.36

As single young men, Madge (giving up his job at the Daily Mirror) and
Harrisson could work full-time while Jennings had to juggle paid work and family
commitments. Over the year, the focus of the movement became Harrissons
popular social anthropology. Also Madges mix of Marxism, social psychology
and poetry allowed him to adjust more easily to Harrissons line.37 Harrisson
remarked that Madges Mass Poetry had been a horrible perversion: Madge
and myself now work on a common programme and are no longer concerned
with literature he got rid of that in the Coronation Book.38
The publication of May the Twelfth six months after the Coronation, marked
the end of Jennings participation. By the end of 1937, even though volunteers
had been asked to keep a detailed account of everything they did from waking
until sleeping on the twelfth of each month throughout the year, Jennings notion
had been virtually expunged from the project. Interest shifted to recording
activities on special days such as Easter Day and August Bank Holiday, and then
to more specific topics.39 In 1938 they published a booklet, Mass-Observation,
which Madge admits contained a lot of Harrisson. Jennings contribution was
to design the front cover.40 According to Jackson, Jennings finally quit after a
series of angry confrontations with Tom Harrisson, early in 1938.


Hodgkinson, A.W. (1976). Humphrey Jennings and Mass Observation: A

Conversation with Tom Harrison. University Film Association Journal 27(4): 314. pp. 323.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 1945. Apparently Jennings was more
interested in the content of the reports rather than their scientific analysis. Jennings, M.-L. and
Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine
as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. x.
The original purpose of the Day Surveys was to collect a mass of data without
any selective principle, as a preliminary to detailed studies of carefully chosen topics. Tom
Harrison and Charles Madge quoted in Calder, A. and Sheridan, Dorothy, eds (1985). Speak
for Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology 19371949, Oxford University Press. p. 5. My
Cunningham, V. (1995). British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford University Press.
p. 340.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p.181. Calder, A. and Sheridan,
Dorothy, eds (1985). Speak for Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology 19371949, Oxford
University Press. p. 5.
Madge, C. (1976). The Birth of Mass-Observation. Times Literary Supplement
5 November. p. 1395.

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From Mediaevalism into Modern Times

In the autumn of 1937, Life and Letters Today published the final joint
Jennings/Madge article They Speak for Themselves: Mass Observation and
Social Narrative, in which they take to task those sympathetic sociologists,
sensitive, stylist writers and aspiring working class authors, who proclaim to
reveal through their work the truth about working class life. The proletarian
fiction and research of the 1930s, found in journals such as Fact or the recently
published The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, they argue, find it difficult
if not impossible to describe the texture of this world because each phrase is
paralysed by fear of clich In reaction against this paralysis, there is a general
wish among writers to be UNLIKE the intellectual, LIKE the masses. Much
proletarian fiction is a product of this wish.41 The only way of gaining authentic
access to the world of ordinary people is to allow them to express themselves in
their own words:
The reports which are written for Mass Observation come largely from people
whose lives are spent in a world whose behaviour, language and viewpoint are
far removed from academic science and literature Mass Observation is among
other things giving working-class and middle-class people a chance to speak for
themselves, about themselves.42

This concern registers a marked shift in Jennings attention. Over two years
earlier The Theatre Today (with its sweeping criticism of commercialism and
middlebrow entertainment) contained no appreciation of the diverse popular
culture to be found in British life. However, in the summer of 1937, Mass
Observation gave him reason to visit and photograph the euphemistically
named Worktown (Bolton) and the surrounding area in the industrial northwest. Until then Jennings had lived in southern England and the cosmopolitan
environment of London, interspersed with visits to the continent. In fact, Allen
Hutt remarked, he was in some senses more French than English [knowing for
instance] parts of Brittany like the back of his hand without being conscious that
anything existed in England at all north of Peterborough.43 His encounter with
the urban-industrial landscape of the north was to have a profound effect: He
saw more than Bolton; the vision of mill-stacks and operatives dwelling-boxes
Madge, C. and Jennings, H. (1937). They Speak for Themselves: Mass Observation
and Social Narrative. Life and Letters (17): 3742.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


introduced him to an England he had not known before the land of industry,
of the factory and of the working class.44 Hutt goes on to say:
perhaps the most important turning-point in the life of Humphrey Jennings
living in an unemployed spinners house, and avidly attacking the classics like
Engels Condition of the Working Class in England, brought Jennings (as he himself
says) from mediaevalism into modern times.

Jennings daughter has written that Until the late thirties it seemed as though
my father had only dealt in ideas. Now other peoples daily concerns became
important.45 His visit brought him into contact with the respectable skilled
working and lower middle class, of which the spinner was likely to be part, whose
lives were completely different from his own. Often bolstered by the values and
beliefs of non-conformist religion, they promoted and sustained an autodidactic
tradition of self-improvement through reading, creative leisure, education and
training that manifested itself in the use of public libraries, informal reading
groups, technical colleges and the Workers Education Association.46 These were
men and women maintaining those institutions of industrial working class life
such as Trades Unions, the Labour Party, Friendly Societies, Sick Clubs, the Cooperative Movement and Working Mens Clubs, which supported the wider
community in the depths of economic recession.
This stay in Lancashire was an experience which gave him a deep
understanding and warm sympathy, a feeling for people, for ordinary people,
for plain, blunt working men and women of our country which affected him
both intellectually and politically.47 He began to read widely and in depth about
the complex process that, with its many causes and consequences, transformed
Britain into the first industrial nation. He came to see the cotton workers of
Bolton [as] the descendents of Stephenson and Watt, the dwellers in Blakes
dark satanic mills reborn into a world of greyhound racing and Marks and
Spencer.48 This research turned into a lifelong project to collect and organise
a wealth of historical data, which would form the basis for his unfinished book

Noxon, G. (19612). How Humphrey Jennings Came to Film. Film Quarterly
(Winter): 1926, Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings
Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. x.
Rose, J. (2002). The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.
Trevelyan, J. (1957). Indigo Days, McGibbon and Kee. p. 82.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


Pandaemonium. Taking the form of an immense eclectic diary it was to be a

compendium of carefully chosen historical evidence, from traditional poetry
and the historic records of other literary domains including official reports,
novels, diaries and personal accounts. They would trace in a sweeping narrative,
between 1660 and 1886, the rise of modern society, the impact of technology
and the industrial revolution upon human experience and the imagination.49
The Poet and the Public
The visit to Bolton seems to have occurred when Jennings left Gaspacolor to
work at Dufay-Chromex. While working there, he accepted a contract to write
and present two short radio talks for the BBC. Around the time he was working
on Design For Spring, Plagiarism in Poetry was transmitted on 8 December
1937, followed by The Disappearance of Ghosts on 11 February 1938. Jennings
reworks, for the general public, some of those arguments expressed in his articles
on poetry for Experiment magazine; the plagiaristic use of language; the
isolation of the poet from broader society; the changing character and relevance
of poetry to everyday life; changes in forms of poetic expression and the affective
power of poetry to communicate with the audience.50 By coincidence around
the time of his second broadcast the BBC Talks Department approved a future
poetry series entitled The Poet and his Public. In total the weekly talks and
chaired discussions were to fill over three hours of airtime between late April
and June. The deadline was set for the end of March for a preliminary outline of
what topics would be covered, which poets would be invited and critically who
would be recruited to edit the series, lead the discussions and give some of the
talks.51 The proposal envisaged three talks by the editor/presenter, who would
set the context of poetry past and present, followed by six chaired discussions
with poets and a member of the public, about modern poetry and finally a
summation given by a well known modern poet and/or cultural critic.52 The role
Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium:
The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. 5.
Selected Broadcasts, in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. pp. 24755.
On the 28 January The BBC Programme Sub-Committee Meeting put forward the
following names in order of preference: 1) Vita Sackville-West; 2) Aldous Huxley (Although
Huxley was regarded with poetry to be playing with a sideline); 3) L.A.G. Strong; 4)
Desmond McCarthy.
BBC (3rd Jan 1938 File R6/204: July 1937July 1938). The Poet and His Public.
Minutes of Talks Advisory Committee, BBC (12th Jan 1938 File R14/29/2). The Poet and His


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

of editor/presenter was to act as a guide through the historical development of

poetry. They would highlight the issues facing the modern poet, in particular,
the problem of effective communication and intersperse them with illustrative
readings from appropriate poems by other voices. On the grounds of urgency,
official procedures were circumvented and Jennings name was put forward as
a suitable candidate. In his favour were three supporting statements and his
outstanding academic achievements at Cambridge. But it was his performance
with two earlier broadcasts which had met with considerable success that tipped
the balance. [There is] no doubt he will handle the series very well indeed
and on the strength of his broadcast reputation the Corporation has therefore
decided to invite him to undertake the talks and discussion.53
The series was to consider the past and present relationship between the poet
and the public. Perhaps because time was pressing Jennings was able to have more
influence over the shape of the talks, which adopt a more polemical form from
that previously envisaged. As he put it, in the introductory programme, a key
theme would be the debate over the relevance of modern poetry to everyday life:
I think it is generally agreed that the poet today has somehow got himself out
of touch with the public The two things that have got out of touch with each
other are modern poetry and everyday life. The modern poet certainly has his
or her own little public, but theyre not representative of the public at large.
The great big public thinks of poetry, particularly modern poetry, as something

Over what had now become five talks and five discussions, he illustrates the
development of poetry and the detachment of the poet from the general public;
puts forward his arguments; reads chosen extracts and shapes the direction of
discussion. He proposes that to understand the crisis of modern poetry a poetry
robbed of action one must consider deeper changes in the use of language and
forms of communication:
Over the last three hundred years we have language going two ways: its used
for news, real news and romantic news [you can imagine yourself taking part]
and its used for poetry Once upon a time, it may be poetry and romance and
Public. Listening Programme Sub Committee, BBC (14th Feb 1938 File R51/394/1). Talks
Poetry File 1 19381946 Memo: Poetry and the Public.
BBC Internal memo: N.G. Luker to A.C. Cameron The Poet and the Public 14
February. BBC Archive Talks: Poetry File 19381946: File R51/394/1.
The Modern Poet and the Public, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 25560.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


news all managed to tie up together and the poet was a kind of reporter. [With
newspapers] the poor old poet stopped becoming a reporter and got left to

If poetry is to survive as meaningful and popular, the poet must re-appropriate

and apply those original functions of news and romance that have been lost.
Like news reporters, they must adapt and engage with issues recognisable and
meaningful to the public. They must lose that special aura of the poet, in order
to merge with the community of which they are part and to create a poetry
dealing with public problems straight, fundamental human problems [found
in the struggle of every-day life], and not merely about the poets own little
In the final programme, Jennings offers a summary of how he sees the role
of poetry in the present and what the contemporary poet should be attempting
to achieve. It is a position that would clearly inform the distinctive character
of his future documentary films.57 In the modern world the poet needs to fulfil
two principle functions, first to remind the community not to be so proud and
second to remind us that there are still mysteries and these mysteries reside
in the humblest of everyday things.58 In order to achieve this, the poet must
draw on public images and referents from the past and present. He must start
with the thing thats produced this pride a steam-ship or a train and relate
that to the unexplored mysteries. It is this social use of poetry which makes it
recognisable to the general audience and touches on those things which have
helped to shape individual and social identity:
That idea of extracting an idea of what I am from the past is a thing that the poet
does for himself and especially it is a thing that he can do for the community; I
mean he can try and tell them who they are. Now he cant tell the community
who they are unless he does two things: unless he talks about the things that the
community knows about, the things that theyre interested in, and unless he also
looks on the communitys past at the figures, the monuments, the achievements,
the defeats, or whatever it may be, that have made the community what it is.59

Ibid. pp. 25860. Jennings italics.

BBC (14th Feb 1938 File R51/394/1). Talks Poetry File 1 19381946 Memo:
Poetry and the Public, Jennings, H. (1938). Understanding Modern Poetry 2. The Poet and
the Public.
See Selected Broadcasts, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 25582.
Poetry and National Life, reprinted in ibid.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


However, he cautions that in order for the poet to be able to write this kind of
poetry, and in order for the community to be able to accept it, it isnt enough for
it to be in terms that both the poet and community agree on:
There must be something added to that, but something which is not so easily
definable I dont mean patriotism, because patriotism weighs the pros and cons
[rather it is] a love of, a passionate attachment to the things round us, both the
easy things and the inexplicable things, that poetry depends. It depends on it
because this warmth, this attachment, is the only medium through which we can
really get near either to things or to people If you look at The Waste Land
youll see that Eliot relates the bits of Londons past (our ancestors) to the bar in
Lower Thames Street that is the social use of poetry, and to me that is relating
poetry to the public.60

E.L.T. Mesens and the London Gallery

About the time he began preparation for the radio series, changes were also
occurring in the fortunes of the English Surrealist Group. This loose association
was to be shaken up by the arrival of the surrealist artist and art dealer E.L.T.
Mesens, who left Belgium in March 1937 to settle in London. Supported by
Roland Penrose, Mesens became manager of the London Gallery. He brought
a clear strategy to exhibit modern art in England. The primary goal, he had
told Penrose, would not be to reflect existing tendencies, but to try and attract
well-known artists from Britain and other countries and to promote them
through exhibitions and the in-house publications London Gallery Editions
(which tended to focus on specific artists) and a gallery magazine, initially called
London Gallery Bulletin, shortened after the first edition to London Bulletin.61
Apart from providing a base to defend the freedom of politically non-aligned
artistic expression, his policy was to make a specific political gesture. He would
defend and promote progressive art against those forces on the continent which
were attempting to consign it to history and those in England who wished to
undermine its validity. The exhibitions and gallery publications would avoid
any specific political allegiance, but highlight the growing threat to artistic


Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate. p. 148.
Ibid. pp. 1489.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


Mesens venture was instantly attractive to Jennings and he became involved

in the inauguration of the gallery, early in 1938. Unlike the Parisians Belgian
surrealists preferred to work away from the public gaze, often on collective
projects. They refused to be associated with the Communist Party or to
adhere to any predetermined artistic line. The gallery opening provided the
opportunity for Mesens to mount a large exhibition of work by his close friend
Rene Magritte, for which Jennings supplied a short review to the magazine. In
Magrittes Paintings celebrates the poetic nature of his art.
Poetry, according to Aristotle, implies a bringing together. But the elements in
a picture by Magritte are not forced together. Their bringing together occurs in a
passive sense in the painters imagination. Hence their simultaneous irrationality
since nothing is chosen on purpose and their evident truth since their
bringing together is in fact an event beyond choice. It is of the likenesses and
discrepancies between the image and the reality that these events are composed,
and it is in the relentless logic of these likenesses and discrepancies that Magritte
sees the central human situation: La Condition Humaine.63

The very process of painting was for Magritte, like Jennings, a lamentable
expedient; its function: to make poetry visible, and not reduce the world to
its numerous materialistic aspects For him, only ideas mattered, in terms of
a subtle modification of daily reality which would simultaneously subvert the
traditional relationships between objects and our mechanisms of association,
and ultimately alter our perceptions of the world.64 This idea of the passive
bringing together of juxtaposed elements to subvert our consciousness of the
everyday is illustrated by a photographic image Jennings contributed to the June
edition of London Bulletin. In a section entitled the Day of Dream and Night
of Reality, a photograph of an industrial landscape juxtaposes industry with the
rural, the spiritual with the material and commercial, cleanliness with dirt. Half
the image consists of a large advert for Persil soap powder on the end of a brick
building. Two white spirits or ghosts meet in a wood and remark to each other:
Goodness I thought I was white. Use Persil my dear it will make you dazzling.
The other half of the image has all the associations of industrial grime and dirt
of the industrial world, showing a large factory with its chimney thrusting into
the sky.
Jennings, H. (1938). In Magrittes Paintings. London Bulletin (1), reprinted in
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 2256. Jennings
Gablik, S. (1985). Magritte, Thames and Hudson. p. 145.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Initially, Jennings contributed brief articles and poems but by the June
edition he was assistant editor and involved in mounting a major exhibition
for the following month. Inspired by his recent experiences and research,
The Impact of Machines, held in July 1938, would address the changing
relationship between technology and the human imagination, bringing together
a collection of nineteenth century drawings and engravings of machines
with complementary Cubist, Dadaist and Surrealist paintings. For Remy this
exhibition and the special double issue of the Bulletin, which supported it,
established the principle of imaginative materialism [as] a distinctive feature
of surrealism in Britain.65 The rationale was outlined in the introduction to
Jennings article Do Not Lean Out Of The Window!:
the following texts are presented not in any sense as a picture of the development
of Machinery itself, but to suggest rapidly some of the varying situations of
MAN in this country in having to adapt himself rapidly to a world altered by
MACHINES on everyday life.66

A collection of nineteenth-century found texts illustrate the anthropomorphic

qualities of the steam engine and consider the diverse impact of industrialism
and technological innovation on human knowledge, aesthetics and nature.
Here, Darwinism and Freudian psychology meet in the descriptions of William
Cobbett and William Cobden and the social theory of Engels and Marx.67
It is the steam locomotive that has particular pride of place. With The Iron
Horse, Jennings considers the anthropomorphic relationship between human
beings and technology, which has occurred since the seventeenth century.
Artists and poets applied the language, metaphor and symbols of the natural
and spiritual world to this newness, to describe the nature and behaviour of
machines. In The Gods Move House, a title that reflects Jennings later BBC
radio broadcast and Listener article Homage to Vulcan, Elton provided a brief
history of the industrial revolution, which addressed the arrival of the steam

Remy, M. (1999). Surrealism in Britain, Ashgate. p. 155. The organizing committee

consisted of Mesens, himself and Arthur Elton. Exhibits were lent by himself, Mesens, Stuart
Legg and Roland Penrose.
Jennings, H. (1938). Do Not Lean Out of the Window! London Bulletin 4 and 5.
Jennings italics. Reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader,
Carcenet. p. 221.
Jennings, H. (1938). The Iron Horse. London Bulletin, Jennings, H. (1938). Do Not
Lean Out of the Window! London Bulletin. Ibid. pp. 2269 and 2215, respectively.

The Artist as Agent: 19378


engine and its impact on the human imagination while Legg contributed A note
on Locomotive Names.
Although Jennings would continue to contribute to the magazine and have a
one-man show at the gallery in November, this was his last major collaboration
with Mesens before resigning as assistant editor of the Bulletin, to eventually
take up full-time work once more at the GPO Film Unit. By the time of his
return to the unit, in the middle of 1938, his intellectual, artistic and political
preoccupations had been significantly reshaped. His personal and artistic
concerns about the relationship between poetry and life had now been overlain
and informed by a sharper social and political awareness. It was an awareness
matched by a continued search for appropriate techniques of communication,
by which the general public in a society on the verge of a major domestic and
international crisis, could find relevance in the messages coming from the artistpoet to their everyday lives. At one level, Jennings had begun to integrate his
art with oblique references to domestic and international politics. But as yet
his subject matter and artistic technique had not been turned explicitly to the
production of propaganda.

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Part II
The Documentary Film:
Art, Politics and Propaganda 193850

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Chapter 6

Return to the GPO Film Unit:

July 1938September 1939
Once the contract for the BBC had been completed, Jennings appears to have
picked up work with Stuart Legg at Strand Films. It may have been the lack
of a steady income, as well as the encouragement from Legg, which finally led
him to concentrate on his film work. During the staging of the Impact of
Machines exhibition in July, Jennings was re-employed as a full-time director
at the GPO Film Unit. In his absence the Unit had grown to such a size, that it
had been reorganised to create three new managerial posts in public relations,
general financial control and the creative side of production. Unhappy with
these developments Grierson had tendered his resignation. Leaving at the end
of June 1937 he set up Film Centre Ltd while Jack Holmes was promoted to the
position of Senior Producer of the Unit.
Penny Journey and Speaking from America
On his return, Jennings found it a real joy to be once more working with Harry
Watt and Pat Jackson and technicians such as Chick Fowle, Jonah Jones and Ken
Cameron. The first two assignments he completed were similar in approach to
those he had made at Dufay-Chromex. The self explanatory Penny Journey:
The Story of a Postcard from Manchester to Graffham (1938) and Speaking from
America (1938) about the transatlantic phone link, are brief educational films
which appear to leave little room for expression by the director. But as Sight and
Noxon, G. (19612). How Humphrey Jennings Came to Film. Film Quarterly
(Winter): 1926.

NA INF 1/426 Staff Complement and Salaries Production Staff. Jennings contract
began on 18 July 1938.

Office, G.P. (1937). Report of Committee on Film Unit, GPO Archive.

Basil Wright also left to form the Realist Film Unit and then later joined Grierson at
the Film Centre.

Jennings, H. (1943). Biographical Material and Private Correspondence. Humphrey
Jennings Collection File 19 BFI Archive.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Sound Magazine pointed out, Penny Journey (at just over five minutes in length)
was not purely routine:
Another experimental undertaking is the making of the first educational silent
film for schools which the Unit has so far essayed, as a special production. It is
called Penny Journey and traces the progress of a postcard from Manchester to
a little village [Graffham] in Sussex. In former years a considerable number of
educational silent films have been produced, but they have been made generally
speaking out of cut-outs from sound films. Penny Journey has been scripted, shot
and edited as a separate undertaking.

As the title of the film implies, it was made to illustrate the organisation, speed
and efficiency of the national postal service. The freedom to construct the story
allows Jennings, as with English Harvest, to intimate the speed of modern urban
life compared to that of a more traditional rural existence. There is no music,
but the film is provided with a very dry commentary. This interprets the images
which chart the under 24-hour journey of a childs postcard sent for the price of
a one penny stamp from the industrial north-west to his aunts farmhouse in the
heart of rural Sussex. Illustrated through a combination of studio and location
shots, archive material and maps, Jennings uses the individual card to explain the
highly co-ordinated sorting processes and the rapid transport of letters across
the country. This reduces both time and space between geographically separate
family members enabling them to keep in almost immediate touch.
The film begins with a shot of Manchester Town Hall replicated in the image
on the card upon which the boy, Jim, writes two brief sentences Dear Auntie,
thank you for your letter. It must be nice to live in the country. The last sentence
intimates that the distinctive experiences of urban and rural life are now far apart.
Jennings provides a very quick overview of the stages in this industrial process.
The card is posted at 2:45 and travels first by foot to the Manchester sorting office,
then by train to London and by van to Redhill sorting office, south of the capital.
At 10:30 that night it is sorted to be delivered to Petworth in Sussex, by 5a.m.,
before finally being sorted once more and arriving at Graffham near Goodwood
the next morning at 7a.m. Once the postcard has left Petworth, however, for
Graffham, the rhythm of life slows and the delivery is now humanised and
made more intimate within a pastoral setting. This final sequence is the most
impressive part of the film. The landscape of Graffham and the surrounding
district, locate the postmaster, Mr Pescod (who also runs the local shop) and Mr
Money the postman (seen shaving before setting off for work). By 7:25 he has left

Anon. (19389). Dial GPO. Sight and Sound Winter: 17071.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


his cottage and is heading to the shop as the mail arrives. The bundles of letters
are sorted into piles on the floor, as a cat walks by a ball of twine. On his round
Mr Money travels through woodland to Graffham Court, across the open chalk
countryside and along tree-shrouded lanes to local farms. The delivery of the
postcard requires abandoning his bicycle to walk over the chalk Downs through
beech woods to appear on top of the chalk scarp with a magnificent view of the
Sussex landscape as the audience is told almost back to Redhill. By 9:30 the
postcard is delivered and the message on the card is reiterated. The wistful line
It must be nice to be in the country is now accompanied by a landscape shot of
the region. The film is ambivalent about the situation because one consequence
of modern life is speedy national communication, but at the same time, people
are divided at a more fundamental level.
By the time of the production of Speaking from America, further managerial
changes had occurred and Jack Holmes was replaced by Cavalcanti in November
1938. Until his departure in 1940, Cavalcanti produced at least three of
Jennings films Speaking from America (1938), Spare Time and Spring Offensive
as well as the collaborative The First Days (all 1939). The subject matter of
Speaking from America is the rather dry topic of improvements in the shortwave
transatlantic telephone communication system. Although technical this was an
apposite theme to stress the strengthening of international relations between
the United States and Britain, through communications and trade. Given the
worsening European situation, the chance to illustrate collaboration between
British and American technicians and scientists allows Jennings to obliquely
introduce a wider political dimension by inserting, over images of the new
communications infrastructure, part of a speech by President Roosevelt that
refers to the gathering threat of war in Europe and the potential influence of
America in the future.
The pervasive atmosphere of immanent war reached a climax in mid
September 1938 over the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. As Britain
began to mobilise, Chamberlain flew repeatedly to Germany to meet Hitler,
eventually to sign the Munich peace agreement. Meanwhile, the Governments
Home Publicity Planning Sub-Committee decided that the GPO Film Unit
Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. pp. 517.

Apart from these two films Jennings undertook a brief acting role in The Islanders
(1939) playing a fruit exporter on Guernsey who negotiated and placed orders for tomatoes.
The implied emphasis of this film is of a peaceful nation integrated domestically and
internationally through the bridge of communications and trade. Also Pat Jackson remembers
him shooting a sequence for a film to be called Health and Industry. Jackson, P. (1999). A
Retake Please! Night Mail to Western Approaches, Liverpool University Press. p. 57.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

would act as the principal production agency for the Films Division within the
wartime Ministry of Information (MoI). Between January and April 1939, as
Jennings began working on his first major assignment, the European situation
deteriorated rapidly. The year began with Mussolini consolidating his strategic
position around the Mediterranean, by incorporating the four coastal provinces
of Libya into his growing Italian Empire. In April he also annexed the Italian
protectorate of Albania, while Francos forces were triumphant in Spain.
Meanwhile, Hitler ignored the Munich agreement and marched troops into
the remnants of the Czech state. Then by incorporating the Memel District on
the Baltic coast into the Reich, he put direct pressure on Poland. Chamberlains
policy of Appeasement was over. Britain and France knew military deterrence
was the only option available. Poland mobilised, announcing it would fight
and Chamberlain declared Britain would provide military support if necessary,
and agreed also to support Romania and Greece against any Italian threat. On
12 April the British Government undertook the unprecedented step of
introducing peacetime military conscription.
As war drew closer, the British Foreign Office knew the potential economic
and military power of the United States would be critical in the fight against
Germany. However, isolationist opinion in the United States was determined
to keep the country out of any impending European conflict. Direct appeals for
support were not possible and therefore attempts to influence American opinion
focused on building a closer rapport between the two nations. As Speaking from
America illustrated, one approach was to target informed opinion within the
American upper class, through positive and sympathetic images of Britain. A
suitable opportunity arose with the opening of the New York World Fair on
30 April 1939. The British Pavilion provided an ideal venue for exhibitions,
concerts, newsreels and documentaries, intended to promote British life,
culture, democracy and humanitarian values.10 The British Council required
documentary films which projected the pageantry of English life and, where
possible, stressed those elements which Britain shared with America.11 Prior to
Jennings return to the Unit, a joint committee, comprising the British Council
and the Travel and Industrial Development Association, approached the GPO

See Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against
American Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. Ch. 1.
Ibid. pp. 267.
Swann, P. (1989). The British Documentary Film Movement 19261946, Cambridge
University Press. p. 138.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


to produce two complementary documentaries which would focus on different

aspects of British working life:12
Two short films might be made on the theme. One a short review of British
Industry (with especial reference to the Anglo-American Trade Agreement of
1938) and showing British workers at work. It is suggested that the other might
be in contrast, and might show British workers recreational activities The
general purpose is to show that workers of all grades have a secondary life, over
and above their working life, in which colliers may become musicians, musicians
may become engineers, engineers may become dog-fanciers and so on.13

The first emerged as British Made (1939), but discussion continued over the
possible subject matter and structure of the second film. An episodic format was
suggested with each episode directed by a different director. Activities such as
amateur theatre and opera, the keeping of pigeons, football matches, leek growing
and kazoo jazz bands, all get a mention as possible candidates for inclusion.
Although many suggestions were made and considerable research undertaken,
there was no detailed script prepared, only a bald statement of intent revealing
that the episodic character of the film still remained, but the idea of employing
different directors had been dropped:
We are often told that machines have made robots of us. But out of working hours,
our time is, as we say, our own The film will be shot in three locations, and will
represent the personal lives of the people who depend on three main industries
cotton, steel and coal. Music characteristics of these three areas will form the
emotional background to the sections. The material of the film i.e. the actual
pictures of the people, cannot be scripted in detail, since it depends on what the
director finds in the locations. The workers will be shot in the streets and in their
homes, eating drinking, living their lives. The most interesting local activities will
be shown British sports, games, hobbies and pastimes. The general tone of the
film will be bright. Without being in any sense unfaithful to the truth, it will
attempt to show the natural gaiety of working people, and the varied expression
which it finds. The finale, as at present planned, will feature cup final crowds.14

Dai Vaughan concludes that although no director is actually named, the closeness
between the treatment and the finished film must surely indicate that Jennings had
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 42.
NA INF 5/58 British Workers.
NA INF 5/58 British Workers.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

by now been selected for the job and wrote it himself .15 The outline is indicative
of Jennings interests, the reference to machines and their supposed impact on
human existence, the routines of industrial life and the imaginative and emotional
response of the people outside of working hours, the reportage style created
through a spontaneous approach to the subject matter, are all suggestive of the
approach he would adopt with future film production. The film which eventually
emerged out of his travels to the coalfields around Pontypridd (South Wales), the
steel town of Sheffield (South Yorkshire) and the seaside resort of Blackpool and
Bolton in Lancashire would be called Spare Time (1939).
Not only is Spare Time Jennings first major assignment with Cavalcanti, but it
also marks the beginning of a series of films, which in terms of cinematic technique
culminate stylistically approximately two years later, with Listen to Britain (1942).
These reportage style films based on the technique of collage, allow us to consider
them as a body of developing work which begins and concludes on similar
subject matter, namely the relationship between work and leisure. Through close
scrutiny, it is possible to trace how this particular style of documentary emerged,
developed and matured. Although produced two and half years apart, in different
circumstances and conditions, Spare Time and Listen to Britain bracket a series of
films, which articulate the notion that the contingency of everyday life is borne
out of a continual process of struggle. The idea binds together the diverse subject
matter of the films he made between 1939 and 1942. They include working class
leisure (Spare Time), international trade (S.S. Ionian), the reclamation of farmland
(Spring Offensive), poetry and war (Words for Battle), social welfare (Welfare of the
Workers) civilian morale and calls for international aid (Heart of Britain and Listen
to Britain).
Spare Time
Spare Time is very, very important a very important document.
Alberto Cavalcanti16

Spare Time gave Jennings the opportunity to explore his fascination with the
poetry of popular expression, and a chance to consider through the subject
matter of the film, the impact of industrial life on the popular imagination.
It illustrates how an industrialised people use tradition and their creativity to
See Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 43.
Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. p. 110.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


express the emotional and spiritual side of themselves, in that precious period
of relative freedom, the social time between paid work and sleep. He provides
a different vision of industrial working class life from that usually offered by
the Griersonian style of documentary which raised criticisms from Griersons
Although Jennings had considerable latitude on location, previous research
and planning had identified three traditional working class activities; brass band
music, choir practice and a kazoo band in Lancashire. These provide the musical
background for each regional sequence, which depicts a variety of other activities
associated with working class respectability, such as gardening, the keeping of
greyhounds, the division of labour in the home, pub games, football and amateur
theatrics. Simultaneously, the film acknowledges the influence of American
popular culture upon the lives of the younger generation, with references to
cowboy comics, dance bands, basketball and the Victoria Carnival Jazz band.
In doing so, Jennings presents a working class culture that is protean, rich and
diverse, capable of maintaining traditional activities, while accommodating the
modern, symbolised by consumerism, American entertainment and culture.
The association of British workers with the American people is achieved
by locating work and leisure within the specific historical context of industrial
manufacture and peaceful international trade. This is achieved in the introduction
of the film, by images of the industrial revolution, such as terraced housing,
factory chimneys and a statue of the nineteenth-century anti-corn law critic,
William Cobden. Cobden, along with his British and American supporters,
championed the idea that only free markets and free trade would bring economic
prosperity, peace and goodwill among like-minded nations. After these images,
the film divides into three distinct sections, introduced and concluded by very
brief and highly functional preambles and codas. The commentary, spoken
by Laurie Lee, provides the rationale of the film: This is a film about the way
people spend their time. People in three British industries. Steel, cotton and
coal. Between work and sleep there comes a time we call our own. What do we
do with it? Each section begins with a succinct comment about the rhythm
of social time imposed on the industries. The first describes Sheffield: Steel,
the three shift system means that the steelworkers spare time may come in the
morning or afternoon; followed by Lancashire: The mills open at eight and
close at five. Saturday afternoons and Sundays off ; and lastly Pontypridd in
South Wales with the perfunctory, Finally coal. The aim appears to be twofold:
to provide contextual information, within which these activities are presented,
but also to reveal the social construction of this period called spare time. The
term, as Jennings knew, was used in the early and mid nineteenth century during
the Parliamentary debates over the introduction of the Factory Acts which were

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


designed to limit the length of the working day; the first major and successful
attempt to control the hours of labour through law. The notion of spare time
therefore is an ideological construct shaped by economic, social and political
factors. Work time, represented by the predominantly male workers coming
off shift at the beginning of the film and returning to work at the conclusion, is
underpinned by contingent nature of the coda. As things are, spare time is time
when we have a chance to do what we like. A chance to be most ourselves.
The film sets out to disabuse the viewer of the general notion that machines
have made robots of us. The implication is, that unlike the pre-industrial age,
modern industrial production does not allow the spiritual and emotional
fulfilment of the individual. By its very nature, industrial work has stripped
away the possibilities of such a condition. Even if this is so, that side of human
existence can still be fulfilled in that period of spare time, when the imaginative,
spiritual and the emotional sides can be reunited to express itself in the personal
and social activity of leisure.17 Notably in the steel sequence, activities such as
band practice, pigeon and greyhound keeping are edited to be spatially located
within the landscape of chimneys and factories. This form of visual metaphor is
not repeated in the two subsequent sequences, apart from an initial establishing
shot of cotton mills in Lancashire and a similar shot of an industrial valley
(concluding with pit winding gear silhouetted against the evening sky) at the
close of the Welsh sequence. What each sequence does share is the technique
of contextualising the images of spare time activity, through the use of visual or
sound reference to distinctive and robust forms of communal music, associated
with the three industrial regions the brass band with Sheffield steel, the
Victoria jazz (kazoo) band and Lancashire cotton, choir practice and coalmining
in South Wales. Jennings produces a representation of creative working class
activity within each discrete regional section through a collage of images, both
public and private, linked by the regionally based music on the soundtrack.
Implicitly the audience must look at the evidence and evaluate its meaning in
sequences which lack the orthodox coding of the Grierson style. As NowellSmith recognises, the film refuses to ennoble. It is a film about servitude and
grandeur of working class leisure under capitalism. But what is grand and what is


The programme notes for the films preview state that the film attempts to suggest
some of the essential qualities of life in moments of leisure. GPO Film Unit Programme.
19 May 1939. It was first shown at the Cambridge Theatre and then premiered at The Paris
Cinema, Regent Street in June showing on the same bill as Hotel du Nord (Dir. Marcel
Carne). Humphrey Jennings Collection: BFI Archive. Item 20.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


servile, is left to be inferred.18 The audience is allowed to interpret, not passively

consume, ideologically inflected representations.
Spare Time has been described as Jennings Mass Observation film and to
some extent this is true, in that it allows the people to speak for themselves. In
other words, it is a cinematic reworking of the poetic dimension expunged from
the movement, which also expresses that critique of modern industrial life he
had absorbed since his childhood:
there can be no thought of that joy in life which makes for art, so long as the wagesystem continues in being, demanding a mans whole labour in return for bare
subsistence. Grant leisure grant life, and it will soon be found that men, coming
back out of mere existence into life, will surely turn their hearts and hands to the
practice of those arts which embody and transmit communal ideals.19

It is an attempt to present the poetic dimension of the cultural vernacular,

through a form of documentary where the film maker acts as a testifying witness.
As Jennings made clear, the film would not be in any sense unfaithful to the
truth, it will attempt to show the natural gaiety of working people, and the varied
expressions which it finds. He attempts to provide an artless representation of
social reality, where authorial intent is minimised and, in literal and metaphorical
terms, the people speak and represent themselves on the screen to the people.
Woven through the activities, is the evidence of poetic expression emerging when
we have a chance to do what we like. A chance to be most ourselves. Working
people show their humanity and strength of character in negotiating their lives
as things are. While recording the manifestations of the human imagination
and spirit, within the contemporary industrial age, he includes traditional Welsh
puppet theatre and a local Welsh language paper, contextualised by the sound
of miners at choir practice singing Handels Largo, against the brightly lit shop
windows of consumerism. At the same time, he considers the mysterious nature
of the mass and how the poetic erupts in the whistles and roar of the football
crowd. A child chalking a picture of a boat on the pavement is juxtaposed in
coincidental fashion against a man wrapping a wooden boat in a parcel (a
surprise gift for that child?).20 We glimpse a newspaper with the bizarre headline
Her Scent was Bats Delight and a boy engrossed in an American cowboy comic
while he waits for his meal. Perhaps as a satirical statement of Government

Nowell-Smith, G. (1986). Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist Observer, in Barr, C., ed.,

All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute. pp. 32133. p. 326.
Caldwell Cook, H. (1914). Self-Government in Class. The New Age 14(21): 6535.
Jennings also includes a childs crude drawing of a boat in Farewell Topsails.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


foreign policy, he associates the Lancashire kazoo bands tinny rendition of Rule
Brittania with the caged lions of Manchester Belle Vue Zoo.
It is not for such reasons, however, that Spare Time is regarded as significant
in the history of the British documentary film movement. Rather attention has
focused on the Lancashire kazoo band sequence, which, as Aitken states, was
responsible for bringing the growing breach between the members of the
documentary film movement associated with Cavalcanti, and those associated
with Grierson, to a head.21 It was this sequence, in particular, that gained the
opprobrium of the Grierson faction: The feeling was that Humphrey seemed
to show in our opinion, a patronising, sometimes almost sneering attitude
towards the efforts of the lower income groups to entertain themselves.22 Such
charges actually disguise an underlying criticism, that the kazoo band sequence
transgresses the codes of the Grierson documentary. The Sheffield and Welsh
sequences include elements of the social archetype that fall within what were
regarded as the Griersonian parameters. The brass band and male voice choir
are virtually indivisible from the world of male paid labour and the traditions
associated with northern social and economic relations of work and leisure. It is
feasible to construct from these sequences, an optimistic reading of the value of
working class leisure and domestic life. One can appreciate the artistry of the allmale brass band and choir. Other forms of associated activity, such as gardening,
pub games and cooking, are contextualised by the harmony of vocal and brass
music, themselves associated with the images of factories or pit winding gear.
In this sense, there is an alignment between Jennings expression and what
was demanded by Griersons cinematic form. Out of the bleak industrial
environment comes beautiful music, both poetic in form and nature, honourable
and ennobling, the product of an honourable and noble class.
If steel and coal can be associated with the heroic archetype of dignified male
labour, the association breaks down in the Lancashire sequence. Compared
with other representations of music making, the kazoo band, whose music
underpins the central passage of the triptych, cannot be associated with either of
Griersons archetypes of the heroic or victim. The band appears immediately
after an establishing shot of an industrial landscape, which is complemented
by the introductory statement on working hours.23 The initial camera position
Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. p. 58.
Basil Wright cited in Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working
Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 33.
At this time Kazoo Band and Dance Troupe competitions were co-ordinated by
the British National Jazz Band League in Liverpool with whom the Unit corresponded.
Preparations had been made at a fixed date and time to film the band in the public arena at

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


frames the band through a high angled long shot, that pans slowly from right
to left, keeping the marching troupe in frame. The distant image of the band
in full regalia, marching across bare open ground against a backdrop of a high
wall and the backs of terraced housing, accompanied by the tinny buzz of
the kazoos, heightens curiosity. Probably chosen to contextualise how band
activity is a combination of marching and music, the initial long shot has the
effect of providing the audience with a point of view of the action, which is
both detached and omniscient. The spectacular nature of the shot is seductive.
It encourages the observer to become fascinated by the image itself in the
conditions of a particular place at a particular time [it is] a humanist fascination
with a particular social condition, which is in the end a fascination with a
generalized human condition.24 The long shot, reinforced through subsequent
medium and close-up shots of individuals and their faces, shows the participants
to be mainly children and adolescents. Further more, they are predominantly
female, attired in rather hapless uniforms and under the direction of an elderly
man. It is a communal activity performed by a group of self-conscious, mainly
immature girls and boys. The male body, as a signifier of class virility through
which to celebrate social and economic worth, is absent. Not that convincingly,
the band runs through the promenade with the lead marcher engaged in a
curious dance at their head. The sequence culminates in a stilted rendition of
Rule Britannia, complete with artless tableaux lifted shoulder high in the wind.
Compared to the preceding beautiful resonances of the brass instrumentation
and the subsequent harmonisation of the Welsh choir, the musical intonation
emitted from the technically unsophisticated kazoos and side drums is crude
and discordant. It is the absence of positive signifiers that gives the landscape,
participants and music a melancholy air. Here, unlike the steel and coalmining
sequences, no direct association can be drawn between the heroic labour, life
and traditional leisure of the respectable working class. There seems to be little
about the relationship between this urban-industrial landscape and the social
condition of the musicians, which can be interpreted positively.
Age, gender and the novelty of the American style uniforms conspire to
provide Grierson and his supporters with a negative interpretation.25 For
them, the tenor of the sequence is bleak, with no evidence of the social and
moral realism demanded. It is a landscape and music which seems barren and
Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, but what appears in the final cut of the film bears no relation
to what was organised. NA INF 5/58 British Workers.
Higson, A. (1996). Space, Place and Spectacle: Landscape and Townscape in the
Kitchen Sink Film. Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell. p. 154.
See the discussion of Spare Time in Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings,
Manchester University Press. Ch. 2.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


signifies economic and cultural depression. This is compounded by what could

be interpreted as a failure in the I-witness style of photography and editing.
The conventions of Griersons sober journalism, privileging sequence over the
individual image, implies a discourse that fixes the subject matter in space,
place and time appropriate to the intentions of the author. Nowell-Smith
(1986) recognises that Jennings was attempting something different from that
All the shots have the look of still photography about them only in rare
moments is it sufficient to produce the present-ness and anticipated future of
cinematic narration. More than anything else it is the uncinematic snapshottish
quality of the images that marks Spare Time as a different sort of documentary
from the documentary model.26

Jennings documentary style often stresses the individual image(s) over the
sequence and can therefore be more intense. Throughout the film the audience
is presented with almost painterly impressionistic images of chimneys, housing
and industry, which often dwarf the inhabitants. Space and place, landscape
and environment contextualise and locate spare time activity. Out of the
consequences of industrialism comes a creative form of popular expression,
with its own strangeness and beauty. In this case the drabness and routine of the
ordinary is transcended by the imagination and creative power of the human
spirit. For Jennings, filming the local kazoo band within an impressionistic
landscape, accentuated the nobility and poetic nature of the activity.
In allowing the subject matter to speak for itself, rather than to be spoken
for, Jennings faced the problem of providing a non-intrusive form of exposition
which avoided the closure of the standard documentary narrative. To achieve this
he turned towards his artistic technique of collage. Loosely bound by a temporal
time sequence of morning and evening, Jennings constructs a series of images
representing the associated regional activities. The visual and aural components
of each sequence take on a discrete existence, drained of formal momentum.
Each sequence stands in its own right and creates a multifaceted, overlapping
representation of human creativity. Sequences are divided from each other by
editing and commentary. The Lancashire and Welsh sequences are introduced
by fade-outs from the previous sequence, followed by the appropriate regional
industrial landscape and brief explanation. What we are offered is a technique
of juxtaposition, which mimics the style of representation found in his report
Nowell-Smith, G. (1986). Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist Observer, in Barr, C., ed.,
All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute. pp. 32133.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


poems. Through editing, he constructs and combines the collages of sound

and image to create juxtapositions, which infer connections and accentuate
the relationship between tradition and the contemporary. This is particularly
apparent in Jennings use of sound. It is easy to assume that the music of the
brass band, kazoo band and choir, form points of reference around which the
visual representations of each region are co-ordinated. There are instances when
the music finishes within a sequence and we are left with the visual images and
natural sounds of the regional event, still playing on the soundtrack. This could
be seen as imperfect editing, with visual elements seemingly tacked on after the
music has finished. However, this view fails to recognise a deeper poetic unity
which Jennings expresses through analogy, parallel and comparison.
For Jennings all aspects of life had a musical quality. Music, as a form
of emotional expression in sound, is not confined to the conventional ideas of
music-making by traditional instruments or the human voice. Music is another
form of poetry, a form of expression of the emotions, which can put us in contact
with the spiritual side of our nature. At the same time, the rhythms of modern
life have their own music, which is expressed through everyday sounds. For
example, the final notes of the brass band overlap with the images of the football
crowd. The emotional expression of the brass instruments is immediately taken
up by another form of popular music and emotional expression in the whistles
and turbulent chorus of the spectators. The musicality of the massed human
voice remains on the soundtrack, as individuals buy their postal orders for the
football pools. We return to the spectators for one last roar of excitement, before
the screen darkens to end the sequence. Similarly, after the kazoo band, Jennings
cuts to a rehearsal of amateur dramatics which focuses upon the musicality of the
human voice. Here the art of proclaiming is explored through vocal expression,
pitch and timing and is immediately followed by an American style ballroom
dance band, playing un updated version of the traditional tune The Bells of
St Marys. Once again the screen darkens. The final sequence in Pontypridd
begins with another type of music, the work siren and clank of the shunting rail
trucks. This is the music of work and industrialisation, which is immediately
followed by the raucous, mechanised music of the fair ground. As the choir
practice fades on the soundtrack, we return to the siren and clank of industrial
machinery, as miners prepare to descend into the pit. The sounds of industry
and work replace the creativity and expression of the time when we can most
be ourselves spare time. Jennings offers therefore, through a different form of
discourse, an alternative interpretation of working class life and reality. Whereas
Grierson tells us what we should be, Jennings provides a more pragmatic and
open interpretation. He asks the audience to reflect upon what they are and
what they might be. Nowell-Smith correctly asserts that What separates [his

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


other] films from Spare Time [to which we may add S.S Ionian] is the coming
of the war on the one hand and Jennings partnership with Stewart McAllister
on the other.27 The historic moment of total war had a fundamental impact on
Jennings. However, the aesthetic sensibility and technique found in Spare Time
did not disappear, but found further elaboration in his early wartime films.
MaySeptember 1939: Art, Science and War
The first screening of Spare Time on 19 May coincided with the victory parade
of Francos forces through Madrid. Three days later Hitler signed the Pact
of Steel with Italy and warned Britain and France about support for Poland.
Between the completion of Spare Time and his next major assignment, Jennings
gave a 20-minute talk on the Victorian engineer James Nasmyth for the BBC
programme Science Review.28 Nasmyth was interested in mythology, astronomy
and painting, and his life illustrated how myths and the arts came to colour
his and our understanding of technology. After [he] had invented the steam
hammer he had his motto altered to Not by war but by art. Here begins a series
of connections between art and war and science in this mans life. He concluded
his talk with the words So the next time you see a news-reel of the launching of a
battleship, think for a moment of James Nasmyth the man who sat at the edge
of the crater of Vesuvius and threw in a visiting card of the Bridgewater Foundry
[in respect to Vulcan the head of his craft]. This talk was apposite because his
next film would also consider those links between science and technology, war,
art and the myths of earlier ages.
By the end of June, Jennings was heading towards the Mediterranean. He
spent the first half of July filming aboard the merchant ship S.S. Ionian, as it
carried supplies and raw materials from London to Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria
(Egypt), Haifa (Palestine) and Cyprus, before returning to Alexandria then
London. Like Spare Time, the film had been commissioned early in 1939 by
the Joint Committee of the British Council and the Travel and Industrial
Development Association. Returning in late July, he would have found a nervous
fatalism underlying the preparations for war. Events had rapidly overtaken the
conditions under which the film had been commissioned. In August, Western
Europe was shocked as Hitler increased pressure on Poland, by signing the Nazi27

Ibid. p. 236.
Broadcast on the BBC National Programme, May 1939, Jennings, H. (1939).
Homage to Vulcan. The Listener 8 June 1939, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The
Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 2835.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. It was during this developing crisis that Jennings
was writing the commentary and editing the film.
S.S. Ionian (Her Last Trip)
Falling between Spare Time and the outbreak of war S.S. Ionian (Her Last Trip) has
received little detailed attention. When it has, it has been described as arous[ing]
despair rather than hope, very ordinary and jingoistic.29 At first glance the
material may seem uninspiring but to consider the film as a failure of Jennings
poetic style is short-sighted. The film focuses on the role of one merchant ship,
which symbolises the British Merchant Navy. Around its voyage, Jennings explores
the benefits drawn from free trade and the protective role of the Royal Navy, in
maintaining the integrity of the Mediterranean shipping lanes. The narrative also
promotes a positive image of the relationship between Britain and her colonies
in the Near East. Within each sequence, from the historic introduction of the
film until the departure of the ship from Alexandria on the home run, material
is edited in such a way as to integrate aspects of English character, antiquity and
the contemporary international situation. The dramatic turn of events meant
that he must address two distinct audiences with the same message: to provide
reassurance to a civilian population, where one in three felt Britain should take
any option rather than go to war, while at the same time encourage support from
potential allies.30 In other words he needed to strike a careful balance between
a reassuring image of British fortitude and military strength, while avoiding a
belligerent or strident nationalist tone that might inflame anti-colonial sentiment
and contribute to alienating the United States.
What has been interpreted as the jingoistic tone of the film, with its
frequent reference to the Royal Navy (the greatest navy in the world), its
armaments, fighting strength and its protective role,31 is to misread Jennings
patriotism for aggressive nationalist sentiment. Rather than a jingoistic account
of Imperial power, S.S. Ionian is rather a meditation upon the interaction
between the different dimensions of historic British Imperial adventure, cultural
and economic exchange and contemporary military and trade security. As
Rhode, E. (1966). Humphrey Jennings. Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema,
Chilton Books. pp. 6781, Hillier, J. (1972). Humphrey Jennings, in Hillier, J., and Lovell,
A., eds, Studies in Documentary, Viking Press. p. 74. Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney
(1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 456.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 36.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 45.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

mentioned earlier, Jennings regarded himself as a patriot, a man who respected

his country, the people who populated it and institutions which symbolised its
history, democratic heritage and principles. But it was an affection tempered by
what he saw as faults, such as self-importance and a crippling pettiness associated
with the anachronistic class system.32 He expressed pride in the achievements of
the British Nation, and when he stated that the Royal Navy was the pre-eminent
naval force on the globe, he was stating a fact as much as a proud boast.
Elements of this interpretation of the British Nation inform the subtext
of S.S. Ionian. He begins by presenting the British as the peaceful party in
the coming international conflict. Any jingoism is undercut by the emphasis
upon the traditional protective maritime role of the Royal Navy, in overseeing
the international sea lanes for the peaceful activity of promoting free trade. A
dominant theme, reinforced by the shots and descriptions of battleships and
destroyers at the Mediterranean ports, is that of the ever watchful guardian.
The geographically strategic ports of Gibraltar, Valetta (Malta) and Alexandria
(Egypt), would have been well known and Jennings does not miss the chance to
reinforce how a modern, fast and heavily armed Royal Navy continues to guard
this vital trade route to the Near East and then the Empire, through the Suez
Canal, to India and Asia. This reassurance of naval might at the ready, is integral
to a discourse concerned with seafaring history, cultural heritage and trade. It is
set within a contemporary military situation, where the Italian Navy had become
an immanent threat to a crucial line of British trade and communication, within
a strategic military arena. Logically, the story would commence with the loading
of cargo and departure from the Port of London. Instead Jennings chose to begin
in the Mediterranean, with a brief sequence of visual images depicting Greek
antiquities, which signify the connections between past and present. The image
of olive trees swaying in the wind, the remains of pillars, a print of a Greek galley,
a shot of a coastal plain followed by a reverse shot to the coast and mountains,
taken from the Ionian, concludes with porpoises leaping at the bow of the ship.
As the images unfold the commentary informs us:
Once upon a time in the East Mediterranean a Greek sailor got lost on his way
home and sailed out of the Aegean Sea westward, past Malta and Gibraltar. The
Greek was Ulysses, and his voyage the Odyssey. Then he sailed north until he
came to the land where it is day and night at one and the same time. Today weve

Jennings, H. (1948). The English. Times Literary Supplement 7 August and comments
in the letter dated 10 May 1941. Reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


turned the tables on mythology, now it is the Northerners who are running their
vessels South by East.33

The reference to the Odyssey is not as obscure as one may think. At school and
university Jennings had studied the Classics and their influence upon English
poetry, drama and music. He makes clear that the existence of past and present
are close, in fact simultaneous. In the geographical and cultural heartland of
Western civilisation, a modern English ship ploughs the waters carrying a Greek
name. Fitting well with his preoccupation for the historical, it is in the Bay of
Gibraltar with its critical place in British maritime history, that he picks up the
voyage. The voyage itself becomes a form of contemporary odyssey, as the ship
plies its trade around the region before heading back to London with new cargo.
The narrative consists of a series of overlapping themes and subjects, which muse
on the relationship between work and leisure, the character of the merchant
seaman, tradition and the modern. Set within a tense political time, Hodgkinson
and Sheratsky complain the film is dull with a distressing lack of incident in
her slow and plodding journey. 34 But the ships voyage is reassuring, both for
the ships crew and the audience, as Jennings observes the routine daily life on
the ship. It is an opportunity to glimpse some of those strengths he regards as
constituting the English character:
Teamwork [and] the love of pattern, of order is responsible for their delight in
ships, the supreme example of patterned life This absorption in pattern is one
aspect of the general power of absorption, of concentration, which the Englishman
enjoys. It is possible that this enabled him to pass into civilisation of the streets
without becoming part of it. So the English travel in trains; not as a company, but
as a collection of individuals They are urbane without being urban; creating
their own environment within their own being, they can dwell in the midst of
twenty miles of paving stones and pretend, with the aid of a back green or even a
flower-pot, that they are in a hamlet on the Downs. Or so it seems to the outsider.
Perhaps the English have something completely different in their heads.35

And so it is. Interspersed within the narrative of the journey, the men work
together, carrying out ship maintenance and designated tasks. The crew must
Reference to the commentary is taken from the film soundtrack. Abridged
commentaries can be found in Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey
Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover.
Ibid. p. 45.
Jennings, H. (1948). The English. Times Literary Supplement August. Reprinted in
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 240.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

bear the extreme heat inside the ships bunkers and engine room, and adapt to
the harsh sun of the Mediterranean. They rig an improvised awning for shade, as
the ship sails eastwards into the sun. They create their own environment within
their own being as the ship traverses a calm sea under clear skies. Aboard ship,
social time dissolves into the rhythm of everyday routine. Days, rather than hours
pass, in unhurried natural time as they sail between ports. They consume meals,
wash clothes and enjoy moments of solitary leisure; reading, whistling to a pet
canary, playing a record of an operatic aria or listening and noting gardening
tips from the BBC World Service. In their representation he celebrates the same
pattern of teamwork and individualism found in Spare Time.
The embarking and disembarking of cargo punctuates the film and allows
him to locate this modern seafaring trade within ancient seafaring traditions,
past British naval exploits and the contemporary international situation. In the
harbour at Gibraltar, with military dockyard and warships evident, stores are
unloaded for the British naval base. The cargo is described: steel, explosives,
cement, beer, telegraph poles, corrugated iron and airplane spares. The
soundtrack carries subdued Spanish music to signify the region and a stevedore
peers intently over the side of the ship, making odd gesticulations with his hand.
It is not clear what is happening, or what this behaviour means, until Jennings
reveals that the delicate and animated hand movements are signals; the common
language used to direct the unloading of cargo. The unloading techniques may
be traditional, but the Ionian is described as modern, new, clean and fast. Her
captain, appropriately named William Smith, weighs anchor. Jennings takes us
into the engine room, where the stoking of the coal-fired boilers animates the
pistons of the engine and smoke billows from the ships funnel.
How tradition and the modern coexist, is caught by the British military
presence which surrounds the passage of the Ionian. The sequence at the British
naval base at Valetta highlights the symbiotic relationship between the Royal
Navy and the Merchant Fleet. What could be a sensitive issue of Imperial power,
becomes both domesticated and pacified through the commentary of the
soundtrack. Although we are shown a British battleship in the floating dock, the
rationale for the navy presence is given as watchful protection. The protection
of merchant ships, cargoes, passengers and men is primarily to keep our larders
full, increase foreign trade, take out our stores to our naval bases and navy ships
and furnish men for the navy reserves. As the Ionian leaves harbour, Jennings
continues the theme:
All over the world there are big and little ships, some luxurious some dirty but
tramp and liner belong to the same family of merchant ships. When a British

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


merchant steamer passes one of His Majestys vessels, they dip their ensigns to
recognise the relationship between the two.

We see the Ionian engaging in this symbolic ritual. The subsequent shot of a
crew member whistling to his canary in a cage could be read as a visual metaphor
for that relationship: a protective framework of military power surrounding
and protecting the peaceful, but vulnerable activity of merchant trade. This is
set visually within the history of shipping technology, as the Ionian slips her
moorings at Valetta to head towards Alexandria. Under the ramparts, traditional
Maltese rowing boats are moored. A quick cut reveals the rigging and sails of
schooners, the craft which plied these waters in the nineteenth century onwards,
to be superseded in the next shot by the funnels of coal-fired steamers and oilfired battleships.
As the Ionian wends its way between destinations, each port is connected
through radio messages and Morse code. Linear time is implied by the notion of
the journey, but the slow passage of time allows Jennings to illustrate the voyage
as a series of distinct themed tableaux. As with Spare Time, the narrative is
punctuated by imagery and statements that introduce each section. For example,
the sequence in Alexandria begins with a shot of a telegram which estimates
time of arrival. It dissolves to reveal a close up of an ancient but defaced Egyptian
mask. Against a background of Arabian music, the boat is unloaded as British
cruisers and destroyers pass in and out of the harbour. Jennings commentary
deftly interrelates the military success of the past British sea power against
Napoleons fleet, with the present benefits of trade for Egypt: Carefully stowed
inside these crates are airplane parts for the RAF depot at Aboukir Bay, where
Nelson smashed Napoleons navy over a hundred years ago. Now comes material
for Egypt itself. They unload heavy chains and a monstrous anchor for a floating
dock and cement for Egypts new motor roads.
The disembarkation of cargo at Haifa allows Jennings to highlight the
strategic importance of Palestine to Britain. In this brief sequence, the emphasis
is on the modern dock installation and the power of the naval presence in four
G class destroyers, there to protect the oil dumps of the famous pipelines
from Iran. At this point, the explicit reference to military power and strategic
importance is juxtaposed with the humanity of the soundtrack, as the crew listen
to the radio or an operatic aria. At first we hear the tender Barcarole from the
Tales of Hoffman. The scene, shot through the porthole of a cabin, occurs when
Jim the other apprentice puts on a record and the musical duet floats across the
water to the men maintaining the warships. The poetic beauty and humanity
of the music overlays this imagery of military power and the implication of the
two sides of the British character, as warrior and poet are not far away. This


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

association is quickly followed by the more private image and sound of the radio
operator, listening to a gardening programme on the World Service.
From this point in the film, as the Ionian departs for Cyprus, Jennings
evokes the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the journey. As the ship navigates
the Palestine coast, his sensitivity to the cultural heritage associated with the
Mediterranean landscape is reflected in the pointed reference to Mount Carmel,
the spiritual home of the twelfth-century Christian order of Carmelites. This
brief image of the mountain, like all images in his films, can be read at different
levels of knowingness; for example literally as a geographical feature, or
symbolically as a cultural or religious monument or a traditional and/or spiritual
signifier of Christian life and belief. A point picked up as the ship approaches
Larissa Harbour in Cyprus; the English Gothic Cathedral behind the harbour
expresses the return of those beliefs and ideals of European cultural heritage to
the place from which they first emerged.
Just as the imagery cannot be taken at face value neither should the
activities contained within the narrative. The ship unloads the last vestiges of
its cargo of manufactured goods, to begin to refill its holds with the produce
of the region. The Ionian continues her voyage between the Cyrene ports with
the basic principles and mechanism of free trade exemplified in the exchange
of manufactured goods for primary products. With native music on the
soundtrack, locust beans, oil and wine are stowed in the ships hold. Jennings
fleetingly considers the posterity of that civilisation which has become part of
our heritage through the Classics. Heralded by the Egyptian flag, the return
to Alexandria is accompanied by a list of the raw produce loaded into the
night: Oilcake, cotton and onions which will fill British larders, eventually
clothe British backs and provide feed for animals. Jennings imports a feeling
of security and certainty in a time of anxiety as the return home is also treated
with patriotic and defensive caution. As Elgars Pomp and Circumstance
swells on the soundtrack the music is complemented by a shot of the red
ensign, sea lanes of merchant traffic as the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet
are named. Inter-cut with archive material of the Navy, speeding through
Atlantic Seas, he reassures his audience:
Westward! throughout this voyage, the Ionian has met ships of the
Mediterranean Fleet. Past Gibraltar she heads north where the Home Fleet are
on watch guarding the way [shots of destroyers, the cliffs of Dover and Butlers
Wharf at the Port of London]. By the Tower of London she unloads her cargo
brought safely from Cyprus and Alexandria under the protection of the British
Navy, the greatest Navy in the world.

Return to the GPO Film Unit: July 1938September 1939


The soundtrack concludes by maintaining this notion of stability and order,

as the commentary intones that the Ionian will soon repeat its round trip.
The words are complemented by Turneresque imagery, inter-cut with shots of
the Royal Navy and a setting sun, silhouetting the skyline of docks, chimneys
and cranes over a darkened Thames and sailing barge.
The film, ready for distribution by 1940, would fit well into that season of
British Films at the World Fair, which, according to Cull, were to carry a more
definite war flavour The British showed a solid diet of war documentaries
and reportedly became easily the most popular feature at the Fair. When the
British Pavilion closed for good at the end of the 1940 season, it did so on a
note of unprecedented triumph.36 It can be argued that both Spare Time and
S.S. Ionian, whose subsequent sinking led to the film to be subtitled Her
Last Trip, were influenced by the broader politics of their time. They embody
not only indirect propaganda messages, but Jennings poetic response to the
prevailing conditions around him. It was a response which would eventually
undergo radical transformation once war began in earnest.

Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American
Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. pp. 923. The film was also released in
a shortened version called Cargoes.

This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 7

The Phoney War:

September 1939September 1940
AugustDecember 1939
Towards the end of August, the GPO Unit was asked to produce a film entitled
If War Should Come, to illustrate the necessary preparations people should take
in the event of air raids. On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland and, by
3 September, Britain was formally at war. Unofficially part of the Film Division
of the Ministry of Information (MoI), the GPO Unit now came under the
control of the new Director of the Films Division, Sir Joseph Ball. Previously
Director of Publicity for the Conservative Party and Deputy Director of the
National Publicity Bureau, he disliked the social-democratic politics of the
documentary film movement in general, and the Unit in particular. Because
he preferred to use the feature film industry, private newsreel companies and
advertising agencies for propaganda purposes, the Unit was left broadly to
its own devices. This may explain why A Midsummer Days Work (1939) was
completed at this time of high drama seven weeks after the outbreak of war.
This educational short describes the procedure involved when laying an
underground telephone cable between the market towns of Amersham and
Aylesbury in the Chilterns. Aitken notes that although credited to Cavalcanti,
the films titles do not specifically name him, nor anyone else for that matter, as
director and given the content and style one must seriously question whether
his involvement in its making was anything more than marginal or routine.
The film, however, does carry some hallmarks of Jennings approach. Intercut between the filmed stages of the cable laying, are sequences taken from a
The film was withdrawn and re-cut to emerge as Do It Now but on the declaration of
war all cinemas were at first closed so the film was not shown.

Swann, P. (1989). The British Documentary Film Movement 19261946, Cambridge
University Press. pp. 1534 and Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and
Propaganda 19391945, I.B. Tauris. pp. 1840.

NA INF 6/288 Midsummer Days Work First show copy 25 October 1939.

Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. p. 87.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


short silent film called Chiltern Country. The commentary about cable laying is
contextualised by an array of images, themes and comments which encapsulate
Jennings concern with pastoral life. These include the nature of work, leisure,
architecture and the value and relevance of English literary and military heritage
to the moment. The glorious summer weather seems to belie the threat of war, but
the commentary points out that the cable will be an important part in the plans
for the defence of Britain. The viewer is continually reminded of English heritage
and history, landscapes and pastoral images, horses and representations of the
different rhythms and experiences of rural and industrial work. The audience are
told about, and shown, the cottage of the republican poet Milton and Shadlow
the eighteenth-century aristocratic home of the Drake family, near Amersham,
where in the magnificent stable yard, a horse is groomed and dogs wait. The
gaining and maintenance of freedom is alluded to, and the inspiration of the
English countryside on Miltons famous poem Paradise Lost is evoked. A shot of
a painting of Sir Francis Drake brings associations of a time when England faced
and defeated an attempted invasion by an earlier European power; a subject that
would re-occur in his final film Family Portrait.
Other forms of freedom are also present, for example the freedom experienced
when escaping from the routines of modern life. Life outside the towns is
connected to the timeless unhurried rhythms of an earlier existence, even as the
modern world continues to encroach. Similar to Farewell Topsails and English
Harvest are images of the last vestiges of pre-modern life. Close to nature the
farm workers are in the fields, while the traditional skills of the thatcher and
blacksmith are seen to continue. Infants exercise in a local school playground
and a horse trots down the high street of the busy town. Farm workers relax
outside a pub and drink beer at lunchtime (as in Spring Offensive) as a horse
stands by. Meanwhile animals are fed on a farm. These images are juxtaposed
against the mechanical rhythms of the cable layers. Before and after their lunch
break, the work of the gang is often noisy and physically demanding. Explosives
are used to remove old tree stumps and the trench is dug in the summer heat
with picks and shovels. The camera focuses in close-up on the vibrations of the
pneumatic road drill and other equipment and the cacophony of noise and the
physical sensation of the experience is evoked. Around them, as they work, the
landscape of the Chiltern Hills has attracted those who have for the moment
escaped their urban existence to enjoy the natural pleasures of the landscape and
be themselves: fishermen, golfers, cyclists, hikers and campers.

NA INF 6/288 Midsummer Days Work.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


The First Days

According to Harry Watt, it was Cavalcanti who took the initiative and sent
out his film crews to record what was happening on the streets of the capital as
it prepared for war. However, Chapman makes clear that the project was given
official sanction before shooting began:
Cav realised that history was being made all around us, and a tremendous
opportunity to record it for posterity was being lost, so six small units went out
with all our film stock and filmed the extraordinary scenes of a nation amateurishly
preparing its capital for a new kind of war By the end of ten days, we had an
enormous amount of material we bashed out a script, and with the help of an
excellent commentary by Robert Sinclair, produced a half-hour picture we called
The First Days.

It was released in November, as a GPO Film produced by Cavalcanti with

Jennings, Watt and Pat Jackson attributed as co-directors. The message of the
film pre-empts the official propaganda policy issued two months later at the
end of January 1940: The First Days is an impressionistic little film which is
important in that it was the first wartime documentary to use the idea of the
peoples war which was to become the main theme of British propaganda.
As Watt and everyone else realised, this was to be a new kind of war with mass
bombing and possibly the use of gas. Destruction and death could be visited at
any moment from the skies. The citizens of London, as Sinclairs commentary
makes clear, were now on the front line and the aim of the film was to show a
positive measured communal response.
The opening caption associates Londons experience with the nation as a
whole and it sets the tenor of the film: Four-fifths of our people live in cities.
Here is a picture whose spirit is true to them all: a picture of the London Front.
The contribution of Jennings can only be inferred. Apart from introducing the
idea of the peoples war, The First Days also evokes, through its subtle interplay
of sound and visual images, a number of themes which would play a central part
Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 119.

Watt, H. (1974). Dont Look At The Camera, Paul Elek.

Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 117.

See Aitken, I. (2000). Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas,
Flicks Books. p. 65. Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings
More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 47.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

in the cycle of wartime reportage-propaganda films and docu-dramas, which

Jennings would make between 1939 and 1943. The commentary forms part of
a creative use of sound which is complemented by actual footage (inter-cut with
contrived sequences and sometimes dialogue) to project the idea of Londoners,
regardless of social difference, coming together to work as a community in the
face of the threat. Under pressure, that real emotional side of the self emerges
with the disruption to the routine of life. If this struggle were to be won, it would
be through an emotional agreement expressed by the voluntary and unselfish
response of ordinary men and women. This emotional agreement, or as Sinclair
states, a warming of the heart and quickening of the sympathies, would lie at the
heart of Jennings depiction of the British people at war.
For this reason it is instructive to consider the film and, in particular, the brief
opening sequences, as they interpret the meaning of the conflict, the response of
the people and the impact war will have on the nature and character of life on the
home front. The interrelated editing of sound and image provides a clear critique
of Chamberlains past politics of Appeasement, the response of the British people
to the situation that now confronts them and the beginning of an appeal to our
potential allies for support.
The film begins with shots of children playing on a captured German gun.
It is followed by the wartime song Pack Up Your Troubles, before one phrase
Twenty Years is uttered over an image of the Imperial War Museum. The
camera pans across the armaments and munitions of that war to end all wars,
while a rendition of Its a Long Way To Tipperary plays on the soundtrack.
It evokes no feeling of militarism or the emotions of jingoism associated with
the outbreak of the previous conflict, but rather irony and resignation that it
has come to this, again, because of the failure of politicians to achieve lasting
peace. There follows a factual account of Sunday 3 September, the day war was
declared. It is a routine and tranquil Sunday morning. Church bells ring, people
attend services while others enjoy their day of leisure.10 The morning is disrupted
by Chamberlains radio broadcast at 11:15. His announcement begins over an
image of Big Ben and 10 Downing Street. Over a dissolve to an image of the sky,
his words travels to radio masts and people listening individually or in groups
to his announcement on their receivers (a typical Jennings image). Over empty
streets plays an echo of the finality in Chamberlains phrase war with Germany.
His following remarks imbue the coming conflict both with a spiritual dimension
and the notion of a just war, which Churchill would later reiterate. It is a war
There is an interesting humorous touch which surely must be Cavalcanti. As Pett
and Pott poked fun at the suburban middle classes here a family leave their suburban home
accompanied by comedy type music while a couple cycle away on bikes to a jaunty popular

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


forced upon a peaceful and democratic nation: For it is evil things that we will
be fighting against. Brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution.
And against them I am certain that the right will prevail. With the sound of
wind and a pan across a clouded sky the film segues into the next sequence
through a radio call to the nations of the world. Across the globe the countries
of the Empire would respond, but it was not until December 1941 that, in the
true sense of the term, the world was at war: London is calling. London calling
to the world. This is London. Here is London. Calling to a world at war.
The following sequence turns to the response of the people. There is an
immediate cut to an air raid siren and its wail. The commentary recounts the
incident of the false air raid, which followed Chamberlains broadcast. We are
shown people entering air raid shelters as barrage balloons rise into the sky over
the city. At this point, we find out what the response of the general public is to
this tense situation. In a contrived sequence, a group of Londoners congregate
in a supposed air raid shelter. Helped on their way by a friendly air warden, they
stand and sit in a subdued atmosphere. The vignette catches those supportive
acts of kindness and friendliness. Its become the wartime equipment of all
Londoners: for example, a young man fetches a mug of water for an elderly lady.
Conflicting human emotions of suppressed fear and uncertainty are lightened by
jokes. It is terrible isnt it. Isnt it quiet we wont hear much will we? Well I hope
old Hitler can hear what Im thinking [laughter]. These images contribute to the
psychological and social atmosphere of waiting and living for the moment:
everybody and all things and jobs seemed so unreal; we even spoke differently
to each other as if we should soon be parted, perhaps for ever uncanny but
understandable that strange but familiar feeling which always comes with any
crisis that we are all one just belonging to one another.11

As Sinclair then says people joked but in their hearts was devastation.
The film goes on to illustrate what happened during the next few weeks,
as the city was prepared and transformed for what might come. As barrage
balloons soar into the sky, men and women from all social classes, guided by
the civic powers of the police and emergency services, voluntarily fill sandbags,
become special constables and join the volunteer fire and ambulance services.
The audience see the mobilisation of conscripts for the Army and Air Force, and
Irene Byers quoted by Ziegler, P. (1996). London at War 19391945, Mandarin.
p. 39. Similarly Calder states that during the first weeks of war observers were impressed
with the bizarre phenomenon. In buses and trains and the pubs of Britain, strangers were
speaking to one another. Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada.
pp. 389.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the anti-militarism of a post-war generation, Sinclair tells us, overridden by the

need to fight a just war in defence of freedom and liberty. London is even more
a multicultural city; home now to European refugees from fascism, as well as
the traditional foreign communities. Children, the sick and elderly and pets are
evacuated and there is the beginning of a social revolution in the role of women,
as they take up defence work outside the home. Interwoven within sequences
and alongside the reassuring commentary, are human touches. Unintentional
humour emerges from the preparations; blackout paint is ruined by traffic, to
the annoyance of the painters, a female ambulance driver checks her tin hat and
hair before driving off and uniformed women discuss the latest fashion in a shop
window. There is a new super reality to everyday life, touched by the bizarre. A
dislocation expressed by the closure of public theatres, the emptying of museums
and art galleries, the rising tide of sandbags, blackout preparations and the
barricading of shop windows create a new cityscape.12 Two shots which may
have been taken by Jennings include a horse ridden into the centre of London
by a commuter [a very similar shot occurs in A Midsummer Days Work] and a
shop window with a mannequin dressed in a gas mask and protective clothing
which could have belonged in a surrealist exhibition. The separation of husbands
from wives, and parents from children, dissolved the normal routines of many
womens lives; two mothers remark: [things?] dont get so dirty these days do
they no youre right but it gets that quiet doesnt it? Funny, it takes a war to
give us a bit of peace and quiet.
This spontaneous social solidarity underpinned by anxiety, but leavened by a
willingness to do the best in seemingly unreal circumstances, permeates the film.
The news of the sinking of the civilian ship S.S. Athenia, shown fleetingly at a
newsstand, seemed to imply that Germany was willing to use the same ruthless
policy of unrestricted submarine warfare it had done in the First World War.
The humanity behind the range of conflicting emotions is squarely addressed
from the defiance, adaptibilty and enterprise of the working class community
of the East End (the most vulnerable close to the docks), through to the sadness
of wives and sweethearts as husband, sons and lovers leave for duty in France.
With the civil and military preparations continuing apace, there are two
Londons. At night it is tense, on its guard waiting for the bombers to arrive,
but in the daylight when freedom reasserts itself life goes on as usual. The film
concludes by projecting Britain as a beacon of democracy and freedom calling
to the world: London calling and when you hear it you know that that Front
is still intact and you know that its ideals are still intact and that its ideals are
Hewison, R. (1977). Under Siege: Literary Life in London 193945, Weidenfeld and
Nicolson. pp. 911 and pp. 1820.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


still cherished. This sentiment is summed up in the sandbagged defence of our

heritage (architecture) and democratic traditions with the King (in military
uniform) and Queen apparently looking to the barrage balloons overhead with
AA guns at the ready.
Now in Canada, Grierson kept in touch with his boys at the Film Centre
who were excluded from direct involvement with MoI film policy. But this
did not stop Grierson, and his associates in London, trying to influence the
direction it should take.13 During the latter half of the 1930s the journal World
Film News (19368) had acted as a vehicle to promote Griersons vision. This
function was now taken over by Documentary News Letter, which began
publication in January 1940. Through articles and film reviews it became
a staunch critic of MoI policy throughout the war.14 Part of that criticism
included a questioning of the propaganda value of films and The First Days
did not escape attention:
The goodbye sequence [in the film] was surprisingly ill received by the
anonymous reviewer of Documentary News Letter at the time: the most
deliberately built up sequences are the least successful, as for example the
good-bye scene between boy and girl over a bunch of roses.15

As the critic makes clear, the objection is not just about this sequence. Like
the scene in the air raid shelter these deliberately built up sequences are
too impressionistic and emotionally dramatic. The air raid shelter shows
the fear that people must have felt, while equally, the goodbye scene and the
accompanying commentary suggests the worries of those left behind, as their
loved ones face the possibility of mutilation or death. Even so, this mixing
of communal preparation and defiance with individual concern achieves a
balance which represents a truth, while to an extent glosses over realities:
In hindsight. Of course, the degree of social cohesion depicted in the film
is exaggerated, but at the time it was regarded as a sincere and honest little
film.16 To that extent, as propaganda it worked very well.

Fox, J. (2005). John Grierson, His Documentary boys and the British Ministry of
Information, 19391942. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25(3): 34569.
Ibid. p. 356.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 47.
Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 119.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


December 1939September 1940

Light air attacks on mainland Britain did not begin until early May 1940, eight
months after the declaration of war. This period of uneasy domestic quiet was
known variously as the Sitzkrieg, the Bore War, the funny war, Chamberlains
phrase this strangest of wars and later the phoney war. During this time, the
Films Division felt its way towards a coherent course of action. In late 1939 Ball
resigned as head of the Films Division and was replaced by the liberal aesthete
Kenneth Clark. By January 1940 he had produced a three-point agenda outlining
future propaganda policy. A central aim was to address two fundamental
questions: what was Britain fighting for and how would Britain win the fight?
The second was to be answered by stressing that this was truly a peoples war,
which required sacrifices from everyone in order to be won.17 The production of
Spring Offensive began in December 1939 but due to the nature of the subject
matter (land reclamation) and poor weather conditions, location filming was
not completed until March 1940. By the time the editing was completed at
the end of June, the phoney war had come to an end. Over this period, the
allies military situation went from bad to worse. The failure of the Norwegian
campaign finally ended Chamberlains premiership on 10 May. Forced to resign,
he was replaced by Winston Churchill. Further disaster followed as the German
Army overran Holland and Belgium while a simultaneous offensive through the
Ardennes overwhelmed the British and French. By 4 June, what was left of the
British Army withdrew from Dunkirk and Churchill addressed the nation to
deliver his famous fight on the beaches speech. It was now clear that Britain
would face the German tactic of the Blitzkrieg alone. Towards the end of June, as
Spring Offensive was completed, the number of light air raids intensified across
the Midlands and East Anglia. Over the summer months, the Battle of Britain
between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe for supremacy in the skies
began. Spring Offensive did not receive a general release for another six months
( January 1941), coming after the release of his next film Welfare of the Workers
in November 1940. By then, the heavy bombing of towns and cities had started.
Therefore, by the time of their distribution, propaganda imperatives which had
initially contextualised production, had changed.

See Swann, P. (1989). The British Documentary Film Movement 19261946,

Cambridge University Press. pp. 1534. Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema
State and Propaganda 19391945, I.B. Tauris. pp. 1840 and Dickinson, M. and Street, S.
(1985). Cinema and State: The Film Industry and the British Government 192784, British
Film Institute. pp. 11213.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


Spring Offensive
I think that the things Jennings did with me, like Spring Offensive, like Spare Time,
are perhaps the best jobs that were done at the G.P.O.
Alberto Cavalcanti18

The aim of the film whose original working title was An Unrecorded Victory
was to explain a vital but rather dry subject: the improvement of domestic food
production through the new County War Agricultural Executive Committees
(CWAECs). These War Ags were to implement and administer the task of
bringing an extra 1.5 million acres of land into agricultural production over
the winter and early spring months of 1940. At one level, the film provides
justification for the position that, under extreme conditions of war, the state
must intervene at the expense of individual rights for the national good:
The War Ags had power to send their own labour to work on any land, to
take possession of any land, or idle machinery, and to give directions as to the
cultivation management or use of agricultural land, which the tenant could
disobey only at the risk of dispossession. They allocated the more important farm
requisites, including machinery, fertilizers, feeding stuffs, and of course labour.19

In political terms, the CWAEC system was tantamount to a revolution in the

existing relationship between the state, the individual and the farming community.
In practice, however, what it offered was a form of popular democratic control in
which the role of the state, even with its draconian powers, was reduced to that
of facilitator. Each War Ag consisted of eight to 10 Government appointees,
including one trade union representative. Responsibility for the implementation
of policy at local level was devolved to individual district volunteer committees
of between four to seven local residents, who visited designated farms to evaluate
potential productivity and disseminate instructions and advice:
execution was supervised, not by civil servants picking their way through the
mud in their pinstripes, but by fellow farmers The progressive, intelligent and
successful farmers now had their chance to restore the land, and they made their
work a crusade. Thanks to the war, they could tell others to put the best methods
into effect almost without counting the cost.20
Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. pp. 53 and 110.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 491.
Ibid. p. 491.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

This is the message around which Spring Offensive is built. Wary and recalcitrant
farmers are persuaded by an energetic compatriot to commit their land to secure
the national food supply, while absent landlords have their disused properties
and land requisitioned.21 For Jennings the unrecorded victory went beyond this
agricultural revolution brought about by the labours of the farming community.
In the recent past, mechanisation and the free market had radically undermined
and restructured rural life. The consequences of economic depression had seen
many farm businesses collapse in the inter-war period. A sustainable farming
system, which usurped the commercial demand for profit, was now being
created for the requirements of the people. Jennings raises with his audience the
potential implications of this new agricultural revolution. Also the mobilisation
of urban labour to the land and the dispersal of evacuees to the relative safety of
the countryside, brought an urbanised and industrialised people back in contact
with the soil. The recognition of the vital relationship between rural and urban
existence, combined with the drive towards self-sufficiency in food, opened up
the opportunity for a transformation in social consciousness.
The Preamble
The story includes a preamble and coda, constructed out of clips of archive
film footage of the countryside. In between the clips, a narrative unwinds
which celebrates the value of the land and its people to the war effort, while
simultaneously asking the urban audience to reflect upon the meaning of what
they see and how it directly relates to them. A dramatic chord and trumpet call
coincide with the opening title, followed by the visually symbolic cut from trees
in winter, to spring bloom. The cut succinctly expresses the whole tenor of the
film; the idea of reawakening, rebirth and mobilisation. The dramatic music
maintains the underlying urgency, as a series of rural images and the implications
of war are presented. As workers relax, drink beer and converse, a poster proclaims
the call up of army reserves. There is a close-up of wheat stooks as the camera pans
across a harvest field. The accompanying commentary interprets these images
as emphasising the organic relationship between country people and the land.
September 3rd 1939. The English countryside and its most important crop: the
English countryman in the midst of harvest comes news of war what will
war mean to the countryman? What will war mean to the land?22
Jennings would return to this theme of national productivity in his post-war film
The Cumberland Story (1947). Here a forward-thinking mine manager galvanises a once
suspicious workforce to increase coal output through improved methods of production.
The commentary is spoken by A.G. Street who narrated English Harvest. Beattie sees
both films imbued with nostalgia for the past. See Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings,

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


Using the same technique as in S.S. Ionian, he locates the national within
the particular, by focusing on the workings of just one regional committee.
Between the preamble and coda, the mode of address, although supported
by the commentary, is primarily neo-realistic and allows Jennings to fasten
directly on the human dimensions of the subject. To some extent, the film is
handicapped by a commentary which is no more than a support to the visual
narrative and the natural spoken dialogue. Jennings politics of trusting the
people and allowing them to speak for themselves avoids the class bound and
socially divisive mentality, found in other official propaganda which attempted
to promote national unity.23 Like The First Days, it came naturally to Jennings
to conceive the war as human drama. The conditions allowed him to identify
members of the general public who, when acting out their roles in his films,
could project the personal qualities and the message he required.24 His wartime
films make use of small human details, which imbue the surface realism with
intimations of a deeper emotional authenticity. Simultaneously, these details
slip easily into a representation of the everyday qualities of Englishness and here
it is that rural life must be defended. The propaganda message is synthesised
within the character and actions of the main protagonist, Fred Martin, rather
than through any abstract appeal. Jennings addresses the audience by focusing
on those qualities demanded from people at this time. It is a style of exposition
in which the nation as a community is addressed through the words, actions and
deeds of seemingly ordinary members of that community. His representation
refers to a number of human elements including co-operation and altruism,
family life and the brief intimation of romance. These are interwoven into
the central narrative of ploughing and land reclamation. In this sense, Spring
Offensive is a portent of those wartime documentaries and fiction films, which
through a dramatic narrative, focus on the activities and struggles of ordinary
people to fulfil the national war effort.
Fred Martin
The story was shot at Fred Martins farm at Shottingham in East Anglia. He is
a bluff, stocky yeoman farmer with an even temper and intelligence and a rich
evocative East Anglian accent. The audience watch and learn how Fred pulls
Manchester University Press. p. 21 and p. 117 note 23.
Higson, A. (1986). Britains Outstanding Contribution to the Film: The DocumentaryRealist Tradition, in Barr, C., ed., All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute. p. 84.
See also for example those characters who speak to camera in Heart of Britain, the
men (particular the East-ender Fred Griffiths) in Fires Were Started and the individuals in
A Diary for Timothy.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

his weight in all sorts of ways. It is his activities (volunteering for the local War
Ag committee) and his family (taking in a young evacuee), which give flesh to
the wartime spirit. Martin is extolled as a good farmer who knows his job. He
not only spends time travelling the area, attempting to persuade local farmers to
commit land to the plough, but also oversees his own land and the revitalisation
of the requisitioned and derelict Grove Farm.
Early in the story, a pointed reference is made to the six oclock radio news
where we are given an outline of the new CWAEC scheme and its democratic
character. It emphasises how the Executive Committees are to promote the
sectional and individual interests and responsibilities of farmers, through
having as free a hand as possible in their own areas. It is a message reiterated at a
committee meeting by the chairman. When delivering the target of 1.5 million
acres of land to be ploughed by April, he adds informally that believe it or not
[its] given to the farmers to tackle. Despite the complaint from Hodgkinson
and Sheratsky, that this sequence suffers from the self-conscious performances
of the non-actors invited to play roles and the invented dialogues provided for
them, the delivery does add a human dimension to the story.25 At times, the tone
of the black and white photography and the pictorial beauty created through
the careful use of natural light, playing across the features of individuals, helps
undercut the self-conscious delivery of the lines. Rather than a depiction of
some cold bureaucratic process, the local executive develops the appearance
of a Parish Council meeting. Apart from the camera work, the saving grace
of these sequences comes from the performance of Martin, who becomes the
embodiment of Government policy, by his commitment to and articulation of
the Government scheme to a wary community, who through past experience
regard Government as intrusive and ineffective. Now the alien state bureaucrat
has been transformed into the local enthusiast. In a series of fleeting cameos,
the images of Fred Martin become the embodiment of an enabling state, as he
negotiates with a cross-section of the local farming community, from the cooperative to the hostile. All are eventually reconciled to their new responsibilities,
thereby creating a picture of overall participation.
At this point the story confronts the practical implications of implementing
the momentous plan. This, as previous earlier commentators have noted,
allows Jennings to indulge his fascination with the consequences of the historic
relationship between the farmer and the land.26 It is ironic that war has once
again brought vitality and the communal spirit back to the land. Through the
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 49.
See for example ibid. pp. 489. Hillier, J. (1972). Humphrey Jennings, in Hillier, J.
and Lovell, A., eds, Studies in Documentary, Viking Press. p. 75.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


commentary and imagery, the historic struggle to tame the environment is

made synonymous with the organisation of a military operation. The first part
of the offensive is the ploughing up of existing grasslands, between September
and November of 1939. As fields are drained and ploughed, the struggle is
underlined by the tempo of the music. Jennings provides evidence of old and
new technology simultaneously brought into service: horses, traction engines
and tractors. Robson comments that once Jennings addresses the ploughing and
reclamation, the film becomes a visual poem that rejoices in natures renewal
and abundance:
In celebrating the farmers victory over the land, Jennings also celebrates the
continuation of tradition which, however altered by contemporary events, remains
the solid foundation of the nation. The pre-industrial horse and plough are no less
in the service of this agrarian war than the motorized tractor. Man has always
triumphed over adversity by using his ingenuity, and he is most effective when he
combines the traditions of the past with the innovations of the present.27

For Jennings, this relationship is probably more ambiguous. As presented in the

accounts selected for Pandaemonium or English Harvest, the mechanisation of
agriculture was responsible for the destruction of the tradition of rural life, even
as it opened up new opportunities for productivity. A particularly striking long
shot of a traction engine smoking in the tranquil landscape provides the terrifying
and ambiguous beauty of the inheritance of that industrial revolution, which
swept the countryside in the late nineteenth century. The sequence concludes
with tractors ploughing, climactic music and the announcement How they
barked and stuttered through September and November!.
The story now cuts to Martin giving a relatively informal progress report
to the executive committee chairman. In front of a map, plotted with military
precision, the conversation shifts to the next phase of the operation: the
identification and reclamation of abandoned land at Grove Farm. This sequence
provides an opportunity to meditate on the process of natural time, the struggle
between the farmer and the elements and the metaphorical significance which
neglect and ruin symbolise. A dissolve from Martins thumb on the map takes
us to a farm building reflected in a choked stagnant pond. Accompanied by the
tonal darkness of the music, the audience sees through a series of slow reverse
tracking and panning shots, the evidence of neglect and decline. The farm
has literally been captured by nature; the buildings and surrounding area are
Robson, K.J. (1982). Humphrey Jennings: The Legacy of Feeling. Quarterly Review
of Film Studies 17(1): 3852. p. 40.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


derelict and in decay; weeds, brambles and bushes smother an abandoned cart
and harrow. The image of a cartwheel, with its spokes entwined with grasses
and weeds, is a powerful visual metaphor for rural decline.28 The commentary
asserts that This is what happened after the last war. The voice of an elderly
farm worker, reminiscing about the loss of labour to war service and subsequent
post-war decline, is underscored by the soundtrack. There is an equation to be
drawn between the neglect of the land and the nature of the system that allowed
it to happen. The health and productivity of the land becomes a manifestation
of the health of the social system; the startling regeneration now underway is the
product of a new radical politics and spirit. At this point, the narrative returns to
a discussion at the executive, which concludes that the farm can only be brought
into immediate production through direct possession and the application of
specialised heavy machinery, in the form of a ground tiller to root out trees and
brambles. The question of who will oversee management and production then
arises and Martin is not slow to volunteer.
Other strands of the narrative focus around the Martin family. Here, as in
later films, Jennings recognises the contribution of women to the war effort,
even though the brief comments have a patronising tone. But Jennings visual
representation and scripted comments in no sense regard women as necessarily
playing a subordinate role to men.29 This is total war, where all aspects of life,
including gender relations and the most mundane or routine of practices, have
undergone a radical reconstitution in meaning and value. At the beginning
of the film, Martin returns from the railway station in his car, with a young
schoolboy evacuee (Ken). Along with their grown-up daughter Mary, a rather
anxious Mrs Martin is ready to receive them home, exclaiming, I do hope hes
a nice clean child. Fortunately he is. In fact, Ken is a model evacuee; clean, tidy
in appearance and suitably deferential when introduced. The next time the
family is seen, the commentary informs us it is the Sunday before Christmas; an
ideologically appropriate time for a family reunion and communal celebration
of the family, peace and goodwill. The living room is appropriately decorated
and Ken is by now well integrated into his proxy family and waiting for the
arrival of his parents.

This image may have formed the basis for his short poem Autumn 1939 reprinted in
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 295.
In Spring Offensive along with the care of the evacuee the Womens Land Army is
mentioned. Welfare of the Workers (1940) emphasises voluntary female industrial labour and
billeting, Heart of Britain (1941) focuses on the air raid support service, Listen to Britain
(1942) provides a kaleidoscope of female wartime participation. Fires Were Started (1943)
includes a dramatised scenes of women of the Fire Service and Voluntary Services responding
to the bombing.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


Jennings now evokes a gently nuanced human episode of thwarted lovers and
an associative link to the following sequence of land reclamation at Grove Farm.
His observational style provides a degree of distance from the scene, which many
of the audience may have recognised. Humour is derived from the unstated, but
frustrated romantic meeting, between Bob the tiller driver and Mary because
of Kens innocent hero worship of Bob. Bobs attention is monopolised by Ken
in his effort to get the Meccano model of the tiller which Bob drives to work.
Bob, at the table with Ken, fiddles with the mechanism, while Mary meanwhile
must stand and watch. Success achieved, the chance of romance is lost with the
arrival of Kens parents in the farmyard. Their arrival and reunion with their son
allows an emphasis to be put on the existing gulf in this newfound relationship
between urban and rural society. Father: We dont know how to thank you
Mr Martin. Its the first time Ive been on a farm. Martin: Thats the trouble
nowadays. Ken shows the model tiller to his parents. Martin remarks: Youd be
driving a real one of it werent for the frost. A cut to snow and ice covered fields
introduces the last act of the offensive, with the relentless nature of the struggle
reinforced in language reminiscent of the last war. Over the images of winter, a
voice intones: But dont think country folk are taking a holiday [tractor smoke
against the landscape] at the forge, new parts for tractors Just waiting for snow
to clear, then were going over. Continuity is maintained with the preceding
sequence, as Ken watches an elderly smithy repairing a broken part from the
rotary tiller, in a scene that evokes a pre-industrial existence.
Reclamation begins with the thaw. First job digging trenches for
drains, the countryside has to have drains just like the town. The men digging
complain to Martin that Its wet, very wet. Both Mary and Ken are present
and with Kens exclamation Mr Martin look! the massive rotary tiller
moves into view. Jennings depicts the immense power of this steam driven
machine, by evoking its size and mass through low angled close-up shots, as it
lumbers towards the camera. The aesthetic qualities of the machine: the dark
glistening metal, the roar of the engine and the vehicles wheels and tracks
crushing all in their path, dramatically communicates the raw power that has
been harnessed. Ken gets a ride on this animated metal monster this iron
horse and we see the plough of the tiller gouging into the earth to uproot
brambles and bushes, while the commentary claims: After twenty years, the
earth gets another chance to produce food instead of brambles. Associated
with this activity are images of fleeing wildlife, startled horses and a dog
barking as the machine destroys the tranquillity of the past and lumbers on
its way.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The Coda
Like the earlier image of the traction engine set in a tranquil landscape, this
dramatic rendition of industrialism is juxtaposed against the time-honoured
pastoral scenes of horse-drawn ploughs, seeding the land, a scarecrow and the
harvesting of corn. At this point, the audience is asked by the commentary to
remember, in future, the value and service of the land. The emphatic closing
statement already looks forward to post-war conditions:
Remember in the last hundred years weve looked after the land properly only
during periods of war In September 1939 you asked the countryside to provide
you with a safe refuge for your children and security against famine. Both these
things it has given you. Now the countryside asks you to do something in return.
When peace comes, dont forget the land its people again.

Spring Offensive is not purely Government propaganda, which delivers

information about land reclamation. The films discourse also carries within it
Jennings response to the immediate threat of invasion and several interwoven
themes embodied within the human qualities and actions of the characters. It
implicitly makes the case for the stimulation of new economic life and relations.
There is a recognition that past management of the industry, and a reliance upon
free trade, has failed; farms and farming have suffered to the point of dereliction.
A new beginning is emerging and farmers are the ones who, through their
knowledge, skills and effort, can change the situation to the benefit of all; land is
reclaimed and made once more productive. Finally, the rewards of popular action
in conditions of total war should include a new concept of national interest. This
increased productivity could, by implication, move the country towards selfsufficiency and thereby create a new relationship between town and country.
What Jennings evokes, through a combination of visual montage within and
between frames, neo-realism and the creative application of sound, is a deeper
form of knowledge and understanding. Although his cameraman Chick Fowle
and sound engineer Ken Cameron had worked with Jennings on earlier projects,
Spring Offensive seems to be the first occasion where we find them working
together as a team, with their distinctive skills brought together. Rural life and
the pastoral, provide powerful and evocative myths from which to signify the
British (particularly English) character and national qualities. Modern warfare
focused its destructive power on urban areas so that cities could be blitzed
and bombed, the countryside remained eternal, timeless, self renewing and

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


indestructible, a fitting symbol for Britain at bay.30 It is here, tapping into a rich
vein of English romanticism, found on both the political left and right, that
Jennings is able to play upon profound considerations about universal values
and the human condition. It is possible that the change in title from the more
ruminative Unrecorded Victory, to Spring Offensive was a direct response both
to the times and the policy outlined for propaganda by the MoI. It may not be
what Jennings intended. If the propaganda messages are considered under the
original title, a more subtle and ambiguous complexion to the film emerges.
JuneOctober 1940
During April 1940, the film trade press announced that Cavalcanti was to
leave the GPO Film Unit, to work for Malcolm Balcon at Ealing Studios. At
the same time, the long-term future of the Unit still hung in the balance.31 On
his departure, about three months later, Jack Holmes assumed the temporary
role of Producer until the full-time appointment of Ian Dalrymple in August.
With his bureaucratic style of management, Jennings working relationship with
Holmes was far from comfortable. This, combined with Jennings forthright
attitude, probably led to conflict and to Holmes eventually declaring (according
to Jennings) that he was very difficult to produce.32
After Spring Offensive, Jennings was involved with a variety of film projects,
which attempted to respond to the immediate wartime situation. In July he
was involved with the five-minute compilation film Britain at Bay; a cinematic
rendition of J.B. Priestleys popular Sunday evening radio Postscripts. From
this, he developed an idea for a film which compared the present threat of
invasion with that by Napoleon and, although it came to nothing, the idea
would re-emerge later in his compilation film Words for Battle. By late August,
he was involved with a film provisionally entitled Men on the March or The
Richards, J. (1997). Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dads Army,
Manchester University Press. p. 289.
Discussions continued as to whether it should remain in existence at all and it was
not until the end of the year that the Units survival was assured. It was even suggested that
Jennings, Watt and Cavalcanti should be sacked. See Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War:
Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945, I.B. Tauris. pp. 11625.
During the period of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain he found himself making
a dreadful 16mm picture on a subject I knew nothing about the only film I have ever
made of which I am totally ashamed Jack Holmes had announced publicly to the Unit
that I am very difficult to produce. Jennings, H. (1943). Biographical Material and Private
Correspondence. Humphrey Jennings Collection BFI.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Girl I left Behind Me Music and the Soldier (later abandoned), as well as
location work in Coventry for Welfare of the Workers, when night-time air raids
began on London. Both projects were abruptly abandoned, when on Saturday
7 September, the first heavy daylight raid which heralded the nine months
of the Blitz, occurred on the docklands of East London. During September,
the Unit was out filming in the capital. The outcome of three weeks intensive
labour was the celebrated propaganda film London Can Take It!, which was
cut to a commentary spoken by Quentin Reynolds and primarily edited by
Stewart McAllister. By 15 October, the film was ready for distribution in the
United States.33 In the same month, a decision was taken to abandon Men on
the March, but to complete the outstanding work on the phoney war Welfare
of the Workers.
Welfare of the Workers
After its release in November, an anonymous review in Documentary News Letter
described Welfare of the Workers, a film mainly about the billeting of female
voluntary labour, as somewhat scrappy and shapeless. A conclusion supported
by Hodgkinson and Sheratsky.34 The fact that production was stopped, then
restarted after such a dramatic turn of events, must have been significant.
Jennings was already discussing the possibility of a companion piece to London
Can Take It!, based on the situation in the north and the midlands.35 As a leading
director of the Unit, this opportunity would have been more interesting and
immediately relevant than returning to the less inspiring topic of Welfare of the
Workers. Although Jennings and Jack Lee are credited with the editing, that
responsibility seems to have fallen to Joe Mendoza, who remembered it as the
most boring film Ive ever seen. I used to drop asleep in the cutting room.36 Any
scrappiness in continuity is highlighted by the contrast in photographic quality,
See Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than
a Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 524. Watt, H. (1974). Dont Look at the Camera, Paul Elek.
pp. 13842. Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. pp. 634.
Anon. (1940). Welfare of the Workers. Documentary News Letter 1(11): 15.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of
Films, Hanover. p. 50.
Jennings, H. The Documentary Film: Transcript of a Discussion between Humphrey
Jennings and J.B. Holmes with Ian Dalrymple in the Chair. Humphrey Jennings Collection.
BFI Archive. File 16. BFI Archive.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 50.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


between archive sequences and shots assembled from Jennings recent location
filming around Coventry. All are assembled to illustrate a commentary, spoken
by Ritchie Calder, which stresses the need for both the temporary sacrifice of
both hard-won trades union rights, and working conditions for the war effort
and to encourage new volunteer trainees (in this case women) to enter the
factories to boost productivity.
The introduction includes images of factories and workers. Music from
Spare Time inter-cuts with a domestic scene (probably filmed by Jennings) of
a skilled worker and his daughter listening to Government propaganda on the
radio, to go to it. A landscape shot moves us from the introductory remarks to
the central sequence of the film; the efficient redeployment of labour through
Government arrangements and procedures, which focuses on the billeting of
female volunteers.
As in other films, the sequence begins with the motif of trees against the
sky. Calder explains, as the young woman leaves home, that she is being asked
to transfer from her job in one part of the country, to war work in a distant
factory. The role of the Womens Voluntary Force in finding her a billet with a
local family, is shown by a cut to a Ministry of Labour Employment Exchange.
The distant factory turns out to be hush-hush; a modern building located in
a rural setting, where (with a close-up of how to use a micrometer) she will be
trained in the production of armaments. Over shots of a welfare officer at work,
the commentary emphasises the improvements in work conditions, leisure and
welfare provision, which she will enjoy because of modern social democratic
reform, planning and regulation exercised through the Ministry of Labour:
compared with what shes been used to, Calder states, its like stepping from the
nineteenth century into the twentieth. The commentary (illustrated by factory
and agricultural scenes taken from Spring Offensive), becomes a direct appeal to
organised labour: to realise that the losses trades unions experienced in working
conditions and welfare, during the depression of the inter-war years, were not
only to be recouped, but extended. This would be achieved through rigorous
enforcement of lapsed Factory Legislation, the introduction of new Welfare
Boards and the investigative role of Welfare Officers and Factory Inspectors to
monitor and maintain standards. At this point, the reviewer for Documentary
News Letter identifies a contradiction between the optimistic tenor of the
commentary and the imagery of the factory conditions:
We are shown some of the new wartime responsibilities of the factory inspector
and some of the measures being taken to ameliorate the effects of work under
war conditions for example, the introduction of improved lighting which helps
to relieve the strain of night-shift work. (It is a pity that with the presumable

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


intention of achieving a particular aesthetic in any case inappropriate to the

subject that factory interiors are consistently photographed as if they were

The images of young men and women operating lathes are far from the
aspirations celebrated. A dark gloomy interior, cramped machinery and a brief
shot of guns stacked against a wall, all point to earlier material that Jennings and
others may have shot in camouflaged factories for a French-language munitions
film, abandoned after the fall of France, probably resurrected to complete
this film. Similar to the introduction, the final sequence is a composite of
filmed material, comprising newsreel of work time factory entertainment by the
Scottish comedian Will Fyffe and the Government Minister Ernest Bevin, who
gives a short morale-boosting speech. However, it is patently clear that the intercut reactions of the workers, to both the music and speech, are constructed from
two different canteen audiences.38
The film concludes on a rousing cheer from the workers, in response to
Bevins words We can not only fight, but we can be cheerful in doing it as well.
Documentary News Letter detected a condescending tone to the film, which
echoes the Griersonian criticism of Spare Time: its principle fault lies in the
patronising attitude, which it takes towards the workers (simple child-like folk),
and its representation of the Ministry of Labour, not as a body of public servants,
but as a father from whom all blessings flow.39
Rather than patronising, the actions of the Ministry of Labour and the words
of Bevin reflect the political ethos creeping into Government and personified in
the character, actions and personal beliefs of Bevin himself:
Towards the organized working classes, whom he called, biblically enough my
people, his attitude was that of an elder brother left to rear an enormous family
Bevin embodied and spoke for and to a working class of, well, Bevins sober,
thick sinewed men who had overcome their early abhorrence of their employers,
had educated themselves, and would show the bosses how to do the job properly.
After the failure of the General Strike in 1926, Bevin had led the retreat from
industrial action towards Mondism, a doctrine which sought to win the trades
unions a confirmed place in the councils of their industries, neither as serfs or
masters, but as partners.40
Anon. (1940). Welfare of the Workers. Documentary News Letter 1.
This includes a shot of a worker spitting on the floor that would later reappear in Listen
to Britain when apparently he is listening to the factory concert by Flanagan and Allen.
Ibid. p. 15.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 118.

The Phoney War: September 1939September 1940


The depth of national crisis, after the fall of France, justified wartime intervention.
The state directed and regulated the skilled labour market to provide arms for
men, arms for liberty and arms for victory. The Agricultural Committees had
both extended and rewarded the new opportunities and power conferred upon
the farmer, in a recently depressed agricultural sector. On the other hand, the
Ministry of Labour explicitly demanded that the skilled worker relinquish some
of those hard won industrial rights and accept an intensification of labour and
the dilution of skills. This agreement, the commentary intones, was far better
than the alternative: the blackout of liberty [where] on the continent Hitler
had destroyed the trades unions To resist such tyranny, the British worker
[gave] up by choice what Hitler takes by force. To redress the required dilution
of skilled labour power, state-sponsored gains for workers would, by implication,
transform past peacetime industrial relations in the coming post-war world,
through a tripartite relationship between state, labour (unions) and capital
Welfare of the Workers and Spring Offensive were initiated during the phoney
war and released during the blitz. Although they have a similar political tone
they have significantly different emphases. Both are concerned with securing
the support of volunteers and the voluntary co-operation of key workers to
the war effort, the need to maximise production and entice voluntary labour,
particularly young men and women, into war work. Spring Offensive highlights
the productive efficiency of the enlightened farmer, while Welfare of the Workers
focuses upon the critical value of the male skilled worker but the need to suspend
or dilute existing lines of labour demarcation, to expand the workforce. In reality,
the propaganda appeal for volunteer female labour, to head for the factories, was
having little effect. The patronising tone behind Government appeals combined
with the harsh reality of much factory work did little to convince women to give
up either domestic life or transfer from existing occupations.41 The contrast in
Welfare of the Workers, between the modern building and twentieth century
work conditions and the dark dungeon interior of the supposed same factory,
would only have confirmed the fears of female volunteers. Even though a
central theme is billeting and the vital role women could play in increasing war
production, this becomes subsumed within a message about placating the fears
of male skilled workers, faced with a dilution of their labour power and control
in the workplace by the needs of the war effort.
With Spring Offensive, Jennings had recorded the political and practical
changes created within the agricultural world, through the devolution of power
from the state to the individual, while intimating the need to strengthen post-war

Ibid. p. 278.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

urbanrural relations. Simultaneously, the demand to maximise manufacturing

was transforming industrial relations and industrial production. The potential
to open up opportunities to encourage the self-serving rackets of business and
state would not be a vision of the future with which Jennings would have had any
sympathy. In political substance and style, the film lacks both the subtlety and
democratic emphasis one associates with his propaganda. His next assignment
however would be much more substantial and would allow him to return to an
exploration of the voluntary and spontaneous actions of the people in response
to the immediate conditions of the Blitz.

Chapter 8

The Blitz:
September 1940January 1941
The appointment of Ian Dalrymple as Unit Producer on 19 August was a stroke
of luck for Jennings. In him, he would find a sympathetic and supportive
producer, who would also become a close friend. Not only did he bring a wealth
of knowledge and experience, having held a variety of roles in the commercial
film sector, including film director, editor, screenwriter and associate producer
for Alexander Korda, he was also determined to minimise his interference with
the creative side of production, to allow his staff as much autonomy as possible:
I knew nothing of their work: but when [they] showed me samples, I was so
impressed by the imaginative handling and technical skill that I was scared to
accept appointment I made up my mind on my function: the Unit could
get on with making films, while I would fight for facilities, conditions and

Smith notes that Over the next three years he brought stability, security, and a
sense of purpose to an organisation which had previously struggled to define a
role for itself within the Programme for Film Propaganda drafted in January
1940 by Kenneth Clark. He arrived towards the end of the first intensive phase
of the aerial Battle of Britain, with German attacks on ports and shipping. Now
the Luftwaffe shifted its focus primarily to the bombing of inland aerodromes.
On 6 September Jennings wife and daughters left for America. The following
day, the Battle of Britain entered its third terrifying phase: the heavy bombing
of London and the regions. From 4p.m. onwards, Jennings may have witnessed
from the Blackheath studios the first massive air assault on the docklands and
surrounding area of East London. At times, the sheer destructive force of the

NA INF 1/57.
Dalrymple, I. (1982). The Crown Film Unit 194043, in Pronay, N. and Spring,
D.W., eds, Propaganda, Politics and Film 191845, Macmillan Press. pp. 20920. Dalrymples

Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941): A Reassessment.
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 13351. p. 135.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


bombing and fires overwhelmed the emergency services, later turning night into
day. As both artist and propagandist, he was truly living the moment. Afterwards
he went out all night photographing the fires and immersing himself in the smell,
heat, sight and sound of the aftermath. Because of the raids, the production
base for the unit was moved to Denham Studios. About five or six days after the
bombing began, the house two doors from his flat was destroyed and Jennings
took up an offer from Dalrymple to stay for a short while at his house out in
Chorley Wood, Hertfordshire. His stay was in fact to last over two years.
About two weeks after the beginning of the raids, with Jennings and Watt
responsible for camera units in the field, the unit collaborated on the production
of a propaganda feature, aimed at the people of the United States, initially called
London Carries On. Approximately three weeks later, what emerged was the
celebrated London Can Take It!, which received much praise in Britain and
went on to be an enormous success in the United States. The film reiterates
some of the motifs present in The First Days: the monarchy, Westminster Palace,
the shelters and the voluntary response of a peoples army to the crisis. Shots
such as a woman entering a shop through the smashed display window, another
peering out through a broken window pane and the final image in the film of a
warden receiving a light for his cigarette from a taxi driver may have been his
contribution. The physical and psychological consequences of the bombing
raids on the civilian population had, Jennings detected, heightened their
awareness and tapped into buried human emotions, freeing people from past
personal and social constraints. In mid October he wrote in almost rapturous
terms about what he had seen and heard:
Some of the damage in London is pretty heartbreaking but what an effect it has
all had on the people! What warmth what courage! What determination. People
Ziegler, P. (1996). London at War 19391945, Mandarin. pp. 11315 and Calder, A.
(1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 17882.

Letter 20 October 1940 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 7.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 2289.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 53. For discussion about the production and style of the film see
Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 479.

According to Dalrymple Jennings was responsible for the commentary, however
Hodgkinson and Sheratsky maintain that Reynolds wrote the script in the style of his radio
dispatches after seeing a rough cut of the film. Dalrymple, I. (1982). The Crown Film Unit
194043, in Pronay, N. and Spring, D.W., eds, Propaganda, Politics and Film 191845,
Macmillan Press. pp. 20920, Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey
Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 534.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


sternly encouraging each other by explaining that when you hear a bomb whistle
it means it has missed you! WVS girls serving hot drinks to firefighters during
raids explaining that really they are terribly afraid all the time! Everybody
absolutely determined a curious kind of unselfishness is developing which can
stand all that & any amount more. We have found ourselves on the right side and
on the right track at last!

The images and sounds of this new reality were edited to the commentary by
Stewart McAllister. Considering the speed at which the film was made, it was
unlikely that McAllister and Jennings worked closely together in the cutting
room. However, the experience of making the film has led Vaughan to conclude
that McAllister and Jennings emerged from this production as partners.10
Once the film was dispatched Jennings remembered:
it was suggested that London is not the country, and that it would be sensible
to make a film dealing with conditions in the north of England. At that time the
blitz had not reached the Midlands and the North. I thought that a preliminary
look-round with a camera was suggested, as though I were shooting tests on
various towns to see what they looked like before I started.11

Provisionally called Backbone of Britain, the idea for the film came from Ian
Dalrymple to pay tribute to the Northern and Midland industrial centres
and their workers: it had been inspired by a broadcast by J.B. Priestley, which
celebrated the spirit of defiance in the north. Designed primarily for distribution
in the Empire and the United States, it would provide a companion piece to The
Front Line (set in and around Dover) and London Can Take It!12 The working
title was changed to Hard Work and High Jinks and it is from this that we can
understand Jennings description of the film he was working on as a kind of
Letter 20 October 1940 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 8. Jennings italics. It was a sad truth, he remarked to Kathleen
Raine, that only the situations of war could give to the common people opportunities to
show their finest innate qualities. Raine, K. (1991). Autobiographies, Skoob Books. p. 229.
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. pp. 634.
Jennings, H. (19423). The Documentary Film: Transcript of Discussion between
Humphrey Jennings and J.B. Holmes with Ian Dalrymple in the Chair. Humphrey Jennings
Collection. BFI.
Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 1939
1945, I.B. Tauris. p. 167. Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941):
A Reasssessment. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 137.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Spare Time assignment.13 His visit to the north in the 1930s was now recast for
the contemporary situation:
There must be time-off in war as well as in peace: if the constant strain is to be
endured there must be relief from it. The people of these industrial towns have
always had the knack of living as distinct from existing, no matter how difficult the
times or how dark the immediate prospect. They have it today, and are an example
to use. Escapism it may be but the right escapism, one of the fundamental issues
for which we are fighting, the enjoyment of leisure.14

The finished film, however, would be significantly different from what was
actually envisaged and would be distributed under a variety of titles, including
The Heart of Britain.
The Production of The Heart of Britain
The development of The Heart of Britain is instructive for a number of reasons.
First, it illustrates how a combination of Jennings artistic approach and his
response to immediate circumstances eventually led to the creation of a film
unforeseen at the beginning of the project. Second, Chick Fowle (photography),
Ken Cameron (sound), Jennings and Stewart McAllister (editor) came together
as a creative team. While the overall structure of the films narrative is reminiscent
of Jennings earlier work, it is clear that the brevity of the editing style, with
the application of fades, wipes and dissolves and the close co-ordination of
sound and image, including anticipatory sound, provides both a dynamism and
heightened tempo to the proceedings, which is far in advance of what was applied
in Jennings previous films and probably indicates the influence of McAllister.
From October into November, Jennings travelled the midlands and northern
regions identifying locations and interviewing people. What he required were
individuals who he thought best represented those human qualities emerging
under the siege. To achieve this, he adopted an unforced and spontaneous
approach to his choice of participants:
It is a case of not having prejudices of throwing one-self into it. One must not go
around with a hard method, saying I want somebody to represent cotton and I
want somebody to represent steel, but treating people primarily as human beings,
Letter 20 October 1940 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 7.
NA INF 5/77 Synopsis Hard Work and High Jinks.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


making friends with them. You might have a perfectly good film in which the steel
and cotton industries are nicely covered, and the whole thing beautifully tidy,
but in fact you have not made friends with the people, and altered all your plans
because of the persons you have met, you will not be able to put people on the
screen whom the audience can make friends with.15

It was this approach that led him to include in the final cut two individuals
who, for him, seemed to epitomise the voluntary selflessness of the civilian
army at war:
Earlier I had been working on another picture, and had been to see some people at
Coventry who were dealing with billeting [Welfare of the Workers]. Some people
at the labour exchange said that the person to see was Mrs Hyde, the head of
the W.V.S. Mrs Hyde turned out to be a remarkable person; and when it came
to starting this film about the Midlands and the North, I remembered her, and
thought it would be sensible to start there she offered the inevitable cup of
tea, and then sat down and gave me a heart-to-heart description of the raid the
night before a really outstanding piece of dialogue. It was just a question of
putting that dialogue down as rapidly as possible and treasuring it. From there I
went to one or two other places. Here is another point of selection: I wanted to
introduce something about the conditions in Lancashire. I went to a mill that
somebody recommended as being a mill that had already been used in film, and
were therefore used to the lights and other troubles. There was some difficulty
about getting a key, and I was told to see the foreman of the next mill, who had
the key. He did almost exactly what Mrs Hyde had done asked me in and we
started talking about the war. It was before there was compulsory fire watching;
he said: the mill would be a big blaze if it got hit we have to be very good at
watching because of inflammable material. There followed another terrific piece
of dialogue about putting out incendiary bombs. We never went back to the other
mill because it was obvious that that was our man.16

Unfortunately, the eventual inclusion of Mrs Hyde and the mill foreman
articulating their experiences in seemingly unscripted style to camera is in part
undermined by an earlier piece of artless delivery in a steel mill. Even so, the
illusion of people although self-consciously speaking for themselves to the
audience is still sustained; as Jennings put it: people in the audience should see
Jennings, H. (19423). The Documentary Film: Transcript of Discussion between
Humphrey Jennings and J.B. Holmes with Ian Dalrymple in the Chair. Humphrey Jennings
Collection. BFI. Box 2 Item 16.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


people who are like themselves, and that the documentary film should make
clear that the people are like themselves.17
In October, whilst filming in the Lake District, Sheffield, Manchester, the
north and Coventry, air raids were still relatively infrequent. He found the
Midlands and the North quiet & warmhearted & practically untouched and
wrote of a few exciting nights in the Midlands but not much else. The hills and
valleys of the north are as quiet as ever & the pubs & dancehalls are fuller and
brighter than before.18 Two lengthy treatments at this time included at least
four interviews a planned sequence of miners exercising whippets, couples
ballroom dancing and families making music a postman unable to deliver
a letter calmly noting the number of the house destroyed Night-time shots
of Tyneside wherry crews training as fire-fighters and a Geordie housewifes
recollection of a raid [all] featured in the directors original plans.19 But the news
of the infamous Coventry Blitz on the night of the 14 November dramatically
brought to an end the relative security of the provinces and signified not only
a shift in the geography of bombing, but a new and terrifying strategy by the
Luftwaffe. With trepidation Jennings wrote:
Since writing the above [12 November] there has been a grim attack on Coventry
which I am glad to say we were not in: we had left there a few days before. But
we have very many good friends there and I am at the moment on my way there
to find out how things really are. The voluntary workers there canteen girls and
others we have been photographing & had been out all night in the canteen
washing up mugs and making tea. A superb group of people: sweet young kids
and magnificent women: how are they?20

He was to learn that the consequences were unprecedented and catastrophic.

The raiders first fired the medieval centre, crowned by its beautiful cathedral,
which was gutted. They then poured hundreds of tons of bombs into the city,
in an attack which lasted ten hours A hundred acres of the city centre were
destroyed. Five hundred and fifty four people were killed, eight hundred and
sixty five seriously wounded.21 Panic gripped some of the inhabitants. The

Letters of 3 and 12 November 1940 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The
Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 89.
Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941): A Reassessment.
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 13351. p. 137.
Letter 12 November reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 9.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 235.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


communications infrastructure and one-third of the housing was more or

less completely destroyed. The following day the authorities cordoned off the
burning city.22 Mass Observation reported that: the small size of the place makes
people feel that the only thing they can do is get out of it altogether Coventry
is finished, and Coventry is dead were the key phrases in Fridays talk.23
Rationing was suspended. A hundred thousand loaves were rushed from
neighbouring cities in a single day. The W.V.S. brought in their mobile canteens
and cooked stew in the ruined streets. For some time, all drinking water had to
be boiled: Nazi propaganda now coined the verb Coventrieren to Coventrate.
The word embodied the idea of the physical and psychological destruction of an
entire city.24

By the time Jennings arrived on 16 November, the situation greeting his team
was not as bad as the morning immediately after the raid. The fires were now
smouldering and roadways had begun to be cleared. Jennings wrote that the
week at Coventry was not I think as grim as we expected: at any rate the people
really were magnificent.25 An estimation which was confirmed by Calder: Even
in the first week after the raid, five-sixths of the employees turned up for work.
They went on with their jobs under open sky, through snow, wind and rain, in
greatcoats, souwesters and gumboots, and sometimes with tin hats to ward off
chunks of falling masonary.26 During the course of that week and on a later
visit in December, he recorded a series of images of a city struggling to recover
a semblance of organisation and normality. We have evidence of fire appliances,
rescue squads and WVS vans distributing refreshments and food at the side of
the road, as civilians are caught gawping at the destruction and the slow process
of reconstruction.
The need for a concerted British propaganda policy in the United States
remained strong. A new theme was required, however, to replace the stale Britain
can take it line of the Blitz. Winston Churchill articulated that theme in a radio
broadcast to the world on 9 February 1941, with the famous phrase give us the
tools and we will finish the job. It set the tenor of future propaganda. Earlier
Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American
Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. pp. 1345.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 2356. Italics
in original.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 236.
Letter 14 December 1940 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 10.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 236.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


in 1940, Harry Watt had been arguing for a more proactive representation of
Britain at war and, by November, had begun work on Target for Tonight.27 The
dramatic tenor of The Heart of Britain, in emphasising the peoples response to
the Coventry incident, which resonated with a recent heavy raid on London,
would provide the crowning moment of the film and start to express that feeling
within the Film Division.28
The Heart of Britain
The film was eventually distributed under four different titles, to take into
account the appropriate sensibilities and sensitivities of the target audiences: the
American version was called This is England, in England The Heart of Britain, in
Scotland it became Our Heritage and in neutral Eire The Undaunted. This shift
from specific reference to the north of England, to the generic, is in part possible
because of the way Jennings handles the subject matter. What links all four titles
together, is not the portrayal of a regional response (although this is important),
but the particular and universal spirit of the people; the defiance and resilience
of the communities which, in their actions and words, transcend regional and
national character and the dangers they face. To achieve this, Jennings focuses
on personal strengths, practical responses and the fate of the individual. The
domestic routine and the mundane are by circumstance transformed and imbued
with the spirit of heroism. Each volunteer and each voluntary and communal act
translates into a broader configuration of the spirit and response of the people
to the conditions of this historic moment. This is implied by the emphasis laid
upon the first words of each title The Heart of Britain, The Undaunted and
This is England.
Originally conceived as a contemplation of the human spirit and the defiance
of a people under threat, the films propaganda message became dramatically
affected by the catastrophe of Coventry. This turned the message into a
heightened celebration of the human spirit and of the peoples righteous anger.

Forman, H. (1982). The Non-Theatrical Distribution of Films by the Ministry of

Information, in Pronay, N. and Spring, D.W., eds, Propaganda, Politics and Film 191845,
Macmillan Press. pp. 22133.
By the end of 1940 the MoI had decided to embark on a fresh phase of documentary
based propaganda: as well as highlighting national resilience, future films would emphasise
Britains capacity to take the war to the enemy In this respect Heart of Britain can be seen
as transitional it heralded the arrival of longer more sophisticated documentaries. Smith,
A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941): A Reassessment. Historical Journal
of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 13351. p. 142.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


Expressed in what Vaughan refers to as large slabs of direct speech to camera,29

and in the actions of individual volunteers, are a series of powerful ideas or myths
associated with the British national character. These include notions of duty and
service, selfless bravery, humour and understatement. Personal qualities that,
George Orwell noted, surpass specific political affiliation or class associations to
reflect the true nature or The Heart of the British people:
Myths which are believed in tend to become true, because they set up a type or
persona which the average person will do his best to resemble. During the bad
period of 1940 it became clear that in Britain national solidarity is stronger than
class antagonism class feeling slipped into the background, only reappearing
when the immediate danger had passed. Moreover it is probable that the stolid
behaviour of the British town populations under the bombing was partly due
to the existence of the national persona that is, to their preconceived idea of

Through the words and behaviour of the people, the interpretation of the
commentary and the juxtaposition of music and image, Jennings and McAllister
simulate Churchills method of peroration. While addressing Parliament about
night bombing, his method of delivery would take his listeners up and down
an emotional switchback; a method and style of delivery that finds strong
resonance in the structure and propaganda message of the film:
First, the warning, the stress that danger must not be underrated. Then the joke
that the raids up to now had hardly paid the German expenses. Then the note
of courage learn to get used to it then the swoop into the intimate and
the conversational Then the warning again, stronger this time The bracing
note of bulldog determination was sounded a little later The method had two
main features. Churchill would descend from lofty rhetoric to irony or even low
humour [and] he mingled warnings with buoyancy so that listeners thought,
here is a man who has foreseen there very worst that may befall, and yet remains

The films structure follows a similar pattern, with an introduction and

heightened coda, which encase two sections that deal with, first, the fortitude in
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 72.
Cited in Richards, J. (1997). Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to
Dads Army, Manchester University Press. p. 17. See also pp. 1213.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 1067.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

the face of danger, second, baptism through fire and, third, the resilience of the
people to fight back.
The Introduction
As in the introduction and coda of Spring Offensive, nature is used to articulate
the warning of immediate danger, raise the spiritual dimension of the war and
the natural response of the British people to the threat. Over the music of
Edward Elgar, the film title is superimposed upon an image of a strong rock
face filling the screen. As the dramatic chords subside, the commentary voiced
by Jack Holmes, supported by appropriate illustrative imagery, intimates in
Churchills declamatory style the proximity of danger and associated strength
of the British people:
The winds of war blow across the hills and moorlands of Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
They stir the grasses in the sheep valleys of Cumberland and ruffle the clear
surface of Ullswater. They sing in the cathedral towers of Durham, in the tower
of Liverpool (still building), in the spires of Coventry. But the heart of Britain
remains unmoved and unchangeable.

Jennings returns to the rock face, reinforcing the initial image of the eternal
and organic relationship between the people, their land and character. The
commentary sustains the organic metaphor over an aerial shot of an industrial
valley: In the shadow of the hills live the great industrial people, thronging
the valleys of power and the rivers of industry. Similarly the coda will return
once more to this theme: Out of the valleys of power and the rivers of industry
will come the answer to the German challenge (shots of moors, spires, moors,
bomber, landscape, night bomber) and the Nazis will learn once and for all
that no one with impunity troubles the heart of Britain.
Fortitude in the Face of Danger
The first part of the narrative celebrates the stoicism, duty, energy and personal
courage of three volunteers engaged in critical aspects of air raid work. It begins
with the appositely named George Good, a steel worker and member of the Air
Raid Patrol (ARP). The duty of an air warden included both monitoring and
ensuring that the general public were adhering to blackout regulations. He is
followed by two un-named Lancashire mill workers responsible for watching,
locating and, if possible, extinguishing incendiary devices. Lastly comes Mrs
Hyde who, as a central figure in the Womens Voluntary Service (WVS) in

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


Coventry, ensures that after raids refreshment and food is available for firefighters
and ARP search and rescue teams.
As the introduction concludes, darkness fills the screen for an instant and
the anticipatory roar of industry on the soundtrack can be heard. A scene filmed
for Spare Time emerges, with steel workers in front of a furnace and the literary
tone of the commentary is briefly maintained: In black Sheffield the flames of
the steel furnaces scorch the mens faces night and day. A dissolve then reveals a
team of workers coming off shift. Now the commentary becomes more informal
but still affirmative: At the end of a shift one of the first hands, George Good,
comes off hot and tired but nowhere beaten and nowhere near through. Hes not
only a steel worker. Hes an air-raid warden as well. Once George has delivered
his stilted statement about going on ARP duty, a quick shot of men drinking
water is followed by a wipe and an establishing shot of mills and terraced
housing. The commentary continues without losing stride: From Yorkshire to
Lancashire; from steel to cotton. Over the images and sound of an operational
weaving shed, the commentary stresses the existing relationship between Britain
and America. All day long the looms are weaving poplin for export, to pay
for arms from over the Atlantic. Another dissolve reveals the smoking factory
chimneys in the evening light, which connects visually with the commentary.
But all night now there must be men to watch for fire-bombs. Yet again
a dissolve leads into the ARP office, where an individual is caught finishing
a cup of tea. Placing it down, he turns to the camera and delivers in a quiet,
unaffected and conversational manner, an anecdotal account of activities. It is
a gentle, understated and disarming performance about two friends doing their
bit, and how youngsters are also employed to extinguish incendiary bombs.
Even though the scene is contrived, including the mundane and ubiquitous cup
of tea (which for Jennings becomes a symbol of defiance), the delivery and the
visual aside, which catches his friend fiddling with the strap of his helmet, give
an impression of someone asked to say a few words off the cuff . The informality
is highlighted by the authoritative urgency of the commentary which, on
conclusion of the monologue, is combined with a visual wipe to explain the next
scene a training session for rescue squads in the playground of a Liverpool
school. The presentation of mock damage in a playground and the training of
volunteers was probably, prior to the blitz on Coventry, the next logical step
in the sequence. First shown is Sheffield: ARP duty and the monitoring of the
blackout. It is followed by Lancashire: watching for and training to extinguish
incendiary bombs and, finally, Liverpool: preparing for the consequences and
aftermath of a raid. The winds of war may be blowing over the region but the full
force of the storm had yet to arrive. This brief sequence concludes the preparation
and links it to the last descriptive sequence of the first section of the film:

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


This used to be the playground of a school, now it is one of the places where
Liverpool trains her rescue squads. Behind this grim work lies an infinite number
of patient tasks for the women [pause]. Dull jobs like typing lists of addresses
[pause], unending ones like sorting clothes for the homeless [pause]. Routines
which women fill with love and devotion [pause] and the simplest, most difficult
task of all just staying put with war round the corner.

The link between the grim work and the seeming banality of everyday tasks,
highlights the vital role fulfilled by women in the routine of total war. The
commentary is pensive in tone and illustrated by appropriate shots, which imbue
these activities with nobility. They may be dull and unending routines but they
are part of the vital charity necessary, Jennings says, to sustain both the family
and community under threat:
But there are other elements in life than the factory there is home, family,
personal duties and obligations not to mention the part of workers in civil
defence: and it is largely to the women that we must apply for the inspiring story
of how these people have reorganised their private lives on a battlefield basis.32

A dissolve to a street scene shot through the arch of a viaduct, followed by an

aerial shot of terraced housing coincides with the final sentence and neatly
recalls the introductions intimation of the impending battle and expresses the
fortitude needed to remain calm for surely what had happened to London would
be visited on the north and midlands.
Resilience and Baptism of Fire
The introduction and first sections of the film weave together elements of the
national character: tolerance, stoicism, duty and service. The second section
of the film reiterates these traits, but with greater force and extends through
humour, music, visual rhetoric and ironic statement to evoke the righteous
anger and militancy of the British people. From terraced housing, the film cuts
to a shot of air raid spotters dwarfed by an enormous chimney on the roof of a
mill. Before the commentary quickly intervenes, the rumble of aircraft engines
on the soundtrack can be heard. Over a cut to the spotters scanning the vapour
trails in the sky, the commentary takes on an informative and urgent tone:
On a hazy day, Jerry comes droning over about three miles up [pause]. When
the roof spotters think he means trouble they send the mill girls down to the

NA INF 5/77 Synopsis Hard Work and High Jinks.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


shelter for a few minutes [cut to external of air-raid shelter and to internal shot
of women]. The brief sequence which follows includes both visual and aural
irony, inflected by some rude humour as the women amuse themselves inside
the shelter. With the bombers overhead, two groups of women perform a race
with balloons, to the delight of their friends. Through a series of very rapid
shots, the progress of the race, the delighted participation of the two teams
and the reaction of the onlookers is followed. The imagery is complemented
by the sounds of excitement in the shelter. The command to start, the shouts
of encouragement and the squeals of delight, as the balloons are transferred at
a rapid pace between the members of the teams, reach an extended crescendo
when the last team member loudly bursts the balloon by sitting on it, on the
floor. A form of party entertainment becomes a weapon with which to maintain
morale in the face of immediate danger. A joke is made at the expense of the
German raiders, when inside a bomb shelter the women turn explosions into
fun and games. Instead of the raiders arrival causing demoralisation and fear,
there is fun, exuberance, courage and solidarity. The defiance implicit in the
shouts of glee is given a vulgar twist as the balloons explode like enormous farts
at the enemy above.
From the defiance found in popular culture, the film cuts to the doors and
poster at Manchester Free Trade Hall. It is followed by an interior shot of the
Halle Orchestra and the conductor Malcolm Sargent, who, after bowing to
the audience, turns to the orchestra. Jennings draws a distinction between the
humanity and internationalism of an earlier Germany. The commentary intones:
But in Manchester today they still respect the genius of the Germany [pause
and with added emphasis] the genius of the Germany that was. The famous
opening signature bars of Beethovens Fifth Symphony erupt on the soundtrack.
The following images of destruction in Coventry are closely related to the beat
and phrasing of the music, which gives a rhythmic intensity to the editing and a
visual commentary on the meaning of the event. As the orchestra strikes up the
prophetic opening bars, the camera lingers on the orchestra and the opening
phrase of the symphony. This comparatively extended shot acts as an effective
formal and ideological suture between the first and second half of the film. The
war just around the corner has now become a reality, with the scurry to the
shelter and the dramatic statement of the famous symphonic phrase sounding
like the knocking of fate and the explosion of bombs. The camera begins to pan
slowly across the orchestra and, as they pick up the next musical phrase, a quick
dissolve leads to the same panning motion, but over the wreckage of a devastated
urban landscape.
Music and image now comment. The genius of Beethoven, committed to the
poetic expression of humanity, freedom and peace, plays across the images of war.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

It is here that Jennings and McAllister emphasise the Manichean dimensions of

the conflict. As the pan continues across the rubble, gutted houses and remnants
of chimney stacks, the music reiterates variations on the famous opening phrase
and provides a rapid and violent accompaniment. The salutary call of French
horns provides a poignant introduction to the next sequence. It is on the very
dying of those notes, as the woodwind take up a more delicate theme, that the
first cut of the sequence is introduced a close-up of the remnants of a stained
glass window. A literal and metaphorical correlation is drawn between the
crucifixion of Christ and that of Coventry. Two carved faces stare up from the
blitzed ruins of the cathedral, into an empty sky so recently crowded with enemy
aircraft. Now follow a series of cuts in time to the music. First the wall of the now
open cathedral reveals a statue (perhaps Christ or a saint with the lamb of God)
quickly followed by an associated landscape shot of chimney stacks, which mirror
the surviving spires of two churches in the background; then the gutted remains
of a house, sheared in half with its interior exposed to the world. On each rising
musical phrase the film cuts to a closer view of this surreal domestic scene, to focus
on an upper room where a clock still sits unperturbed on the mantelpiece. Again,
as the music once more gathers pace, a cut returns to a landscape of devastated
homes in the foreground, with the cathedral in the distance.
It is at this point that the second theme of the sequence is introduced. The
landscape shot initiates the second pan, which provides a brief moment of
calm in the rapid flow of imagery. As the camera moves across the scene, the
theme of courage, resolve and the spirit of the people replace that of violence
and destruction. The pan follows a rescue worker climbing a ladder to secure a
damaged building. The focus is now at street level as people walk in the middle
of cleared roads, while rescue workers continue providing sustenance and
help. The life of Coventry is seen to be carrying on, despite the destruction. A
car bumps along a road strewn with debris, a water tanker stands nearby and
a mobile canteen, staffed by the WVS, is providing drinks for the people and
rescue workers. At this point the commentary interjects, linking the previous
mundane preparatory activity of the women in the first half of the film, to the
horrors of Coventry: Here in Coventry, those everyday tasks of the women
came right through the fire and became heroic. The final word is stressed as with
a cut to a window complete with the WVS logo.
The sequence of devastation is now complete. A quick dissolve leads
inside the building to our last volunteer. Sitting behind her desk is Mrs Hyde.
The commentary urges: Listen to Mrs Hyde, whereupon she delivers with
underplayed, but dramatic, intonation a poetic description of the drama and
aesthetic experience found in her work:

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


Yknow you feel such a fool, standing there in a crater [pause] pitch darkness of
night [pause] holding mugs of tea, to the men bringing up bodies [pause] you feel
useless, and till you know that theres someone there actually in that bombed
house, whos alive and you can give that tea to. [pause] Then to hear the praises of
the men themselves, that teas jolly good, Ive just washed the blood and dust out
of my mouth and we feel that we really have done a job, and a useful job.33

As soon as she utters her last line, there is a striking cut to the choirmaster of the
Huddersfield Choir who, as if in recognition of her speech, signals, by turning
his head and raising his arms towards the massed ranks of sitting singers, for
them to stand. The commentary adds and even now in Yorkshire the people
find time to sing.
The Peoples Resilience and the Fight Back
This cut acts as an introduction to the final section of the film, which celebrates
the determination of the people and those of Coventry to fight back. Here
Jennings adds the notion of spiritual defiance. Handels oratorio the Messiah,
from which the Hallelujah Chorus is taken, was significant in the lives of many
practising particularly non-conformist Christians in the United Kingdom.
It had a powerful historical resonance for a nation that was protestant,
democratic, parliamentary, commercial and progressive.34 The music and words
of the oratorio stress the notion of united militant Protestantism. On the word
sing there is a cut to large organ pipes issuing the first thunderous notes of the
chorus. A vertical pan, down the pipes to the organist, is followed by a cut to
the solid ranks of the choir under the baton of the conductor, as they issue the
first sequence of Hallelujahs. At the beginning of the next choral sequence,
there is a cut to the serried ranks of women, who like Mrs Hyde are members
of the respectable working and middle class, proclaiming Hallelujah. As earlier,
the cutting now follows the tempi of the music and the choral response. The

Smith is particularly critical of this sequence (as he is of the representation of

women). Good is painfully self-conscious However, worse is to follow: for anyone who
knew Pearl Hyde her terribly proper performance, which contrives to be both gushing
and stilted, projects a wholly unrecognisable character. Mrs Hydes schoolmistress tone, let
alone her hasty embrace of BBC English, no doubt guaranteed hoots of derision whenever
the film was shown in the citys surviving cinemas. Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings
Heart of Britain (1941): A Reassessment. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
23(2): 13351. p. 144.
Richards, J. (1997). Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dads Army,
Manchester University Press. p. 6.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


powerful, deep, resonant male voices, which are emphasised by a low angle shot,
take up their vocal statements, while the women respond with their Hallelujahs.
The unity of the choir corresponds with the unity of the people. The film cuts
to people walking to work along the cleared streets of Coventry, past the ruins
of the cathedral. The commentary continues: People who sing like that in times
like these cannot be beaten.
The people are now seen to rise to the challenge. They draw upon a militant
form of righteousness, which will answer the barbarism of the German attack.
The religious connotations of sacrifice associated with the burnt out shell, the
remaining tower of the cathedral and the church spires of the city, now become
like the dome of St Pauls, symbols of the spirit of resistance. Cutting to another
street scene with people streaming past the camera and a landscape of blitzed
houses, the commentary continues, with the sentiment reiterated in the future
Words for Battle, that these people are slow to anger, not easily roused. The
accompanying commentary is angry and hyperbolic: Now they and their mates,
their wives and children, have been subjected to the most savage ordeal ever
inflicted upon human beings. With a brief pause and dissolve a scene of men
working on an aircraft production line emerges and here, with appropriate shots
of diligent teamwork, the commentary continues:
But these people have the power to hit back [pause] and they are going to hit back
with all the skill of their hands [men working on aircraft engine], the tradition of
their crafts [welding], and the fire in their hearts [men with screwdrivers working
on aircraft components].

Once more as if in recognition, the Hallelujah chorus bursts forth. This

combination of intellect, skill and emotion the very basis of artistry is fused
within a long shot of an aircraft production hanger, followed by a close-up of
men working on a machine gun turret and undercarriage. Finally, a long shot
looking out through the doors of the hanger to the airfield, shows men busily
completing tasks on a new Whitley bomber.
The Coda
At this point the commentary breaks over the music, with words that resonate
with those of the introduction, to accompany the final images of the film
which are interwoven with the finale from the Hallelujah chorus. The winds
of war, alluded to in the introductory passage of the film, may have passed
over the north and midlands, leaving in their wake a terrible legacy, but as the
commentary asserts, the people still stand proud and the valleys of power and

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


rivers of industry respond to the challenge. Once more, the introductory motifs
with their organic and spiritual connotations reappear. This time, however, they
are inter-cut with the take-off at dusk of a Whitley bomber. As the music rises to
the crescendo of the final extended Hallelujah, the plane lifts into the twilight
as the screen darkens.
Critical Response
The ferocity of the Coventry raid had a significant impact, at a national and
international level, and the consequences of the raid provided an opportunity
to influence American opinion in support of the British cause. Hopeful that the
Blitz would bring America into the war, Churchill had urged extensive publicity
for the devastating raid.35 The film was edited between late November and mid
January 1941, over a period of intense raids around the country, and by 22 January
two versions were ready for distribution. Approximately three months after the
Coventry raid, The Heart of Britain gained its domestic theatrical release, with
a shorter version for America, narrated by the Canadian war correspondent Ed
Murrow. Distributed by Columbia Pictures as a Film Broadcast from the War
Zone, it played in 200 New York movie theatres just in the first week.36 At home,
the film did not receive wholehearted critical acclaim. Jack Holmes commentary
and the religious associations drew withering criticism from George Orwell:
The British films (The Heart of Britain, produced by the G.P.O., and Unholy War,
produced by the Ministry of Information) are terrible. What is the use, in the
middle of a desperate war, in which propaganda is a major weapon, of wasting
time and money on producing this kind of stuff ? Unholy War takes as its theme
the anti-Christian nature of Nazism If we have got to rouse resentment against
the enemy surely we can find something more effective to say than that the
Germans have a spite against Gothic architecture? And, since films of this kind
need a spoken commentary, why cannot the M.O.I. choose someone who speaks
the English language as it is spoken in the street? Some day perhaps it will be
realized that the dreadful B.B.C. voice, with its blurred vowels, antagonizes the
whole English-speaking world except for a small area in southern England, and is

Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American
Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. p. 103.
Ibid. p. 138. See also Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941):
A Reassessment. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 13351. Smith notes
that Herbert Morrison was so pleased with This Is England that he ordered a print be sent to
the White House immediately.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


more valuable to Hitler than a dozen new submarines. In a war in which words are
at least as important as guns, these two films are a wretched achievement.37

With propaganda now to emphasise taking the fight to the enemy, near the end
of 1940 Grierson also made his feelings known to Elton about London Can
Take It! and Christmas Under Fire: Sympathy is only second-class propaganda
and doesnt create participation. It doesnt create confidence [It] had the wrong
secondary effect. Boy I was sorry for London last night! Tear dropped, job
over.38 Soon after his appointment as Director of Production at the Films
Division, in January 1941, Elton was urged by Grierson to promote tabloid
style news not documentary art We can take that up five years from now.39
The March edition of Documentary News Letter picked up on those themes in its
review of The Heart of Britain:
Unfortunately the film is not content to let them state their own case. Even
Americans must be tired now of pictures of raid damage, sparing us nothing,
not even ruined churches with crucifixes gaunt against the sky and the usual
defensive commentary. Over the mill girls Do they look cowed?; over the
Halle orchestra playing Beethovens Fifth These people still appreciate the real
greatness of Germany; over the Leeds Choral Society singing the Hallelujah
Chorus Look at these faces. Not even Americans surely, need all this bullying
and special pleading; the people are quite strong enough to stand on their own
feet, they dont need explaining. The point of this commentary can only be to try
to make the people carry some outside message which isnt really part of them.
And when in comes to the bombers taking off and the piece about the people
hitting back, we begin to suspect that the message at the end of the film has not
the same breadth as the message in the earlier sequences.40

This would become characteristic of the reception given to Jennings wartime

reportage films by the followers of Grierson. For them, his films were the epitome
of what was wrong with propaganda issuing from the MoI Film Unit:

15 February 1941 in Davidson, P., ed. (2001). George Orwell: Orwells England,
Penguin. p. 249.
Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American
Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. p. 114.
See Swann, P. (1989). The British Documentary Film Movement 19261946,
Cambridge University Press. pp. 15660.
Anon. (1941). Heart of Britain. Documentary News Letter 2: 48. See also Beattie, K.
(2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 5052.

The Blitz: September 1940January 1941


Documentary News Letter, founded by Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, and Basil
Wright, was almost consistently hostile to Jenningss wartime films, Wright has
pointed out that there were internal quarrels going on different arguments as
to how you should pursue film propaganda during a war. Im not saying they were
right, but the Film Centre group were not always in favour of the Crown Film
Unit attitude Grierson, from Canada, was in almost constant communication
with us and was certainly on the side of the Film Centre Group so that you will
find, in Documentary News Letter, a bias against Crown, or against Humphrey, if
you like.41

Jennings response, with his next two reportage films, was to remove the voice of
god commentary and allow the soundtrack and images to speak for themselves.
He was probably quick to recognise the exceptional technical artistry of
McAllister; an editor who would not easily subordinate himself to the authority
of Jennings. But McAllisters influence is seen in the overall drive of the narrative
and particularly in the visual and aural counterpoint of the Beethoven-Coventry
devastation, the Handelian counter-attack and the closing sequence of the film.
They inject a dynamism into the film which helps to elevate the emotional
and patriotic appeal. The next two films Jennings made, in partnership with
McAllister, would breech even further the formal codes and propaganda style
demanded by Grierson and his supporters.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a

Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 478.

This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 9

Holding On:
JanuaryMay 1941
By the beginning of 1941 the existence and future of the GPO Unit had been
assured. Renamed the Crown Film Unit Jennings was now working on a
proposal for a five-minute propaganda film. On 25 January, he wrote that he
felt the country was on the verge of historic something or others. Four days
later, an unprecedented raid occurred on London. The ensuing conflagration
produced one of the most enduring propaganda images of the war; the Dome
of St Pauls Cathedral, alone, surrounded by a sea of fire and, on the same day,
Roosevelt declared that America would be the great arsenal of democracy.
In keeping with his belief that the poet should attempt to capture the historic
moment, the working title Jennings adopted was In England Now. Subtitled
A Film Anthology, the proposal outlines how the poetry of different ages
resonated with the immediate situation: The aim is to combine a vision
of contemporary happenings with a commentary of voices back in the past
which grow more and more contemporary as the film goes on. Initially he
saw the film being complemented by one called In Germany Now, but this
idea was eventually discarded. Rather like his use of references to the humanity
of Beethoven, in Heart of Britain, In Germany Now would set quotations
from famous nineteenth-century German poets against Nazi propaganda and,
through association, the film would be a simple criticism of the Third Reich by
Germans themselves.

Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 126.

Letter 25 January 1941 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 11.

Cull, N.J. (1995). Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American
Neutrality in World War II, Oxford University Press. p. 125.

NA INF 5/79 In England Now.

INF 5/65 Munitions Film: Production and Scripts. It may also explain why he
finally decided to include within Words for Battle a sequence on the Nazi High illustrated by
appropriate words from Milton.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

At the time of completing The Heart of Britain, he wrote that people are
singing Handel and listening to Beethoven as never before. It seemed to him
that the moral and emotional strength of the people was finding expression
and power in a surge of enthusiasm for the arts, literature and music. His
recording of Malcolm Sargent conducting Beethovens Fifth provided
evidence for such a belief:
The Halles conductor was by late 1940 himself a symbol of resistance to Nazi
aggression, his work and reputation bridging the gap between high and popular
culture. Malcolm Sargents much publicised Blitz Tour with the London
Philharmonic Orchestra extended his fame beyond a predominantly middleclass audience of classical music lovers. Just as most filmgoers in early 1941
would have recognised Beethovens Fifth even if they could not name it, so
they would have recognised Sargents name on the fake poster advertising the
Halles performance even if they had no idea what he actually looked like.

Myra Hess had initiated the famous concerts at the National Gallery in
October 1939 and the BBC had also become more democratic and populist
with its programming. The theatre and exhibitions by war-artists were well
attended and the demand for classic literature and modern novels could not
always be fulfilled.
Poetry as Propaganda
In the radio broadcast Poetry and the Ordinary Listener (1938), Jennings
described Darwins explanation of the development of language and the arts:
Man evolved first music, then poetry, and then finally language in general
for a definite social reason thats to say, to frighten enemies by making noises,
and also partly to enjoy themselves and to show off to each other Darwin
said that our feeling on hearing a piece of music or poetry [was] due not

Letter 25 January 1941 in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet.

Smith, A. (2003). Humphrey Jennings Heart of Britain (1941): A Reassessment.
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23(2): 13351.

See Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 58992 and
Ziegler, P. (1996). London at War 19391945, Mandarin. pp. 187200.

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


to any superficial pleasure but that it touched something inside us, which
actually goes straight back to our primitive needs.

It was during a relatively quiet period of the Blitz, before the ferocious bombing
resumed in mid April, that Jennings and McAllister had the opportunity to
touch on this apparently reawakened poetic and literary sensibility. Poetry
and the public are now, as he put it, in agreement with each other. Poetry can
bring both news and throw into relief situations which correspond to those
confronted by our ancestors.10 Poetic language would reveal its relevance to
the defence of the country, but to ensure that the relationship between the
extracts and images in the film did not fall into literalism: Sound (voices from
the past) should never describe a scene accurately, as a newsreel commentator
would. It should comment in a rather abstract manner, leaving it to the
audiences imagination to make a married print of what we see of today and
hear echoing from the past.11
The film, eventually entitled Words for Battle, is tailored to the recent
change in the propaganda message. It resonates with Churchills recent
propaganda call to the United States to Give Us the Tools to fight back.
Based on a series of plagiarised poetic statements, Jennings offers the English
language as a resource and weapon in the struggle. It was an opportunity
to illustrate, not only the timeless value of poetry, but poetry in action, a
poetry which is doing something.12 To achieve this, he noted, the poet cant
tell the community who they are unless he does two things: unless he talks
about the things the community knows about, the things they are interested
in, and unless he also looks on the communitys past at the figures, the
monuments, the achievements, the defeats, or whatever it may be, that have
made the community what it is.13 This would be a documentary marrying
two differing types of text written and cinematic which would stir the
memory and emotions.

Poetry and the Ordinary Listener broadcast 10 May 1938 Talks: Poetry File 1938
1946: File R51/394/1.
NA INF 5/79 In England Now.
Poetry and National Life, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 277.
Jackson, K., ed. (1993) The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 282.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Words for Battle

Words for Battle is composed from a collage of discrete episodes which provide a
commentary directed at the British and American people. The words are at once
personal and universal, applicable in their equivocal sentiment to the identity of
both nations.
During the eight minutes [Words for Battle] presents seven texts read by
Laurance Olivier, each text illustrated by film segments. The texts are, in
order of appearance, excerpts from Camdens Description of Britain, Miltons
Areopagiticia, Blakes Jerusalem, Brownings Home Thoughts From the Sea,
Kiplings The Beginnings, Churchills famous speech of 4th June 1940 (we
shall fight on the beaches) and finally Lincolns Gettysburg Address. Three of
the texts are excerpts from poems, the other four may be termed belletristic
prose The editing takes great care in juxtaposing images to correspond with
the text down to single word level.14

While reiterating patriotic themes about English life and character both
texts and images take the audience through a series of reflections on duty
and sacrifice in a just war while encouraging awareness and resolve for future
action. They also include a radical domestic message, the words of which are
declaimed by the leading English actor of the day Laurence Olivier readily
recognisable through his film roles. Each quotation is stated with appropriately
weighted emotion that gradually builds to express three simultaneous but
distinct messages: the rousing of a peaceful nation to its own defence and
then justified retaliation; an appeal to the United States to commit itself to
a programme of military intervention and finally recognition of the need for
domestic popular reward in the post-war era.
To fully appreciate Words for Battle, close attention must be paid to the choice
and ordering of the extracts, as well as the interrelation of sound and image.
As in the early experiments at the GPO Unit, sound (words) becomes the
organising principle for the visual imagery. Jennings and McAllister extend
those elements evident in The Heart of Britain, such as the use of anticipatory
sound and the integration of music with the image, to create emotional
statements: The accompanying images do not merely illustrate the words.
They reverberate with them, providing fresh associations in the same manner

Sorenssen, B. (1986). The Documentary Aesthetics of Humphrey Jennings, in

Corner, J., ed., Documentary and the Mass Media, Edward Arnold. pp. 4763. p. 51.

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


as do words in poetry.15 Apart from the penultimate sequence, all the imagery
used in the film was culled from the archives. Most of the eight minutes is
taken up with poetry and prose, with each text prefaced by an appropriate
image related to the author, for example a bust, gravestone or a statue. The
chronology of the film can be characterised as follows: passive speculation
on the human and physical resources of the nation (Camden); the raising of
consciousness (Milton); popular mobilisation and taking up of arms (Blake);
a reflection on duty (Browning); justified anger and action (Kipling); the
defence of and sacrifice for democracy by the old world (Churchill); a call on
the new worlds largest and most powerful liberal democracy for assistance
and similar sacrifice (Lincoln). All are bracketed between a wordless yet
stirring introduction and conclusion supported by the music of Handel.
From Camden to Blake
As the introductory music by Handel nears conclusion the imagery of clouds
dissolves to an ancient map of the British Isles, the frontispiece of William
Camdens patriotic sixteenth-century topographical survey of the country
Britannia. The choice of Camden to open the film bears strong comparison
with the opening of The Heart of Britain, with its emphasis on the organic
link between soil, the bounty of the earth, natural defences, the people, their
communities and national persona. Olivier begins the quotation, outlining
the physical and human properties of the island. Care has been taken to ensure
that each visual cut falls upon a specific word or phrase, while avoiding an
overly pedantic visual connection. For example, at one point in this sequence,
the text is as follows:
The earth fertile with all kind of grain, manured with good husbandry, rich
in minerals of coals, tin, lead, copper, not without gold and silver, abundant
with pasture, replenished with cattle both tame and wild, plentifully wooded
beautified with many populous cities, fair boroughs, good towns and well
built villages.

There is a cut to an image of grasses in the foreground and in the distance

the rolling scarp of a chalk down and fields of grain stretching into the
distance; an image sustained until the word rich, which coincides with a cut
to a quarry face. Again the image is held until the word abundant, when it
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 55.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

cuts to fields and cattle on a hillside. At the phrase plentifully wooded, a

large copse of trees appears. That is sustained until the word cities and the
introduction of a silhouette of a castle with houses pressed close against its
walls. The image holds over until the final words, and well built villages, when
the screen darkens. Superficially Camdens description could be regarded as a
brief historical and geographical appraisal of Britain, but the film also implies
a well resourced nation, at peace with itself. It is a description that equates
Britain with the United States. By exploiting its natural resources, the United
States, like Britain, has become a natural and bountiful fortress based on
the principles of liberty. The implication is that the need for any relatively
isolated (or isolationist), industrious and peaceful nation, becoming warlike,
must be a response to external aggression.
Handels music, once more, is heard as out of the darkness an internal shot
of the rose window in Westminster Abbey appears. A vertical pan down to
Poets Corner and a close up of the bust of the seventeenth-century protestant,
republican, Milton introduces the idea of the warrior poet. A visual correlative
can be drawn between the medieval castle (the seat of secular power) and that of
the cathedral (spiritual power). These, along with the close-up shot of Milton, are
held together by the vigour of the music. As the music fades, we are introduced
to Miltons Areopagiticia, words which simultaneously reflect on the domestic
situation, but also the strategic relationship with the United States in the light
of the recent passage of the Lend-Lease Bill in the United States:
Methinks I see in my mind a mighty
and puissant nation rousing herself
like a strong man after sleep,
and shaking her invincible locks.
Methinks I see her as an eagle
mewing her mighty youth, kindling
her undazzled eyes at the full
midday beam, purging and unscaling
her long abused sight at the
fountain itself of heavenly radiance.

Following a dissolve from the bust of Milton, this part of the stanza is accompanied
by an aerial shot of an industrial landscape, followed by a sequence depicting Air
Training Corps Recruits watching a hurricane fighter going through its paces.
One interpretation of the sequence is to regard it as a visual metaphor for the
spirit and resolve of the British nation. Sound and image are edited in such a
fashion as to create both general and specific associations with the text, which

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


articulates three messages to American and British audiences. The opening lines
Methinks I see in my mind a mighty and puissant nation rousing herself like a
strong man after sleep picks up on the latent power implicit in the description
provided by Camden. Such an expressive opening echoes Jennings exaltation
of the spontaneous and voluntary efforts of the common people in this time of
crisis. An aerial shot of a domestic industrial landscape mirrors the valleys of
power and rivers of industry, spoken of in The Heart of Britain. This decision
to move to a formal alliance finds poetic and symbolic expression in the second
sentence of the poem, where a combination of domestic and international action
becomes crystallised within the image and flight of the hurricane. Reports of the
Battle of Britain and Blitz had led informed opinion in America to believe that
it was only a matter of time before Britain would capitulate. However, it was
young British and Allied conscripts and American volunteers, later organised
into the Eagle Squadron, that held the line of air defence. It is possible to equate
Miltons eagle with the British people, the American volunteers and by extension
the nation of the United States. The young trainees gathered around the plane,
watching the soaring flight of the hurricane, can represent an international body
of young men willing, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives in the defence of the
birthplace (fountain) of modern democracy. The defence hinges on a fighting
machine built by the effort, ingenuity and technical skill of the British, civilian
army, from resources already coming from America.
The health of the modern democratic society is immediately contrasted with
the nature of the Nazi threat:
while the whole noise of timorous
and flocking birds, with those
also that love the twilight,
flutter about, amazed at what she
means and in their envious gabble
would prognosticate a year of
sects and schisms.

The sequence begins after a fade from an aerial shot of the fighter wheeling
upward, on the words heavenly radiance, into the brilliant sunlight of a still
cloudless sky, above the English Channel. Olivier commences (what is for the
film) the second half of the passage against an ominously turbulent, darkly
clouded sky, which in turn quickly dissolves into a fluttering German flag. The
contrast between the heavenly radiance and the clouded sky is accentuated by
running this brief segment of film (taken from Triumph of the Will) at reverse
speed. This unnatural image depicts a world and time out of joint, a corrupted


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

nature where clouds dissolve in a violent and unnatural wind. The associative
dissolve, into the Nazi swastika, correlates the corrupted elemental forces
with the politics and violence of the Nazi regime. The Manichean nature of
the symbolism is continued through a cut to an image of Hitler and Air Force
Marshall Goering, walking through a wood, obscured by trees. The gloomy,
secretive and voyeuristic nature of the scene is enhanced by the grainy quality
of the imagery. Over these images, Miltons words with those also that love the
twilight, flutter about are heard, which associates them with the source of evil
and corruption. Immediately another cut introduces over the words flutter
about, two successive low angle shots of German military band leaders, which
allude to the distraction found in the specious pomp of militarism. This is
followed by a shot of the Nazi High Command, which corresponds with the
words amazed at what she means. Here words and images gain dual meaning.
On the one hand, they can be understood as an amazed German response to
the defiance of the British, while on the other, intimating that the evil of fascism,
like some delirium, has caused the German nation to take leave of its senses and
their own freedom.
The final cut takes the viewer to a comparatively slow, panning shot over the
faces of those responsible for that sickness, the Nazi elite, who, seemingly in a
trance like state, listen to a speech. As they stare hypnotically upward, possibly
toward a podium, it is not difficult to imagine that they, too, are following the
wheeling course of the British fighter. As Olivier utters the final line and in their
envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms the screen once
more dissolves into darkness. Robson analyses the next sequence as follows:
Just as in the preceding scene a bust of Milton served for the introduction of his
lines from Aereopagiticia, a plaque commemorating Blake accompanies his famous
lines from Milton:
Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of Fire.

The accompanying images are of a train ( Jenningss image of industrialism) and

the scenes of London streets. Clearly this is Blakes London with its dark satanic
mills. Reverting to a scene of pastoral innocence, Englands pleasant pastures,

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


Jennings provides images of children playing in the woods and rowing gently in
boats as the narrator concludes with Blakes determination that:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green and pleasant land.16

What is not observed is the degree to which the soundtrack and visual images
articulate a pertinent political statement. With the sound of voices and the patter
of feet, on the soundtrack, we see the organised evacuation of children from
their homes in inner London. While the four lines that make up this first stanza
maintain the defensive militancy found in the previous reading, through scenes
reminiscent of London Can Take It!, potential allies are made aware that it is the
young, innocent and vulnerable who are at most danger from the Nazis. A medium
shot of children, accompanied by teachers and parents, is held until the first word
of the poem is uttered, when there is a cut to the London County Council plaque,
locating the birthplace of Blake. It is held until the last word of the first line. A cut
to a high vertical shot of the young evacuees walking across a covered concourse,
carrying bags and suitcases, accompanies the next line and a half. It is on the
last two words of this short stanza that where they are is made clear. As Olivier
utters the words O clouds, unfold!, there is a cut to a low angled close-up of a
train, steaming smoothly and majestically to the platform which, corresponding
with the words Bring me my chariot of fire, reveals their destination. Through a
dissolve, the audience becomes part of that group of children in a railway carriage
staring out of the window. Accompanied by the next two lines, a point-of-view
shot reveals what the children see; the backs of the serried ranks of cramped inner
city terraced housing, from which they have recently departed. It is not until the
word hand, that a cut to a medium shot of the children happily playing in a boat,
occurs. This image is given more weight by the following long shot, on the word
Jerusalem, which contextualises the preceding image and reinforces the pastoral
notion of rural tranquillity and safety. The pastoral nature of the scene, which
depicts a large group of children engaged in gathering tinder under a sun-dappled
canopy of a wood, is emphasised by a final cut to the word land. As the last chords
from Parrys Jerusalem subside, the image dissolves into darkness.

Robson, K.J. (1982). Humphrey Jennings: The Legacy of Feeling. Quarterly Review
of Film Studies 17(1): 3852. p. 44.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Rather than the imagery, literally expressing Blakean symbolism, the emotion
behind the message intimates at popular post-war social and economic aims.17
The pastoral imagery has a strong resonance with progressive pre-war policies,
which advocated the social benefits of housing set within green landscapes.
In this context, the second stanza takes on a sharp political reminder to those
in power, that after this war, unlike the last, there should be no return to the
previous living conditions or failed housing policy, when the homes fit for
heroes did not materialise.18 Rather than the conclusion evoking some form of
pastoral idyll it is a hard political goal for the future, where just rewards must be
delivered: I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my
hand/Till we have built Jerusalem/In Englands green and pleasant land. The
present generation must not, like the preceding one, let down the next.
In an earlier treatment, Jennings had intended to include both an introduction
explaining the idea of the poet as warrior, and an extract from Shelleys The Mask of
Anarchy, which would be positioned after this extract from Blake. This omission,
however, has weakened the impact which could be attached to Blakes words:


Men of England, heirs of Glory,

Man ploughing

Heroes of unwritten story,

Nursling of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another

Man at bench in
AFS man

Rise like lions after slumber

RAF recruits
changing into
Army marching

In unvanquishable number,


Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many they are few.


Both Robson and Vaughan criticise what they regard as Jennings crude literalism.
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister.
Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 82. Robson, K.J. (1982). Humphrey Jennings: The
Legacy of Feeling. Quarterly Review of Film Studies 17(1): 445.
Prior to the war it had been the Labour Party in control of the London County
Council that had encouraged slum clearance, housing redevelopment and helped pioneer
rural conservation around the city.

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


In the first stanza, the verse correlates with images of the civilian army drawn from
that yeoman stock and industrial working class, whose contribution was absent
from the authorised version of history, taught in the schools. If we regard the last
stanza as an appeal to the numerical superiority of the Empire, Commonwealth
and the United States, and a call to the British people themselves to confront their
rulers with the demand for future, political reform, then the deleted sequence
brings to the first half of the film an emotive and imaginatively charged climax.
From Browning to Lincoln
It is with the second half of the film that the propaganda message becomes more
clearly directed at the United States. Moving to words from the nineteenth,
then twentieth centuries the following two sequences use Robert Browning
and Rudyard Kipling to emphasise the justified need for duty and sacrifice.
Brownings Home Thoughts from the Sea emphasises the similarities between
the past and the contemporary military position of Britain. The film shows the
uncertain passage of a merchant ship, traversing the Mediterranean towards
Britain, Oliviers tone is wistful. Enhanced by the often hazy imagery taken from
S.S. Ionian and Able Seaman, the words meditate upon past military glory and
the contemporary threat to the ship:
Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent
to the North-West died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red
reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish mid the burning water, full
in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest North-East distance,
dawned Gibraltar grand and grey;
Here and here did England help me.

The sequence is introduced by the highlighted title and opening lines of the
poem, then to the progress of porpoises leaping in the wake of a ships bow. A
second cut, on to the North-West, locates in a long panning shot, the ship in
a merchant convoy in the evening sunset. Another cut on Bluish, and the film
returns to the boat and a seaman caught in a haze of light, at the stern, about
to raise the ships ensign. This is followed by a dissolve to a close-up of a bust of
Nelson, over the words Full in face Trafalgar lay. This parallel between naval
history and the contemporary military situation continues over the words
of the next line. Another dissolve brings an opaque long shot of the Spanish


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

coastline and Gibraltar Rock. On the final words of the line Gibraltar grand
and grey, there is a closer cut to the towering rock, then the entrance to the port
on the line Here and here did England help me, as the ship safely arrives at its
destination and passes the old fortifications of the harbour. The words are given
added emotional resonance and poignancy, as the rest of the stanza becomes
a highly personal and immediate statement about duty, as well as a broader
appeal for help:
How can I help England? say,
Whoso turns as I, this evening,
turn to God to praise and pray,
While Joves planet rises yonder,
silent over Africa.

The question is followed by a shot of the captain, which equates him with the
I of the verse. Jennings celebrates the heroism of the people, but he is also
not afraid to suggest the human trepidation which may underlie many of their
actions. So far, the ship has survived the risks of the convoy run, but a cut to
the raising of the flag, which signifies departure, is held through the following
line as the dangerous mission continues. A cut to a long establishing shot of the
evening sky, from Gibraltar Rock, over the port towards North Africa, coincides
with last line of the stanza. As the ship slips from its refuge, to continue its
hazardous passage towards England, the audience is reminded of the conflict
being waged by British land forces, on the shores of that continent. At this
point the screen darkens.
The words of the poet inter-cut with the imagery, become the thoughts
of the people and in turn the brief narratives of trainee pilots, evacuees and
merchant seaman allow the audience to connect with those thoughts and
feelings. Fear and anguish is natural, Jennings says, and to show ordinary
people overcoming those fears and continuing to do their duty, turns possible
intimations of defeatism into heroic defiance. The mundane is transformed
into the extraordinary. It is a form of propaganda effectively captured in the
words of Ian Dalrymple:
We say in film to our people: this is what the boys in the services, or girls in
the factories, or men and women in the Civil Defence, or the patient citizens
themselves are like, and what they are doing. They are playing their part in
the spirit in which you see them in this film. Be of good heart and go and do
likewise. And we say to the world: Here in these films are the British people
at war. And the world is either moved, or it is not moved. It has seen the truth

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


and it can make up its own mind. And this, in our view, is the finest type of

This spirit is captured in the following sequence, where two short verses from
Kiplings poem The Beginnings, written in the middle of the First World War,
are applied to images depicting the aftermath of an air raid. Like the words of
the poem the images are stark and grim. They carry a general message but the
emotional response is heightened by focusing for example on the retrieval of
the body of an air raid victim. The words and the associated images are not
presented to hector the audience with denunciations of German atrocity, but
allowed to speak for themselves and by association lead towards expressions of
righteous anger. The sequence begins in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey,
with Kiplings tombstone. His name, date of birth and death are highlighted.
The first stanza is delivered as a dissolve reveals the aftermath of a bombing raid,
followed by a slow pan from left to right, which reveals devastated houses and a
rubble strewn street.20
It was not part of their blood,
It came to them very late
With long arrears to make good,
When the English began to hate.

Rescue workers are clearing up, while others continue their search for survivors.
Civilians pick their way along what remains of the road. A man wipes his nose
and a woman wipes her eye, as a shot reveals the grisly labour of the rescue
workers hacking their way through the smouldering ruins of what was,
presumably, once a house. As the second stanza is delivered:
It was not suddenly bred,
It will not swiftly abate,
Through the chill years ahead,
When Time shall count the date
When the English began to hate.

The camera stays on a team of workers atop a mound of smouldering rubble.

Another cut reveals stretcher-bearers, taking a body down the street, away
Dalrymple, I. (1941). London Calling (Overseas Journal of the BBC) (109). In the
Humphrey Jennings Collection. BFI Archive File 20.
Although unacknowledged the level of devastation points towards film Jennings
may have taken in Coventry.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

from the camera. The final cut of the sequence, which coincides with the word
date, depicts a striking funeral cortege. An emotional force is generated by
the ostentatious nature of the horse-drawn hearse and the ranks of mourners,
wearing tin hats and marching in military step. This representation underlines
the suffering of the civilian population and the sentiments of Kiplings words,
which were redolent with justified anger. They also provide the impetus to
enter the following sequence. As the cortege passes, a trumpet call, like a call
to arms, is heard and the screen darkens. As Olivier delivers the opening word
We, from Churchills famous speech of June 1940, there appears newsreel film
of Churchill reviewing a Scots regiment.
We shall go on to the end; we shall
defend our Island whatever the cost
may be; we shall fight on the beaches;
we shall fight on the landing grounds;
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets;
we shall fight in the hills
we shall never surrender.

Oliviers commentary gathers appropriate martial emphasis, as he delivers

an abridged version of the speech. Each assertive phrase is matched by an
appropriate image. For example, a cut to a close-up of a soldier holding a
machine gun at the ready, is held over the second statement. Waves crash on
a beach for the associated phrases. Another cut brings a scene of bricklayers
starting the reconstruction of Coventry. St Pauls Cathedral appears, the
dome standing high and proud above the wreckage caused by the intense air
raids; an image which acts as a visual bond between the defence and the call
for assistance. The first line of the following stanza is again accompanied by
a trumpet call, this time for the gathering of our allies from the Empire and
And even if this Island were subjugated
and starving, then our Empire beyond
the seas, armed and guarded by the
British Fleet, would carry on the
struggle until in Gods good time,
the New World with all its power
and might steps forth to the rescue
and liberation of the Old.

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


A dissolve introduces various shots of the massed ranks of Australian and

New Zealand troops marching and on parade. The reference to the New
World triggers a dissolve to a shot of the statue of Lincoln, in Parliament
Square. The pose, head bowed, holding the lapel of his coat, not only projects
the stance of an orator, but also the sense that he too, from the height of the
pedestal, has been reviewing the colonial troops and their readiness for battle.
Significantly, unlike the other extracts, there is no immediate fade to separate
the words of Churchill from the image of Lincoln. The connection between
verse and image integrate the words of Churchill with those of the image of
Lincoln and his name carved upon the plinth. The momentum is maintained
as we launch immediately into an extract from the Gettysburg Address:
It is for us, the living, rather to be
dedicated here to the unfinished
work they have thus far so nobly
advanced. That we here highly
resolve that the dead shall not have
died in vain, that the nation shall, under
God, have a new birth of freedom, and
that the government of the people,
by the people, and for the people,
shall not perish from the earth.

Originally written to commemorate the lives of Union forces lost at that

decisive battle in 1863, it is now firmly associated with the British struggle.
Lincolns words, at the core of American national identity, become mobilised
for the international defence of the democratic ideal. Jennings urges the
Americans not to regard the European struggle as a distant conflict between
warring states, but as a struggle about the very existence of Christian liberal
democracy and the upholding of the fundamental principles and mechanisms
that express human dignity and freedom.
A cut to a close-up of the bowed head of the statue is framed by the
branches of young trees. The soundtrack plays the beginning of the chime
sequence from Big Ben, which is so resonant of the institutions of British
democracy. These chimes and the sound of traffic continue throughout the
entire sequence, underscoring and helping to inflect the words of Lincoln as
a statement of support for Britain: rather to be dedicated here [Parliament
Square] to the unfinished work [the ongoing war] they have so nobly advanced.
At this point, an establishing shot of the statue is introduced [Lincoln now
perusing Parliament Square] with traffic, including tanks, passing in the

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


background. As the speech continues, Big Ben begins to chime the hour. This
is mixed with the noise of traffic and the eventual rumble of heavy military
vehicles. That we [the United States] here highly resolve that the dead [the
British and her allies] shall not have died in vain, that the nation [Britain],
shall under God, have a new birth of freedom, [cut to a long shot of the clock
tower and Houses of Parliament] and that the government of the people by
the people, and for the people [tanks enter the frame] shall not perish from
the earth.
Now, unconstrained by the tempo of Oliviers speech, the film enters
its brief but thrilling climax. Sound and image can be seen to revert to the
classical formal relationship. An instance of traffic noise and the hourly
chimes of Big Ben merge with the rumble of tanks. There is a rapid cut to
the convoy passing Lincolns statue [and his symbolic revue] from left
to right, in rapid progress. Another fast cut leads to a point-of-view shot,
from a tank turret in the convoy. On the following cut music bursts onto
the soundtrack. The beat of Handels Water Music momentarily maintains
the beat of the chimes, as the tanks move left to right down the road. Now,
the dynamic rush of the music towards the climax is complemented by shots
from a series of telephoto images, originally intended for London Can Take
It!, of servicemen and women mingling with civilian pedestrians, all striding
across London streets [again like the tanks from left to right], blurred by the
passing vehicles but symbolizing the movement onward toward victory of the
ordinary people of Britain.21 As the music reaches its final dramatic chord,
the screen fades to black.
The Influence of McAllister
This experiment in the detailed integration of images with sound echoes that
found in the dynamic parts of The Heart of Britain and prefigures their next
venture, Listen to Britain. The bright illuminated white clouds, shot from an
aircraft over the introductory titles and the rapid and purposeful strides of
the sunlit crowd in Piccadilly Circus, at the conclusion, are underpinned by
the same agitated rhythms of Handels music. It is a combination that helps
provide symmetry to the formal structure of the film and reinforces both
the spiritual and emotional dimensions of the text. Considering the rather
stilted and illustrative earlier proposal, compared to the editorial brevity of
the finished film, with its revised opening, new title and climactic wordless
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 56.

Holding On: JanuaryMay 1941


conclusion, it is editorial technique which has simultaneously enhanced the

meaning of the poetry, and elevated the poetic and propaganda aims of the
film. If it had included Jennings rather pedantic introductory commentary
and the poetry of Shelley, the running time would have been closer to 10
minutes; nearly twice as long as the propaganda short series demanded.22 The
extent of McAllisters influence is not clear, but what is evident is that their
partnership was so successful because of their blend of artistic affinities and
skills. Noted by Denis Foremen:
It was Dal (Dalrymple) who said that if Humphrey had been left alone in the
cutting room he would never have finished a single picture. Humphrey had
the eye, the instinct, the ear and the ideas. Mac gave the films coherence and
above all form. If you study the construction of any of Humphreys films,
you will see Macs mind at work behind the scenes, shaping the sentences, the
paragraphs and the chapters, and giving the film a direction and destination.23

The experience of editing Heart of Britain was here extended and is reflected in
the revisions and subtle interrelation of words and images; cinematic aspects
not previously evident in Jennings work. Because of their commitment to
achieving the required imaginative precision, Ken Cameron remembered
that in their professional relationship both men would often hold to their
beliefs, to the point of obstinancy:
They fought like cats. Cause they were both completely different yet similar. I
think they both wanted the same thing just went a different way round to get
it. When a film was being cut, Humphrey and Mac were always in the cutting
room together. I think thats why this curious amalgam of the two personalities
came through. I mean, Humphrey didnt script the following days work and
leave Mac to cut it. They worked together all the time.24

Critical Response
As Jennings remarked, we chucked ourselves into it pretty deep and the
result turned everybodys stomachs [sic]. This is probably a reference to
Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 1820.
Running time of the film is approximately eight minutes.
A Tribute to Humphrey Jennings and the Crown Film Unit. British Academy of Film
and Television Arts. p. 10.
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 126.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the criticism by supporters of Grierson, which was reflected in the review

published in the Documentary News Letter:
Words for Battle is an illustrated lantern-slide lecture, with Oliviers curatelike voice reverently intoning various extracts from poetry, verse and topical
political speeches Altogether an extraordinary performance the effect on
morale is quite incalculable. The man who must feel most out of place is poor
old Handel he can hardly have guessed that it would come to this.25

Subsequent analysis has been more considerate, but is still divided over the
supposed strengths and weaknesses of the film.26 However, Jennings could feel
vindicated by the huge and quite unexpected success in the theatres here.27 In
professional terms, he and McAllister were rewarded with a telephone call from
the Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick.28

Anon. (1941). Words for Battle. Documentary News Letter 25(5): 89.
Those which find significant flaws include Robson, K.J. (1982). Humphrey Jennings:
The Legacy of Feeling. Quarterly Review of Film Studies 17(1): 3852. Vaughan, D. (1983).
Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor, British
Film Institute. Winston, B. (1995). Claiming the Real: The Documentary Revisited, British
Film Institute. For a more positive appreciation see Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney
(1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. Cull, Nicholas J. (1995).
Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality in World
War II, Oxford University Press, Nowell-Smith, G. (1986). Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist
Observer, in Barr, C., ed., All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute and Beattie, K. (2010).
Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press.
The film file includes three letters from members of the public who were very
impressed and wished to know more about the music and extracts used. A woman from
Leeds wrote: I went again the next day in order to see it a second time. Several of my friends
have also seen it and enjoyed it immensely the film has been the cause of much discussion
among my circle of friends. INF 5/79 In England Now.
Letter 13 September 1941 in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. p. 31.

Chapter 10

Turning of the Tide:

MayOctober 1941
During the first half of the year progress on the military front had been poor and
civilian morale was showing signs of becoming depressed. Jennings complained
about the joke which passed for British strategy in North Africa and the
Mediterranean as enemy forces notched up a series of striking successes. The
sinking of the Bismark and the collapse of the Italian campaign in Abyssinia
were minor triumphs set against a flow of military defeats, the often savage
raids and the hardship of rationing. During this period, before the completion
of Words for Battle, Jennings was also considering filming one of the classical
lunch hour concerts given by the pianist Myra Hess in the National Gallery. By
late April he had sketched a treatment in which a series of associative shots and
sequences would be cut to the rhythm and tempo of the music. These would
include: the character of the audience [the] lunchtime crowd partly in uniform
representing all services and war workers including members of the R.A.F.
who still find time in their lunch hour to listen to Mozart and to invigorate
themselves for the final battle. Through May and early June he filmed concerts
and reconstructed a recital sequence with the Queen in attendance. At the same
time he and McAllister were working on a similar but more ambitious film
treatment entitled The Music of War:
Today war involves everybody, all human aspirations are touched by it. So today
the call on the human heart is profounder than ever before and do you think
that freedom has no songs? This war involving everybody has framed men and
women into new groupings not only the Navy, the Army and the R.A.F. but
new social groups work groups men and women ranged together in factories,
in fire stations, in gun-emplacements, in troop-trains and ship-yards all of which
have their particular music. More than ever when men are flying through the

Letters 10 May and 15 June 1941 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 2930.

National Gallery: Rough Shooting Script, reprinted in ibid. pp. 248. Also National
Gallery 1941 Box 1 Item 7 Humphrey Jennings Collection. BFI Archive.

National Gallery 1941 Humphrey Jennings Collection. Box 1 Item 7.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


night and women are away from their homes and their children, their hearts have
need of music. All kinds of music classical music, popular music, the nostalgic
music of a particular region and just plain martial music to march and work to.
For music in Britain today is far from being just another escape: it probes into
emotions of war itself love of country, love of liberty, love of living, and the
exhilaration of fighting for them. Listen.

Then in the early hours of 22 June the war took a dramatic turn as Hitler began
the invasion of the Soviet Union. Churchill immediately broadcast his support
for the creation of an alliance with Stalin. In the United States Roosevelts
strategy now shifted from just sustaining Britain to one of attempting to keep
both Britain and Russia fighting. At about the same time practical work on
the National Gallery film was suspended while Jennings focused on another,
unsuccessful, film project called Dear Doktor. This was to have included
sequences at a tank factory, an armoured column passing through a village and
land girls in a cornfield. This project may explain why around mid to late July
he was on location in Suffolk where he shot a series of images and sequences
such as Spitfires flying over the countryside, waving corn and baling, bombs
being loaded into night bombers and the building of tanks. Also at this time he
probably photographed land girls collecting potatoes, official plane observers at
their post, a playground sequence and an evening shot of a cottage with a lamp
in the window.
The Emergence of Listen to Britain
Throughout the summer the land and air forces of the Wehrmacht made rapid
progress deep into Russian territory. Initially British official and popular opinion
believed the Russians would be defeated and that it would not be long before
German forces would turn against Britain. However from July until December

The Music of War Humphrey Jennings Collection. Box 1 Item 7.

Overy, R. (1996). Why the Allies Won, Pimlico. p. 285.

According to Joe Medoza: Quentin Reynolds [the American correspondent who did
the voice over for London Can Take It!] did a broadcast, a reply to Dr Goebbels, on the radio,
called Dear Doktor Dear Doctor Geobbels. Humphrey was to make a movie out of this
broadcast of Quents. So we flogged away at Dear Doktor and shot all sorts. Vaughan, D.
(1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor,
British Film Institute. pp. 856.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 58.

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


the Allies watched as the Russian collapse was converted into a counter-offensive
that slowed the German advance. At the beginning of August Jennings was
on holiday at McAllisters home in Wishaw near Glasgow and from here he
expressed a new optimism:
If our official reaction to the invasion of Russia was a surprise to a few people
so should be the feeling for the USSR here at the moment. Britain whether she
likes it or not is being forced into historical honesty the way in which people
have been misled about the USSR is dawning on them since the Red Armys
resistance is a fact The country has really been transformed these last two years.
So rich & deep & good to see & hear & smell.

Support for Stalins plea for military aid was answered with the official declaration
of Tanks for Russia. In oratory that would find its visual equivalent in the
climax of Listen to Britain, the arch establishment figure Lord Beaverbrook
proclaimed Come then, in the foundries and forges of Britain, in the engine
works and assembly lines, to the task and duty of helping Russia to repel the
savage invaders, who bring torment to mankind. Trades unions on the home
front became central to achieving or even surpassing the production targets set
by managers and employers. The future of the whole war could now be seen as
dependent upon the efforts and international solidarity of the working people.10
By mid September Jennings thought a turning point had been reached in
British life and the film treatment that emerged over the brief holiday begins
to detail sequences which express this transformation.11 The Music of War
was revised to incorporate the filmed material for National Gallery and Dear
Doktor into a new treatment entitled The Tin Hat Concerto. In September
and early October, accompanied by McAllister, Jennings continued location
shooting then editing into its final form through the rest of October.
Listen to Britain
Stewart McAllister described the completed film as a sound recording
experiment in which they sought to record every conceivable sound in terms of

Letter 2 August 1941 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 3031. Jennings italics.

Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 302.
Ibid. pp. 298303.
Letter 13 September 1941 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 312.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

tone, amplitude, and pitch except the sound of speech.12 In an attempt to assign
authorship Joe Mendoza concluded that The visual ideas were Humphreys
and I suppose the progression and musical ideas were Macs if youve got to try
and sort it out.13 Ken Cameron considers that McAllisters contribution to
Listen to Britain was at least 50%. I mean, certainly, without Mac, it wouldnt
have been the film it was. Its probably a trite thing to say that he made more
contribution than Humphrey, but in a way he did.14 The editing lies at the heart
and provides the pulse of this sound-film but what is important to recognise is
that the meanings that can be associated with the text derive from a combination
of each mans imagination and skill. A series of seemingly disparate and mundane
events and images are turned into something arresting and inspirational.
As with Spare Time the relationship between the community, music/leisure
and war work is imaginatively reworked to incorporate the sounds of labour and
industry and by extension national productivity, into what Jennings refers to
in the treatment Music and War as harmony and mechanisation. Although
different in emphasis from Heart of Britain the film shares a concern with the
social and psychological dimensions of the everyday. It celebrates the understated
defiance of a people who, while maintaining the routines of life in the face of
adversity, are fulfilling those demands made by war. People listen or play music,
watch the skies. They sing, dance, work, make tea and negotiate the experience
and reality of war. Listen to Britain is a multifaceted depiction of life and
national unity presented through a linear and simultaneous time frame which
is built around a 24-hour cycle that begins and finishes in late afternoon. The
linear nature of social time is signified through a series of overlapping sounds
and images that identify moments of common social experience associated with
broadly distinct and meaningful periods in the 24-hour cycle of everyday life.
Specifically the times identified are associated with relaxation and refreshment.
The focus therefore falls upon those times when the British people draw some
form of physical and emotional sustenance in the late afternoon, evening, night,
morning (dawn/breakfast and mid morning), midday (lunchtime) and finally
returning to early afternoon.
As in Lunch Hour Concert, the narrative depicts how mundane periods
of life are transformed by the national emergency into something qualitatively
different. Individual and social identity are redefined and infused with often
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 60. Italics in original.
Mendoza quoted in Drazin, C. (1998). The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s,
Andre Deutsch. p. 155.
Cameron quoted in Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working
Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 6. See also p. 83.

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


conflicting emotions such as hope and anxiety, fear and courage, happiness and
sadness. War has violently inserted a new space-time reality which permeates
and reshapes the individual and national persona creating, among other things,
new friends and new patterns of work. In another respect the film acts like
Spare Time as a cinematic form of poetic mass observation; an aural/visual day
report which provides a panoramic recording of a progressively productive and
spiritually healthy nation evident in the sounds and sights which occur across
the country over 24 hours. Cinematically Jennings attempts to construct from
the fragments a feeling for the imaginative complexity of the whole.15 Aided by
McAllister Listen to Britain is the highpoint in Jennings use of poetic cinematic
collage which is reminiscent of the technique found in T.S. Eliots poem The
Waste Land:
The poem [The Waste Land] moves forward only as it moves sideways, to new
analogies, new parallels, new possibilities for comparison. The completion of the
quest becomes less central dramatic emphasis than the recognition of other quest
motifs in other cultural settings. The poem develops not by resolving conflicts but
by enlarging contexts, by situating motifs within an increasingly elaborate set of
cultural parallels by widening.16

At this time home front organisation was effectively evolving from the
spontaneous and voluntary efforts Jennings had recorded in Spring Offensive,
Welfare of the Workers and Heart of Britain into a nationally managed, regulated
and co-ordinated war economy. Each period, time sequence or vignette acts as
an aural and visual snapshot of popular wartime activity across the nation in
late 1941. It is presented as a dynamic relationship of production, relaxation
and rejuvenation that has no end. One 24-hour period segues into the next in
the relentless quest for increased national productivity. The sounds and images
provide a framework on which further images of simultaneous activity are coordinated, thereby highlighting the extent to which the dynamism of the war
effort is reliant upon the mass mobilisation of the British people.17 Yet this
vast machine could only achieve its goal because of the ideals, spirit, energy
and productive capacity of its citizens. The imagination of the country had
Jennings, M.-L. and Madge, Charles, eds (1985). Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium:
The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador. p. xxxvi.
Levenson, M.H. (1986). A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary
Doctrine 19081922, Cambridge University Press. p. 201. Levenson refers to this as
contextual development.
See Beatties discussion of the film. Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings,
Manchester University Press. pp. 6177.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

been captured by the response of the Russian people to the Nazi invasion. The
Russian response, along with the immensely cheering effect of American aid as
well as glimmers, although temporary, of Allied success in the Mediterranean
and North Africa during October, provided the international background for
Jennings and McAllister to present an image of a dynamic and integrated British
war economy galvanised for the counter-attack.
The Spoken Introduction
The carefully produced introductory title, consisting of symbols representing
music in war the violin and bow with a few notes from Rule Britannia, the
shadow and flash of a gun, provides the background for the credits which indicate
that Jennings and McAllister share responsibility for direction and editing. These
visual symbols are accompanied by a sharp and prolonged bugle call and followed
by a mix of sounds, including running feet, childrens voices, a dog barking and
the resonant and rhythmic beat of a distant drum. The screen darkens and there
follows a sharp and rapid roll of snare drums and a title Foreward by Leonard
Brockington KC. Brockington, stiffly posed in a dark three-piece suit and seated
in a high-backed chair behind a table with a background of curtains, begins to
address the audience with his clipped self-conscious delivery while occasionally
averting his gaze to his notes. His pithy didactic speech, reminiscent of the style
found in Jennings letters, poetry and reports, describes the scenes that will
unfold in the film. It is punctuated throughout with a series of dissolves and
vertical pans down a map of the United Kingdom. Shots of the map occur at
moments of specific reference thereby providing for an American audience an
introduction to the geography of Britain and the geographical locations alluded
to in the film. Brockingtons Canadian accent provides a distinctly transatlantic
inflection to his description of a nation at war.
This introduction may have been the result of the new military situation
that arose prior to the films release. The surprise attack by the Japanese on
the American naval base at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was quickly
followed by a declaration by Hitler of war on the United States. The combined
Axis powers now went on to achieve striking military successes in South-East
Asia, the Mediterranean Theatre and on the Russian Eastern Front. There was
a significant possibility that the combined efforts of the Axis could eventually
eliminate any future Allied counter-offensive. The film required updating, not
only to boost domestic morale but also to indicate to the Americans that their
vital new military ally Britain was capable of holding the European front
while the United States, continuing to supply Britain and Russia with aid, began
to mobilise and build its comparatively inadequate military forces. The message

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


therefore is no longer intended as an appeal to a neutral power but an affirmation

of the new partnership between allies engaged in a truly global conflict and an
assurance that Britain would, as the vital pivot in that alliance, resist and fight
back while the United States prepared.
Late Afternoon
The 24-hour cycle begins in late afternoon:
Britain in summer. The waving tops of the trees and corn. The sound of larks from
above the corn drowned by the roar of the two Spitfires. Land army girls at work
and Observer Corps men on duty. The sound of the squadrons flying overhead
is interrupted by the busy clatter of a tractor drawing a reaper. A rich harvest
landscape. Strong forces of RAF fighters in the evening sunlight.18

These images give no indication of time of day. What can be read as a signifier
of the recent successful defence of England during the summer of 1940 in the
Battle of Britain Spitfires over the farmland of England, observers watching
for the Luftwaffe can also be seen as evidence of that successful struggle to
increase the efficiency and productivity of a revitalised agricultural economy
depicted in Spring Offensive.
There is no concession to the audience as the film immediately plunges into the
following sequence where, as Jennings describes it, blackout curtains are drawn in
a house from which is heard the voice of Joseph McLeod as he reads the six oclock
news. News from overseas or from men in uniform? In the film there is a visual
cut to the exterior of a cottage window and the drawing of the blackout curtains.
The BBC six oclock time signal is mixed with the sound of the aircraft. McLeods
voice coincides with the placing of a lighted oil lamp on the inside window-sill.
This mixture of sounds and images contextualise these activities as that period
of transition between late afternoon and early evening. Linear time is equated
with the simultaneous through the dimensions of space and place. Within and
between sequences time and space become compressed. As planes traverse the
sky and landscape of East Anglia, the drone of Spitfires linking little farmsteads
Listen to Britain post-production script reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The
Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 33. The following descriptions are drawn from
the post-production script. The opening image of trees mirrors that used in the earlier Words
for Battle.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

miles apart in a momentary gust connect the airmen with farm workers, military
observers and residents of the cottage. The familiar sounds of the pips from
Greenwich, followed by the voice of the newsreader Joseph McLeod brings the
nation together. The sound of music appears to emit from the radio in the cottage
when in fact:
Some [forces] are on leave, contemplating the sunset others don steel helmets
and prepare for night duty. The strains of a dance band are coming from the
Tower Ballroom in Blackpool where HM forces dance at half price to the tune
of Roll out the Barrel for the gangs all here! Hundreds of them in uniform
enjoying themselves with young ladies evacuated from Government Departments
in London. Outside the fire-watchers are ready.

The transition to Blackpool is brought about by mixing the sounds of the

defending Spitfires with the cottage radio news and the anticipatory music
of the dance band denoting relaxation and pleasure. The inhabitants of the
cottage are connected with the Lancashire fire-watchers and men on leave and
with the relaxed and happy revellers who are in the ballroom. The sequence
simultaneously suggests unity and difference. The vigilant observers, like the
Spitfires, keep watch for night raiders while the Tower Ballroom plays host
to the new social formations of off-duty forces and evacuated civil service
personnel. Here, amongst the mass of swirling dancers, there is a fleeting
glimpse of a new community released from the strictures of immediate duty.
Strangers, new and old friends, often dressed in the anonymity of forces
uniforms, laugh, smile, sing and engage in animated conversation. There is
a humanity and poetic beauty to be found in the dancers revolving en masse
around the dance floor as they sing and give themselves over to the music. A
contrived scene shows a young woman laughing with embarrassment while
half-heartedly attempting to hide a photograph from her friends. As the
strains of the music intrude upon the night watch outside, we are brought back
to the sober reality of why this brightly lit and happy event is occurring.
While some relax or sleep others continue the relentless drive of the war
effort through the night:
The clanging cage at a pit-head where men are going on night shift is a sharp
contrast. In the clear light of the moon the night traffic on the railway is
shunted about holding up a passenger train on which a bunch of Canadians

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


are engaged in telling stories of the old days back home and singing Home on
the Range. The line is cleared and the train puffs on into the night. A bomb
factory. The whine of machinery and the clinks of metal as rows of aircraft
are assembled. The lights in the roof of this great factory are like stars in the
night sky. Outside another machine takes off. The women on night duty in
an ambulance station are listening to the Ashgrove sung by one of their
colleagues. Her voice echoes through the big marble hall, one of the famous
buildings put to new and strange uses. Big Ben rings around the world as the
BBC Overseas service gets into nightly activity. The British Grenadiers March
plays triumphantly from London to the countries all around the globe. Dials
and valves quiver with the voices of a dozen languages. A woman announcer in
the Pacific service gives greetings to all serving in the armed forces and in the
Merchant Navy.

What emerges from this aural and pictorial sweep during the hours of
darkness is that of a geographically isolated nation with tenuous connection
to its allies. The country does not relax or sleep at this most vulnerable time
under a bombers moon. Yet this activity is tinged with both happiness and
sorrow. Miners continue the vital extraction of coal, the trains transport the
raw materials and troops, air raid services are on alert as the BBC broadcasts
to the nation and the world. The contrived sequences of the Canadian
soldiers singing in folk harmony, and the women listening to the rendition
of the Ashgrove, the female announcer sending greetings to the armed forces
abroad, express, through the incongruous nature of their surroundings, a
lament for the peace of a lost community of family, friends and loved ones.
Churchills recent call for a significant increase in bomber production is
represented by the productive skills of the night shift through an establishing
shot of a bomber factory. An assembly line of aircraft emerging from a
mass production system as outside a plane takes off can be seen and heard.
Signified by the Houses of Parliament and the BBC, Britain has become the
democratic and military beacon of hope. The call to British service personnel
and the broader international community is expressed by the music of the
British Grenadiers March and the overlapping and diverse babble of foreign
language messages and well-wishes. The solitary voice of the female announcer
emits from an isolated British Isles enveloped by literal and metaphorical
darkness. The momentum of the night-time activity has been characterised
by the overlapping of sound and visual dissolves but at this point the screen
fades to darkness allowing a moment of silence; a pause which emphasises the


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Out of the darkness and silence emerges the dawn of a new day: the most
natural sound in Britain so early in the day is the sound of the birds, but not long
after come the people to the factories. The morning sequence focuses on those
times associated with refreshment breakfast and mid-morning elevenses.
Both periods illustrate a coordination of activities which in themselves have
taken on an unfamiliar dimension. The language of the post-production script
cannot capture the symbolism and artistry of the aural and visual dimensions of
the cinematic text as the sequence based around breakfast hints at the seamless
transition from night to day and the continuous nature of production. We
begin with close-up shots of the silhouette of branches and leaves in the early
morning as the early light stirs the birds in the branches. A dissolve and pan
along the silhouette of a tree-lined ridge is accompanied by the rising sound
of the dawn chorus. The rising sun and awakening of the birds is overlain by
the solitary but sharp clop of hooves followed by a dissolve to horses being led
along a cobbled industrial street. The slow progress of the horse is framed by a
backdrop of belching factory chimneys with huge plumes of smoke caught by
the wind. The night shift is coming to an end and a cut to factory gates reveals
the sights and sounds of workers of the next shift arriving. Overlapping with an
aerial shot of a city, a radio transmits the instructions and accompanying music
for physical exercise: Coleman Smith wakens up the others with his morning
P.T. song and a new day is in full swing. The national effort is reinforced by the
regulation of personal behaviour to the needs of the moment. As Smith recites
his commands the camera tracks along a street recording the brisk walk of an
office worker complete with tin hat and gas mask. As he passes by the boarded
windows of blitzed houses the vigorous walk of the anonymous commuter has
an almost comical clockwork efficiency. Smart and punctilious, this heroic
little, suburban man, seemingly oblivious to the devastation, turns the corner.
Smith completes his commands as he walks in a determined fashion away from
the camera towards his work. As the commands come to an end the next shot is
from inside a train (perhaps as a commuter travelling past an urban landscape),
then smoking chimney stacks come into view supported by the screech and
hissing of machinery and so the audience is brought to the world of industry.
A contrast is now evoked in a parallel time frame as the film moves from the
anonymous public world of the urban-industrial to the privacy of the family. As
an introduction Jennings includes his motif of a tree with its leaves fluttering in
the early morning sunshine. At first the screech of industry continues then the
faint notes of a piano are heard. The image of the leaves catching the sunlight
has a strong resonance with poetic imagery Jennings analysed in one of his pre-

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


war radio broadcasts My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled / Quelled, or
quenched in leaves the leaping sun / Are felled, felled, are all felled:
Airy cages! The trees, within five words of being trees, have become cages made
of leaves, cages inside which the sun is an animal jumping about (the leaping
sun). The poplar trees, as the sunlight went through them, seemed to Hopkins to
have a sort of movement like a jumping animal inside a cage Hopkins presents
the sunlight in poplar leaves as a battle between an animal and its cage.19

This brief shot is probably not just a formal linking device but more a personal
statement about the contemporary situation within which the nation finds
itself. Britain (the tree) is a cage (confined by siege from the sea and air) in
which the animal the leaping sun (the peoples army) struggles to break free
from its constraints. The following sequence articulates this metaphor with a
cut to a domestic scene. A woman stands near a table littered with the remnants
of breakfast. A piano can be heard playing. She looks out of the window and
from her point of view the audience see the source of the music and gather the
emotional meaning of her situation: A housewife watches her child dancing
with the others in the school playground below and thinks of the man in a
foreign land. The children are performing a traditional folk dance. With the
cry of mummy a series of associative shots of the children dancing, the wife/
mother and a photograph of a man (husband) in uniform conjure a picture of
a family, like many others, broken by war. In terms of Hopkins poem Jennings
explained his interpretation as follows:
What makes one talk about it as a battle? its because of the contrast between
the life of the trees when they are standing and the bleakness (the nothingness)
of the landscape (and of his feelings) when theyre all cut down Its the contrast
between life and death, and that really is a battle and worth making a fuss

Although the family is (temporarily?) incomplete, its future and by implication

that of the nation and the children is uncertain. All is reliant upon the absent
father, and men like him along with the resolution of all mothers. The failure to
break free of the cage could mean the end of Britain. The piano music overlaps
into the next sequence to be overlaid by the rumble of vehicles. A mechanised
army unit thunders through the epitome of pastoral England: Bren gun carriers

Understanding Modern Poetry, reprinted in ibid. pp. 2689.



Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

come crashing through the village street shaking the plaster and timbers of
Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. A place of timeless tranquillity is shattered by the brief
but disruptive passage of these vehicles down the high street. Over a sequence of
inter-cut shots of half-tracks, Tudor gables, a point-of-view shot of the convoy
through a paned window to another ancient house across the street, a sign
advertising Guest Teas and reaction shots of a child, the convoy passes through
the community. Similar to the Spitfires, the Bren gun carriers and their associated
military power become accentuated by the mixing of Ken Camerons soundtrack.
The drone of the Spitfires is deep and resonant, like some mass formation of
aircraft. The noise from the half-tracks becomes distorted to a sound more like
heavy tanks than lightweight armoured carriers. As the convoy rumbles out of
the village in the bright sunlight of the morning, a trumpet fanfare introduces
the mid-morning sequence.
Both this sequence and the following lunchtime canteen concert are
reminiscent of Welfare of the Workers. A dissolve to an aerial shot reveals an
industrial estate located somewhere in the countryside away from the blitzed
regions. The signature trumpet call and cry Calling all Workers! is announced.
As the lively march of the signature tune Music While You Work explodes
onto the soundtrack a dissolve locates the audience in the cab of a vehicle
following a truck along what may be a road near the estate. A striking image
of a train belching smoke and hauling freight wagons passes over a bridge that
intersects the road. The rhythmic vibrancy of the music catches the energetic
movement of the vehicle and the rhythm of the train. As the vehicle travels
under the bridge into shadow another point-of-view shot is introduced but this
time from a train carriage emerging from a similar shadow cast by a bridge. This
cut transports the viewer to an urban landscape of terraced housing and gas
towers. The closing strains of the signature tune are accompanied by a dissolve
to the close-up of a rapidly spinning mechanism of factory machinery. As the
film moves from the train carriage interior onto a factory floor the spirit, energy
and dynamic rhythm of that animal the nation is brought to the fore.
Rhythm may imply a patterned and recurring cycle and here it is the
associations between the regulated and progressive drive of rhythmic activity and
war effort that is highlighted. The vibrancy of the introductory music is associated
with the speed of transferring people, resources and products across the nation
to their destinations. Inside the factories, in an attempt to forestall the danger
of declining productivity between breakfast and lunch, the workforce are given
extra impetus through the provision of music. The radio announcement, Music
While You Work will be played to you this morning on Rhythmic Records, is
accompanied by an establishing shot of the factory floor, the tannoy speaker
and the rhythmic pulse of machinery. The association between personal morale,

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


effort and national productivity is achieved through a series of interrelated cuts

between three young women and the tannoy emitting the pertinent Yes my
darling Daughter. The young women operating and minding their machines
exist as emotionally expressive human beings at the heart of the war drive. This
humanity within the workplace and the national spirit is expressed in the poetry
of the body language and glowing faces of these young women as they sing, smile
and move in time to the music and sound of the machines. A mass production
system transforming labour into a mere appendage of the machine seems to
have dissolved. Unlike in Spare Time where work and creative expression were
divorced, for an instant in the history of modern manufacture the human and
material aspects of the work process are integrated and invested with moral
and spiritual value. The following shot focuses on the intricate moving parts
of a machine and the mechanical hiss of its rhythm, which, like the pistons of
a train, beat in time to the music. With that mechanical rhythm still heard, a
dissolve returns to that train carriage as it continues its journey across the urban
This celebration of the role of industrial labour and particularly women in
the war effort forms a central theme in the remainder of the film. The transition
to the next sequence of activity focused around mid-morning and lunchtime is
achieved by sound and visual links of Uniforms on a station platform. Canteen
rescue squads in a street. Dissolving from the train to the concourse of a main
railway station the competing sounds of train departure and the general noise
of the concourse are married with shots of service men and women waiting,
smoking and drinking tea. In geographic and temporal terms the film moves
from mid-morning towards midday arriving at lunchtime at a factory canteen.
The transition is achieved by reminding the viewer of the persistent threat of air
raids. A cut leads to an ARP van serving refreshments and food while faintly
the sound of singing can be heard. Again there is a cut to a Painter on a ladder
covering a factory with camouflage and the voices and music are louder and
more distinguishable. Another cut moves inside the building where the voices
and music are loud and clear. The pertinent lyric: and when the storm clouds roll
over can be distinguished. Inside Flanagan and Allen are singing Round the
Back of the Arches to a thousand workers at their lunch. The initial shot inside
the canteen depicts female workers collecting hot meals through a service hatch.
As the song continues a sign, advertising the duos concert at 12:15, provides
confirmation. The morning shift has given way to a brief hour of relaxation and
From the advertisement a cut to the two performers on stage is followed by
a close-up of a substantial lunch menu before once more returning to the duo.
Through a series of establishing, point-of-view, reverse, medium and long shots,

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the camera patrols the environs of the canteen and observes a growing emotional
rapport between the artists and their audience. From relative indifference, to
smiles then whistling, the audience gradually begin to respond to the words and
music of the performance. Encouraged by Flanagan the audience participation
increases to swaying in time to the music. People watch and they smile at the duo.
A breach has been made in the place of paid work by the need to recognise that
production and productivity is reliant primarily on labour. Leisure time time
to be human as Jennings states in Spare Time, to be ourselves has forced its
way through the alienation of existing relations of production. The significance
of the sing-along, with its emotional quality and communal solidarity, demands
that the audience listen to these voices, which until this war had been culturally
and socially marginalised.21
As Flanagan and Allen reach the end of the song a sound cut to the
introduction of Mozarts Piano Concerto (K.453) overlays the final image of
the two performers. It is as if Mozarts arpeggio catches their breath, whisking
the sound upward ever higher as a dissolve takes us to Trafalgar Square
and the front of the National Gallery. This inspired cut, combined with
the visual dissolve, opens up multiple aesthetic and symbolic meanings.22
Regardless of the location, the social composition of the audience and the
cultural specificity of each concert, each performance shares a moment of unity:
the prestige of the performer(s), the incongruous nature of the location and
surroundings, the spontaneity in the popular response to each cultural event
and, most importantly, the artistry and poetic message that each performance
transmits. Contemporary popular comedians and great music from the past
connect with the general public to reveal a deeper relevance and worth:
Another lunch time concert is in progress in the National Gallery. Here office
workers and shop assistants listen to the RAF Orchestra playing Mozarts Piano
Concerto in G, with Myra Hess at the piano. The ceiling and windows above
are cracked by bombs like most buildings in London and the Galleries have been
cleared of their treasures, yet in one of them is an exhibition: War Artists Painting.
A sailor on leave looks at one of Dunkirk. The place is thronged with lunch hour

A fact recognised by the popular radio personality J.B. Priestley (regarded as the
voice of enlightened commonsense) who articulated the need to Let The People Sing. See
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada.
This cut appears to have been a product of chance rather than intentionality: John
Krish was in the cutting room when this particular bit of magic took place. He made the join,
made it over again for Jennings and McAllister to check. They just fell about with delight
because it had come off . Drazin, C. (1998). The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s,
Andre Deutsch. p. 156.

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


Londoners mostly civil defence workers the Queen is there listening with the
others to Dame Myra Hess.

This sequence falls into three distinct passages, each passage coinciding
with discrete musical motifs in Mozarts introductory movement. Visual
cuts are timed to coincide with the beat and tempo of the music. The first
sequence is built around the introductory orchestration prior to the entry of
the piano. Like the Flanagan and Allen sequence the event is put in context
by including activity which is occurring at the same time in the building. A
dissolve to a long shot of the orchestra and pianist is followed by a series of
quick cuts to the musicians and the insertion of the advertisement for the
1p.m. Lunchtime Concert by Myra Hess and the RAF Orchestra. A shot
of two women eating sandwiches on the steps immediately inside the doors
of the gallery is follows by ripped blinds and cracked windows. The physical
disrepair caused by bombing, accompanied by the informal behaviour of the
women, indicates a collapse of peacetime convention. The audience is drawn
back to the concert first with shots of the audience and then a close-up of
the musical programme and violinists. Again the film returns to the entrance
hall as the concert continues. More people enter passing the two women
eating their sandwiches. There is a cut to a notice advertising the War Artists
Exhibition. The lunch-time crowd is a mixture of civilians and uniformed
forces chatting and perusing pictures and postcards. The women continue
their lunch. This is not the image of a traditional audience or the reserved
behaviour associated with the precincts of an art gallery. There is a stripping
away of that peacetime aura associated with high culture and the behaviour
associated with visiting such a prestigious institution as the National Gallery.
The gallery and its precincts have been transformed into a place of music,
contemporary art, informality, relaxation and discussion; indeed a more open
and democratic forum where the signifiers of social distinction and education
are cloaked by the anonymity of uniforms.
The second sequence begins at the introduction of the piano. An initial
establishing shot of the concert is followed by a close up of Hess beginning
the movement. This is followed by a shot of the attentive Queen with
Kenneth Clark and equerry before returning to Hess. The establishing shot
is repeated as her solo is completed. As the piano is joined by the orchestra
the camera pans across sandbagged windows, fire buckets and empty picture
frames returning to a close up of the fire buckets and sand container ready to
extinguish incendiary bombs. There follows a series of inter-cut shots of Hess
and the diverse nature of the audience and the Queen. Notions of privilege
are momentarily reconfigured into a broader representation of popular social

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


cohesion through the scenes of damaged and vacated galleries. The impending
threat of explosion and fire and the rapt attention of the audience drawing
strength from the performance, equates freedom of artistic expression with
tradition, democracy and national defiance.23
As the music begins a new and increasingly dynamic phrase, what follows is
a bravura piece of editing which concludes the film. The rhythmic beat acts
like some centrifugal force and images are spun out into the surrounding
Outside, girl on National gallery balcony stands reading in sunshine. Plane tree
leaves in sunshine. View from Trafalgar Square shows National Gallery balcony,
leaves and girl. Closer view from the street shows girl on sunlit balcony. Between
pillars of National Gallery, a silver barrage balloon in sky. High angled shot of
traffic in Trafalgar Square outside South Africa House. High angle shot of bus stop
outside National gallery. Bus stops, passengers alight. Coat of arms on pediment
of National Gallery. Another high-angle view of traffic in Trafalgar Square. From
National Gallery roof, dome in foreground, Nelsons Column in mid-ground, Big
Ben in background. Closer shot of Nelson on his column. MS (medium shot),
back of sailor on National Gallery. General shot, National Gallery.24

With the participation of the whole orchestra the musical phrase builds rapidly
in tonal depth as the music moves towards a crescendo. Correspondingly, in
visual terms, the shots represent locations further out from Central London to
the docks of the East End with cranes, steaming funnels and a barrage balloon
high in the sky, then on to the manufacturing heartlands of Britain. It moves not
only geographically but also in time.
It is now past the lunch hour and the refreshed labour force are back at
work, revitalised for the afternoon shift. The imaginative connection which
Jennings makes between art, war and science becomes increasingly explicit.
With Mozart on the soundtrack a cut is made to a workshop of heavy industry:
The factories are making tanks for this country to fight with. The noise of the
factory drowns the Mozart and out of the din comes the thumping of the drums
of the marines [sic] A Life on the Ocean Wave. An arpeggio coincides with a
See Jackson, K. (1993). Humphrey Jennings: The Poet and The Public. Contemporary
Record 7(3): 66384.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. Appendix A, p. 139.

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


worker, cigarette in his mouth, spinning the vertical handle on a vice. The images
and music of manufacture begin to overcome the strains of the classical music.
A turret is positioned on the body of a tank, a female worker in overalls and
hair tied back energetically operates a lathe. Similarly attired, another woman
operates a fixed industrial drill as the sounds of hammering and engines finally
drown out the orchestra. Tank tracks are inspected as a train gets up steam
and pulls flat-back carriages loaded with finished tanks out of the workshop.
This industrial workforce is not represented as some abstract proletariat but a
community determined to succeed in the battle against fascism. There follows a
cut to the Band of the Royal Marines marching through Chatham with troops
in full service order. The beat of the military march resounds around the streets.
It overwhelms the noise of onlookers: The thump of the drums is taken up by
the thud of the steam hammers, forging arms from red hot steel.
In a steel mill, workers brings out molten ingot from furnace. Another shot of the
ingot. CU [close-up] molten mass being shaped. Heavy pounding. Workers bring
out another ingot. CU ingot being placed on an anvil. MS [mid-shot] workers
manipulating it. CU ingot. Back to workers. Ingot being shaped. Masked workers
with wielding equipment. (Mixed with the steel-mill sounds, a choir singing Rule
Britannia begins to fade in, then takes over soundtrack.) Steelworkers on balcony
above furnace.25

Jennings and McAllister interrelate images to provide a picture of the terror

and beauty of industrial activity. The primeval materials of fire, molten metal,
sparks, flame and smoke surround and threaten to engulf the vulnerable bodies
of the steel workers as Rule Britannia emerges on the soundtrack: Listen to
Britain. The fire in the heart of our people, the music in their voices, swells
into the air, out of the factories, over the fields of grain, and up over the land.
They are all synthesised in the concluding moment of the film:
Exterior, flat faade of factory surmounted by three smoking chimneys. Waving
field of wheat, as at the start of the film. Cooling towers and factory chimneys.
Clouds drift across aerial shot of countryside (as in Words For Battle). (Rule
Britannia comes to a triumphant end over these shots).26

The film provides an appropriate and timely vision for a critical moment in the
British war effort and the general context of the world war even though this

Ibid. Appendix A, p. 140.

Ibid. Appendix A, p. 140.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


image of spirited mass mobilisation does not accurately represent national

reality. The pool of volunteer workers, which Jennings had recorded in his
previous films, had by now virtually dried up and the domestic pressure of
war work was increasingly intensified due to a growing shortage of volunteer
labour in all areas of industry and the civilian and military services. By the
time of the films release in early 1942 the Government had had to turn to
conscription. The spontaneity of individual action, voluntary team spirit and
amateurism of the early years of the war was now being transformed by mass
mobilisation for a truly internationalised conflict.
Reference to Listen to Britain as having no spoken soundtrack is mistaken
because the voices of newsreaders, entertainers and others pepper the
soundtrack.27 By reporting the sounds of the everyday and vernacular, the
tonal and rhythmic qualities of natural, industrial and mechanised sound,
radio announcements, various forms of music, Jennings and McAllister
signify distinct moments in the rhythm of life over the 24-hour period. In
the interweaving of sound and image a linear and simultaneous narrative is
built around the sounds and music of life which provides an emotional appeal
by the people to the people of the nation and their allies. What better way to
encapsulate this combination of the material and spiritual the martial spirit
than to depict The music of a people at war the sound of life in Britain by
night and day.28
Perhaps within the MoI it was felt that the general audience would fail to
comprehend the meaning of the film without some form of initial commentary.
The addition of Brockingtons speech highlights the international alliance and
the key position Britain holds at this time. However the film carries a number
of implicit tensions which surrounded the domestic and international scene:
for example the need for a national war effort based on social unity between
social classes while recognising the specific efforts of working class industrial
labour; a celebration of international solidarity amongst working people
living in different nations under different political systems; the changing
experiences of women in the home and workplace; the encouragement of
an international alliance between the previously opposed liberal-capitalist
democracies of Britain and the United States (until December 1941 the
neutral arsenal of democracy) with Soviet Russia.

Nowell-Smith, G. (1986). Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist Observer, in Barr, C., ed.,

All Our Yesterdays, British Film Institute. pp. 32133. Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an
Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute.
pp. 767.
Listen to Britain, reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. p. 33. My italics.

Turning of the Tide: MayOctober 1941


Like the reception of his earlier films the critical response of the film
community, on its release in February 1942, was mixed. Jennings remarked,
Listen has had very violent notices one way and the other three stars in the
Sunday Express with tremendous popular boost and of course Mr [Edgar]
Anstey at the Spectator thinking of every gag to damn it.29 As a supporter of
the Grierson approach he described it as the rarest piece 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.30 However he and McAllister could take
further comfort from others: I met Eric Knight American film critic and
his wife who were particularly enthusiastic about Listen to Britain.31 Jennings
belief that the film was in fact a success and very popular32 was confirmed by
Helen Forman who, while involved in showing films on the non-theatrical film
circuit, visited a wide range of factories, villages, schools, civil defence units
and military establishments. She found that the film touched an emotional
chord amongst the audience of ordinary people:
All sorts of audiences felt it to be a distillation and also a magnification of
their own experience of 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. Films got very short shrift if they
touched any area of peoples experience and did not ring true.33


Letter 12 April 1942 reprinted in ibid. p. 58.

Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. pp. 1445. A similar tone is found in the American Motion Picture Herald: As an essay
in modern documentary screencraft it will please the 1942 equivalent of the avant garde
It is a pretty picture album of wartime Britain with a realistic soundtrack, not without its
moments, nor devoid of appeal outside these islands, but as propaganda obscure and scanty.
Anon. (1942). Listen to Britain. Motion Picture Herald 146(11).
Letter 12 April 1942 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 578. In a later letter (29 May 1942) Jennings states Apropos
Words For Battle and Listen to Britain I hear Listen was well thought of in Hollywood
also among the troops in the Middle East. A toughish Commando officer was raving about
both those films to me yesterday which was really gratifying shows its worth taking the
trouble and not underrating people. Ibid. p. 59.
Letter 12 April 1942 reprinted in ibid. p. 58.
Pronay, N. and Spring, D.W., eds (1982). Propaganda, Politics and Film 191845,
Macmillan Press. p. 230.

This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 11

History as Myth:
October 1941July 1942
Once the invasion of Russia had begun in late June 1941, the imminent threat
of an invasion of England passed and there was a significant lull in the German
bombing campaign. Although a period of relative calm, the war in Eastern
Europe and the Mediterranean hung precariously in the balance. It was not until
the entry of the United States into the conflict in early December 1941 and a
series of decisive Allied victories, with the battles of Moscow (October 1941
January 1942) and Stalingrad ( July 1942February 1943) in Russia, and the
second Battle of El Alamein (OctoberNovember 1942) in North Africa, that
a European military victory seemed within the grasp of the allies. Along with
increased rationing came the petty frustrations associated with what Jennings
referred to as the cruel farce of home organisation. The volunteer spirit
which had characterised the home front so far was now being replaced by more
government regulation: the recruitment of women for the war effort was taken
in hand the workers in the factories and in the Civil Defence were subjected
to compulsion [and] political sourness re-entered the organs of public opinion.
As Jennings and McAllister finished editing Listen to Britain plans were afoot to
move the Film Unit from Denham to Pinewood Studios. This move was part of
a rationalisation process whereby Crown and the service film units of the Army
and RAF were brought together under one roof to share facilities. As it was one
of the newest and best-equipped studio complexes in Britain, Jack Beddington
was keen to begin studio based production which would boost both the number
and quality of films produced. Dalrymple immediately set to work and soon
six feature calibre factual films dealing with different aspects of the British war
effort were planned. In December 1941 he told the Americans we are trying

Letter 15 June 1941 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 30.

Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 264.

Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 134.

NA INF 1/462 Crown Film Unit: Staff Complement and Salaries December 1941
November 1942. The films were identified as Coastal Command, A.1. Priority, a National


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

not only to build up a composite picture of England at war but to get the people
of different countries to know one another better. In particular we want to make
a record for the Americans of how we are using the aid they are sacrificing so
much to send us.
Jennings film career had reached a turning point. The move changed not
only his working environment but also his responsibilities and the type of film
he would produce and direct. With the focus on more prestigious productions
Dalrymple proposed a Production Committee of his lead directors Jennings,
Holmes and Jackson to supervise the normal output of five-minute factual
films and short studio type productions. Also at the beginning of 1942,
in recognition of his past achievements, Jennings was promoted to Senior
Director, the position vacated by Harry Watt after his move to Ealing Studios
in mid 1941. However at this moment Jennings had still to achieve significant
critical recognition like other directors in the Unit. Jack Holmes had achieved
success with Merchant Seaman (1941) and Harry Watt with Target for Tonight
(1941). Holmes was now to direct Coastal Command (1942) and Pat Jackson
the featurette Ferry Pilot (1942) while McAllisters flair had been responsible
for the effectiveness of Men of the Lightship (1940) and in helping to create three
of the highest grossing films of the war so far; London Can Take It!, Merchant
Seaman and Target for Tonight. In comparison Jennings seemed ensnared by
worthy but unglamorous non-commercial propaganda. Perhaps this explains
why Watt suggested to Dalrymple that Jennings be given a more adventurous
assignment: Harry once said to me very shrewdly and wisely, We must try
to get Humphrey to do an action picture, because everything is so static with
Humphrey. His next assignment was to mark a new directorial phase. He
was allocated a feature calibre film: a story of the Fire Service, founded on a
staggering incident that really happened in the connection with a munitions
ship in danger.10 Rather than recording the present he would turn to events
Fire Service film, Western Approaches, Calling all Peoples and a Submarine film.

Dalrymple, I. (1941). London Calling (Overseas Journal of the BBC) (109).

NA INF 1/462 Crown Film Unit: Staff Complement and Salaries December 1941
November 1942.

Heart of Britain, Words for Battle and Listen to Britain NA INF 1/462 Crown Film
Unit: Staff Complement and Salaries December 1941November 1942.

Letter 15 June 1941 reprinted Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. p. 29.

Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. p. 146.
Dalrymple, I. (1941). London Calling (Overseas Journal of the BBC)(109). The
reference by Dalrymple is related to an event in the Liverpool Docks during April 1941.
In the middle of a heavy raid the Liverpool AFS was attempting to bring under control a

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


of recent history. Cinematically Jennings exchanged the poetic expression of

the contemporary for the poetic evocation of the recent past. Rather than
reportage, his film would be dramatic in character and neo-realist in style. He
would not return to the contemporary reportage style again until two years
later with A Diary for Timothy (1945).
Prior to completing Listen to Britain he turned his attention to collecting
information about the firefighting service at the height of the Blitz. Between
October and February he began to research and sketch ideas for a story based on
the munitions ship episode which had involved a team of Auxiliary Fire Service
(AFS) volunteers in the Liverpool docks.11 While working on successive story
outlines he collected reports of bombing incidents from ambulance and fire
crews. He visited firefighting sub-stations, met the firefighters and (often female)
support staff and noted the activities and the character of the surroundings and
operations rooms. He identified suitable locations in the East End, details for
specific sets to be built at Pinewood and the volunteer firemen drawn from
Heavy Unit crews around London who would populate his film.12 He also drew
on material supplied by Maurice Richardson, whose account of training and
life with an AFS Heavy Unit had recently been published as Londons Burning.
What he learnt as part of his research was how the AFS epitomised that unselfish
heroism of the civilian army.
He may have consulted Richie Calders The Lesson of London, published
in April 1941, which revealed how official air raid preparations in the capital
had been impracticable if not useless. It was an indictment of the Governments
slow response to the needs of the professional but organisationally fragmented
Fire Service which with the support of a myriad of volunteer AFS units were
attempting to cope with devastating raids. On 13 May 1941, three days after a
massive raid on London, the sheer scale of which surpassed anything experienced

massive fire in a shed next to an ammunition ship. In real danger they carried out their duties
when the shed exploded. The blast annihilated the shed and hurled debris and ship plates
a mile into the city centre. The ammunition ship also exploded. One man was killed but
miraculously the rest of the shaken crew survived unhurt. In recognition of their heroism
Section Officer John Lappin received the Liverpool Medal for Air Raid Gallantry.
In January 1942 Jennings received a copy of a radio transcript of the Liverpool
incident described by John Lappin. He then visited Liverpool to interview Lappin. Humphrey
Jennings Collection Box 1 Item 6 Fires Were Started. See footnote 10.
Over this time he produced at least five treatments under a variety of headings such
as Counter Attack, The Bells Went Down, To Be a Fireman and N.F.S. which include
numerous rewrites, corrections and additions to sequences. Humphrey Jennings Collection,
Box 1, Item 6 Fires Were Started BFI Archive.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


before, the Government announced that by autumn the Fire Service was to be
reorganised into one regulated National Fire Service.13
Protected by Dalrymple from official demands Jennings had the creative
freedom to continue with his spontaneous approach towards production. He
did not write a detailed script but had ideas for a series of interlinked scenes and
sequences whose climax would feature the death of one of the crew while saving
an ammunition ship from fire.14 As he made clear in a statement attached to his
film treatments he would attempt to evoke the general experience and spirit of
the AFS during the Blitz:
Today Britain is protected by a unified National Fire Service which has been
created in the heat of battle. Commands, areas, methods have been constantly
modified by experience. This story is designed as a picture of average experience
and as a tribute to the firemen and firewomen of these heroic years.15

A feeling of authenticity would emerge out of the lives, personalities and

experiences of the men he had chosen. Even though demonstrably set in
Londons East End his actors were given fictional names while he attempted
as far as possible to avoid landmarks that could be specifically identified with
the London docks. The film also uses a small amount of visually striking library
footage which helps meld historical fact with the fictional scenes to create a high
degree of verisimilitude.16
From I was a Fireman to Fires Were Started
In April and May 1942 Jennings wrote of his experience of working on location
in the East End:
For the last two months we have been working at this down there for twelve hours
a day six days a week the results peculiar and very unlike anything I have had
to do with before: popular, exciting, funny mixture of slapstick and macabre
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 242.
His assistant Nora Lee remembered: He never had a shooting script. On set he had
2 sheets of foolscap paper shot in sequences all in his head he knew how he was going to
construct it Its all up here tapping his head. BECTU Tape No. 375.
The Bells Go Down 4 January 1942. Humphrey Jennings Collection, Box 1, Item 6.
For example Cyril Pennington (cameraman) remembered that everything had to
be absolutely right [Id] never worked with such a perfectionist in my life. BECTU Tape
No.122 ACTT History Project.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


blitz reconstruction really have never worked so hard at anything or I think

thrown myself into anything so completely. Whatever the results it is definitely
an advance in film making for me really beginning to understand people and
not just looking at them and lecturing and pitying them we really are working
night & day now & things are having a tremendous effect on me at the moment
my (I say my but) firemen have certainly proved one thing to me, but proved it
in practice that all these distinctions of understanding and level and other such
are total rubbish and worse invented by people to mislead. And not merely the
distinction made by the famous upper classes but also those made [by] the grubby
documentary boys who try and give a hand to what they call emerging humanity,
the common man and so on.17

Reaching back to Cooks Play Way technique individual scenes were

spontaneously created through impromptu collaboration with his firemen. This
form of direction allowed the creativity to flow and to help his untrained actors
avoid the problem of self-conscious delivery. But this required considerable
time and the use of valuable film stock to capture the footage he desired.18 There
was a significant overrun on both the budget and time scale of filming because
of his desire for authenticity and his decision to place the story firmly around
the fire crew. This created both technical problems and bureaucratic issues
surrounding location shooting and post-production censorship.19 In October
while on location for his next film (Silent Village) in the western coalfields of
South Wales, an unofficial screening of a finished print was arranged. Dalrymple
reported on his return that an audience of entirely Welsh and mostly tough
Letter 12 April and 29 May 1942 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 579.
There were scenes that never I think appeared in the final version I remember
having to run five times in front of two fire-maddened dray-horses who then had to rear back
to miss me and the same thing with a locomotive in Woolwich Arsenal And my colleagues
were sent climbing up hot kilns, or lowered sixty feet from a warehouse roof . Sansom, W.
(1961/2). The Making of Fires Were Started. Film Quarterly (Winter): 279. p. 28. The
horse and locomotive do appear but very fleetingly. According to Joe Mendoza the idea for
the horse came from a visit he and Jennings had made to a wartime exhibition where he saw
a picture by Felix Topolski of a fireman leading a horse between two burning warehouses.
BECTU Tape No.300 ACTT History Project and Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney
(1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 96.
The original budget was estimated at 10,498 8s 2d but eventually came to 13,283
18s 4d. Aldgate, A. and Richards, J. (1986). Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the
Second World War, Basil Blackwell. p. 233. The majority of filming in the docks near Tower
Bridge and at Pinewood occurred between mid February and June. Secondary unit material
and re-shoots were completed by the end of January 1943.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


miners had been enthusiastic. Despite the raids on Swansea and Cardiff the
film seemed a revelation to most as to what had been going on in other parts
of the country.20 The response must have confirmed that they had a potential
success on their hands.
The Official Response
Like other feature calibre factual films Dalrymple had planned, I was a Fireman
was intended to be shown on commercial circuit. As a state funded film this
raised complaints within the commercial sector about unfair competition. Also
a similarly themed Fires film, The Bells Go Down, was then in production at
Ealing Studios. But more directly to gain distribution it would have to convince
both a film distributor and the cinema owners that it was good entertainment
and profitable to screen. At the same time the subject matter was surrounded
with a degree of official sensitivity within the Ministry of Home Security and
the recently formed National Fire Service. Jennings depiction was of a time
when volunteers and an unreformed professional service struggled to cope with
the demands put upon them. The storys focus, on a group of recently trained
volunteer firefighters in their attempt to extinguish a warehouse fire, was not the
professional image that the newly unified National Fire Service and Ministry
wished to project. While Jennings was on location in November, these concerns
surfaced at an early preview of the film and were immediately communicated to
It should be cut omitting earlier sequences and going quickly as possible to
the fire scenes, with a commentary carefully explaining that the film represents
the experiences of one of the voluntary Auxillary Fire Service crews of two
years ago and not the regular London Fire Brigade this in order to excuse the
shortcomings of the obviously inexperienced firemen and not to let the world
think that England (to quote these critics) has nothing better today than to
depend upon those amateur firemen whose apparently casual methods are overemphasised in the first half. Exception was taken to the evident unpreparedness of
the crews while the raid was in progress and calls were coming in.21

The film was unacceptable and the distributor refused to take it in its present
form. Beddington agreed and wrote to Dalrymple: I would not accept their

NA INF 6/985 I was a Fireman (Fires Were Started) 1943.

NA INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution Memo to
Beddington 26 November 1942.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


judgement for one moment did I not feel myself that the film can be very much
improved a lot from both a propaganda and entertainment point of view. He
listed the changes he regarded as appropriate: cut the beginning, introduce a
narrator who could both point the dialogue and give added emphasis to the
value of the munitions motif and date the incident clearly as having taken place
two years ago, before this new efficiency organisation of the present National
Fire Service. He concluded: I am afraid you and Humphrey will be very
disappointed about this and I want you therefore to know that though I see no
alternative I am really completely in sympathy with you.22
On 4 December the existing film print was slotted into a programme at
the New Victoria, Preston, and given an informal preview before an audience
of the general public and representatives of the local emergency services. The
publicity managers report reinforced the earlier complaints. It stated that there
were no enthusiastic comments about the film and the consensus of opinion
amongst the local press, police and firefighting representatives was that it was
deplorably slow for the first half hour. He added, unhappily audiences do not
wished to be bored these days. The Blitz sequence was regarded as good but a
major flaw was the lack of a single character the audience could identify with
throughout the story: an outstanding error was the careful building up of a
character named Barrett for about half of the film and then, for no apparent
reason, dropping him. The report concluded that it would make a good
second feature provided a good strong first feature played with it.23 Dalrymple
attempted to defend the existing cut of the film by enlisting the support of the
respected film critic C.A. Lejeune of the Observer to persuade Beddington:
It should be shown quickly, it should be shown widely and it should be shown in
its present form I think it is one of the finest documentaries we have ever made.
I am sure it will bring prestige to the unit and to British films generally. I can
guarantee that what I may call my public will like it, and I have enough faith in
the good heart of the wider public to believe that they will like it too. I have never
known a film as honest and as human as this one fail to get its message through. If
it were my film, I should be very proud of it.24

INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution. Letter from
Beddington to Dalrymple 26 November 1942.
INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution. Letter from
publicity manager to Arthur Jarrat at General Films Distributors Ltd.
Quoted in Aldgate, A. and Richards, J. (1986). Britain Can Take It: The British
Cinema in the Second World War, Basil Blackwell. p. 239.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Beddington however was not moved, although he did think that a good review
from Lejeune on release would be helpful.25 On his return from South Wales
Jennings was confronted with what appeared to be a fait accompli. In outrage
he wrote:
The Fire Service film which adored by almost everybody did not go down well
with the commercial distributors at least that was the story. They said it was
too long and slow and so on. Quite likely from their point of view they were
correct. In that case there was a little recutting to be done and that would be that.
But no. All sorts of people official and otherwise who had not the courage to
speak out before suddenly discovered that that was what they had thought all
along that the picture was much too long and slow [and] a hopeless muddle
which could only be saved by being cut right down and so on Ian of all people
suddenly demanded a massacre of the film all this arising out of the criticism
of one or two people in Wardour Sreet who had other irons in the fire anyway
and who fight every inch against us trespassing on what they pretend is their field
Needless to say Mac and most of the Unit were on my side but it was not
pleasant having a real battle with Ian with whom really I was living and who has
been so exceptionally good to me and whom really I trusted implicitly.26

In mid December McAllister excised approximately 700800 feet, mainly from

the pre-Blitz sequences, and substantially re-edited the morning sequence.
If Jennings thought this resolved the situation he was mistaken. Beddington
received a further enquiry from the Ministry of Home Security about the film
which asked for another preview for the Minister and senior officers at some
suitable interval prior to release.27
Beddington expected a revised copy to be available by no later than February.
Pressure was also mounting to find a UK distributor as the rival production at
Ealing was intended to be released by 10 May 1943. The film was offered to the
American company Columbia for distribution in the UK, however they declined.
The latest cut was sent back to the British Distributor G.F.D. Ltd in early March.
As an internal memo makes clear everything relied on this revised version now
being acceptable. Rejection would have prevented the film from getting into the
theatres before The Bells Go Down: I had a word with McAllister who is of the

NA INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution.

Letter 29 January 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 76. Jennings italics.
NA INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution. Eventually
a special private showing was arranged for suppliers of resources and services at the MoI
theatre on 24 March 1943 at the same time as the press show prior to release.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


opinion that we cannot salvage any part of the old production for America or
Home Distribution. The first four reels are completely re-edited and in parts recommentated while throughout the balance of the film cuts have been made.28
By the middle of the month Gaumont British decided to take the film but only
if a further 700 feet were removed. It was agreed and with misgivings Jennings
accepted the decision and McAllister made the cuts.29 The title was changed to
Fires Were Started and a press show organised at the GDF theatre for 24 March
with reviews appearing over the subsequent days. The film was given its general
release on 4 April in the West End, beating The Bells Go Down to the screen.
Fires Were Started
Fires Were Started offers a representation of the recent past filtered through
Jennings imagination but shaped by commercial demands and official
considerations. The introduction of a commentary was resisted but the
preliminary sequences prior to the raid were pared back. Events are clearly
located in the period prior to the introduction of the new National Fire Service.
The ammunition ship and coming raid are given repeated reference in the preBlitz sequences. As the introductory caption states all parts are played by the
firemen and firewomen themselves and the film follows the combined response
of the air raid defence system and fire services to a situation similar to those
early days the bitter days of winter and spring 1940/41. The historical veracity
of this is what it was like during the blitz and the emotional heart of the film
derives from Jennings ability to re-create as closely as possible the conditions,
experiences and emotions of the volunteer firefighters.
The main part of the film divides into a series of sequences which cover a
24-hour period starting and finishing in the morning and followed by a brief
coda. Similar to the structure of Listen to Britain the story is both shaped and
divided by social periods of time which provide a rhythm to the days events:
morning to lunchtime (arrival for duty, re-equipment and drill), lunchtime
through mid afternoon (where more of the back story and elements that
will play a central part in the drama are introduced), late afternoon until
early evening and twilight (rest and preparation for the raid) and from night
(fighting the fire) until the following morning (clearing up).30 Within these

NA INF 1/212 Fires Were Started (I was a Fireman) UK Distribution.

Dalrymple quoted in Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary,
University of California Press. p. 146.
Winston provides a detailed description of these sequences. This discussion follows
his designation with some variation. Winston, B. (1999). FIRES WERE STARTED British


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

periods exposition about the organisation of the air defence system becomes
increasingly integrated with the fictional storyline.
That story focuses on the reforming of a Heavy Unit fire crew and the
incorporation of a new member into the team. Although the crew is the overall
focus three characters are given particular prominence Barrett, Jacko and
Johnny. The integration of the new man Barrett helps introduce the other
characters and various elements of the story such as the munitions ship
and sunken barge that play a central part in the later drama. Throughout,
the presence and demeanour of Jacko (a comparatively quiet almost sombre
member of the team) seems to intimate something of his coming fate. If any
of the team stand out it is Johnny (played by the exuberant Fred Griffiths), a
character who appears to epitomise the natural life force of the team. They will
fight a huge blaze in the docks where one man becomes injured and another,
after selflessly putting his life at great risk, is killed. In the aftermath the men
must clear up and respond to the loss of their friend. A brief coda follows which
centres on the burial of their teammate and brings the story to a close while
reinforcing the central propaganda message of the film.
From Morning to Lunch
The story begins in early morning (8:50a.m.) with the return of a Heavy Unit
fire appliance from the workshops to sub-station 14Y which is located in a
working class district of the East End close to the river. During this time period
Jennings interrelates the personal and communal (Barrett meeting the crew
and personnel of the sub-station 14Y) with the more general and informative
(the relationship between 14Y and the wider Local and Metropolitan
Operational Units of the fire service). The audience learns the names of the
women in the office or watchroom who notify Local Command of the return
of the appliance. A new crew Blue Watch which includes seven seasoned
firefighters, the Crazy Gang, and one recently trained volunteer is assigned.
Jennings now presents a series of inter-cut vignettes as these characters make
their way, at about 9:45a.m., from their homes through the bustling streets
and docks past where the warehouse is located and ammunition ship berthed,
to the sub-station. His focus lies in the personalities and the broader human
dimensions of sub-station life, which have resonance with the description
provided by Richardson in Londons Burning.31
Film Institute. pp. 226.
Stephen Spender had served in the Auxilliary Fire Service and hailed Richardsons
book as honest, intelligent and accurate. Spender, S. (3 January 1942). Highbrow Fireman.
The New Statesman and Nation: Weekend Review. pp. 1213. The characters of Jacko and

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


Middle class and ex-public school Richardson relished the camaraderie of the
raids and sub-station life and wrote of his admiration for these mostly working
and lower middle-class men (with a few public school types thrown into the
mix) who formed the crew of his Heavy Unit. Jealously guarding their status
as volunteers they bent or circumvented rules and regulations and were often
contemptuous of government air raid policy and the bland reporting by the
BBC and press in the aftermath of raids.32 It is a similar mix of men, including
the artistic and literary minded, with similar attitudes who make up Blue Watch
and by extension other sub-station crews. Jacko runs a corner shop, tobacconist
and newsagent with his wife and the ex-taxi driver and lover of boxing Johnny
becomes Barretts guide. He is a middle class professional from the advertising
industry. For Barrett, the middle class outsider, Johnny epitomises the classic
Cockney characterised by Richardson and quickly sketched in The First Days:
There is something at once stereotypical and yet original and vital about the
Cockney character a set of characters who look alike, say the same things,
experience the same reactions and emotions, and yet amaze one with their
richness and warmth of their life, their humour, their passions, their humanity
and good feeling.33

Alongside Johnny and Jacko the crew includes a mixture of local men drawn
from the lower-middle or middle classes. Joe Vallance, Rumbold known as the
Colonel (a philosophical Scot with a love of literature), BA Brown (a wheelerdealer attempting to sell blackmarket braces) who is averse to over exertion
and regulations, Walters a quiet second in command could be either grammar
school or privately educated. He has the demeanour, with his moustache and
in his bearing, of an ex-military man. In charge of the sub-station and crew is
the older Sub-Officer Dykes, a solid and bluff headmaster, a local man with
professional firefighting experience.
The men are fixed as a team within a small community of volunteers who make
up 14Y. Class, Jennings implies, is not what is important here. It is rather what
the men themselves bring to the situation. They are different but complementary
and form a tight knit group reliant on each other. It is the interaction between
Johnny in the film have parallels in Richardsons story. Johnny, ex-boxer and taxi driver, was
however violently anti-Semitic. Pratt owned a small tobacconist and newsagents shop in
North London. The character of Barret is similar to Richardson himself.
Richardson, M.L. (1941). Londons Burning, Robert Hale Ltd.
Spender, S. (3 January 1942). Highbrow Fireman. The New Statesman and Nation:
Weekend Review. p. 12. In particular Johnny played by Fred Griffiths was such a natural actor
he subsequently built a successful film career for himself out of this appearance.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the men as the night-time raid approaches and the tension created between
personal freedom, their responsibilities and the restraints imposed on them by
the official order of sub-station life, that Jennings explores in this and later scenes.
But camaraderie, that informal glue that sustains team work and station life, is
at the centre of the depiction: from their initial cheery greetings to each other,
to the recognition that they will be riding together as a unit, their curiosity at
the arrival of Barrett when they are re-equipping the engine and finally accepting
him as part of Blue Watch. During this re-edited sequence we are shown one
of those lax and unprofessional moments of station life criticised by Ministry
and Fire Service officials. As Dykes shouts out of his office window for Johnny,
BA comments were in trouble again Colonel thats what becomes of working
under this window. Once Barrett has been introduced to most of the crew BA
again pipes up we musnt work too hard my friends, weve got to make this last
till one oclock. It is conduct recognised by everyone as a small form of resistance
to formal demands. Immediately Dykes shouts get cracking with that pump to
which BA responds with some alacrity, OK skipper.
Keeping in tune with his belief that the poet should connect the human
side of life with the mundane Jennings include jokes and wishful songs around
the official routine. Sansom remembers he always stressed his need for music
in the film,34 so as two men peel potatoes next to cages of rabbits they sing Ah
sweet mystery of love and life Ive found you, while Johnny gives a rendition of
Oh I do like to be besides the seaside as he cleans the vehicle. He also inserts
both the quirky and serendipitous. Barrett asks a Chinese man the location of
the station. On his arrival a bucket of water is inadvertently thrown over his feet.
A man plays a penny whistle outside the gates of the sub-station and Jacko tells
of a funny thing: sitting by his fire dozing a big lump of coal fell out gave me
quite a turn. Vallance reposts: youre doing it all wrong Jimmy having a fire in
your own home to which he replies You got something there.
The story moves into a short, briskly orchestrated and edited sequence
reinforcing the positive representation demanded by officialdom. The immediate
local character of sub-station 14Y is set within the broader context of Local Area
14, and by association the general organisation of air defence for the city. Both
the administration and organisation of this wider local system are shown to be
highly organised, efficient and professional. Contact made with each of the six
sub-stations is inter-cut with scenes of morning preparation around the area.
The audience learn of the resources available and the sequence concludes with
a map showing the geography of the area for which they are responsible. This is
Sansom, W. (1961/1962). The Making of Fires Were Started. Film Quarterly
(Winter): 279. p. 28.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


immediately followed by a training and drill sequence, in the streets and on the
river, which concludes on a musical crescendo with a visually dramatic shot of
two ladders extended fully skywards. Finally there is a dissolve to a clock face
showing 1p.m.
Lunchtime and Mid Afternoon
With the men assembled in the canteen, Johnny is asked by Dykes to show the
district to Barrett after lunch. Johnny asks Walters whats a matter with the sub
this morning he looks a bit dodgy dont he?. The Colonel answers ach its a full
moon. The implication of a bombers moon and the vulnerability of the docks
has already been obliquely referred to with the admonishment from Jackos wife
on his leaving that he is not to do anything silly and Charlie on gate duty
being told the he would be in the limelight tonight because of a full moon. The
following brief sequence is based around Johnny acquainting Barrett with the
local area down by the river and is used to flesh out the characters of the men
while introducing aspects which will play a central part in the later drama. This
provides Jennings with an opportunity to insert reference to one of his enduring
themes: technology and change. As Johnny points out: the funny thing about
these riverside fires when it comes to it theres never enough water there is
a lingering shot of an old sailing barge named Her Majesty cruising past the
industrial landscape of the wharves. At Alderman Wharf the loading of the
ammunition ship seen earlier is now placed centre stage as it continues to be
made ready for the following morning tide. Then, quickly dodging in front of a
train, the two men walk to the sunken barge which Johnny notes is pretty useful
in a pinch at low tide. The sequence concludes with the raising of a tethered
barrage balloon ready for the impending raid.
Late Afternoon until Twilight
The return of Johnny and Barrett to the sub-station leads into an extended
sequence which divides into two broad scenes which cover three time periods.
Through the finesse of the editing the conversations and activities of the men at
the sub-station are linked to the broader defence system.
Late afternoon in the bunkhouse is a time of rest. In both scenes Jennings
introduces direct and/or indirect references to aspects of life which, although
apparently mundane, have helped sustain the spirit of both the men and wider
community under the strain of the bombing. In the bunkhouse they make tea,
joke, reminisce and escape into fantasy with Hollywood stars and glamour
magazines. The men again express their irritations at the regulations of the


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

official firefighting system. The petty irritations of officialdom again intrude:

Hey! whos supposed to be on the gate?, which in turn leads into a story about
the disciplining of Jacko for painting his axe handle black. From this initially
relaxed and jokey atmosphere the film moves to the entertainment room during
early evening as the group relax to fill in the dead time before the raid begins.
Jackos story is connected by a dissolve to the Chief Fire Officer receiving
confirmation of the coming raid and then a cut back to the entertainments
room as the men begin to assemble in what is in fact a makeshift club complete
with a piano, games, beer and a hoax pub sign 14Y Ye Hydrant Head with a
half-serious motto Use your Loaf . As the nervous tension rises they attempt to
distract themselves by drinking beer and playing games. The growing imminence
of the raid (with visual reference to the warehouse and munitions ship as targets)
and the mobilisation of the air defence system now run parallel with mens
As they settle down blackout boards are fixed to the windows. BA attempts
to flog his braces to Barrett but is warned off by Johnny. An accordion strikes
up Under the Old Apple Tree and is followed by a dissolve to the gates of 14Y
and the evening sky. A shot of the munitions ship is followed by a cut to the
Central Control Room and the delivery of a meteorological report of strong
winds across the river. Back at 14Y the crucial nature of that information
contrasts with the joke made by the Colonel about why the administration get
three pairs of trousers and the firefighters get one: you have to do such a lot of
sitting around. As twilight falls Barrett, encouraged by Johnny, begins to play
the piano, at first vamping Some of these Days and then playing a fast rumba
Arrana which is sustained over a travelling shot along the side of the munitions
boat and followed by a shot of the warehouse. The image of the warehouse
dissolves to show a smiling Jacko watching Johnny and BA engaged in a silly
dance. The sequence is brought to a halt with the alarm call Purple Up!. As
Johnny and BA fall into each others arms Dykes commands: righto lads get
your gear on and the men move to dress for action.
As night descends a shot of the remaining twilight brings the last movement
within the sequence. Quentin Reynolds commentary referred to the bombers
in London Can Take It! as the creatures of the night which come with the dark.
With the piano and soft singing on the soundtrack, in the bunkhouse the ill-fated
Jacko lights a cigarette and Walters asks Whats it like out Jacko?, Smashing
moon. The phrase implicitly refers to how the moons reflection on the river will
guide the bombers to the docks Ahh thatll be us then yeah I reckon. Dykes
tells the women in the watchroom youll after look after yourselves tonight you
know. They then smile at each other. Beneath the calm, the trepidation amongst
the men begins to rise. It is at this moment that Jennings considers how as forms

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


of poetic expression highbrow poetry and popular culture can complement

each other. The camaraderie of the singing of the crew allows them to show
off and protect themselves from their anxiety and the unseen enemy. At the
piano Barrett plays One Man Went to Mow and with Johnny orchestrating
the action it is played in a fitting style as each man enters the room. With most
of the team assembled around the piano the sing-song is cut short by the wail
of the siren. Dykes responds with grim humour, On time tonight lads. Barrett
enquires who is the eighth member and told it is him. They burst into one last
rousing chorus.
Visually the dramatic elements are now brought together as the siren
continues on the soundtrack with a shot of the warehouse, low water in
the dock, the munitions ship and an AA gun preparing for action. It is over
this and the following shot of a darkening sky accompanied by the drone of
approaching aircraft, that the voice of the Colonel recites Sir Walter Raleighs
O eloquent, just, and mighty Death!35 The Colonel, who has sat apart from
the men observing their antics, now provides a more philosophical response to
the highly contingent nature of their situation. On the last phrase Hic jacet!
[Here lies], the first report of a shell fired by an AA battery punctuates like an
aural full stop the prevailing drone of the aircraft. According to Winston this
cues more realistic irony in Sub-Officer Dykes response, which undercuts the
moment in a friendly if stereotypical anti-intellectual Cockney way: Righto
Colonel well set that to music when we get back.36 Rather it is perhaps simply
a comment on the irony which is recognised by a man attuned to the anxiety
of the moment. It is a popular but complementary form of response which is
echoed towards the end of the film when back at the sub-station the exhausted
men contemplate the death of Jacko. Once the Colonel has finished reciting
a passage from Shakespeare, BA shouts Come on chums snap out of it!. This
is what Jennings would call poetry in action, poetry which can speak to the
present and from which people can learn and draw sustenance.
As the raid begins the emergency bell is repeatedly rung and other crews are
sent out. As they attempt to drown out the noise of aircraft, AA fire and falling
bombs the men give a contemporary twist to Raleighs words with a raucous
rendition of the popular song Please dont talk about me when Im gone. They
are cut short as a bomb shakes the building. That was a bit warm, Johnny says,

O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded;
what none hath dared, thou hast done, returning to the Colonel he continues and whom
all the world hath flattered, thou only hath cast out of the world and despised. Thou hast
drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and
covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet! [Here lies].
Winston, B. (1999). FIRES WERE STARTED British Film Institute. p. 53.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

patting his chest and expressing the general relief, dont want them any nearer
than that. Barrett resumes playing; the women calmly look up at their desk and
smile. The call finally comes for Trinidad Street and the men run out to the
Heavy Unit and race through the streets. Johnny at the wheel sings Out with
me barrow as the faces of the crew are drawn with suppressed nervous tension.
Night: Fighting the Fire
As the appliance leaves the sub-station the camera focuses on the metal grill
of the headlight through which now glows the word Fire. Except for a brief
sequence, with the arrival of extra pumps and fire boat, there is no use of dramatic
orchestration. Instead there is the natural and combined sounds of the Blitz:
the harsh ring of the fire engine bell, the heavy drone of aircraft, falling bombs,
AA shelling, the noise of burning, the shouts of the men and the metal clink of
equipment. Although the raid is heavy it is not the bombs but the escalating fire
which is the immediate enemy.
Jennings attempts to provide the physical and emotional experience of
fighting the blaze in a warehouse of ammunition close to the munitions ship. Set
in dark and unfamiliar surroundings it becomes a primal struggle that assaults
the senses of the men. On arrival Barrett mistakes a sewer cover for a hydrant
and Dykes struggles with a heavy door and bolt to gain access to the building. As
the fire and raid intensify the combined noise of fire, aircraft, bombs and guns
drown out clear communication. There is a constant need to repeat or shout
commands. The men sweat and flinch from the heat of the intense flames. They
are showered with burning debris. Lungs are filled with smoke as they clamber
up and down burning stairs. The physical conditions and effort required to get
heavy hoses over walls and across precarious roofs to where they are needed, then
hold them steady to direct the powerful jets of water, soon induces exhaustion.
They are worried that a dodgy wall may come crashing down. On the roof
Dykes shouts at Jacko and Colonel to direct the powerful jet of water at the seat
of the fire not the flames. In the darkness, looking for another supply of water,
Barrett has an unexpected and startling encounter with a dray horse being led
from the flames. A near miss of a bomb causes the men to dive to the floor and
exclaim what a lot of windy bastards we are. That was half a mile away Half a
mile my foot! That was too close for me Youre telling me! Throughout they
sustain their restraint even as the bombs fall and the fire escalates beyond their
control. What may seem like weaknesses in fact reveals true heroism. There is an
underlying human strength in the ability to face and overcome natural fear in
order to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


The dramatic impetus of the fire sequence now becomes the race against
time to save the warehouse and munitions ship from destruction. With the raid
nearing its height the supply of water runs out. Simultaneously the escalation of
the fire and the situation of the men are mirrored in the wider air defence system,
which is stretched to the limit attempting to service their demands. Tiredness
must be resisted and a close hit on Local Control briefly disrupts communication,
but the injured operator carries on. Throughout Jennings maintains a feeling of
natural time, which increases the anxiety. The attempt to find water, the arrival
of more pumps, the relaying of the water from the sunken barge, the raising of
a turntable ladder all take time, something the men on the roof do not have.
The film now reaches its climax with Dykes, Barrett and Jacko on the roof of
the warehouse as the stairs collapse. Dykes is injured, knocked unconscious
and covered with burning debris. Rescued by the other two their only means
of escape is the hazardous turntable ladder. More time is required to lash the
unconscious Dykes to a rope to lower him off the parapet. At this point, with the
imminent collapse of the wall on which they are standing, Jacko urges Barrett
onto the ladder while he holds both a lifeline and the hose. Both men implicitly
understand the extremity of the situation. As the ladder moves away Jacko pays
out the line keeping Dykes limp body from hitting the warehouse wall. Barrett
clambers down and Dykes is slowly lowered to the ground and safety. Almost
immediately the wall collapses and Jacko is pitched into the inferno.
Jackos decision, taken in a moment of high drama, to hold the lifeline and
thereby almost certainly sacrifice his life astounds and alarms Barrett. At this
point photography, sound and editing come together to reveal in a sequence
of images and sounds the aesthetic nature of Jennings style of propaganda.
Calmly focused on holding the line Jacko takes the strain of the rope, letting
it slowly slip through his hand as Dykes body swings away from the wall.
Smothered in the sounds of fire, the noise of the turntable ladder and war, the
film cuts from the image of Jackos blackened sweaty face and water drenched
uniform to a close up of his glistening hand dripping with water as the taught
rope plays through his fingers. Suddenly as it slips from his grasp his fingers
relax. It is as if with the loss of the rope his fate has been sealed. As Dykes is
safely lowered to the ground Jacko, precariously balanced on the wall, attempts
to direct the hose. In close up the flames surround his feet. He then falls. The
hose loosened from his grip lashes wildly from the pressure of the water as it
falls. Jacko fails to grip onto the roof and with dramatic orchestration he slides

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


into the flames below as Johnny shouts his name and the warehouse explodes
with a huge ball of flame.37
A cut is made to Brigade Control who are attempting to contact 14Y about
the arrival of reinforcements. The request is soon confirmed and the women
recover from their recent near escape. Reinforcements have come from up to
60 miles away to support the dockland crews. Real footage of the Blitz is now
inserted among the shots of the men fighting the fire, the treatment of Dykes in
hospital and the confirmation that the fire is finally under control.
Comes the Dawn
In daylight the all clear is sounded. Amongst the devastation a mobile canteen
arrives to dispense refreshments. The firefighters gather exhausted and grateful
for the tea and the fact that they are still alive. Now the exhausted team must
struggle to extract their equipment from the rubble before they can return
to base. In doing so Barrett finds Jackos battered helmet. Even though the
warehouse was lost, the point is made that the munitions ship has survived
intact. The real footage from the Blitz and the staged aftermath at the warehouse
show what a docker coming on shift describes as a bad night. This could be an
indirect reference to those ferocious raids on London between March and May
1941 when Jennings wrote his poem I See London. The final stanza written
around the time of the final massive raid of the 10 May includes the line and
image in the film of a one-legged man crossing the fire [in the film debris] on
crutches.38 On the soundtrack the noise of the fire engine bell and a steam train
plays over the images of the crew leaving and the dock workers walking to begin
their shift. The sound continues through a dissolve to the frontage of Jackos
shop and then a radio. With the steam engine still clearly audible the news of
the raid is reported in a series of bland statements. On the phrase casualties are
not likely to be heavy there is a cut to Jackos wife as she listens unknowingly
to the announcers reference to the blaze in which her husband has been killed:
several large fires were started however these were successfully prevented from


This shot is real Blitz footage taken earlier in the war probably of the Tate and Lyle
sugar warehouse. Some of it was used previously in the opening sequence of Dover Front Line.
This final raid started over 2,000 fires stretching from Dagenham in the east to
Hammersmith in the west. Nine of these involved over 100 pumps each while another 2030
required between 30100 pumps that crews ran out of water. The following day the smoke
blotted out sun. It took 11 days before all the fires were extinguished. See Calder, A. (1971).
The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


Her individual tragedy, smoothed over by the reporting, is momentarily left

behind with a return to the greater cause of the munitions ship which continues
to load supplies. Back at the sub-station Jennings introduces his motif of a young
tree in bloom. These exhausted and saddened men have survived and are relieved
by tea poured by Mrs Townsend. In the silence the Colonel reads an extract from
Shakespeares Macbeth which gives voice to the diverse but complementary
nature of their small community which, constructed out of a mongrel nation,
has in its differences the resilience and vitality to survive even though wounded
by the death of one of their own.39 Finally BA responds, Come on chums snap
out of it!. A bugle call and a cut to the wake of the munitions ship shows that the
struggle of life, epitomised by the blooming of the young tree, and for freedom
goes on. The bugle is sustained on the soundtrack as the boat steams down river.
Again the tree motif is introduced. This time through leafless branches a church
tower is seen. The bugle now salutes the heroic sacrifice of Jacko. Surrounded
by the leafless trees of the churchyard his coffin is carried by the crew to the
graveside where his widow, Mrs Townsend and the injured Dykes stand. His
death, Jennings suggests, has not been in vain. In a final flourish accompanied by
swelling orchestration he returns to the trees before dissolving to the munitions
ship steaming up river. A cut to a wreath surrounding Jackos battered helmet is
followed by a shot of Dykes and lastly the crew at the graveside. The cost to this
small group has been high even though the news of the raid has been superficial,
but the final shot tells us that the death of Jacko must be seen in the context of
a wider conflict as the bow of the ship ploughs forward taking the arms and
munitions to their destination.
Critical Response
On release the national and trade press overwhelmingly gave Fires Were Started
an enthusiastic reception.40 Ever since the film has been praised as one of the best
British documentary films ever made, sealing Jennings reputation amongst film
makers and critics alike as a master of the genre.41 Jennings wrote: The famous

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men, As hounds and grey hounds, mongrels, spaniels,
curs, Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept All by the name of dogs, The valued file
[list of qualities] Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle, The housekeeper [watchdog],
the hunter, every one according to the gift which bounteous nature, Hath in him closed.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 28081.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than
a Maker of Films, Hanover, Aldgate, A. and Richards, J. (1986). Britain Can Take It: The
British Cinema in the Second World War, Basil Blackwell, Winston, B. (1999). FIRES WERE
STARTED British Film Institute.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

or notorious fire picture now called Fires Were Started has at last reached
the screen and (no doubt to the amazement of the timid officials in charge)
has received honestly a tremendous press. Which vanity apart is extremely
useful.42 Profiled as Film of the Month in Documentary News Letter the
reviewer found much to praise. Its real strength is the best handling of people
on and off the job that weve seen in any British film. That success lay in what
was regarded as an authentic combination of working class qualities and male
physical labour. Although culled of much colloquialism and with only glimpses
given of what today would be regarded as mild profanity, Jennings had put on
the screen a social group which until then had usually (in fictitious films) either
been caricatured or denied the opportunity to speak for themselves:
In spite of a couple of middle-class sore thumbs Jennings has got together as real
and alive a collection of people (Cockneys mainly) as you could meet anywhere.
Maybe for the first time we have proper working-class dialogue on the screen and
dialogue thats really getting there and meaning something Perhaps the nicest
thing about the film is that it shows us for the first time how a job gets done in
England. People who talk scathingly about the British workman have no idea
how heavy work gets done They dont understand the slow run-up, the odd and
essential cup of tea, the backchat and horseplay which go to make up the rhythm
of heavy work, without which it cannot be done properly. As we watch these
firemen by day or at night on the job we know were seeing on the screen for
the first time a true picture of how the English, the best and quickest workers in
the world, really set about doing a job.43

It is the depiction of camaraderie and organisation, the physical and emotional

stress of fighting the fire and the morning after, with the tired, scorched, dirty
men struggling to roll up the branches over piles of rubble and pools of water
that is celebrated by the reviewer, not the heroic efforts of the women at the substation or the response of the broader fire service:
Of course there is a certain amount (too much in fact) of people answering
telephones, writing things on blackboards and moving little coloured discs about,
but thats not what the film is about; its about men, how they live and how they
die, how they work together on the job and how they live together off the job
Letter 29 March 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 79. The film went on general release in North London from 12 April
(with members of the cast appearing in person at the Gaumont Hammersmith and Holloway
where the boys received an ovation at both houses) then in South London on 19 April.
Anon. (1943). Fires Were Started. Documentary News Letter April. Authors italics.

History as Myth: October 1941July 1942


from this film the AFS with its loose semi-naval disciplinary set-up, seems (or
rather seemed) an ideal way of organising and important service Fires Were
Started is a fine and fruitful record of a way of living and doing a job that did work
and of a discipline that came from the job itself, the only true discipline.44

Those aspects, which fell outside the appropriate form of representation and
were regarded as the worst type of propaganda, did not escape reproach:
Jennings has not been content to let the men and their job stand for what they are
worth; hes tried to tie up their heroism and their decency with the war effort in
the shape of a munitions ship leaving the dock safely next morning. Now there
was not the least need to do that. Jennings did it before in Heart of Britain when
he tried to sew up the cheerfulness and efficiency of the people wed seen into a
Whitley leaving to bomb Germany. It cannot be stated to firmly that people, their
way of life and their qualities, can safely be left to stand on their own feet they
dont want this spurious veneer of war-time patriotism to provide justification
for existence. No doubt it was tenderness for official feelings that led Jennings to
make so much of that munitions ship and also to make so much of the fact that
the AFS was drawn from all classes, which is only a snivelling bureaucrats point.
But Jennings must be held entirely to blame for the three or four occasions when
somebody playing the piano or reading or reciting poetry (in his worst Words for
Battle manner) he goes all arty for a moment.

Jennings representation would contribute to the mythology which was taking

shape about the period known as the Blitz.45 It was officially sanctioned with
the publication in December of Front Line 19401941: The Official Story of
Civil Defence of Britain. The film provided an archetypal depiction of working
class action suited to the time as well as an appropriate form of propaganda for
overseas consumption.
But the whole experience had significant personal and professional
consequences for Jennings. It added to a general discontent about other pieces
of stupidity (or so they seem to me) at Pinewood, leaving him to feel that he
ought to get out of the unit.46 More importantly perhaps arguments over the

Ibid. Authors italics.

See Beattie for a discussion concerned with notions of authenticity, fictionalisation
and non-fiction in Fires Were Started. Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester
University Press. pp. 8292.
Letter 29 January 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 76. That stupidity probably included the debate over the need to
wear an official uniform while on location.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


re-cut had soured his relationship with Dalrymple and this film was something
which forced him to make amends:
I confess to being discouraged, but I do not want it to take the form of being
ungrateful or disgruntled or just bad-tempered. I know very well that you have
many more things to criticise and justly, in my performance during the last two
years than I have in yours I am not good at saying thank you and worse still at
giving any formulated explanation of behaviour As regards film you gave me I
know tremendous backing and freedom and I suppose it was so unexpected that
I came to take it for granted and when I seemed not to get it disappointed me with
equal intensity whatever the origins of the feeling I do sense that something has
snapped in our understanding and I have learnt that that kind of thing is usually
my fault In the meantime Ian, please try and put up with me and I will try and
be reasonable.47

He was also fearful that his latest more experimental project, by now far more
important to me than the Fire one, would face a similar mauling. The Silent
Village held within it a greater potential for controversy.48 The high praise Fires
received in the national press could be extremely useful in helping to protect
Silent Village from official interference and also in making his own plans for the


Undated letter reprinted in ibid. p. 79.

Letter 29 January 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 76.

Chapter 12

A Brilliant Idea:
July 1942May 1943
As Jennings and McAllister completed work on the first version of Fires Were
Started, the BBC reported that in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard
Heydrich, Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in late May 1942
the Czechoslovak mining village of Lidice had been wiped out. On hearing
the news the young Czech poet Victor Fischel, who worked for the exiled
Czechoslovak government in London, wrote a poem of mourning and
contacted the Crown Film Unit with an outline for a film to commemorate
the atrocity:
The way to the poem to the film was not so long. My philosophy in life was that
if you can think yourself into somebody, if you can feel yourself into somebody,
if you can try to live the life of somebody else, if we could do that in the world,
then our life would be much easier and much better. So I had the idea of trying
to replace what happened in Lidice to a village in Wales, and I knew of course
that there were differences between a Czech village and a Welsh village, but
there were also many similarities.

The proposal captivated Jennings: I said immediately that I thought it was

really one of the most brilliant ideas for a short film that wed ever come
across. The MoI immediately sanctioned preparatory work. As information
about the actual events was sparse, his film would not be concerned with a
detailed reconstruction of events leading to the assassination, nor a graphic
representation of the massacre, neither was there strong evidence to link the
people of the mining village of Lidice directly to the assignation of Heydrich.

The men were shot and the women deported to the concentration and death camps
of Ravensbruck and Chelmo. The children were sent to an SS adoption home near Poznan
where they were given German names. The village was physically destroyed.

A Tale of Two Villages Radio Prague Archive at http://archiv.radio.cz/english/

Radio Talk: The Silent Village reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 67.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Rather it would be an imaginative representation of the confrontation between

two fundamentally opposed systems of government:
instead of events at Lidice we decided to present the ideas which must have led to
the final situation; the idea of a mining community in no matter what part of the
world, the idea of fascism, the idea of a struggle between the two, the idea of the
obliteration of a community.

In terms of production his vision went far beyond anything that had been
previously attempted with the wartime documentary film. The destruction of a
community provides the climax for a story concerned with the universal theme
of the human struggle for liberty. To achieve this Jennings decided to avoid a
realistic rendition of events and to focus on the mentality of the Nazis and the
mentality of Nazi propaganda which would be pitted against the values and
beliefs of the community:
We proposed not to show any Germans we show one or two tin hats, a swastika,
a loudspeaker, things like that. But the main feeling of oppression, the existence
of the invisible Germans, is carried in the film by a German speaker; sometimes
hes speaking on a loudspeaker, sometimes from radio sets, and so on one voice.
We used for this purpose the original documents but this is an important point
these documents are perfectly accurately monitored and they do say the most
astonishing and hair-raising things: we have not invented any of them.

The Welsh village chosen had to be predestined to play the part. It should bear
a close physical resemblance to the original Lidice and the reaction of the Welsh
villagers was to emerge out of the fabric of community life: when they had
indicated what their life was at present and what would be their attitude under
a similar plight as the miners of Lidice then we could get down to making
the film. It wasnt in fact acting, Jennings remarked, but rather they were

An alternative analysis of the film is provided by Beattie, K. (2010). Humphrey
Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 929.

Topical Talk: British War Films Broadcast 26 April 1943. BBC Archive. Script File
T679/680. Jennings emphasis.

Radio Talk: The Silent Village. p. 75.

Ibid. pp. 725.

Ibid. p. 67.

Topical Talk: British War Films Broadcast 26 April 1943. BBC Archive. Script File
T679/680. Jennings emphasis.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


playing themselves as themselves as the people of Lidice thats to say, making

an imaginary transformation of themselves.10
The conflict was to represent a deeper struggle between two irreconcilable
forms of existence. A ruthless dictatorship imposing colonial rule and a
community rooted in tradition which articulates its humanity and desires
through popular democratic forms of expression. It was to be:
the clash of two types of culture: the ancient, Welsh, liberty-loving culture which
has been going on in those valleys way, way back into the days of King Arthur and
beyond, still alive in the Welsh language and in the traditions of the valleys; and
this new-fangled, loudspeaker, blaring culture invented by Dr Goebbels and his
satellites. And its through the clash of these two cultures that the mechanism of
the film, so to speak, is presented and not simply as a blood-and-thunder story of
some people marching into a village.11

The period of the films production coincided with a watershed in the allied
military campaign in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Throughout the
summer of 1942 Axis forces claimed major victories in North Africa and the
Russian Eastern Front. The European war hung in the balance for the allies
but then in November Axis forces were finally pushed onto the defensive in
North Africa. In February 1943 the Germans announced defeat at Stalingrad
prompting official celebrations throughout Britain. Admiration for Russian
achievements gave a strong fillip to the political left in Britain. By the time the
film was ready for release in May, it was clear that the North African campaign
had been won, the Russians were on the offensive and demands grew more
insistent for a Second Front. However with the heavy loss of ships because of
the U-boat blockade, the maintenance of high levels of industrial production
was in question.
Unlike other areas of industry where new labour could be trained and
substituted, the coal industry faced a serious shortage of skilled face workers
the hewers of coal a job, Calder notes, as the war illustrated sharply, which
only a class of men reared to the pits, shaped in their physique and in their minds
by them, could now be expected to perform with much success.12 This forced

Speaking for the miners as the film grew we entered wholeheartedly into the
spirit of it. We were threatened by the Nazis, we were defying them, we were organising
an underground movement at Castel Cennin, and we were fighting a real battle with the
Gestapo at the end of the film. Sid Bowen quoted in Anon. (1943). Did You Hear That? The
Silent Village. The Listener (17 June): 717.
Radio Talk: The Silent Village. p. 75.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War, Granada. p. 497.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the Ministry of Labour to pull ex-miners back into the industry for levels of pay
lower than could be earned in less arduous and less dangerous occupations. For
many it seemed like a return to the humiliating compulsion of the inter-war years
as opportunities for increased standards of living and occupational betterment
were denied. Bitter experiences and past memories coloured the debate over
wartime productivity and the future of the mining industry. Coal production
was falling behind domestic and industrial demand and during the summer
the industry was hit by a wave of strikes. Throughout the films production the
conflict over pay and productivity, control and ultimately ownership of the
industry rumbled on.13
Jennings arrived in South Wales in August 1942 and entered one of the most
highly organised and politically radical working class industrial areas in Britain.14
A conversation with Arthur Horner, the communist President of the South
Wales Miners Federation, led him in the direction of the western coalfields and
to Ystradgynlais. Here he met Dai Dan (D.D.) Evans. the local Miners Agent
and President of the local Welfare Committee who suggested the village of
Cwmgiedd. The village was almost exactly what he required. It was set within
a landscape very similar to the region of Czechoslovakia where Lidice had been
located.15 Evans, a highly educated and articulate individual, was also a local
community activist who promoted and sustained that working class autodidactic
tradition through classes he taught for the National Council of Labour Colleges.
He would play a central role in organising the community and would deliver
the final oration in the film. His internationalism captivated Jennings from the
moment they first met: Oh yes, are you the German comrade? Well that gave
me a sort of feeling of international solidarity which is one of the basic things in
the picture.16 He outlined to Evans what was required. Within a fortnight Evans
had organised a meeting of about 100 people at the miners hall in Ystradgynlais
where Jennings outlined what would be required. They were told that the film
would be acted by the people themselves and would depict the whole life of the

Ibid. p. 329.
In 1938 the Miners Federation of Great Britain had given financial support for
the Spanish Republican cause and sent a delegation to Czechoslovakia to arrange transport
of miners from the Sudetenland to Britain and eventually Canada. Paynter, Will (1944).
Miners of Czechoslovakia: History and Prospects. The Miner 1(1): 1415.
Radio Talk: The Silent Village. pp. 678.
Radio Talk: The Silent Village. p. 69.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


village: Social, Cultural, Religious, Trade Union, and Political.17 Agreement was
reached and a Film Committee was elected to help with the overall production.
As with Fires Were Started:
It was worked on a thoroughly democratic basis. And if I wanted something
corrections or ideas help on the script I could go to the appropriate member
of the local film committee. When we started shooting we had meetings once
or twice a week in the Sunday School at the top end of the village where I read
a sort of report and asked for criticism. And that was important: we didnt want
the film to be an inch out to the village, to Wales, to the miners, to Lidice itself
and so on.18

Location work began in September and Jennings and the film crew spent up to
two-and-half months living in the village and local area. Jennings was deeply
impressed by the independent and co-operative spirit of the miners and their
community. According to Hutt this experience of living and co-operating with
the community had a decisive influence on his understanding of the industrial
working class: because they made him one with a working class community at
a high level of organization, politics, and culture, [which] showed him what
a tremendous positive instrument the trade union and labour movement can
be.19 The combination of a shared Welsh culture, a distinctive industrial history
mixed with religious non-conformism and Christian socialism (and for some
Marxism) created a distinctive independence of spirit and communal solidarity.20
A solidarity which manifested itself in the institutions supported by the Miners
Welfare Fund:
Letter from D.D. Evans 17 August 1942 in Silent Village. Humphrey Jennings
Collection. The meeting was held in the early evening of 21 August. Berry, D. (1996). Wales
and Cinema, University of Wales Press. p. 192. Getting the villagers to agree to take part was
not straightforward, the people involved were most reluctant to appear at all, and it was due
only to the power of persuasion [sic] of the late Humphrey Jennings that they finally agreed to
do so, but he had to give an understanding not to re-use the material in any other way. Letter
from Mrs J. Robinson to J.O. Houlton Assistant Information Officer, British ConsulateGeneral, Los Angeles, California. 16 April 1963. NA INF 6/1916. The Silent Village.
Did You Hear That? The Listener 17 June 1943. p. 717.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1944). Men in Our Time, No. 8 Humphrey Jennings. Our Time
3: 1213.
See Rose, J. (2002). The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University
Press. pp. 31215. Jennings learned of the independent spirit of the locality which probably
included the story of the local preacher who persuaded men not to volunteer for service
during the First World War.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Under the 1920 Mining Industry Act a levy of one penny per ton of coal produced
had to be paid by the mine owners into a special fund. By means of this so-called
miners magic penny a whole range of social and cultural amenities for the benefit
of the miner and the mining communities could be financially supported. [The
Fund] was responsible for the installation of pithead baths the opening of
convalescent homes, the provision of recreational facilities and the support of
miners institutes and halls. Four-fifths of the proceeds had to be spent regionally
[and] regional welfare committees had a big say in the kind of welfare schemes
they supported in their own area.21

For Jennings it was a community which embodied the physical and imaginative
border between pre-industrial and industrial life. It had found its present balance
through that relentless Darwinian process of struggle and adaptation, death and
renewal: From these people, he felt, one can really understand Cromwells New
Model Army and the defenders of many places at the beginning of the Industrial
His understanding, sympathy and emotional solidarity with this community,
shaped in a world radically reconstituted by industrial and market capitalism,
would structure the film and the representation of the struggle. As Calder
noted: The miner, as many observers have pointed out, has seen his life as a
metaphysical drama, the good community against the callous employer, the
hewer embattled with nature herself .23 He proposed to photograph the miners
and their families as honestly as possible neither like How Green [Was My
Valley] too theatrical or The Grapes of Wrath too poverty-stricken to
bring out a representation of working people which expressed a fusion of the
material and spiritual aspects of life created out of that struggle for existence. Or
as he put it, the double image of wicked conditions and real zest for life.24
Hogenkamp, B. (1986). Deadly Parallels: Film and the Left in Britain 192939,
Lawrence and Wishart. pp. 1423. In The Silent Village, A Diary for Timothy and The
Cumberland Story Jennings provides evidence of such facilities.
Letter 10 September 1942 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 62.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 51112. When
Jennings turned for advice to Evans over the re-cutting of Fires Were Started the language and
vision expressed in his letter is redolent with this metaphysical struggle. See Letter 29 January
1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet.
pp. 778.
Letter to Cicely Jennings 10 September 1942 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993).
The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 62. Jennings emphasis. See also the radio
talk The Silent Village.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


The Silent Village

Title Sequence
As with his earlier films Jennings draws on a range of pastoral themes to embellish
his story. Through the soundtrack and visuals he draws associations between
aspects of the natural world the land, forest and water for example and the
qualities of the community, while using extreme conditions the river in spate,
the wind and cold to frame the qualities of fascism. Light and darkness take on
the spiritual connotation of good and evil referred to in the title sequence.
The precision of McAllisters editing is characteristic of the style throughout.
A close-up of a river swirling over a boulder strewn bed is overlain with the title
THE SILENT VILLAGE: The story of the men of Lidice who lit in Fascist
darkness a lamp that shall never be put out. It is accompanied by a trumpet
call then a repeated but falling orchestral phrase, the second time more softly
with an oboe replacing the trumpet, which provides a more sombre quality. As
the caption dissolves a strummed harp is heard. The Crown Film Unit symbol
appears and rapidly dissolves as agitated strings and a second trumpet call is
heard to be followed by a quieter musical response. More upbeat, the music
is repeated for a third time concluding on the strummed chords of a harp which
accompany a series of overlapping captions related to the production.25 The
image of the swirling river and the sound of running water continues as the final
caption appears: The village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia was a valley of miners.
This film in their honour was made in a similar Welsh mining community the
village of Cwmgiedd. The name of the village means the valley of the turbulent
river and it is that image which first meets the eye. With the caption on screen
the sound of singing can be heard. It gathers strength as the caption disappears.
The sound of a hymn supersedes that of water. These images and sounds all have
future significance. The harp and the trumpet come to represent Welsh culture
and communal resistance. The notes of the harp provide a musical equivalent to
the running water, which, as a visual motif, has symbolic meaning throughout
the film.26 The sound of singing mirrors the sounds of the river which runs
through the heart of the village. At this point there is a cut to an establishing
shot of the chapel and village as the prologue begins.

With the collaboration of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The South
Wales Miners Federation and the people of the Swansea and Dulais valleys followed by
Produced and Directed by Humphrey Jennings and finally Photography H.E. Fowle, Film
Editor Stewart McAllister, Sound Jock May and Asst. Director Diana Pine.
The title and incidental music was composed for the film by Beckitt Williams and
conducted by Muir Mathieson. NA INF 6/1916. The Silent Village.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

Cwmgiedd Lidice
A series of vignettes construct a day in the life of this small mining community.
Similar to the opening sequence of Fires Were Started what is outlined is
the rhythm and routine of a typical day. The first part, which is divided into
two sections, introduces key activities during the day shift at the mine and
introduces people who will play a significant role later in the film: worship
at the chapel (religion), work at the pit (male economic labour), children at
school (education and culture), the home (the domestic labour of women), the
village store (community and shopping). A combination of rapid cutting of
establishing, mid and close-up shots and the judicious use of dissolves is highly
effective in illustrating spatially discrete aspects of village life. As in Listen to
Britain, the use of anticipatory sound creates both a linear and simultaneous
time frame and draws these separate activities into an organic whole based on
the extraction of coal. Religious worship, mining, education, domestic activities
and conversations in the shop are woven together to provide an idea of the lived
experience of different members of the community the young and old, the
miner and the housewife.
As men walk across a bridge away from the pit, the film cuts to the pits
precincts where miners are changing shift. Here the comradeship and heartiness
of the miners life is observed. A notice pinned on a board as miners hurry by
is accompanied with a shouted instruction Dont forget the meeting tonight!
and the chorused response of Oh yes!. Naked miners troop into a modern
shower facility singing, whistling and exchanging banter to scrub and wash
the ingrained coal dust from their bodies. Two joke together as one scrubs the
back of the other. Immediately there is a cut back to the school classroom where
the serried ranks of children rise from their seats as if one. The school day is
completed and, under instruction from their teacher, they move from the room.
Having returned to the surface the miners are seen walking up the valley towards
the village accompanied by a choral rendition in Welsh of Men of Harlech. A
sharp contrast is implicitly drawn between the noisy, arduous and dangerous
nature of the work beneath the earth and the rural beauty and tranquillity of the
surrounding landscape. As in his earlier films the simple tasks, such as proffering
a light for a cigarette and the pouring of tea, take on a deeper significance. The
miners return is registered by the gaze of other men in the village, one of whom
proffers a light for a cigarette.
As the men sit in their homes for tea or wash their bodies in front of
the fire, the role of women and the arduous nature of their lives does not
go unnoticed. Their domestic tasks, which are structured around the shift
system, are a relentless routine of removing coal dust, providing copious hot

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


water, maintaining cleanliness and respectability and feeding their families.

Together these acts are an expression of what Jennings would term love; a
humanity that goes beyond the act itself to a deeper level of human sympathy.
Before the final dissolve the last shot encompasses the whole community.
For those off shift the evening brings leisure and union activity while
the mining of coal continues through the night. Here the different sounds
of the communal voice are heard in Welsh and English and in a variety of
informal and formal registers. As the dissolve occurs between early and late
evening the upward swing of a high note, sung by the male voice choir, is
caught and swept higher by an explosion of laughter from a cinema audience
to which the film immediately cuts.27 A segue through song and laughter
takes the audience into the local bar. The sounds and voices in the pub give
way to the process of the union meeting an official voice of working class
representation. Here the left-wing epithet comrades is used as a report is
given on the contemporary topic of miner silicosis, then under Government
investigation. To close the sequence the film returns to the landscape and
river which evoke an air of tranquillity. The sound of the choir, quiet then
increasing in volume, accompanies a long shot of the bridge on which two
men stand, silhouetted against the evening sky. They stand chatting as a farmer
passes by with his horse and cart. This is followed by a shot of the working
pit. Finally the film returns to the domestic sphere which is dominated by a
powerful choral rendition on the soundtrack.
Jennings provides a glimpse of four domestic scenes which reflect different
stages in the family cycle and communal life. An elderly couple sit by the
fire, a young woman is dressed in her bridal gown, a young couple with three
children and finally a young woman alone with her baby. A dissolve returns
to where the film began earlier in the day; an image of the chapel and the
superimposition of a concluding caption: Such is life at Cwmgiedd in the
Welsh valley of Wales and such too was the life in Lidice until the coming
of Fascism. This community has, Jennings says, through a continual struggle
with nature and the demands of industry, reached a form of balance and inner
social harmony. The film fades to darkness and silence.
The Arrival of Fascist Rule
The opening sequence sets the tone for the representation of fascism. The sedate
river has become a roaring torrent and Fowles photography captures a slow
This aural cut is reminiscent of that in Listen to Britain from the concert of Flanagan
and Allen to that of Myra Hess.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

moving black car with an outsized loudspeaker attached to its roof crossing the
bridge. The sound of the river is drowned out by the harsh amplified sound of a
crashing military march. The cars progress through the village, blaring martial
music and proclamations in German then English, invades the gardens and
infiltrates the homes, shops and the school. It catches the inhabitants unawares.
It abruptly disrupts the routine of life by announcing the imposition of a new
political order under which the community will now function. Southern and
western Wales has been incorporated into the Greater German Reich under the
supervision of Reich Protector Deputy S.S. Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich. As
the car proceeds the river is in full spate with water pouring beneath the river
arch. Geese in the field rush to the fence as if to ward off the car. The population
are told to co-operate, carry on with their lives and trust in the Fuhrer. The
consequences for resistance are to be severe. At this point the visual language of
the film shifts. Windows and doors close. Each punishment is illustrated with
potential victims. A woman dusting her home hears of property confiscation; a
young man in the street hears that unlawful activity will mean detention by the
secret police; a young mother attempting to comfort her distressed baby hears
the threat of the death sentence.
On Strike
That the independence and traditions of the community will not be given up
lightly is reflected in the response of the miners Lodge official [D.D. Evans]. The
pit manager relays the imposition of new labour laws with a passive fatalism.
The centre of attention is Evans as he reads the new orders. His confidence and
convictions are unmoved because he knows instinctively the response of the
men. At a pit yard meeting the new orders and their consequences are outlined
by a union official. This representation of democratic unionism and militant
working class action probably goes far beyond any other depiction seen on the
British screen. This calm and self-confident body of men first listen and are
then asked to vote for strike action in defence of their rights. It is seconded and
greeted unanimously after which the comrades are thanked by the official. The
strike weapon takes on a form of heroic resistance which deals a direct blow to
the authority and military economy of the invaders at a critical time during the
struggle on the Eastern Front.
The village waits for the response and with the reappearance of the car the
dogs of the village bark an aggressive warning. With a cut to a close-up of the
megaphone, the dogs barking is overlaid by the barked order for attention which
is followed by a mixture of inducements and threats of reprisal for breaching
public order. As the diatribe unfolds two scenarios are presented: the community

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


caught listening to the proclamation, while a group of miners gather for a secret
meeting to organise resistance at a local farm in the hills. As the final member of
the group arrives he is accompanied by the sounds of running water, birds singing
and farmyard noises, and is directed to the barn by the farmers wife who is milking
a cow. Meanwhile the villagers are told to support the gigantic struggle being
waged by the Greater German Reich against trade unionists and agents of the
Jewish Bolshevick plutocrats and all those that give shelter to such individuals.
The phrase contrasts with the disarming image of the farmers wife bringing mugs
of tea to the group of men. This simple act has made the woman an enemy of the
state who, as the megaphone tells us, will be treated accordingly. The phrase is
followed by a close-up of a soldiers jackboots and rifle butt. There is only one
alternative to go with the Reich or against it. Those who work against the Reich
will be destroyed. To reinforce that the intimidation is no idle threat, the sound
of gunfire echoes around the valley and the villagers look to the hills. The miners
and farmers wife have been shot and those who have escaped run for their lives.
A dissolve reveals four men carrying a wounded miner down the hillside on an
improvised stretcher; bird song and the harsh cry of a crow adds a desolate air to
the occasion as the screen fades in silence to black.
The cost of physical resistance is absorbed by the community. The
subdued tenor continues as the chapel elders speak in Welsh at their meeting.
Accompanied by sombre music, the wounded miner, close to death, is
surrounded by his family. Once more silence interspersed with talk descends as
the blanket covering his body is pulled up over his face. Singing is heard on the
soundtrack and in the chapel a funeral service is in progress. In the hills a tree
bears up against a harsh wind which is heard on the soundtrack.
A History of Resistance
The liquidation of practical resistance is matched by an attempt to eradicate the
collective voice and memory of the community by banning the Welsh language.
Drawing on their culture and practice the community have a powerful weapon
to aid resistance:
Welsh precisely because of this is the language of the underground movement
in the film. An illegal newspaper is produced in Welsh. The children speak Welsh
when theyre playing in the street, even though theyre not allowed to do so in
school. Then, a wider point: the guerrilla warfare, which is represented in the
middle of the picture, takes place as indeed it might in the Black Mountains, in
one of the most romantic and historical parts of Wales the castle of Carreg

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Cennen, an enormous ruin which stands about 300 foot up the top of a valley [is]
used in the picture as the centre of the HQ of the guerrilla resistance.28

The following sequence moves from the school to the castle ruin then to
the production of the newsletter by the teacher and her associates. Held to the
camera a dissolve takes the audience into the house of a miner who, switching to
English, reads sentiments couched in the language of the Old Testament: The
Nazi beasts have descended upon our pretty village in a molesting spirit like a
plague of locusts. After being told of the newsletters mysterious arrival under
the door he returns to Welsh which is overlaid by the question from an external
commentator What is to be done?. The miners change tactics using their
knowledge and skills to fight back. As they return to the pit (underpinned by a
choral rendition of All through the Night) the commentary lists the strategies
which will effectively impede production: Go back to the mine. Work slow.
Organise sabotage. Put sand in the machine. Pour water in the oil. The choral
rendition dominates the soundtrack as the film shows in different locations
miners planning action. It concludes with a shot of snow-covered houses,
the literal winter of occupation. With organisation near completion there is
an intimation of the vulnerability of the community once sabotage begins in
earnest. A miner fills a babys bottle while his wife sits with the child in her
arms and there is a cut to the snow-covered graveyard of the chapel. The choral
rendition gathers strength and emotional intensity as the night shift undertake
a co-ordinated attack, killing at least one sentry and disabling the pit. In the
schoolroom the teacher gives a pertinent history lesson on The Conquest of
Wales and the tradition of Welsh resistance as the castle ruins fill the screen
followed by a landscape shot of the valley, river and community.
The Assassination of Heydrich
It is now that the story refers to the attempted assassination of Heydrich by
cutting directly to a poster announcing the attempt on his life and the immediate
imposition of a state of emergency, martial law and curfew. The bureaucratic
process of oppression is set in motion. It is expressed by the emotionless voices of
the radio and car megaphone. A flow of demands for information and registration
with the state police are combined with the announcement of executions and
appeals to support the German Red Cross. Throughout, shots of households,
houses in the village and radios are inter-cut with registration at the school. A
Radio Talk: The Silent Village in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 734.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


soldier with fixed bayonet stands near the memorial to the dead of the First
World War and in the distance the mining gear of the pithead is shown. The
distress in the homes as the names of those to be executed are listed is evident. A
miner and his wife talk of how a trivial act led to a death. The sequence concludes
with the grocer reading through his accounts. His voice becomes agitated as he
appears to come across the bills of those executed.
From the grocer the camera, accompanied by a drum roll, tracks towards
a radio. Uncharacteristically there is a brief cough prefiguring a change in the
announcers delivery. The death of Heydrich is announced as Siegfrieds Funeral
March from Wagners Twilight of the Gods is played. There follows a haughty
address on his virtues, his love for the Welsh people and the ultimate goal of
the Greater German Reich. It is matched by shots of indifference and quiet
satisfaction amongst the listeners. The hypocrisy of the address is suggested as
the announcer begins to deliver in his emotionless voice the results of the latest
court martial. His words are cut short as a hand enters the frame and switches off
the radio. There is an immediate cut to the car megaphone and the instruction
that the community hand over the assassins before midnight. In their homes
the villagers remain unmoved by the demands. As the ultimatum comes to an
end there is silence. A husband and wife hold hands across the table. The grocer
and his wife stand behind their counter, he reads a large book possibly a bible
while she, arms folded, stares ahead. Not a word is shared between them as
the river flows quietly in the late evening light. An elderly man sits in his chair
and stares ahead, a book on his lap and glasses in his hand. The image shows the
corner of a mantle piece upon which stands a large vase next to a photographic
portrait. From the mantle piece a dissolve reveals an evening shot of trees. The
ticking of a clock leads to the face of a grandfather clock showing midnight.
The Destruction of Cwmgiedd Lidice
A clouded sky pierced by the rays of the early morning light herald the final act
of resistance. A muted choral rendition of Land of My Fathers, is mixed with
the sound of marching jackboots. From the early morning sky to the chapel the
marching becomes louder. Orders are shouted in German with the crash of boots
coming to a halt. The men now rounded up are in the process of moving slowly
in line towards the cemetery wall. As in Fires Were Started Jennings creates a
scene of martyrdom where the victims embrace their fate. They find solace in
their faith, beliefs and heritage which are all brought together in a final gesture
of defiance. Their singing and quiet dignity contrasts starkly with the shouted
orders and the crash of boots. They look off screen towards their captors, their
voices noticeably stronger and more defiant. At the school an impassive German


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

soldier stands, bayonet fixed in bright sunlight as a line of children snake across
the schoolyard to a lorry. The women, some weeping and looking back, file over
the bridge with bundles of possessions. The men now lined up against the wall
continue to sing. The women are again shown as the singing reaches its climax.
Returning to the men against the wall with the cemetery clearly in view behind,
the song continues and as it finishes the order is given to fire.
A cut to the chapel and graveyard hides the execution from view and the sound
of the rifles is echoed by the heavily ironic crash of heroic music accompanying
a radio report detailing the destruction of the village.29 The camera pans across
scenes of devastation: the burning school, where pointedly a blackboard easel
stands in flames and the remnants of domestic life including the now smashed
photographic portrait seen previously. Dissolving into darkness the music and
radio voice dissipate into silence and a caption appears: That is what the Nazis
did to the village the village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia. But that is not the
end of the story.
The Epilogue
The caption is followed by shots of the landscape; a farmer herding his sheep
down the main street and the children dashing into the schoolyard bathed in
bright sunshine and accompanied by lively choral singing. The nightmare of the
occupation has been banished. But Jennings reiterates that the horror was real.
Looking suitably shocked the women of the village read a newspaper report and
the men at a union meeting repeat the words of the radio announcement. At this
point Evans gives his speech.
The general climate surrounding popular support for Soviet achievements
combined with the fractious nature of industrial relations within the mining
industry appear to have been a sensitive issue for Dalrymple, who counselled
Jennings to nuance the speech in order to avoid the divisive theme of class
conflict: We must be careful about the political aspect. The way the miners are
picked out at the moment has revolutionary and barricade implications which
we must avoid. I dont like picking the miners out of the rest of the workers as the
vanguard.30 He felt it wise to elide any implication of class by emphasising the
unifying theme of productivity in the defeat of fascism. I do think the miners
must be picked out, for reasons of the film and of increased output: but through
The music is The German March taken from the Nazi propaganda film Baptism
of Fire.
Letter from Ian Dalrymple dated 29 October 1942. Dalrymples emphasis. The
Humphrey Jennings Collection. Box 1 Item 8. British Film Institute (BFI) Archive. His

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


the coal and so to the miners. Apologising for his intrusion he offered a tentative
draft of what more or less it should include:
Why is it the Nazis (be careful of Fascists) pick on the miners? Because of the
nature of our work we are the vanguard of the community. Coal is the basis of the
modern industrial state. Those who work the coal are the fundamental workers
of the community. And the working of coal makes a man free and a fighter, and
a fighter for freedom. Down in the bowels of the earth, it is him or the earth.
He must be a full man or the earth will have him. And so, when he comes to the
surface, he is a man confident and proud of his manhood: a man who walks the
earth, without fear, knowing justice, hating oppression. And the Nazis fear and
hate a full man. They want slaves for their black works. And that is why they
murdered our brothers of Lidice. But Lidice lives. It lives in the miners of America,
of the USSR, of Spain and France, and of Great Britain, of the Rhonda and the
Western valleys of Wales. And we miners have the key to open the door of this
present terrible confinement of humanity. We have the answer to Lidice. We have
the power to make sure that there shall be no more Lidices. It is down beneath
us in the coal seams, from which comes the whole source of the war machine of
liberation. Through us the miners.31

What Jennings thought of these suggestions, with their marked emphasis upon
economic productivity, nationalism and community, doesnt appear to have
been recorded.
The final oration is brief and encompasses much that Dalrymple thought
would be appropriate. But its brevity and the associated imagery gives room for
a more liberal interpretation of the agency of the miners. By highlighting the
necessity of the miners to the war effort Jennings indirectly provides echoes of
the historic pre-war struggles and the contemporary problems surrounding the
No comrades. The Nazis are wrong. The name of the community has not been
obliterated. The name of the community has been immortalised it lives in the
hearts of the miners the world over. The Nazis only want slave labour and the
miners refuse to become slave labour. That is why they murdered our comrades in
Lidice. That is why we stand in the forefront of resistance today, because we have
the power, the knowledge, the understanding to hasten the coming of victory. To
liberate oppressed humanity and make certain that there shall be no more Lidices
and then the men of Lidice will not have died in vain.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


The term fascists may have been omitted but the language, imbued with the
flavour of international socialism and working class solidarity, survives. The
rejection of slave labour and the position of the miners at the forefront of
resistance can easily be read by those on the left as relating to the miners as
the vanguard of the working class locked in the struggle with international
capital to liberate oppressed humanity. Underlain by choral singing Evans
speech is accompanied by a series of shots which underscore this type of leftwing interpretation. They include a romantic shot of a pithead silhouetted in
streaming sunlight and a close-up of the pit winding gear, its huge drum symbolic
of the power that the miners wield gathering power and speed. With a cut to the
river, its bed strewn with smashed domestic items, the end of the sentence and
then the men of Lidice will not have died in vain is heard. With the singing
rising on the soundtrack a cut to the top half of a poster echoes Evans final
words and connects the film to the national propaganda campaign centred on
the massacre: Lidice Destroyed by the Nazis. LIDICE SHALL LIVE AGAIN.
Mass Meeting. It concludes with images of miners coming off shift, a modern
underground coal train pulling wagons full of coal and, as the singing reaches its
climax, a final shot of the pithead silhouetted in streaming sunlight.
Critical Reception
On the 24 March 1943 a rough cut of the film was given a private screening
with Noel Joseph (from the liberal/left newspaper News Chronicle) and Jennings
friend Allen Hutt (night editor on the left-wing Daily Worker and film critic for
Our Time) in attendance. Both men felt it was a unique and deeply moving film.
Joseph wrote I had to wait a day or two until I had cooled off before I dared
write [the article]. I know I saw a very great film indeed, and I congratulate you
from the bottom of my heart.32 Hutt later remembered:
I can think of very few occasions, in fact none at all, when a preview brought tears
coursing down these leathery old cheeks. But they did when I saw the Crown
Film Units Lidice film. And that was viewing the rough cut, too, with all the
unfinished bits and pieces, undoped track and what-have-you my emotion was
shot through with surging anger and will to do battle. As I came out of the studio
I reached for my gun. That, it seems to me, is the greatest tribute that any film

Letter from Noel Joseph. Dated 1 April 1943. The Humphrey Jennings Collection.
Box 1 Item 8. British Film Institute (BFI) Archive.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


can possibly earn, that any work of art, graphic or otherwise, can possibly earn. It
moves; and it moves to action.33

In mid May the completed film was screened for the commercial producer
Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and he agreed to distribute it in Britain.
Apart from wonderful cinema it is one of the most important pictures I have
ever seen and incomparably the best anti-Nazi propaganda yet projected. I
congratulate you most sincerely.34 Cavalcanti wrote: I seem to do little else but
send you letters of congratulations this one is to offer you my felicitations
on Lidice which we saw down here and which impressed Mick [Balcon] and
all who saw it congratulate Fowle on his side of the job which I thought
was magnificent too.35 The praise was rounded off at the end of the month with
warm congratulations from the MoI for a film whose power and imaginative
approach will make it a really notable contribution to the creative output of
the war.36 Jennings had simultaneously satisfied the demands of four potentially
competing constituencies: the left-wing critic, the production values of the
professional film maker, the distributor and the demands of the Ministry.
The film was not only to be used to support anti-Nazi activity in Europe
but was to be at the centre of a nationwide campaign of remembrance running
throughout the month of June, with Lidice Shall Live or Lidice Week events
organised in towns and cities across Britain.37 The major focus would be 10 June,
the first anniversary of the massacre. In late May Jennings pre-recorded a radio
programme for the BBC about making the film The Silent Village. It was to be
broadcast to coincide with a commemorative speech from Jan Masaryk (Vice
President and Foreign Minister of the exiled Czech Government in Britain) in
Bermondsey, South London, with a message relayed to Czechoslovakia.
The film was given a press showing at the Ministry of Information theatre
on 9 June and a pre-release premier on 11 June at Empire Leicester Square and
The Silent Village George Pitman [Allen Hutt]. Our Time 3(1) August 1943.
pp. 67.
Letter from Malcolm Balcon dated 22 May 1943. The Humphrey Jennings
Collection. Box 1 Item 8.
24 May 1943 The Humphrey Jennings Collection. Box 1 Item 8.
26 May 1943 The Humphrey Jennings Collection. Box 1 Item 8.
NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Report
and Minutes of Meeting 25 March 1943. Dubbed and/or subtitled versions were to be
smuggled into Europe to lend moral support to the underground resistance in Czechoslovakia
and elsewhere. A copy was to be flown to the United States for viewing by members of the
exiled Czech Government in Washington. Commemorative Lidice events were held in
Nottingham, Birmingham, Stoke on Trent. A booklet Lidice Shall Live was also published.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Regal Marble Arch. The critical response in the film trade was overwhelmingly
positive with Kinematograph Weekly describing it as an outstanding cameo
documentary a marvellous stroke of propaganda characterised by intelligent
direction, brilliant photography and subtle use of music.38 To-Days Cinema
was similarly impressed and highly complimentary of the technical qualities
and propaganda value of the film with its masterly use of sound and music.
Sensitive direction; finely natural portrayals from actual villagers; first-class
technical qualities. Powerful dramatic entertainment destined to add to the
laurels earned by Britains factual film makers.39 The British Film Institutes
Monthly Film Bulletin concluded that there is an air of passionate sincerity and
acute observation running through the whole. Without being pretentious the
film has done what is asked of it magnificently.40 In the popular press Arthur
Horner wrote in the Daily Worker: this picture is a triumph of a kind that we
have not seen before in our propaganda. For indeed, it is not propaganda at all
Nothing will contribute more to the immortalising of the humble Czech village
than this splendid film.41 Punch magazine compared it with the recently released
Hollywood depiction Hangmen Also Die by Fritz Lang. For a lesson in the way
this kind of story should be told see the Crown Film Units The Silent Village
which, basically about the same thing, manages to be ten times as moving,
impressive and memorable in a quarter the length In my view this makes the
short Jennings picture better than the long Lang picture; though not of course,
in the view of the expectant queues outside the Tivoli.42 This praise was not
however reflected in the review from the Documentary News Letter:
In this film we have sensitivity, good taste and cinematic technique and
occasionally these combine to produce moments of feeling. But that seems
scarcely enough. Propaganda Value: It is impossible to imagine why this film was
made. The strangely oblique approach robs the film of any direct impact because
it has been translated into It might have been like this not It was like this. It has
moments of aesthetic and technical interest but this certainly does not seem the
time for the tentative and the semi-obscure.43

Jennings took comfort from the positive responses. Mr Edgar Anstey of course
does not like it but the miners themselves do, including Arthur Horner himself
Kinematograph Weekly June 17 1943. p. 20.
TO-DAYS CINEMA Friday 11 June 1943. p. 3.
Monthly Film Bulletin 10(114) 30 June 1943. pp. 612.
Lidice Lives Again in this Film Triumph. Daily Worker 10 June 1943.
Punch 23 June 1943. p. 522.
Documentary News Letter (1943) No. 5 June p. 216.

A Brilliant Idea: July 1942May 1943


who wrote the most flattering review of it really much nicer than anything
from the critics Very nice words from Cav[alcanti] on this picture.44 The
review in Documentary News Letter did earn a riposte from Donald Alexander
in the following edition: there is here much positive achievement and much that
only Jennings could have done There are many things in the film that I would
have done differently, but let us give credit for an honest and sincere attempt to
do something more difficult than most of us ever dare to undertake.45
During the second half of the year further articles appeared. In early July
Picture Post ran a three-page illustrative account of the films production and
in November a special edition of Cinegram Review, written by Noel Joseph,
discussed the significance of the massacre, the production of the film and how
the depiction related to the nature and values of the Welsh community in which
it was made.46
Out of all this praise it was the article by his friend Allen Hutt (writing under
the pseudonym George Pitman) in Our Time that seems to have counted the
most for Jennings.47 Prefaced with a quote by Jennings favourite poet William
Blake, Hutt explained why he felt Jennings had achieved the status of an
outstanding documentarian:
Never before has there been such a brilliant amalgam of technical skill and artistic
sensibility, with social, popular activity. Jennings has shown that by uniting these
opposites it is possible to obtain art that is first class propaganda, and propaganda
that is perfect art.48

The execution sequence, he claims, has everything. I will wager that it remains
in cinema history as a dramatic achievement equal to Eisensteins classical shot
in Potempkin of the massacre on the Odessa steps. When combined with the
success of his previous productions Hutt saw the possibility for a rewarding
Letter to Cicely Jennings 26 June 1943 in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 81.
Documentary News Letter (1943) No. 6 July p. 232.
Picture Post (1943) July 3 pp. 1618 and Cinegram Review No. 14 The Silent Village
Pilot Press. November 1943.
Hutt like Jennings was born in East Anglia and attended Cambridge University. He
was a member of the Cambridge University Socialists just after the First World War. He went
on to write The Post-War History of the British Working Class (1937) for Victor Gollanczs Left
Book Club. After this review, probably when Jennings was sharing his house in Regents Park
London, he wrote the first assessment of Jennings life and career in his brief biographical
article Men in Our Time: Humphrey Jennings. Our Time (1944) 3(12): 1213.
The Silent Village Our Time (1943) 3(1): 67.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

future film career. I regard The Silent Village as ample ground for keeping by
one of the professional shirts to put on Jennings as a sure winner in the worlds
six-best-film-directors stakes of 1950. Jennings response to this glowing review
was a mixture of both personal and intellectual gratification:
I convey to you my thanks, not for the personal write up but for two things:
1. Because Allen you are really the one person from whom such statements are
precious in this country (Professor Jennings has after all also had his eye on
looking up for many years) 2. Even more important the surge of comradeship
that comes from this final meeting of intellectual and worker [it was] the greatest
privilege as well as pleasure to work with the people in Wales; it was the greatest
ratification of hopes and promises to have their acceptance of the thing finished
I wonder if they realize what that means to one of the artist tribe so long, all of
us in ivory towers. Now your words complete the circle of intellectual workers
intellectual and take energy latent in one little film towards the future.49

In artistic and political terms The Silent Village was probably Jennings most
rewarding film. It had brought his reputation as a director to new heights. In this
fictitious account of events he felt that he had created a form of poetic expression
of contemporary relevance which could connect with a popular audience in an
emotional and imaginative way. This he seems to have achieved. But also he
felt he had represented a working class community on screen with the dignity
and humanity they deserved and they appreciated: We had a world-premier
(so-called) in the village itself and spent a blindingly moving final week-end in
the Swansea valley: really, I think achieving the thing long-wished for that of
showing the people on the screen to the same people themselves and being
able to say Look we have done it for you We have not betrayed you and
getting their real agreement to this.50

Letter (probably AugustSeptember 1943) reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993).
The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 82.
Letter 26 June 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 81.

Chapter 13

A Change in Professional Demands:

May 1943August 1944
During the first half of 1943 Jennings was feeling optimistic about the future.
In January he moved from Chorley Wood to live for the rest of the year in a flat
above the Etoile Restaurant in central London. His friendship with Dalrymple
survived the disagreements over Fires Were Started and his experiences in South
Wales had reinvigorated his enthusiasm for his proposed book Pandaemonium.
By March he could report I have actually managed to sell the book to Routledge
through Herbert Read Agreement all signed and delivered. To come out in
the early Autumn. Really very good terms. On 26 April he contributed a talk
about the production of The Silent Village to the BBC radio series Topical Terms
and in late May he could report that life was in general pretty hardworking but
full of excitements and promise. A new film was lined up: a very exciting subject
which I will tell you later when all is settled [and] Dal[rymple] has been full of
help on The Silent Village and very sweet in many ways. My relations with the
Ministry etc seem to have improved almost out of recognition. His fear that
the film would face a similar editorial mauling to Fires proved to be unfounded
and the satisfaction gained from the flow of critical praise in the following
months helped reinforce his recently attained status of senior director. For those
sympathetic to his adventurous approach to film making Jennings was now
recognised as a leading talent who had pushed the creative boundaries of the
documentary film further than previously attempted or achieved. The exciting
subject proposed for his next production attained financial clearance as work
on The Silent Village concluded. Anticipated at second feature length, the film
was to consider the history of Combined Operations by the Royal Marines over

Letter 29 January 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 78.

Letter 29 March 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 79. The manuscript was to be delivered by
June but he missed the deadline and the book was never delivered. Ibid. p. 280.

Letter 24 May reprinted in ibid. pp. 8081.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

the past hundred years. Again he saw an opportunity to approach the subject
matter in an imaginative and novel way:
My idea is to avoid at all costs making another ruddy documentary service picture;
but at the same time not to fall back on a fictional story with actors as the only
alternative What I propose is something both simpler and more original. To
take the theme at its face value: the story of the Royal Marine forces and especially
their part in the coming offensive. As I see it parts of this tremendous story are
documentary parts fictional but all of it basically fact history already
dramatic, thrilling, human, box-office and so on. There are certain basic ideas in the
story tradition pride of corps utter disregard of danger historical knowledge
of combined ops: etc I therefore propose to disregard the usual unities of space
and time and use flashbacks historical and even in costume to illustrate the
central theme. This is that in a global war of combined ops the Royal Marines have
been the original commandos.

Assisted by Nora Dawson he began preparatory research while simultaneously

undertaking general supervision of McAllister who had begun work on a
compilation film called Morning Noon and Night. However progress was
soon halted by a special mission which absented him from Pinewood for
approximately six weeks.
He and Jonah Jones were to film the naval side of Operation Husky, a
massive amphibious and airborne night invasion of Sicily on 9 July 1943.
While Dawson continued research Jennings travelled to Scotland to film the
preparatory training exercises of the Marines and then joined the convoy going
out to the Mediterranean before returning at the end of July.
Although his life seemed to be progressing very satisfactorily, at the same time
changes were occurring at Pinewood which on his return would completely alter
the conditions which had contributed to his professional success. By early 1943
the studio had grown into a major film centre with an influx of new personnel
from the wider film industry. The old informal working environment that had
characterised Crown was replaced by an increasingly bureaucratic and official
system. As the number of studio personnel expanded, Dalrymple attempted to

NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Report
and Minutes. Jennings italics.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 284. Jennings italics.

Letter 3 September reprinted in ibid. p. 83.

Pinewood now employed 221 Service personnel, officers, NCOs and other ranks.
NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Reports and
Minutes. Armed guards were posted on the gates to check all military and civilian employees.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


balance the interests of the service film units and maintain harmony between the
old enthusiastic production establishment and the new, more cynical Labour
staff between those charged with labour discipline and labour representation.
Problems could quickly lead to disputes so what he wanted was the right type
of man to offer himself for election to the Works Committee to encourage
collaboration in what he called a modern fashion. That man turned out to be
Jennings and by mid April he had been elected to the rank-and file production
committee.10 Meanwhile the higher management had decided to introduce a new
Film Unit Management Board responsible for the supervision of the programme
and progress of work and generally for the efficient running of the Unit.11 At its
first meeting in late March Dalrymple made it clear that his intention was to
leave: I had been over three years in my job and was exhausted. Consequently,
when Korda aimed to re-start commercial film production in England and
asked for my release to join him, I did not contest it.12 Other reasons lay behind
his decision. He appears to have been unhappy about the implications for his
management of the formation of the new board and its policy on the future
direction of film production.13 Although debate over post-war reconstruction
had begun to surface the board felt that film policy should focus on the progress
of the Allied offensive. It decided to move away from long-term projects such as
Fires and concentrate on films that would reflect recent developments in what
was now turning into a fast-moving war. With Dalrymples resignation accepted
on 27 May, it was agreed that J.B. Holmes would represent the Crown Film Unit

Dalrymple had begun to discuss an appropriate type of military uniform for Crown
employees, arguing among other things that it would give the Unit a stronger feeling that
they are part of the war effort. After much deliberation it was decided in March 1943 to
make it compulsory that film crews when on location wear battle dress with a special cap
badge and CFU shoulder flashes. NA INF 1/462 Crown Film Unit: Staff Complement and
Salaries Ken Cameron. BECTU Tape No.70 ACTT History Project.

NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Reports
and Minutes.

NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Reports
and Minutes.
Letter 24 May 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 81.
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 117.
Dalrymple, I. (1982). The Crown Film Unit 194043, in Pronay, N. and Spring,
D.W., eds, Propaganda, Politics and Film 191845, Macmillan Press. p. 218.
Chapman, J. (1998). The British at War: Cinema State and Propaganda 19391945,
I.B. Tauris. p. 135.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


on the Board of Management and for the time being deputise as Supervising
Problems in the Unit
At the end of June Jack Holmes took over from Dalrymple and on 5 August
the Board of Management was informed that Jennings had returned from Sicily.
His experiences led him to modify his idea for the Marines film and he had
begun to draft a treatment from a new angle. Suddenly the project was dropped
because production would be long and costly and difficulties arose about access
to appropriate facilities.15 Under the new production policy this may have
made sense but unofficially there were, as Jennings put it, other glaring private
reasons.16 On his return Jennings had found the unit divided and simmering
with discontent: one camp outraged by the pretentious behaviour of Holmes
who immediately instituting barriers between himself and the unit becoming
apart from the boys. While gathering around him a group of people excellent in
themselves for the most part but who in the main were not the old members
of the unit. Although asked to intervene, Jennings believed that Holmes should
be given a chance, thinking that you do not prevent disunity by creating open
strife.17 With the failure of the Marines project Jennings was given a new
assignment based on an idea about the remarkable international popularity of
the ubiquitous wartime song Lili Marlene.
The handling of this new project reinforced his general antipathy and concerns.
Although Holmes was enthusiastic about the project he could not make head or
tail of most of his suggestions and Jennings found himself subjected to further
interference from other staff. He complained to Holmes about the intrusions
and for his troubles received further comments and condescension.18 His dismay
spilled out in a letter in early September:


NA INF 1/58 Crown Film Unit Board of Management: Producers Progress Reports
and Minutes. Holmes had taken charge of the GPO Unit between the resignation of Grierson
and the appointment of Cavalcanti. He would remain in charge for approximately six months
until the beginning of 1944.
NA INF 1/58 and NA INF 1/199 Abandoned Film Projects.
Jennings, H. (1943). Biographical Material and Private Correspondence Box 2 Item
19. Humphrey Jennings Collection BFI.
Jennings, H. (1943). Biographical Material and Private Correspondence. Humphrey
Jennings Collection BFI Box 2 Item 19.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


Jack Holmes is now in charge which is the right word as he is hardly a producer.
There are dozens of people organizing and beaurocratizing [sic] and accounting and
fussing around inside a huge machine but totally without reference to production.
Not a good situation and I doubt if the group will survive it. Seriously, the old
GPO group and sense has practically disappeared the whole thing has become
too big and too mechanized and official and actually less efficient. I wonder very
much what to do and think of resigning at least once a week.19

Although the new topic was not of his choice the subject matter, which dealt
with music and song in wartime, would still have been attractive. In the late
summer and early autumn of 1940 he had already worked on a similar film
proposal entitled Men on the March or The Girl I Left Behind which had been
shelved to make Heart of Britain. But Lili Marlene was different. It had become
a dramatic example of a song which for some mysterious reason had caught the
peoples imagination. Its huge popular success transcended the partisanship of
war to become the unofficial anthem often with revised words sung to the
same tune of the ordinary soldier in opposing armies across the globe. It was
this popularity that Jennings decided to explore in his film.
A New Phase
This project was to mark a new phase in Jennings documentary work. His
wartime propaganda begins to include the recognition that fascism will
eventually be beaten and therefore there is a need to look to the future. This
shift helps to explain the combination of historical fact and speculation about
the future which structures the films narrative.
The True Story of Lili Marlene is an anti-war film. The story of the poem
provides the vehicle through which Jennings explores what he regards as the
true meaning of the song. Initially the emphasis is on the origin and historical
context of the poem written by Hans Leip. The poem is an appeal of international
significance which taps into the desire for peace and the eradication of war. In
an early treatment Jennings highlighted Leips opposition to militarism and war.
The poems words, he suggests, provide an indirect comment on the fatalistic
attitude amongst Germans towards war and the Army. The small quiet voice of
that poem was drowned out by the brash militarism and violent rise of fascism
in Germany during the inter-war years.20 Conceived in the comparative artistic

Letter 3 September 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 84.

Jennings originally wanted to include a German refugee stating: You must
understand. The poet is not only describing Hamburg. He is also thinking of the crazy


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

and political freedom of Hamburg during the early 1920s, the poem was put to
music in 1938 and performed as Lili Marlene by the Swedish cabaret artiste
Lale Anderson in a Berlin nightclub. Its subsequent rise to popular fame, its
exploitation by the Nazi regime, followed by its appropriation by Allied soldiers
on the offensive, provides a story through which to trace the collapse of and
political crises within inter-war Germany; the militarism Jennings identified
within the German people and the rise and expansion of fascism across Europe
until the Allied successes. By combining newsreel and documentary footage with
theatrical reconstructions, he interrelates two subsidiary but essential themes
the conflict of two propaganda machines [and] the intellectual solidarity of the
United Nations [i.e. Allies].21
More by accident than design the recording made by Anderson was adopted
by the Axis soldiers as their unofficial anthem. It is also ironic that a set of lyrics
expressing a desire for peace is promoted by the Nazi regime to bolster the morale
of civilians and soldiers to encourage them to support and fight an aggressive
war of expansion across Europe. Spread through radio, records and film the song
was embraced by civilians and soldiers alike on either side of the conflict. As the
war turned in favour of the Allies in North Africa, the song was adopted by the
Eighth Army as their own anthem, thereby working against the Nazi regime for
the cause of democracy, freedom and peace; that intellectual solidarity of the
Allies to which Jennings refers. To stress this point in the prologue and epilogue
Jennings locates the story in the future, when the song has itself become part
of the public memory as an emotional evocation of why the war had been
fought and what had been won with the destruction of fascism. This war, he
asserts, should, unlike the failure of the last major conflict, be the war to end all
European wars.
A New Form of Production
Between August and the end of September Jennings worked on a series of
treatments before filming began in October.22 As with his previous films he
undertook painstaking research to ensure that the representation would be
authentic. Past, present and future were to be represented by a combination
German military machine and the separation of people from each other by war. Hans Leip
was an Anti-Nazi and was against this eternal war machine. Fourth Treatment. Ibid.
NA INF 6/360 The True Story of Lili Marlene.
NA INF 5/100 Lili Marlene and Jennings, H. (1943). The True Story of Lili
Marlene: Treatments, Synopses, Reviews and Correspondence. Box 2 Item 9. The Humphrey
Jennings Collection. BFI.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


of newsreel and documentary film, newspaper and BBC reports, actual

participants, such as the BBC reporter Denis Johnson and real Eighth Army
veterans in appropriate battledress prior to the major North African campaign
at El Alamein, along with sequences shot on location in the East End docks and
at Pinewood.23 He decided to play the poet and artist Leip himself; the cabaret
singer Pat Hughes would be Lale Anderson and Lucie Mannheim would recreate
her recording of the alternative version of the song made for the BBC. The film
would also include a commentary scripted by Jennings and spoken by his old
school friend the actor Marius Goring.
This was the first time he had worked mainly within the confines of a studio
system with a mix of technical staff, designers, professional actors and non-actors.
The advice and support Jennings had enjoyed from Dalrymple was absent and at
the end of the year he wrote:
The work on Lili Marlene (the song of the Eighth Army) has been greater than
I expected when we started on the film in October and has really kept me up
night and day for three months I have been working without a producer and
very much on own (except for Chick [Fowle, Jennings cameraman] thank
goodness) and have felt rather out of my depth with professional actors and so
forth and a very theatrical story.24

Given his knowledge and experience of theatre and film one would expect that,
though daunting, he could successfully negotiate his way through the project.
Unfortunately the very theatrical nature of the production may have been
responsible for some of the problems he faced. In the past he had often kept the
objectives of his production much to himself and would order people around as
he wished. Now he was dealing with groups of individuals who may very well
have had their own ideas and opinions which required from him far more cooperation, diplomacy and negotiation than he was in the habit of giving. Being,
as he says, out of my depth probably also refers to the issues he faced with the
production staff. Apart from scenes shot in the East End near Tower Bridge, the
majority of filming was on sets at Pinewood, which included a Berlin nightclub
and the sands of North Africa. Lacking the support of someone like Dalrymple
to intervene on his behalf, Jennings was probably unhappy with the studio
creations within which he had to place his authentically costumed professional
actors and non-actors.25

NA INF 6/360 The True Story of Lili Marlene and INF 5/100 Lili Marlene.
Letter 30 December 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 89. Jennings italics.
According to Nora Lee he didnt hit it off with Teddy [Edward] Charrington
BECTU Tape No. 335.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Jennings concerns, however, did not stop with the filming. His unique
partnership with McAllister had also for the moment drawn to a close.26 He had
lost his contentious but creative foil in the editing room and it is very unlikely
he could develop a similar relationship with the editor Sid Stone who had more
experience in the commercial feature sector than documentary.27 A rough cut
was assembled and viewed in early January by Dennis Blood, who provided the
music for the film. His general impression was that it looked promising but
nothing more. He noted changes were required in the first two reels and certain
stickinesses could be remedied by further cuts in the Belgrade sequence, as well
as the removal of a picture of Goring and the deletion of Westminster Abbey
at the end of the film.28 Editing continued for approximately another six weeks
until the middle of February.
The True Story of Lili Marlene
The film comprises a series of sequences of varying length, which are explained by
the commentary delivered by Marius Goring. His appearance on screen indicates
significant points in the narrative: at the beginning of the short prologue; in
the middle when the story which addresses the allied counter-attack and finally
introducing the epilogue. What is lacking is evidence of that creative and fluid
style of editing so characteristic of the earlier JenningsMcAllister partnership.
The commentary the first to be included since Heart of Britain is used in a
conventional way supporting the visual material and providing a history lesson
for the present and future generations. Unfortunately this approach obscures
the more philosophical message underlying the film.
The Prologue
Once the titles have passed the film begins with Goring rather disconcertingly
looking off screen while talking to camera. His opening words include this
intriguing statement: The story of Lili Marlene is a fairy story really. Only
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 139.
Sid Stone joined the Pinewood staff in 1942 and edited We Sail at Midnight (1943),
one of Dalrymples prestigious productions. He had recently returned to Pinewood from
RKO Radio Pictures.
Remarks dated 6 January 1944 in Jennings, H. (1943). The True Story of Lili
Marlene: Treatments, Synopses, Reviews and Correspondence. The Humphrey Jennings
Collection. BFI Box 2 Item 9.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


its a true story as well. To explain the significance which the song holds and
its history Jennings turns to the function of myth in society. Immediately the
film moves to the future where, in the house of a demobilised soldier after the
war, the record of Lili Marlene captured in the Libyan desert in the Autumn
of 1942 has become both a reminder of the war and a trophy of the victory of
democracy over fascism. With footage used previously in the introduction of
The First Days, of children playing on a captured German gun from the First
World War in front of the Imperial War Museum, Goring states that the history
of Lili Marlene takes us back to the year 1923 to the time when the men of the
Eighth Army were still children. He reads the words on the commemorative
notice at the base of the gun: These captured guns commemorate the devotion
to duty and the achievements of those who fought for their country in the Great
war 19141918. The First Days had expressed the resignation and foreboding
at the beginning of yet another war. At the turning point of this conflict the
sentiments are similar; they act as a reminder that history was repeating itself
but that there is also an opportunity to ensure war will not happen again. A song
had emerged spontaneously as a popular anthem, not bolstering nationalism but
lamenting the sorrow and loss of war.
The Nature of Germany
For Jennings the words of the poem are a manifestation of the universal desire
for peace which has taken symbolic form in the nightclub song and in the
recording of a popular record. The story behind their genesis is illustrated
by shots from newsreel, Ruttmans documentary film Berlin: A Symphony
of a Great City (1927), studio sequences with Jennings as Leip writing the
poem and then the creation of the music and the song in a Berlin nightclub
rehearsed by Lale Anderson. Together they quickly sketch the social and
political background of inter-war Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party to
power. As Jennings had intimated in Heart of Britain and Words for Battle, the
rise of fascism was symptomatic of a nation that had lost its moral compass.
The collapse of the political and social order had seen Germany rejecting its
progressive cultural inheritance to embrace the irrationality and political
extremism of fascism which in turn had plunged Europe into war. He relates
how music and song played their part in this story and acted like a barometer
of the time when nobody paid any attention either to Lale Anderson or to
the song It was the first period of the war, and the Germans were given


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

purely military music the Germans formed their famous Afrika Korps. They
went into battle with their own special song Panzers Advance into Africa.29
Propaganda and the Fortunes of War
The turning point in the fortunes of the song came in the spring of 1941. In
a comparatively long and stilted dramatic sequence Jennings illustrates how
the song was transmitted by chance from the newly occupied radio station in
Belgrade after the invasion of Yugoslavia. The enormous and unexpected success
of the song amongst German troops on land and sea was quickly exploited by
the Nazi high command. Its popularity, Jennings infers, becomes an expression
of the political and military fortunes of the Nazis. The human appeal of Lili
Marlene is turned into a vehicle for civilian and military propaganda to sustain
the war machine. It becomes the signature tune for a messages from home radio
programme for the troops and Lale Anderson continues to perform in a Berlin
nightclub for German officers and across Germany. The high point of Axis
military success is reflected in a grotesque operatic rendition at the Berlin State
Opera by the wife of Herman Goring.
Jennings moves to the next phase in the conflict with the Allied counteroffensives at El Alamein then Stalingrad. After the reappearance of Marius
Goring the victorious North Africa campaign is summarily addressed through
a mixture of footage and sound reports by the BBC reporter Denis Johnston.
Illustrated by staged scenes depicting Eighth Army soldiers in the desert and
night attack material drawn from Desert Victory, Johnston gives a description of
how British troops would listen under the night sky of the desert and Jennings
inserts a brief reference to the moral difference between the German and Allied
Home home home. Its a funny thing the way the Germans of all people
are sentimental about home. But they forgot other people have homes too the
Eighth Army, the Russians, the oppressed people of Europe they all have homes.
We will see whose home thoughts serve them best.30

The breaking of German resistance is symbolised by the appropriation of the

song by the British Eighth Army. At the BBC Jennings relates how the song
was analysed in sober quiet while dramatic Russian footage taken from The
What Jennings does not mention is that the music for Lili Marlene and the battle
song of the Afrika Korps were written by the same person, Norbert Schultze.
Gorings commentary reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 858.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


Fall of Stalingrad depicts the surrender of Von Paulus. At this turning point in
the war the nightclub sets are stored away and it is revealed that Andersen a
neutral Swede has been deported to a concentration camp (here her hands
shown clutching a barbed wire fence) for wanting to leave this terrible country.
The announcer in the Belgrade studio pointedly states: There is no time for
Jennings now turns to the present situation. In comparison to its manipulation
by the Nazis, the BBCs presentation is more subtle, open and honest. It is the
tune and its associations that are used. In a BBC studio Lucie Mannhiem provides
an alternative rendition inter-cut with images of dead German soldiers, an
empty sentry box and a drawing of a broken lantern which is directed back at
Germany and demands that Hitler be hung from the lantern of Lili Marlene.
Meanwhile the song, with both its original and alternative words created by the
troops, remains on the battlefield as the allied offensive is carried on through
Sicily and southern Italy. Goring provides a poetic resume: I told you it was like
a fairy story. Lili Marlene was born in the docks of Hamburg, and then she
went to Berlin, and then she flew to Belgrade. She was sent to the desert, and
captured. And then was transformed, and marched with the armies of liberation
into the heart of Europe.
The Epilogue: A Post-War World
At this point the commentary states: Now look to the future. Peace. After
Goring intones: On a Saturday night in peacetime. Here you will find the scene
set for the last appearance of Lili Marlene, the camera tracks along an idyllic East
End street scene to the doorway then interior of the corner shop. Here Jennings
evokes his own myth: the urban-industrial equivalent of village life populated
by the industrial heirs of that liberty-loving independent yeoman farmer of the
past. The vision embraces a romantic notion of the community and in particular
what he regarded as that noble, skilled and at times economically independent
working class. 31 The owner, a veteran of the North Africa campaign, is relaxed
and content smoking a cigarette and observing both the scene from his doorway
and his family inside. It is a representation of working class domestic life redolent
with the pastoral. Jennings must have been pleased to have tracked down the

For Hillier the epilogue is the best sequence of the film. Hillier, J. (1972). Humphrey
Jennings, in Hillier, J. and Lovell, A., eds, Studies in Documentary, Viking Press. p. 104.
Hodgkinson and Sheratsky echo Hilliers observation that in its final images of the corner
tobacconists, The True Story of Lili Marlene also resurrects the memory of Jacko who died in
Fires Were Started. Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More
Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 72.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


poems original publication in a small collection with the name Die Kleine
Hafen-Orgel (The Little Dockside Barrel Organ). Whereas in The First Days
we heard the Cockney barrel organ playing the songs of the last war, here Lili
Marlene, a quiet plea for peace, now plays on a barrel organ in a local community
which is revealed as boisterous, happy and harmonious. Peaceful and seemingly
prosperous people step out for an evening of entertainment. Inside the house
the young children of the next generation have the mementos of their father to
remind them of what he fought for. The film concludes with a rousing statement
by Goring. Returning to the opening theme of memory, he draws together the
spiritual with the popular to celebrate why the war was being fought. It finishes
on a shot of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey:
I think that when the blackout is lifted and the lights of London are relit and the
shining domes of Stalingrad have been rebuilt, then the true people and the real
joys of life will come together again. And the famous tune of Lili Marlene will
linger in the Hearts of the Eighth Army as a trophy of victory and as a memory of
the last war to remind us all to sweep Fascism from the face of the earth, and to
make it really the Last War.32

A Failure that is a Popular Success

In February 1944 Jennings remarked dead beat at the end of Lili Marlene which
in any case I dont think is a good picture.33 The criticism is valid. It is as if the
creativity and invention of his earlier output has suddenly evaporated. It is
unfortunate that the weaknesses of the film detract from his message about the
underlying truth he felt the song articulated. The theatrical nature of the acting;
the artificial and tastefully lit sets juxtaposed against the grainy reality of newsreel
and propaganda footage; the pedantic and literal rhythm of the editing, merely

An earlier version of the speech was more assertive about the desire for peace: Lili
Marlene began in the docks in Hamburg and then went to Berlin and then went to Belgrade
and then went to the desert and was captures and brought to the lochs of Scotland and the
farms of East Anglia Where will she end up? Lili Marlenes born of the last war and of the
war before that and the war before that. And if we are stupid she will reappear in the next one
and if we are sensible she wont When the black-out has been forgotten and the lights of
London lit and the shining domes of Stalingrad have been rebuilt, then the simple and true
things of life will re-assert themselves and the future of Lili Marlene will be just a memory
of the last war the LAST WAR!. NA. INF 6/360 The True Story of Lili Marlene.
Letter 14 February 1944 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 91.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


accentuate the overlong sequence surrounding the Belgrade radio studio which
unbalances the film.34 Many of his intelligent friends he reported sat hard on it
and complained between them of almost everything in it. He went on that
they have for years criticized me for being high-brow and over peoples heads
now the fault is apparently the opposite. I confess being upset.35
Released in the summer of 1944 the film received mixed reviews in both the
domestic film trade and national press. But recognition came once more from
the film critic Caroline Lejeune who Jennings says gave it a crackingly good
notice. She described it as the most engaging film of the week a good little
picture a delicate experiment in the true story type. She notes one of the films
peculiar excellences is that it rounds off the acts with a fanciful ending: something
philosophic and entirely detatched.36 The New Statesman meanwhile felt the
film was a dried egg: the old stale taste of Fascism spoils what might have been
a tasty dish. Why must so many [MoI] documentaries tell the same story?.37 But
Todays Cinema felt the picture registers as very good entertainment though as
to its propaganda point it may be somewhat obscure. Jennings also noted: [Lili
Marlene] has been very popular in the cinemas, particularly in the working class
ones (and got or is getting good distribution) The people who like it like
it enormously: ordinary simple & charming people mostly: American soldiers,
policemen, charwomen I know of .38 The films reception allowed him to revise
his position and blame his initial assessment on the fact that at the time I was
tired out and could not see it any longer and was prone to think them right.39
In a feature story about the film for Vogue magazine, Lesley Blanch remarked that
it was the matter of the production rather than the manner of its depiction
that demanded attention. It appears that in conversation with Jennings he came
to understand that what he was attempting to present was something deeper.
Regardless of the flawed production values: it is, to me, the story behind The

These factors have formed the focus for criticism within the academic film
community ever since. See Hillier, J. (1972). Humphrey Jennings, in Hillier, J. and Lovell,
A., eds, Studies in Documentary, Viking Press. p. 104. Sheratsky, R.E. (1975). Humphrey
Jennings: Artist of the British Documentary. Film Library Quarterly (34): 764. p. 36.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a Maker of
Films, Hanover. pp. 712.
Letter 20 August 1944 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. pp. 956.
Lejeune, 18 June 1944, Observer.
Whitebait, 29 July 1944, New Statesman.
Letter 20 August 1944 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 96.
Ibid. p. 96.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


True Story of Lili Marlene which makes the film the most significant of all our
war films to date, whoever plays in it, however it is made.40
July 1943August 1944: Two Cities and Eighty Days
While making The True Story of Lili Marlene the situation within the Unit
appears to have deteriorated even further.41 Towards the end of 1943 Jennings
began to investigate working outside Pinewood and at the end of December he
confided to his wife: There has been pretty good confusion and trouble at the
Unit and I have been slogging to re-arrange my position completely which I
think will come off only it has muddled my money situation for the moment.42
The critical accolades he had received and the large success of his earlier films
convinced him that he had:
begun to make a real impression and hope very much to do two things to assist
in putting the British cinema a little more on its feet and to give you and the
kits a real chance financially When the moment comes a big switch over may
be possible. In all of this Ian [Dalrymple] has and is being the greatest possible
help for the first time in all this I have begun to feel like having something to
say both in print and on film instead of being merely a reporter. The work on
the book [Pandaemonium] has opened my eyes very wide about history and the
reception of Silent Village has made me think inevitably about personal style and
ideas and so on. One gets to the moment of having if possible to be something
more than promising.43

By mid January he had vacated his rooms above the Etoile and moved into
cheaper accommodation near Regents Park with his friend Allen Hutt. He had
also sent a film proposal to the independent production company Two Cities
Blanch, L. (1944). The True Story of Lili Marlene. Vogue: 523, 86 and 90. p.53.
Blanch, Features Editor at the Journal between 1937 and 1944, reviewed theatre, films,
books and people. During the war he wrote on various aspects of Britain at War for the
Ministry of Information.
Jennings, H. (1943). Biographical Material and Private Correspondence Box 2 Item
19. Humphrey Jennings Collection BFI.
Letter 30 December reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 89.
Letter 30 December reprinted in ibid. p. 89. Jennings italics. See also Jackson, K.
(2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 2867.

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


There is a subject for a film to be made by Two Cities which seems to have
escaped everybody, a film of the two cities themselves London and New York
living simultaneously through twenty for hours It would be a picture of
propaganda for humanity. Remember that we love people not only for their
likeness to us but also for their difference What I have suggested here is an idea
only, with suggestions for background for the story People have often asked
for the fusion of the realistic school of film-making with the fictional. Here it is.
A small group of actors in the foreground and the vast double canvas of the two
great cities beyond them.44

At the same time his position in the Unit was under discussion at the Board of
Management. The idea was mooted that he should gain some experience as an
Associate Producer. By early January it was agreed that he would undertake the
role if and when he can be spared from directing duties.45 The opportunity did
not arise immediately because Two Cities offered him a three-month writing
contract on what he regarded as reasonably good pay.46 The MoI agreed to release
him and by mid February he could report: My film life has been or is being
completely re-organized and finance will be a great deal easier Met up with
a grand man from NY [New York] two or three weeks back Marc Blitzstein
the playwright and composer had long talks about New York and London
and films and all.47
Once Lili was completed he took unpaid leave from Pinewood while
working with Blitzstein until the end of June. Unfortunately Jennings need for
a sympathetic producer like Dalrymple who would trust his vision and provide
practical support and advice was lacking in the commercial sector. Although he
thought the script that emerged from their collaboration was good the project
never passed this initial stage.48 Back at Pinewood at the beginning of July he
found himself with more responsibility for actual supervision than before &
have to work harder than ever.49

Proposal for Two Cities, reprinted in ibid. p. 93.

NA INF 1/463 Crown Film Unit: Staff Complement and Salaries.
Letter 12 May 1944 reprinted in ibid. p. 93.
Letter 14 February 1944 reprinted in ibid. p. 91.
According to Nora Dawson the project foundered due an inability to work out a
possible scenario good enough for people to put money in to it. It was all in his head. Being
clever or being creative didnt matter a damn. Dawson later married Jack Lee. An Interview
with Nora Lee Drazin C. www.almide.demon.co.uk/html/Miscellaneous/Jennings/NoraLee.
Letter 20 August 1944 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 96.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


By the time of his return the latest aerial threat from Germany, the new jet
powered V1 rockets known as doodlebugs or buzz bombs, had been falling
in the south-east and London region for about six weeks. The height of the
V1 bombardment occurred over the months of June and July but their arrival,
supplemented by the latest threat of the V2 rocket, continued until March 1945.
From mid July until September Nora Dawson and Graham Wallace led two units
which travelled the south-east region filming material. In late September, acting
as an associate producer, Jennings filmed various scenes of bomb damage in and
around London.50 Two films emerged out of this conglomeration of material
which also included footage provided by the RAF. The first for distribution in
America was called The Eighty Days, the period of time the frequent raids lasted,
and was given a brief opening and closing commentary spoken by the American
newsman Ed Murrow. When shown to MoI an updated version was requested to
emphasise the damage caused by the rockets.51 Existing material was re-edited to
include additional material and an entirely new commentary, this time spoken
by Fletcher Markle, was added. This version was called V1.
The Eighty Days
Released in November 1944, five months after the D-Day landings, this version
emphasises that Allied plans in Europe would not be diverted during those
critical summer months by the deadly nature of this new form of military
threat. By the time of release the intensive raids were over and the Allies were
making progress liberating France. The film has the feel of a history lesson for
the American people. This is reinforced by an opening sequence depicting a
model of a VI rocket, like some museum piece, being viewed by the public while
Murrow provides a morale-boosting introduction. Interspersed with reaction
shots of people to their overhead flight, the majority of the film consists of a
series of edited sequences set to the sound of V1 engines, gunfire and commands
that collectively illustrate the distinct lines of defence. Spotters meanwhile
track rockets travelling from the Channel coast across the Garden of England
to London. This is followed by scenes of devastation in London and Murrows
concluding words.

NA INF 5/111 V1 and Eighty Days.

Hodgkinson and Sheratsky state that according to Adrian de Potier then working
at the unit The Eighty Days was rejected by the MoI on the grounds of being too artistic
and insufficiently informational. However official records make no mention of this. NA INF
5/111 V1 and Eighty Days and INF 6/362 Eighty Days (V1 bomb attack).

A Change in Professional Demands: May 1943August 1944


The editing was undertaken very quickly by Stewart McAllister.52 Whether

or not Jennings was present is not clear but the subject matter surrounding
the flight of the rockets does include many signature elements of his style. As
rockets approach the coast and begin their flight across the mainland, it is the
heavy guns and AA batteries which provide the first line of defence. Around
these those rural images associated with Jennings people working in the fields,
wheat and the reaping of corn and the presence of a horse disturbed by the aerial
gunfire can be seen. Those that pass the guns are confronted by the skill of RAF
pilots attempting to shoot them out of the sky. Each line manages to deplete
the number heading for the city. While some blow up in the air, others fall to
earth and explode, but some get through. Along the way people break off from
their activities, respond to their approach and follow their progress. Jennings
shows children rushing to see the rockets pass overhead or pulled to safety by an
adult. Their innocence and curiosity about this strange weapon accentuates the
vulnerability to danger.
Near London the air raid sirens sound and the Barrage Balloons are raised.
The wail of sirens is matched to a slow pan across an image of a darkened wood
and then the skyline with St Pauls in the distance. The London sequence has all
the hallmarks of Jennings work. The stuttering engine cuts out and instead of
the whistle of the bomb there is now a deadly silence. The image that the camera
holds is of the sky taken within an alleyway and a painterly image of the face of
an elderly man waiting for what he knows is inevitable. A woman urges a mother
with her baby in a pram indoors before the explosion. Then a long-distance shot
holds on the pall of smoke created by the explosion. This is accompanied by
orchestration, followed by scenes of devastation, which were shot by Jennings. It
is at this point that Murrows commentary reappears to link this latest attack on
Britain to Allied progress in Europe. The Battle of London, he asserts, is part
of the Battle of France. By absorbing this military attack the British people were
hastening European freedom from totalitarianism. After four years the liberated
French are shown celebrating Bastille Day to reinstate their belief in the ideals of
liberty, equality and fraternity.
During this time as a producer, Jennings had been developing an idea for a
new project and while completing work on The Eighty Days he wrote that I am

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a

Maker of Films, Hanover. For a discussion of these two versions see pp. 6871. See also
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister,
Film Editor, British Film Institute. pp. 13940. The Eighty Days was released in midNovember 1944.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


beginning a new picture of my own in the next week or two.53 The concluding
sentiments of Murrows commentary indicate the direction he was about to take
with his project. From images of France the film returns to the devastation in
London. Over the final shots of Civil Defence teams searching the wreckage,
helping survivors and removing the dead, and a Union Jack fluttering amongst
the bombed buildings, Murrow states that the grim and gay defiance of the
old blitz days was gone people were tired but their strength was great for
they knew the long battle was being won and their sacrifices were speeding the
victory. His next film would explore how these experiences had transformed the
British people. Beneath their tiredness he detected a resolve to reconstruct a new
post-war world which would be different from the past.

Letter 20 August 1944 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 96.

Chapter 14

The Beginning of a New Era:

August 1944May 1945
The V1, V2 rockets and mini-Blitz that fell on the London region between
January and March 1945 formed the final military assault on Britain. In June
1944 the Western Allies gained a foothold in Normandy which coincided with a
massive Russian offensive in the East. By the end of July they had broken through
into wider France. On the day Jennings returned to Pinewood Allied troops had
opened up a new front in the south of France. German armies were now falling
back towards the Reich, encircled and under simultaneous attack on multiple
fronts. Out of necessity international divisions had been put to one side and
since January 1942 America, Britain and their allies along with Soviet Russia had
fought under the banner of the United Nations. By late 1943 Jennings began to
hope that this wartime alliance could lead to a new international understanding
and replace pre-war political divisions. Such hopes were given a boost when in
April 1944 Mass Observation published survey findings which indicated that
an overwhelming majority of their sample were in favour of international cooperation.
During the last months of 1944 as the war in Europe ground on, the Western
Allies faced military disappointments and setbacks. At home the people could
only watch and wait as they too faced pressing domestic problems. Not until the
defeat of the last German offensive in the West in January 1945 and the success
of the Russians advance in the East was it clear that the war would soon be over.
Meanwhile after the involvement of America in December 1941, a discussion
emerged in Britain over what form future post-war life should take. In November
1942 Jennings wrote:
As you have probably seen, a large number of people especially archbishops and
bankers have started telling us what the country and even the world is to be like
after the war and many of their suggestions surprisingly left or socialistic at
first glance but all equally sure that private profit must stay nationalisation
Letter 3 September 1943 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 85.

Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. p. 630.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


must be avoided and so on. One can only hope that the people will not be
bamboozled the ninetieth time.

The debate was brought to the fore of the public mind on 1 December 1942 with
the publication of the Government report, Social Insurance and Allied Services,
which was overseen by William Beveridge.
The Beveridge Report laid out a radical strategy for a planned and universal
social welfare system to alleviate the national problems of poverty, unemployment
and ill health. These recommendations, along with calls for a national housing
policy, a reformed education system, investment in economic manpower and
regional industry, became part of a running debate over the feasibility of turning
such ideas into post-war reality. A Mass Observation survey however found
that: People had the right hopes, but the feeling that these hopes would not
or could not materialise was very strong. Overwhelming emphasis was laid on
what happened after the last war. Disappointment then had created a kind of
neurosis that seemed unconquerable to a lot of people. Even so, for Jennings
it was clear that once the war was won there should be no return to the past in
either domestic or international politics:
England has changed a great deal: not so much any one person is different but
the young coming up are pretty determined and people in general if they have
the same character have had a good think. The man and woman in the particular
job the ploughman and the coal-cutter and the commando are very definite as
to what was wrong five years ago.

To his surprise on returning to Pinewood, he found working conditions had

markedly improved: the unit has recovered a great deal of its lost fire and
enthusiasm and I am enjoying being back enormously which I would have never
have thought.
The origin of the idea he had for a new film can be found in some prescient
remarks he had made in November 1942:
One of these days I hope to be able to sit down quietly for a few weeks and
write down a kind of diary or report or something of the past two years and the
astonishing things and people I have seen the surges of ideas, the undertow
of disappointment, the waves of nostalgia, the iridescent moments of excitement

Letter 14 November 1942 reprinted in ibid. p. 63.

Kynaston, D. (2007). Austerity Britain 194551, Bloomsbury. pp. 423.

Letter 3 September 1943 reprinted in ibid. p. 85.

Letter 20 August 1944 reprinted in ibid. p. 96.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


and clarity in the future I think we shall look at the years 1940 onwards and
wonder why we were so hesitant why we were only hopeful.

The First Days had captured that initial response of the public to the outbreak
of war, while Listen to Britain had revealed a people, at a major turning point
in the conflict, who had been transformed by the whole experience. He now
approached and persuaded Jack Beddington, rather than Holmes, to give
support to a rather nebulous idea for a film that would express the popular spirit
as the war drew to a close. What form it would take took some time to emerge.
According to Hodgkinson and Sheratsky it was: originally conceived as a film
about the lives of six people during what was hoped would be the last six months
of the war. This idea was rejected. Instead it was later cast into the form of a
diary for a baby born on the 3 September 1944, the fifth anniversary of the
wars outbreak.10
Jennings would return to reportage style and would try to capture the spirit
of the times on the civilian front: its weariness, doubts, desires and uncertainties
along with its flashes of success and growing optimism with peace near at hand.
By returning to this style he could convey his fascination with what he called
knots in history moments in historical time which in a poetic sense embrace
the multifaceted nature of life. The project would allow him something to say
instead of being merely a reporter; the film would simultaneously address the
present but also the future.11 The war would soon be history but this diary would
be a record of what had and could be achieved for this present generation, the
innocent baby, Timothy Jenkins, chosen for the film and future generations.
A Return to Artistic Freedom
Jennings was returning to a style of documentary in which he excelled. It was
based on an idea which fitted well within MoI policy. Circumstances enabled
him to proceed and make the film in conditions reminiscent of Dalrymples

Letter 14 November 1942 reprinted in ibid. p. 65.

Wright remembers that he [ Jennings] really sold [the idea] to Jack Beddington,
because Jack Beddington had very considerable confidence in Humphrey as an artist. Sussex,
E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California Press. p. 45.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. pp. 723.
Ibid. pp. 723.
Beattie regards the film as endowed with what he calls a strategic ambiguity. Beattie,
K. (2010). Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 10112.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


regime where he had been given the creative room to follow his instincts
unhindered by management. Once production was underway Holmes resigned
and was replaced at the beginning of the New Year by the less officious Basil
Wright. Having identified characters and locations Jennings was absent from
Pinewood for considerable lengths of time shooting large amounts of material,
much excised from the completed film.12 Wright admitted that he was in a fog
of bewilderment about how to act as producer to Jennings:
There was no script there couldnt be a script and as you didnt know how the
rushes were going to fit with anything else, it was an awful job for the poor old
producer. And Humphrey was never available, because he was always out shooting
again! Eventually the pattern emerged in the cutting room.13

John Trumper, a trainee editor, remembered a mass of unslated rolls of film. He

would sort out the rushes, log them and wait for Jennings to choose what he
wanted.14 Once editing began in earnest it was only Jennings who could make
sense of what had been shot and decide what he intended to do with it:
I didnt know what Humphrey was doing. I used to go and see the rushes every
morning and Id say, Yes, what are you going to do with that Humphrey? He
said Oh well, you know, were making the film backwards, arent we? which was
true because he was shooting every day for Timothy and hed say, When weve
finished shooting well find out what its all about, wont we?.15

The obvious editor would have been McAllister but as production started he
was suspended from work for employing an enemy alien, known as an 18B. He
returned home to Scotland then resigned from Crown.16 Trumper remembers

Jennings reputation for shooting high ratios of film was again confirmed. A short
film of Myra Hess playing the first movement of Beethovens Appassionata Sonata (1945) was
released by Crown. The song Daddies on the Engine shot at his favourite nightclub The
Players Club apparently reappeared in R.Q. McNaughtons The Railway Men (1946).
Wright quoted in Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey
Jennings More Than a Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 73.
John Trumper BECTU Tape No. 241.
Sussex, E. (1975). The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, University of California
Press. pp. 1578.
Vaughan, D. (1983). Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart
McAllister, Film Editor, British Film Institute. p. 140. Eventually he returned to London
and appears to have worked as an independent editor for the MoI. They would finally
work together again on Jennings final post-war film Family Portrait (1950) produced by
Dalrymple at his company Wessex Films.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


a variety of editors being involved. The credits on the finished film assign
Alan Osbiston as supervising editor and Jenny Hutt as cutter. It appears
Osbistons involvement was limited but important. Hutt cut most of the film,
probably under guidance from Jennings, and he was brought in by Wright to
help with the last reel because Hutt felt she lacked the appropriate technical
ability. Although McAllister was physically absent he was present in spirit as
Hutt goes on to say but I think if it [the film] does work, its because what
Id learned from Mac.17
A rough copy available in early May was viewed by Beddington and
Wright: Jack Beddington suggested a narration to be written by either
Max Beerbohm or E.M. Forster. Wright felt that Beerbohm would satirize
too much and chose E.M. Forster, the noted essayist, broadcaster and
novelist.18 According to the official record they were particularly anxious to
obtain his services. He was deemed most appropriate because, with a career
that began well before the First World War, he was in contrast to Timothy, a
person of perceiving age [66 at the time] and particularly gifted at analysing
peoples thoughts speaking from his experience to the inexperienced Tim.19
Forster was invited to help with the editing and then write an appropriate
commentary. He declined the editing role but his thoughts on the rough copy
of the film provide a glimpse of a film narrative whose structure and emphasis
was somewhat different from the final film. A major concern for Forster was
Jennings choice of baby. Whereas Jennings attitude towards social class
tends to be secondary to that of community, for Forster it was a social aspect
that could not be underplayed:
My trouble is that quite contrary to the intentions of the producers the
film comes out with a social slant and suggests that Britain ought to be kept
right for this one class of baby and not got right for babies in general. True,
Tim must be someone, and why shouldnt he be born in a rectory and have
a lovely church baptism instead of being an industrialist baby at a registry
office? But that does establish the slant, and I submit it hasnt been sufficiently
corrected. Something could have been done, by shots of, or references to, other
babies born in this country, so that he would have been more representative of

Quoted in ibid. p. 143.

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 74.
NA INF 6/1917 A Diary for Timothy.
Lago, M. and Furbank, P.N., eds (1985). Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, Collins.
pp. 21213.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

His commentary would go someway to rectify this. He then turns to the

depiction of civilian conduct a key element in Jennings home front propaganda
pinpointing what he regards as a significant flaw:
The England he is introduced to is strenuous and enduring but (with one
exception) never gloomy or cynical, and that is much too simple and smug a
picture of wartime England. Any how it doesnt go with what Ive seen, and with
most of what Ive listened in to. The exception is the immensely important shot
of the grumbling youth, but it went by too quickly, nor have I located it in your

The youth does appear but is not allowed to grumble. Rather the future situation
he may face is contextualised within a broader argument about post-war
reconstruction. Lastly Forster remarks, I didnt like the Soviet Youth song at the
end, and probably this will have to be scrapped for political reasons. The Soviet
youth song does appear but not at the end of the film. His speculation about its
possible removal already hints at the changing tone of international relations vis-vis the West and Russia. He concludes that the inflection Jennings had given
to the overall film chimed with his own liberal-humanist sympathies where each
item, as item, was delightful and moving. His final remarks appear to indicate that
the film already had some form of commentary spoken by Jennings: I forgot to
ask whether, if I did attempt the job, you wanted me to talk the commentary as
well as to write it. I liked Mr Jennings speaking immensely, and dont really know
why you call in any one else. Unfortunately evidence of how Jennings may have
structured and spoken his commentary appears to have been lost. Forsters own
commentary was eventually spoken by another of Jennings old associates from
Cambridge the actor Michael Redgrave.
A Diary for Timothy
Like Listen to Britain the narrative uses a combination of linear and simultaneous
time to interweave the lives of a group of people during the last six months of
the war. In his biographical article Hutt refers to three formative factors in the
intellectual character of Jennings: the Land Industry Science and it is these
enduring themes of his work along with the social and cultural dimensions of
life which underpin the film. Guided by a combination of Forsters commentary,
spoken with theatrical inflection by Redgrave, and BBC news reports, the films
narrative relates a catalogue of military and civil events between the months
of September 1944 and March 1945 before turning to a brief coda directed at

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


Timothy in his cot. This thread of reportage is held together by a sophisticated

use of overlapping sound and image which create a dense and richly textured
work, in which Jennings connects progress on the battlefields of Europe to
the struggles and victories on the domestic front. Even though the people the
audience see experience their lives as individuals, their seemingly disparate
activities and responsibilities actually hold communities and the nation together.
Although often unknown to each other and never likely to meet, people still
need to rely on each other now and by extension in the future. They are at once
complementary, interdependent and vital to each other and it is only by working
together as a community in a planned way, Jennings implies, that the individual
will be more secure and prosperous.
The Introduction
The opening sequence, with its subtle integration of sound, image and
supporting commentary, represents the military conflict and everyday struggle
as two sides of the natural condition which feed into individual, communal and
national life. Timothy and babies like him are located within an interdependent
world reconfigured by five years of war. A BBC news report by Frederick Allen
proclaims that the fifth year of war is marked by the continuing allied successes.
This is followed by the cry of a newborn child. After a dissolve through an image
of the sky to a row of cots the commentary begins and Forsters commentary
emphasises that Timothy, although representative of a new generation, is by no
means an average child. As the camera pans and rests on one particular cot
Redgrave intones:
And it was on the third of September 1944 that you were born. The label on your
cot said Timothy James Jenkins. Born in a nursing home near Oxford, England.
Very comfortable. Thousands of babies were born the same day and you were one
of the lucky ones. Youre alive, youre healthy, youve got parents who will take
care of you [cut to mother in bed]. If you had been born in war-time Holland or
Poland [cut to Timothy] or a Liverpool or Glasgow slum this would be a very
different picture.21

Despite being born into the comfort of middle class and living in the rural
tranquillity of Oxfordshire Redgraves delivery reveals that all the same you are
in danger youre in danger Tim. [cut to mother] for around you is being fought
All references to the commentary are taken from the film soundtrack and commentary
file. NA INF 6/1917 A Diary for Timothy.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


the worst war ever known. The danger he faces is not a military one but what it
is, is at present left unstated and is only to be made explicit in the coda. It is the
notion of total war that is pursued in the narrative. A dissolve from the mothers
face to marching Marines with their band [taken from Listen to Britain] leads
the audience into the broader notion of how Tims fate is reliant on the past and
present efforts of the wider community. As three children walk between banks
of rubble cleared from bombed housing, Redgrave continues:
when you joined us we had been fighting for exactly five years wed hated it but
wed kept on at it to save our skins: and also because we had a feeling deep down
and inside us that we were fighting for you for you and all the other babies. [Cut
to weighing of baby] We wanted to make this world a better place where you
could be happy. You didnt know about any of this of course, how could you? But
you were part of the war even before you were born.

As he sleeps in his cot we are introduced to some of those individuals on whom

his security has depended.
Like Tim nothing about the people appearing in the film is fictitious.
They have their real names and were filmed in their actual work and home
environments and, in the case of the fighter pilot, in the hospital. Yet like
Tim, the three central characters who represent the working population on
the domestic front, are not representative of the population as a whole. As in
previous films Jennings selects exceptional individuals and passes them off as
the norm. Their occupational struggles, each fraught with different types of
danger, are associated with the military exploits of the injured fighter pilot by
incorporating them all into the notion of total war:
You see this war was total war. Everyone was in it. It was everywhere. [pithead
mining gear] not only on the battlefields but in the valleys where Goronwy,
the coalminer [combing his hair in front of mirror], carries his own weapons to
his own battlefront [men underground with lamps] in scenery which isnt exactly

Goronwy Jones, like D.D. Evans in The Silent Village, was a leading light in what
is a truly socialistic community running its own local cinema, pithead baths,
ambulance service and rehabilitation centre.22 A dissolve to a field and farmer is
accompanied by the sound of an aircraft. Redgrave continues:


NA INF 6/1917 A Diary for Timothy.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


If you looked across the countryside of England that is beautiful you could
see Allan the Farmer. [Cut to shot of him inspecting a stook of corn]. He
has spent the last 5 years of war reclaiming the land and making it fertile. He
has been fighting against the forces of nature all his life. [Looks up shot of
Lancaster flying overhead cut back] and now, with a mortal enemy on us he
has to fight harder than ever.

Allan Bloom, author of The Farm on the Fen, made his own films to illustrate to
agricultural committees what could be done to reinvigorate abandoned land.
Having read his book Jennings was determined to have him in the film. With
the dissolve to a smoking factory chimney and the sound of a locomotive, the
film cuts to Bill Perry, one of the elite of the high-speed long-distance freight
drivers working for the London Midland and Scottish Railway:
in London Bill looks out of his cabin at his battlefront no longer taking
holidaymakers to the sea [a cut to the front of the engine and a slow left to
right pan that reveals the arm of points man] but taking the miners coal the
farmers crops the fighting mens ammunition to where they have to go.

During another dissolve to trees and the sound of aircraft the audience is told
that Goronwy, Alan and Bill are all fighting in their ways. The aircraft drone
and words provide the introduction to the final character:
But if you looked into the ward of a Hospital, Tim, youd see some of the men
whove been meeting the enemy direct civilians wounded by bombs [camera
begins to track down ward] or soldiers wounded on land, or sailors at sea or
airmen, not as you will see them one day rushing through sky at 500 miles an
hour, but lying broken and still [focuses on airman in bed with upturned face
listening to noise above].

This fighter pilot Peter Roper, who crashed in France and has his leg in plaster
was in fact rescued by the French and passed on to the Allies. Now he must lie
and hear the planes of other pilots going over. As individuals their lives appear
unconnected but as the commentary concludes that as they each face their own
struggles they are bound to each other and united with Tim. All these people,
Tim, were fighting for you. On this assertion the screen fades to black while the
commentary continues although they didnt exactly know it.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


War and the Home Front

Jennings now provides a selective account of military and domestic events over
the months between September and March 1945. This history divides into two
with each period having its own emphasis. The first considers in turn the months
between September and New Year; a time of setbacks on the military and
domestic fronts. The second, from the New Year until March, relates the allied
military breakthrough to changing fortunes at home and begins to emphasise
the post-war future. A third element overlaps and connects these two periods; a
consideration of the role of community and culture in integrating and sustaining
life. The overlapping of sound and image and devices such as radio reports,
music, the thematic element of Tims progress and the climatic conditions, help
integrate and structure these sequences as well as the film as a whole. This audio
and visual collage allows Jennings to evoke notions of domestic and international
time, space and place as well as the past and future. He offers a vision of life
where relentless struggle continues on a multiplicity of fronts both between
warring nations and between humans and nature. Some of these struggles are
complementary while others are antagonistic. Apparent setbacks may promote
opportunities, for example the blitzed landscape of inner London is turned into
allotments and opens up the opportunity for new housing projects.
The last months of 1944 encompass Tims birth, his becoming part of a new
family and then, through his baptism, integration into the wider community.
Meanwhile the British people continue their everyday struggle in the hope that
the war will soon be over. As Tims mother lies in a hospital bed Tim is brought to
her. She cuddles and kisses him. And now, Tim, the commentary begins we will
show you a little of the history of your first days on earth the start of your life
the end of our war in Europe. A key motif is introduced; the contrast between
ongoing military events in Europe and the recognition that the country could
begin to eliminate some of the more obvious aspects of five years of siege. By the
time of his birth and homecoming the coastal frontline is being demilitarised.
His journey home coincides both with a reduction in the blackout, called the
dim-out, and so far the most daring raid of the allied campaign in the West.
With the growing rumble of aircraft on the soundtrack Redgrave intones:
Heres your first adventure home in a car. September the 17th to be precise the
very Sunday that our bombers were out towing the gliders to Arnhem [Cut to air
spotter on roof of building checking the sky as a horse and trap trot past in the

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


street below. The noise grows louder]. This we thought was the final stroke for

As Tim is bathed and put to bed the evening sequence highlights the
simultaneous nature of time, space and place. His father is fighting in the
Middle East while over the radio the news is heard that Operation Market
Garden has begun. The audience glimpses what this moment means for Bill
and Allan. The dim-out has, Redgrave states, made it more convenient and
cheerful all around, unless of course there are flying bombs about. In Bills
home the curtains are drawn and it is through a dissolve to the light of a home
cine projector with Allans voice on the soundtrack that he states:
we spent this evening showing the children an old film of mine [Intercut with
images of film] taken when we were clearing the farm at the beginning of the
war [three generations watch], five years back. Had to get the engineers to
blow the old tree trunks out of the ground.

The explosion, which enabled the land to become productive, is now

contrasted with the arrival of a V1 rocket over London. The air raid siren
sounds and as the blackout curtain is drawn Redgrave comments I hope you
will never have to hear that sound Tim. Watched by their pet dog, Bill and his
wife listen as the spluttering engine of the V1 dies and they dive beneath the
table. There is an explosion in the sky as they cover their heads. Immediately
Jennings returns to Allan and his film: One thing if it hadnt been for the
war, Allan says, I dont suppose we should have done it.23 The image fades
and orchestration breaks onto the soundtrack. Out of the darkness emerges
a shot and sound of a speeding train. Both Bill and Allan, combining old
traditional knowledge with new methods, continue their work while Peter
Roper gets on with his job of getting better to go on fighting. As Tim
lies in his pram thoughts that the war will soon be over (represented by a
demobilisation calendar and Tims mother discussing the possible date of her
husbands return) are dashed by the failure of Operation Market Garden. It
is now late September. A news headline and the radio relay into the homes of
Goronwyn, Bill, Tim and Allan a news report of the last of the few.
There is a direct connection with Jennings earlier film Spring Offensive made during
the phoney war. See Chapter 7. After five years Hennessey notes: By the end of the war
Britain was producing 80 per cent of its own food (seventy years of free trade had pushed
that down to 30 per cent by 1914) and the countrys agricultures had entered into a direct
and close relationship with the state. Hennessy, P. (1993). Never Again Britain 19451951,
Vintage. p. 112.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


As Allan listens to the radio Beethovens Appassionata piano sonata begins softly
on the soundtrack. It is being played by Myra Hess as part of a reconstruction
of the first musical programme presented in the National Gallery five years
previously. An advertisement reveals it is 5 October. A shot tracks along a row
of the audience and settles on a young woman who will reappear later in the
film. Maxteds words are reiterated over the music. For the last three days they
had had no water, very little but small arms ammunition and rations cut to one
sixth. Luckily or unluckily it rained and they caught the water in their capes and
drank that. Rain on the home front is now deftly interleaved with the crisis in
the military campaign and a commentary on the value and meaning of culture.
Images of rain and water are cut to the music, and the film shot finally rests on the
shattered roofs of terraced houses open to rainy skies. The commentary begins as
roofs are repaired: Middle of October now and the war certainly wont be over
by Christmas and the weather doesnt suit us. And one third of all our houses
have been damaged by enemy action. Again Jennings raises a question about the
nature of the German national character. Redgrave asks:
Did you like that music the lady was playing? Some of us think it is the greatest
music in the world. [dissolve back to the hands of Hess] Yet it is German music and
were fighting the Germans. Theres something youll have to think over later on.

A cut to the sound of rain over music which accompanies a man leading a horse
across rain soaked tarmac, is overlaid by Redgraves words:
Rain too much rain [Cut to hewer with pick at coal face music and sound of him
cutting coal] Its even wet under the earth. [Cut to miner moving coal] Look at
the place Goronwy has to cut coal [Cut to miner with pneumatic drill. close up
of drill the noise overwhelms the music. Cut to Tim in cot] and you all warm and
sleepy in your cot by the fire.

While Goronwy works Tim sleeps and his mother writes Christmas cards. The
power of Christian belief in sustaining family and communal life is seen in the
writing of letters and sending of parcels to the men overseas, and the mythic
quality of water, which plays its part in Timothys baptism, is set besides shots
of the stormy weather of autumn and how it makes the work, of both Bill and
particularly Allan, harder: Rain Rain through all October. Rain and your
baptism. A choral baptism not many babies run to that. Hm youre one of the
lucky ones. [The choirs singing In token that thou shall not fear fades out.] Lets

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


hope the luck lasts. The idea of luck is important; the good luck of Peter Roper
who is recuperating and learning to walk with the aid of crutches and the bad
luck of Goronwy who is carried from the pit shaft on a stretcher. The severity
of Goronwys injuries demands hospital treatment and causes his family great
anxiety. The commentary now raises the question of post-war reforms within
the mining industry. Its pretty shocking, isnt it, that this sort of thing should
still happen everyday though weve been cutting coal for 500 years. Something
else for you to think over.
The ideas of being below the earth and burial now provide the thread for the
short sequence which illustrates the pertinence of culture to protect and help
show-off those English qualities which have helped to sustain life throughout
the war. Jennings returns to the dangerous job of disposing of old mines on the
beaches: Now its November and theres still danger on the beaches. The eruption
of sand and smoke from an explosion dissolves into the trees and the smoke of
a bonfire in a London Park. Over a dissolve Redgrave states: And suppose you
went up to London London in November is a nice quiet place. The sound of a
barrel organ appropriately playing Keep the Home Fires Burning, as in The First
Days, can be heard in the background. Its sound is overlaid with shots of men
digging allotments in sight of St Pauls. An establishing shot of The Theatre Royal
Haymarket, with its production of Hamlet, underwrites the following portentous
line of the commentary: But youd find things are chancey here too and the bad
so mixed with the good youd never know whats coming. Through the words of
Shakespeare, Jennings connects the digging of allotments, the birth of Timothy
and foreign perceptions of the quirky nature of the English character with the
unexpected and chance. Over the image of the theatre come the words: last king
Hamlet overcame Fortinbras. Hamlet quizzes the gravedigger about the day his
father overcame his enemy. A connection to Tim is made when the gravedigger
replies to ironic laughter that it was the very day young Hamlet was born; he
that is mad and sent to England. Jennings now cuts to an apparently unrelated
scene. In a canteen a Civil Defence (CD) Volunteer, who appears to have also been
laughing, is posing a question to his friends about the trajectory and flight time of
one of those gadgets, a V2 rocket. He asks You know?. Then Hamlet in response
to the question from the gravedigger about the skull he now holds in his hands
provides the answer, Nay I know not. The surprise revelation that the skull is
the old jester Yorick leads into the famous speech Alas poor Yorick. A return
to the canteen catches the line from the CD Volunteer which appears to extend
the sentence to had to walk all the way home. At that moment there is another

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


surprise, the silent arrival of a V2 rocket is registered with an explosion causing

the CD Volunteer to spill his tea and wipe his mouth.24 Hamlet continues with
here hung those lips that I have kissed until his final words, make her laugh
at that, are given a bitter ironic twist with a cut to the urgent response of the
Civil Defence team who are searching the rubble for survivors. Someone may
be buried alive. The CD man from the canteen calls for quiet which is echoed
by other voices in the vicinity. Silence follows as they listen until he shouts again
OK carry on. This theme of burial continues with a cut to a sign and the sound
of the London Underground. Forced back into the shelters Londoners are again
sleeping on bunks along the platforms; they too are buried underground in this
case for survival. A travelling shot along the bunks comes to rest on the impassive
face of an elderly woman staring blankly ahead as a girl porter announces with
finality, Last Barnet train. The screen fades to black.
Shots of the activities surrounding Christmas and New Year conclude the first
part of the film by suggesting that culture acts as a social adhesive. The traditional
public bar with popular swing music and dance, choral and carol singing are
set against recent changes in the domestic and military situation. The sequence
begins with Tim asleep in his pram and the sound of wind. Redgrave compares
Tims physical progress to the health of the nation. So it goes on. Now weve all
reached December and whats your weight now? Changes are occurring on the
domestic front as the system of civil defence is wound down. Jennings once more
returns to the clearing of the beaches. The commentary states that we feel safe
from invasion at least and there is a stand down parade of home guard. Shots of
an official parade are followed by middle-aged demobilised men celebrating in a
traditional cosy bar. Through a cut to a radio playing light music, the film moves
to the hospital and the continued physical rehabilitation of Peter Roper and his
leg. The emphasis shifts to thoughts about Christmas with preparations both in
Tims church and mess halls. What this ideologically charged moment, i.e. the
day all children should be happy on, ought to mean for families and communities
is obviously disrupted by the demands and consequences of war. The arrival and

Ken Cameron provides an illuminating account of how the sound was created. The
V-2 gave no warning of arrival, and short of leaving film running through a recorder twenty
four hours a day there was no hope of getting a genuine track the decision to fake was
taken. We found that an elaborate combination of a revolver shot, a seventeen-pounder gun
exploding (cut backwards), a squib exploding in a very reverberant carpenters shop, and
several peals of thunder mixed up together, gave quite a convincing noise. Cameron, K.
(1947). Sound and the Documentary Film, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd. p. 38.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


later reading of the contents of a letter from Tims father provides the central
part of the sequence. The human cost of war and its impact on Tims future is
recognised. The surprise arrival of the letter, a present in itself, is followed by
shots of men and women in service uniform looking in shop windows at clothes
and hats. They are overlaid by the sound of a carol, which is accompanied by an
accordion performed by a group of women in a festively decorated Nissen hut.
As people prepare for the festivities military progress is again halted; this
time by a surprise German counter-offensive through the Ardennes. Explosions
on the soundtrack coincide with a visual cut to a darkened silhouette of a statue
of Wellington. The darkness reflects the same poor visibility of 16 December,
which provided German cover for what would be called the Battle of the Bulge.
The battle turned into the single biggest and bloodiest engagement of the war
for American ground forces. This massive German attack drove deep into Allied
territory and would not be exhausted until the middle of January. With the
sound of explosions, a cloud-laden sky and a foggy Thames, the BBC news of
18 December recounts the gravity of the situation. A dissolve to a newspaper
headline proclaiming American Line Holed reinforces the point. A darkened
misty towpath under a bridge, the dark branches of tree and foggy river provide
accompaniment to a poetic summation of the situation:
In those days before Xmas the news was bad but the weather was foul death and
darkness, death and fog, death across those few miles of water for our own people
and for others, for enslaved and broken people, the noise of battle getting louder,
and death came by telegram to many of us on Xmas Eve.25

The struggle continues at home. Images of a railway line flashing by, the smoke
and sound of a rushing train and the face of Bill presented peering through
fog are followed by the line until out of the fog dawned loveliness, whiteness,
Christmas Day. The coldest winter in 50 years had turned the landscape into a
brilliant ice-encrusted wonderland. The piercing sound of a childs voice singing
O Come, All Ye Faithful matches the close-up shot of the piercing cold frosted
river bank.26 The camera, now accompanied by a choir, begins a slow pan upwards
to reveal the bank opposite and to the chorus of O come let us adore him a
beautiful and dramatic shot of heavily frosted trees on the skyline is presented. It
is a glorious day suffused with sadness.
Basil Wright notes that One of the most admired phrases in the narration and
death came by telegram to many of us on Christmas Eve was, with its surrounding
paragraph, written by myself to fill a last minute gap left by the not-always-too-industrious
Forster. Wright, B. (1974). The Long View, Secker and Warburg. Footnote p. 202.
The same recording was used in the final part of Christmas under Fire (1941)

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Returning to an earlier line in the commentary, we all ought to be at home,

and some of us arent and never will be, Allan and his family salute absent
friends. The toast is repeated in a bar after a reference by Auxiliary Fireman John
Barker to an old friend now disappeared.27 He is followed by a shot of Bill sitting
with his wife who delivers, as Hutt describes it, a Wink; not the conventional,
sly eyelid-flicker but an all embracing, subtle and profound gesture; a Wink that
means more the more you think about it.28 Finally Tims family gathered in front
of the hearth repeat the toast with the added and Tim. The chorus again emerges
on the soundtrack as the film cuts to a close-up of Tims face. The letter he has
received, which is pinned to the Christmas tree, is read out by the voice of his
absent father. It expresses the sorrow of being parted and his desire to be home.
As his words conclude a cry from Timothy, as if a response to the sentiments of
the letter, is heard. Organ music fills the soundtrack and children along with
others take advantage of the icy conditions to enjoy themselves while younger
ones play with their presents in front of the fire. The end of the year approaches
and as the church music dies there is a cut to the secular celebrations of New Year
with the clink of full beer glasses. In an RAF mess hall a piano begins a vamp.
A young woman is playing the opening bars of a swing number and soon she is
obscured by the energetic movement of the dancers. The camera pans across the
floor to pick up the careful progress of Peter Roper who is walking with the aid
of two walking sticks. With a dissolve to Big Ben sounding midnight, Peter is
now seated and putting down his stick, to then stand at the arrival of New Year
and sing Auld Lang Syne. The screen fades to darkness.
A New Year: January to March
Redgrave sets the scene for the rest of the narrative, over the strains of the song
and darkness, by announcing: And thats the end of 1944 and youre 4 months
old, Tim, and heres the New Year. Whats going to happen in 1945 and in the
years to follow when were not here and you are? This sequence falls into three
sections. First is the Russian breakthrough on the Eastern Front and associated
domestic developments. The second carries on this theme but with emphasis on
the gathering momentum of the Allied offensive. The third turns towards what
the future may hold. This time, although chronological, the passing of time is
more blurred and events are not so clearly anchored in their exact moment. Over
Redgraves opening remarks an image of a power station appears followed by Bill
arriving at work in the shunting yard and checking the timetable of his train. A

Barker played Vallance in Fires Were Started.

Pitman, G.A.H. (1945). A Saga of Victory and then what? Our Time: 989.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


cut to the shunting yard is followed by another scene of winter cold as a woman
walks by a frost-covered fence towards the camera. During that awful autumn
and winter Tim, Redgrave says, we had been in the dark almost as much as you.
The statement carries both in domestic and international terms a metaphorical
and literal meaning.
At a cut to a shot of a wintry open air market Redgrave continues: but
about the middle of January we began to see something was coming, perhaps
something tremendous. Beneath his statement comes the sound of a BBC
report. The newsreader Joseph Macleod is announcing the opening of a major
Russian offensive in southern Poland. At this point the commentary stops. The
following breakthrough sequence is very similar to the style of Listen to Britain.
It creates, in its combination of images, music and news reports, an impression
of a war now being won on both the domestic and international front. The
military breakthrough in the East is equated with the recuperation of Goronwy,
Peter and then the work of Allan. Linked to these are images of the offensive
against a domestic housing and fuel crisis. Both the rockets and mini-Blitz had
caused significant damage to an already depleted housing stock which forced the
Government to prioritise renewal:
The armed forces released men to help. Forty-five thousand builders were drafted
in from the provinces Together, a hundred and thirty thousand men employed
in repair work on London by January 1945. By the end of March, nearly eight
hundred thousand houses had been repaired after a fashion, but many bombed
out families were living in huts erected with the help of American troops and
former Italian prisoners of war.29

The situation was made worse by a severe fuel crisis caused by a decline in
coal output, poor distribution and rising domestic demand as temperatures
plummeted. To protect fuel and power supplies for war industries, the
Government placed heavy restrictions on domestic fuel, lowered gas pressure,
introduced electricity cuts and appealed for people to minimise consumption.
London was particularly affected. Special coal depots were opened and people
queued to take home meagre supplies by whatever means they could find. As
Macleod details developments, the film cuts to the young women previously
seen attending the concert by Hess. She is carefully shading a map of a new
housing estate. In a hospital ward Goronwy is receiving massage treatment for
his arm. Inserted between shots of his treatment is a pan across the frozen water
At the peak of the V1 raids more than 20,000 houses a day were being damaged.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 64950.


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

of a Fenland dyke and snowy field. It reveals Allan breaking the frozen soil with
a spade and is followed by farm workers labouring in the fields. In celebration
Macleod reports: Moscow radio broadcast salvoes of salute following
them with martial music, the Polish National anthem and Chopins Polonaise
Militaire which bursts on to the soundtrack. After shots of an ice-covered tree
and a bleak and frozen central London, Frank Phillips reports the capture of
Warsaw (17 January) by the Russian and Polish military. It is accompanied,
after a shot of a sign announcing the sale of coal, by a sequence showing women
queuing at an inner London coal depot for supplies. Even this miserable task is
enlivened by a young girls smiling face and the orderliness of the operation.
Phillips concludes his report on a musical note. Polish and Soviet anthems
take over from Chopins Polonaise. The growing momentum of the Allied
offensive through February is neatly tied to the coal issue by cutting to a
speeding express train as Bill pulls the throttle down. The music continues
over images of Goronwy who has now moved on to undertaking exercises
to strengthen his arm. As a coal lorry leaves a depot with a speeding train in
the distance, another news report by Phillips informs that the Russians have
advanced 20 miles inside Germany across the Silesian border on a 55-mile
front. We now turn to Peter Roper who is engaged in formal exercises to
strengthen his leg. A mixture of music, commands and news report is layered
on the soundtrack in accompaniment. There is a shot of the speeding train
before the film returns to Ropers instructor who urges him on to complete
his exercises. The last report by Stuart Hibbard, accompanied by the Battle
Hymn of the Republic, breaks in and announces that United States fighter
pilots from England today saw the Germans defending their Oder front
against the advancing Red Army. Details of the American air force mass
bombing of Berlin are given. These words are juxtaposed with shots of the
construction, by a uniformed workforce, of emergency prefabricated houses
for homeless families. A steam train passes in the background. Hibbard
concludes, Sweeping over the city in two waves, they dropped about two
thousand five hundred tons of high explosives and incendiaries. The sentence
perhaps intentionally sits rather uneasily with the scene of a vulnerable Tim
and other babies being weighed at the health clinic.
The Post-War World
At this point the commentary returns to move the narrative forward into the
sequence prior to the coda. Redgrave states: Now that the dangers over for us,
V1, V2, and the rest of it now that the enemy in Europes breaking, the nature
of the struggle facing the British people about how to rebuild life and avoid the

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


mistakes made after the last war, is coming to the fore. The films message now
concentrates on the moment and the dangers inherent within it as the political
battles begin. With the return to the building of prefabricated houses, that rather
mysterious statement of the introduction begins to be clarified:
life will become more dangerous than before oddly enough more dangerous
because now we have the power to choose and the right to criticise and even to
grumble. Were free men, we have to decide for ourselves [cut to Tims face] and
part of your bother Tim will be learning to grow up free.

On the international stage the shape of that future had already begun to emerge
and appeared promising. As Soviet armies closed in on Berlin, Stalin, Churchill
and Roosevelt met in early February to decide the political contours of the postwar European settlement. Macleod reports: Decisions were agreed on final
victory, the occupation and control of Germany and a world organisation for
keeping the peace. Any threat of a future resurgent Germany was to be curtailed.
Unlike after the last war, the country would be politically dismembered and
controlled by the victors. Along with this a post-war successor to the League of
Nations was to be created to facilitate international co-operation and peace.30
As the international landscape was to be reshaped Jennings turns to hopes of
co-operation within British domestic politics through the thoughts of Goronwy
rather than the grumbling youth Forster had previously noted. A youth is
shown walking on the hills above his village, but it is Goronwys voice which
says: That afternoon I was sitting thinking about the past the last war the
unemployed broken homes scattered families and then I thought, has
all this really got to happen again? This query is carried through with a cut to a
childrens choir singing the Soviet Youth Song Hymn of the Soviet Republic in
front of a backcloth of the Hammer and Sickle with a banner above proclaiming
Greetings to the Red Army and the Glorious Fighting Forces of the United
Nations. Over the song Allan points with his stick as if to the future. Goronwy
now at home forcefully lays out his argument. By describing previous conditions
within the mining industry and what the miners had created through their own
efforts, their ambulance and nursing service, hospitals, canteens and pithead
baths, he argues if that was possible then Surely nothing at all will stop us
after this war. As if in reply there is a cut to Peter Roper in conversation with a
female companion. His response to her question about his future post-war plans,
expresses the danger of letting this moment slip: No I think beachcombing is
On the 25 April 1945 the United Nations conference on International Organisation
convened in San Francisco to draft the Charter of the United Nations. Hence the reference
in the official records to the hope of San Francisco.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


more in my line Beachcombing? [she looks puzzled] Yes out in the Pacific
where I can sit in the sun and do absolutely nothing. The temptation to relax
after these arduous times is great and here the swing music cuts in and they rise to
dance as if to escape immediate reality before his return to the war in Europe.
The Coda
Peter Roper was back in action for the final assault on Germany at the Battle of the
Rhine, the biggest land and air operation since D-Day, which began on 23 March.
The commentary makes clear, even as these questions arise, that the war in all its
forms still had to be fought:
[Cut to silhouette of pilot walking towards his fighter] So Peter goes back to
his plane [Cut to shot of miners walking to pit head] and Goronwy goes back
to his mine. Back to everyday life [Cut to Bill looking out drivers cab] and
everyday danger [Cut to Peter in cockpit taking off ] this doesnt look like

Jennings represents the ferocity of this final assault with shots of Allied bombing.
In an echo of that previous news reference about the scale of the mass air assault,
there is a cut to a crying Timothy about to be fed. A poignant motif played on
a solo violin occurs before the return to the sound of more bombs falling from
aircraft. Trees burst into flames and through a dissolve crowds are seen celebrating
Victory in Europe on 8 May.
By the time of the films completion the political coalition under Churchill,
which had led the country through the war, had been replaced by a caretaker
government pending a General Election on 15 June. In those last months of
production the political parties had already begun their campaigns. Now the
final address to Tim spells the immediate questions that have to be addressed by
the audience: Well dear Tim thats whats been happening around you in your
first six months [cut to celebration bonfire] and you see it is only chance that you
are safe and sound [dissolve through fire onto Tim lying awake in crib]:31


It appears that the film existed in two slightly different versions. The Victory in
Europe or VE version and the Baby version. The VE version was regarded as the official
print which contains the shots of the victory celebrations at the end of the war. This is the
version shown today. In the alternative Baby Version the celebration shots were replaced
by an image of Timothys face superimposed on the flames of war. There is no record why
the other version was made or which of the versions Jennings preferred. NA INF 6/1917 A
Diary for Timothy.

The Beginning of a New Era: August 1944May 1945


Up to now weve done the talking but before long youll sit up and take notice.
What are you going to say about it? [orchestration] And what are you going to
do? You heard what Goronwy was thinking: unemployment after the war and
then another war, and then more unemployment. Will it be like that again? [Cut
to a photograph of Tims father on the wall].

While giving the impression that it was in a better position than the Conservatives
to negotiate with the Soviet Union in the post-war world this final message catches
the spirit of the Labour Party election manifesto Let Us Face the Future. It calls
for decisive action by the state to ensure full employment, the nationalisation
of several key industries, an urgent housing programme, the creation of a new
national health service and, in a nod to Beveridge, social provision against rainy
Are you going to have greed for money or power [Cut back to Tim] ousting
decency from the world because they have in the past? Or are you going to
make the world a different place you and the other babies? [Crescendo in
orchestration followed by the solo violin as Tim lies in cot. Fade to black as violin

Critical Reception
In his pre-release review in December Alan Hutt commended the film as an
impressive addition to the top-scorers of the Crown Film Unit but complained
of the unconscionable delay already imposed on its release. Possibly because of
the political tone it looks as if somebody in the upper woodwork wanted to
turn it into a period piece.33 The film was not released until April 1946 but, as
Eric Rhodes has remarked, from a historians viewpoint A Diary for Timothy is
a wonderful illustration of why Britain went Labour in 1945.34
A Diary for Timothy has the capacity to make a powerful impression but
after a single viewing this is hard to appreciate because of its dense and complex
narrative, subtle associations and juxtapositions which operate simultaneously
on a number of levels. It is only by returning repeatedly that the underlying
themes that go to make up the whole can be disentangled. This may help explain
why at the time critics were often irritated or bemused by the film, finding it too
Kynaston, D. (2007). Austerity Britain 194551, Bloomsbury. p. 21.
Pitman, G.A.H. (1945). A Saga of Victory and then what? Our Time: 989.
Rhode, E. (1966). Humphrey Jennings. Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema,
Chilton Books. pp. 6781. p. 79.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


long and too bitty,35 sometimes laboured36 or even to be at a sparring distance

from, rather than at close quarters with its theme [and] a little out of date.37 The
tenor of such reviews has persisted with claims that the film points towards a
Jennings robbed of inspiration by the changing times and uncertainty about the
future. It is implied that A Diary for Timothy is itself a portent of the decline in
the quality of his post-war films.38
No evidence has been supplied to support these contentions or that he was
unhappy or disillusioned with his situation when making the film.39 In fact it
would seem to have been the opposite. He was once more in charge and able
to proceed as he wished. To the exclusion of other elements, academic analysis
has tended to focus on the military events and the weariness implied by the
film, and this has led critics to conclude that the film is pervaded by gloom and
melancholy.40 Not enough attention has been given to how Forsters commentary
relates to the visual material or the equally important fact of the correlation drawn
between domestic issues and international military and political events through
the simultaneous time frame. Consequently the positive and progressive vision
Jennings was putting forward has not been adequately addressed. This, combined
with a lack of appreciation of the thematic links within and across sequences,
raises questions about the validity of previous analyses.

Anon. (25 November 1945). A Diary for Timothy. Sunday Express.

Anon. (30 November 1945). A Diary for Timothy. Spectator.
Anon. (24 January 1945). A Diary for Timothy. The Times.
Rhode, E. (1966). Humphrey Jennings. Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema,
Chilton Books. pp. 6781. Hillier, J. (1972). Humphrey Jennings, in Hillier, J. and Lovell, A.,
eds, Studies in Documentary, Viking Press. pp. 1089. Armes, R. (1978). A Critical History
of British Cinema, Oxford University Press. pp. 1567. Britton, A. (1989). Their Finest
Hour: Humphrey Jennings and the Imperial Myth of World War II. CineAction! (Autumn):
14558. Thompson, D. (1993). A Sight for Sore Eyes. Film Comment (MarchApril): 549.
Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. p. 302.
Beattie too rejects a pessimistic interpretation of the film. Beattie, K. (2010).
Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press. pp. 1067.
Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 76.

Chapter 15

The Last of Crown:

May 1945December 1946

AugustDecember 1945: Reconstruction in Germany

With the unconditional surrender of German military forces in May 1945, the
Allies now had in their control a state dismembered into Allied zones and a broken
society riven with the consequences of Nazi rule. At the Potsdam Conference
in July and early August the Allies reaffirmed the relevant zones of occupation
agreed at Yalta and set out their vision for post-war Germany. This included
the key strategic aims of demilitarisation, denazification, democratisation,
decentralisation and de-cartelisation. The programme was designed to begin
the rehabilitation of the German people and neutralise any opportunity for
Germany, as a nation, to rise once more as a threat to European stability and
peace. With a British military government established under the direction of
General Montgomery in the North-West zone, Basil Wright went to Germany
to examine what sort of a film should be made about that countrys occupation.
He then sent out Rex Warner, the poet and novelist, to prepare a scheme
for a film to which Jennings was assigned immediately after the completion
of A Diary for Timothy. Jennings and Fred Gamage, his cameraman, arrived
at the end of August. They spent September and most of October shooting
material accompanied by their conducting officer, Lieutenant Martin Wilson,
an ex-documentary film maker working for the Army Film Unit. For this job
Jennings stated he was the ideal assistant director. The news reports, images of
aerial bombing and his own experiences of the Blitz in London and the filming
of Coventry did nothing to prepare him for the scale of the devastation caused
in those last months of total war. While rural areas were often untouched, the

Hodgkinson, A. and Sheratsky, Rodney (1982). Humphrey Jennings More Than a
Maker of Films, Hanover. p. 77.

Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 102.

Well I have been quite overwhelmed by Germany in the last few days and cant really
say anything sensible yet it is quite unlike anything one has been told or thought. Letter 1
September 1945 reprinted in ibid. p. 100. Jennings italics.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


urban and industrial heartlands through which he travelled had been literally
pulverised with the population defeated, dislocated and suffering from social
and psychological trauma:
I am still unable to give any sort of reliable picture of Germany even of the bits
which we have seen for the moment the contradictions are too great The
film material is just on every street corner and every station platform (returning
coal-trucks full of passengers returning Wehrmacht, ex-evacuees, Displaced
persons, and people who just live on the stations as they did in the London tubes
and move from place to place when the Police get tough).

Making sense of what he encountered and the stories he heard was extremely
difficult for Jennings. Jackson concludes that: The more [ Jennings] saw of the
defeated enemy, the less respect he felt it is at times quite shocking to see how
his new-found scorn for the Germans curdled into disgust. He goes on, There
is nothing else in Jenningss writings even remotely like this; and the film that
resulted from his trip was a good deal more balanced.
Among the British politicians, who were aware of what had to be done,
there was little sympathy for the plight of the German people. Five years of
war had eroded the initial distinction made between the Nazi regime and the
general population. Jennings had witnessed the destruction, death and fear
caused by German bombs. The horrifying revelations of the extermination and
concentration camps confirmed the collective guilt of the German nation.
Thoughtful individuals such as John Prebble could find no compassion: I have
seen Germany being destroyed. I have seen confusion, despair, and suffering
on the faces of Germans, and I could feel no sorrow because I saw such things
first in London tube shelters, in France, Belgium and Holland. Even more

Undated Letter reprinted in ibid. pp. 1012.

Jackson, K. (2004). Humphrey Jennings, Picador. pp. 30910. See letter 30 September
1945 reprinted in ibid. pp. 1034.

Morgan, K.O. (1985). Labour in Power: 19451951, Oxford University Press.
pp. 2557.

On five occasions between May 1942 and April 1945, Mass Observation, asked a
cross-section of the public what kind of settlement should be imposed on Germany. The
commonest answer was preventative but revengeful always came close behind and once
was in front. Those who wanted something constructive formed a much smaller fraction
and in April 1945, just after the Belsen camp had been uncovered, fell to 7%. Balcon, M.
(1985). In Retrospect: Britains Policy of Re-Education, in Pronay, N. and Wilson, K., eds,
The Political Re-Education of Germany & Her Allies, Croom Helm. p. 140.

Prebble, J. (1945). Letter from Germany, 1945. Our Time April: 1011.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


incomprehensible was what appeared to be a lack of shame or guilt amongst

Germans for what had been done in their name:
the civilians watch us apathetically with the sheepishness of confused, beaten
people. No anger, no resentment showing, just confusion. Speak to them they
are polite, embarrassingly too polite. Speak to them more closely and they will tell
you that they all were never really Nazis, their fathers were Communists. We are
sick of such talk.

Jennings letters and the completed film reflect what he was feeling at this time.
Jackson is disturbed by the racist connotations in his description of the German
people as purely a biological problem. The language of racial health and racial
purity were not uncommon. Jennings use of the term fits with the language
of general debate amongst intellectuals across European societies from the late
nineteenth century onwards, in which a correlation between race and society was
often used as marker to the supposed health and character of different peoples
and nations.10 His words are also underpinned by another narrative; the idea of
the German Problem. Since the emergence of the German Empire in 1871 it was
felt that the Germany that was, as Jennings called it, the culturally liberal and
peaceful society of the south and west, had become dominated by reactionary
and militaristic Prussia in the north and east.11 The outbreak of the First World
War seemed to justify these fears. The war deepened anti-German sentiments in
Britain and even coloured Jennings own education.12 German failure to accept
responsibility for the First World War, the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rise

For example A fortnight before the end of the war, the Sunday Express wrote the
Germans are moral lepers and should be treated as such until we are sure that the race has
been purged and redeemed, quoted in Balcon, M. (1985). In Retrospect: Britains Policy of
Re-Education, in Pronay, N. and Wilson, K., eds, The Political Re-Education of Germany &
Her Allies, Croom Helm. p. 140.
Strachan, H. (2001). The First World War: To Arms, Oxford University Press. Chs 1
and 2. Clark, C. (2007). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 16001947, Penguin.
pp. 6704. For popular fiction see Clarke, I.F., ed. (1995). The Tale of the Next Great War
18711914: Fictions of Future Warfare and of Battles Still-to-come, Syracuse University Press.
W.H.D. Rouse, headmaster at Perse School, contributed to the pre-war German
invasion literature with the satirical pamphlet The Sleepers. In 1918 he wrote I dislike
exceedingly associating my name with German vileness, as I should in touching a German
hand the Germans are false, corrupt, and heartless. Stray, C. (1992). The Living Word:
W.H.D. Rouse and the Crisis of Classics in Edwardian England, Bristol Classical Press.
pp. 489. Jennings English teacher Caldwell Cook had fought for two years on the Western
Front before returning to the school a changed man. At university the English Tripos had


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

to power of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s and then another European war,
seemed to imply something fundamentally unhealthy about German society.
Even now, beaten by the same adversaries as before and suffering even greater
consequences he noted: They certainly dont behave guilty or beaten. They have
their old fatalism to fall back on.13
The language of racial health permeates his letters from Germany and he
depicts the Germans as a people who have lost a healthy psychological and social
balance. They are a people and a nation that have been literally defeated; all that
was vital and creative destroyed by the Nazis:
Have I think been getting nearer the problem of the German character and
nation and a grey, dust swept character it is: seeing, watching, working with the
Germans en masse terrified, rabbit-eyed, over-willing, too friendly, without an
inch of what we call character among a thousand almost every attribute that we
strive to make grow, cultivate, has been bred or burnt out of them, exiled, thrown
into gas chambers, frightened, until you have a nation of near zombies with all the
parts of the human beings but really no soul no oneness of personality to hold
the parts together and shine out of the eyes. The eyes indeed are the worst the most
tell-tale part no shine, often no focus the mouth drawn down with overwork
and overdetermination to do what? Terrified of the Russians cringing to us.14

These are sentiments which can be explained by a lack of sympathy for and an
ignorance of the retribution visited on German civilians by Russian soldiers.
His travels through the occupied territory convinced him that it would be
dangerous to turn away: we cannot, he insisted, must not leave them to stew
in their own juice.15 A key strategy of British policy relied on the civilising
power of education. The aim was: to go for the mind to eradicate the
ideas and the ideals on which the authoritarian and militaristic political
system of Germany had been based and to substitute for them the ethical,
philosophical and political ideas of Britain and her transatlantic descendents.16
These were a mixture of conservative, liberal and Christian principles which
would be inculcated through a variety of revised institutional structures
been completely reorganised to remove the German influence of philology. Also during his
university period came an outpouring of literature and films about the war. See Ch. 2
Undated letter reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings Film
Reader, Carcenet. p. 102.
Letter 30 September 1945 reprinted in ibid. p. 103.
Undated letter reprinted in ibid., p. 102.
Pronay, N. and Wilson, K., eds (1985). The Political Re-Education of Germany & Her
Allies, Croom Helm. p. 1.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


themselves infused with appropriate notions of conduct and belief.17 As

Jennings noted soon after his arrival: I can say already that our chaps The
Army on the Rhine as they are now called are doing miraculous work in
running the country and specially in giving the Germans an example of how
to behave.18
A Defeated People
The aim of the film was to justify and explain to the domestic public why
British forces should continue to be stationed in Germany with responsibility
for nearly 20 million people, many of whom faced a lack of food, shelter and
clean water, rather than leaving them to their own fate.19 Unlike his earlier
films the interpretation of images, edited by Jocelyn Jackson, relies heavily
on Jennings commentary delivered by the stern voice of William Hartnell.
The special musical score provided by Guy Warrack, as well as other special
effects and voices, were added in the studio.20 The tone is at once firm and
thoughtful but steers clear of any overt sympathy for the German people.
After an introductory passage, which reveals the extent of social and
economic collapse, the central part of the film, which consists of a number
of discrete sequences, illustrate how the Military Government is setting
about resolving its immense task. Jennings attempts to educate the British
people about the need for intervention by depicting the extremity of the
conditions the Germans face and the strategies, organisation and efficiency
of the Military Government in tackling a series of complex issues. The plan
was to lay the foundations for a new democracy, itself built on a purged and
reformed society. The film concludes by reinforcing the message that the
British presence is necessary and this investment in time and resources will
have long-term dividends.


Ibid. p. 8.
Letter 1 September 1945 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey
Jennings Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 100.
Morgan, K.O. (1985). Labour in Power: 19451951, Oxford University Press.
p. 256.
Ken Cameron regarded Warracks score as a superb job of composition with
magnificent orchestration and one of the most interesting and effective for any documentary
film. Cameron, K. (1947). Sound and the Documentary Film, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd.
p. 66.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


Setting the Argument

As background to the opening titles, which are accompanied by the violent
turmoil of Warracks music, is a map of the newly partitioned Germany. As
the introductory titles and music continue voices are heard expressing popular
domestic opinion that quickly synthesise the rationale for the films arguments:
Whats it like in Germany? Must be terrible. Well they asked for it they got
it. Yes, but you cant let them starve. Dont know about that Ive got a son
out there. As far as I can see it would be a good thing if some of them did die.
Jennings immediately introduces the scale of the destruction and social disorder
facing the country with images of destroyed communications infrastructure and
message boards asking about the displaced and lost while refugees mill around.
This is backed by the commentary, which explains how Germany as a functioning
state and society had ceased to exist. At the finish life in Germany just ran down,
like a clock. Place and time meant nothing.21 The mechanistic imagery is now
joined by organic metaphors and themes. The people are lost and lie looking
without seeing [this is accompanied by a shot of a hollowed eyed child] like
the eyes of a dead rabbit. But detected beneath this chaos already the life force
[is] beginning to stir again. Images of a barrel organ and refugees on the move
accompany the commentary which outlines the profound implications if an
unchecked Germany is allowed to re-emerge. The massive destructive capacity
of advanced military technology had recently culminated in the dropping of the
atomic bomb on Japan. Therefore it is in our own self-interest that we maintain a
presence in the country: Today our powers of destruction are terrifying but the
will to live is still stronger. Thats why we cant wash our hands of the Germans.
Because we cant afford to let that new life flow in any direction it wants. Shots
of the Military Government in action (personalised here as your sons and
daughters) show the need to prod the Germans into putting their house in
order because:
We have an interest in Germany that is purely selfish we cannot live next to a
disease ridden neighbour, and we must prevent not only starvation and epidemics
but also diseases of the mind new brands of Fascism from springing up. What
is more we have to persuade the Germans to do it themselves.

Images of life amongst the destruction follow. Already present are the potential
seeds of an untutored life force which stirs below the chaotic surface. Hartnell
All references are taken from the Commentary notes. NA INF 6/374 A Defeated
People (British occupied zone of Germany).

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


continues: Yes all looks lifeless, but beneath the rubble there are people living
living in cellars. The smoke from cooking stoves drifts up from the ruins to
the open third storey where people are living too. Many in the big towns living
without light coal water soap in the stench of corpses and sewerage
but still with the will to live. At this the screen fades to darkness.
The Military Government in Action
The basis for the films central message is now set. Jennings explains how, from
the administrative centres to the men and women in the field, different sections
of the Military Government are bringing order to chaos. A series of short
sequences follows which address the key strategic aims agreed at Yalta: economic
reconstruction, the control of population movement, the need for law and order
and investment in health and education. Each aspect is separated by a darkened
screen. The underlying tone is one of urgency to prevent further economic and
social collapse, starvation, disease and the re-emergence of old ideas. Running
parallel to this is the implication that any present suffering the Germans now
face is one of just deserts rather than Allied vengeance.
Jennings begins with coal, the foundation for economic reconstruction
and recovery. The issue of production and then distribution to European as
well as German industry emphasises the fact that German civilians must find
alternative fuel supplies: they must go out to the woods and parks to cut wood,
to strip the bark off trees, to collect brushwood and carry it home in handcarts
and prams. Its distribution is used to emphasise the interrelated problems of
transport and a severely depleted communications infrastructure. The link
between communication and mobility continues in the following sequence.
This time it is people. In a society of 70 million, Jennings noted, about 30
million of them are looking for someone. Through newspaper advertisements,
public notices and the auspices of the British-run postal research station at
Hamburg, this shifting mass of humanity attempts to contact family, friends and
relatives. Again with appropriate illustration emphasis is laid on how German
citizens are under the direct control of the British Authorities. Permits for travel
by train are issued and freedom of movement by any other means is subordinated
to the needs of military traffic. The most dramatic part of the sequence comes
through a series of inter-cut shots of trains arriving and leaving station platforms.
Announcements and orders not to ride on the train buffers overlay images of
soldiers questioning and directing travellers. Particularly arresting are Fred
Gamages overhead shots from a bridge as a train steams through bars of shadow
and light into a station then comes to rest at a platform filled with refugees who


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

climb into the empty coal trucks. The imagery powerfully captures the essence
of the human drama.
Hartnells words, But in all of this we have to safeguard ourselves, denote
a shift in emphasis. In one sequence Jennings now confronts three problems
of the German disease referred to earlier. Each has the potential to become
a social and political danger and together have the potential to create a toxic
brew for the occupiers. The first is the reconstruction of a new system of law
and order for a democratic society. The spirit and practice of British law and
justice is evoked in the Military Government Courts. The dictatorship of the
past is swept away with a legal system reformed along British lines in which the
judge, counsel and the new German policeman has to understand that he is the
servant of the public and not its master.
Social order is matched by social health. It is emphasised that the strict
monitoring of the physical condition of the people and the provision of
minimum nutritional requirements of about half our rations, is to avoid
disease, malnutrition and starvation while maintaining the working capacity
of the population but nothing more. It is the third problem, diseases of the
mind, which is regarded as the most dangerous. The greatest headache,
Hartnell proposes, is Education. Fascist beliefs still persist and the possibility
of new forms of extremism emerging in the next generation who live and play
amongst the rubble is worrying. Cutting to a farmer working in the fields, the
commentary argues that conditions are ripe for children to imbibe new versions
of Nazi ideology:
You will never get Nazi ideas out of the heads of some of the adults, particularly
those living away from the devastated areas. What about the children? [children
playing on disused military hardware] For them the desolated landscapes provides
a dream playground. The derelict weapons of war might have been specially
designed to have games with. There are Germans who know this cant go on
[speaker addressing an audience]. That teachers must be found and themselves
taught to teach the children that there are other things in life beyond Nazi-ism
and War [shots of ruined schools and packed classrooms] The schools are in
ruins. The teachers are few. The children are too many. And as the months go by
the children are growing up and getting like their fathers. We cannot afford to
leave them to stew in their own juice. [Fade to black].

Taking this cue Jennings now reiterates the closing call of Diary for Timothy;
the need to engineer long-term conditions in economic, political and social life
which will create a better world. For the betterment of Germany and Europe
the greed for money and power must not have the opportunity to oust decency.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


The military-industrial complex, which since the time of Bismarck had nurtured
the military ambitions of politicians and fed the profits of great industrial
empires, had been literally smashed. The old Reichstag and the industrial cartel
of the Krupp family are shown in ruins and, it is implied, will not be allowed to
rise again. The phrase the Wehrmacht are really beaten is accompanied by the
processing of prisoners of war while Hartnell continues: To the wire cages all
over Germany the master race of men are slubbering along. They are stripped
of their insignia, deloused, numbered. The new institutional structures must be
protected from infiltration by Nazi sympathisers:
What about the ideas in their heads? They have to be demobilised and got back
to work, but let one man or woman, who still believes in the Nazi regime, or the
destiny of the people to rule the world, take office, and you have the beginnings of
another war. So they are put through a screen.

This process of interrogation, processing and demobilisation culminates in a

short scene where the interrogation of a suspect is expressed through a wordless
dialogue constructed from a duet between trombone and viola with orchestral
accompaniment. One film critic described Warracks musical interpretation
of the conversation as: one of the most imaginative bits of film work I have
seen in a factual picture of this kind the relentless tone of the questioning
is conveyed by low, insistent phrases of music, growing more and more urgent
until a crescendo is reached in a spate of useless, lying protestation This is
camera-journalism on a brilliant level.22 Hartnell concludes the scene with the
pithy statement, Rejected back to the cage and at this the image fades.
Jennings concludes by drawing together and re-affirming the arguments
for intervention set out in the introduction. The visual metaphors of darkness
associated with the present generation are set against the light and hope for the
next. The sound of wind, a darkening evening sky and a soldier patrolling close
to a bridge seen earlier evoke the desolation Germany has suffered. The homeless
hurry to air raid shelters to sleep as the air raid siren announces the curfew. It
sounds, Hartnell says, to remind them:
they lost a war of their own making it is up to them to regain their self respect
as a nation to learn to live in a friendly manner with their neighbours that as
much as we hate it, we shall stay in Germany until we have real guarantees that the
E. Arnot Robertson, Daily Mail 15 March 1946. The film critic of the Sunday
Dispatch remarked it was an outstanding scene which is inspired 17 March 1946. Jennings,
H. (1946). A Defeated People: Clippings of Reviews Humphrey Jennings Collection BFI
Box 1 Item 9.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


next generation will grow up sane and Christian people a Germany of light and
life and freedom, a Germany that respects truth and tolerance and justice.

On the phrase the next generation a dissolve occurs from a child sleeping in a
shelter to the shadows of young girls with linked hands dancing in the sunlight
and accompanied by folk music on the soundtrack. At the end of Hartnells words
Jennings cuts to the ruins of the Reichstag then to a British officer swearing-in,
in English, a new panel of Judges. The old rule has been replaced by the new. As
they repeat in German the oath beginning I swear by Almighty God that I
will at all times apply and administer the law without fear or favour, he intercuts shots of the girls dancing in full sunlight, then a German military memorial
dressed with images of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, as if the past has been
buried. In the foreground he shows a smashed tree and German helmet resting
on a wooden cross and a British flag flying over an administrative building before
finally returning to the British officer and his concluding words: to establish
equal justice under the law for all persons so help me God. The film ends.
Critical Reception
A Defeated People was rented by Columbia Pictures at the beginning of March
1946.23 After a press showing on 12 March it was given a general release on
17 March, which coincided with the March of Time newsreel Justice comes
to Germany. It was promoted as the first official film record of life in Berlin
and Hamburg under the British Control Commission24 and in general the
critical response was appreciative. For example the Sunday Dispatch found it an
inspired job of reporting.25 Up to a point The Times concurred: the camera is
eloquent and discriminating admirable it bursts with good intentions, but,
while it makes a parade of answering questions, it does not really do much more
than pose them a film of its quality might have found more original symbols
than destroyed armaments factories on the one had and dancing children on
the other.26 While agreed on the formal qualities of the film, other critics felt it
lacked the substance necessary to quench the thirst for information about the
defeated enemy. The reviewer of the News Chronicle caught both sides of the

NA INF 6/374 A Defeated People (British occupied zone of Germany).

Knowles, C. (2007). Winning the peace: Germany under British occupation, as
portrayed in Humphrey Jennings film A Defeated People and the British Zone Review.
Sunday Dispatch 17 March 1946.
Times 15 March 1946.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


this film will stay in your mind and that is high praise of any film. Though it reeks
of desolation and despair it is infused with purpose a story beautifully rendered
[but] the film, good as it is, is an emotional prologue to a bigger and deeper film.
It does not give us enough could not in two reels. The Crown Film Unit were
two months in Germany making this picture. Time enough surely for six reels.27

To have done justice to the subject matter would have required more than
two months and six reels. The film, as Joan Lester pointed out, was more
than just reportage: Mr Jennings has within certain essential limitations of
time and opportunity brought to his subject understanding, intelligence and
JanuaryDecember 1946: Reconstruction in Britain
As Jennings prepared for departure to Germany in the summer of 1945 the
new Labour Government began the task of delivering their manifesto promises.
Economic change was to be matched by enhanced social provision with a
comprehensive housing policy, a new social insurance system and a National
Health Service. Unlike Germany this was not to be a reinvention of a nation and
state but rather a radical restructuring of governance. At the time of the election
the leaders of the Labour Party had emphasized that the party would nationalize
not for the sake of socialist dogma but for the sake of efficiency.29 For at least
two years of the first wave of nationalisation the rhetoric that planning from
the centre was the key to a prosperous economy rarely faltered.30 Government
ownership and control, it was believed, based on the wartime experience of
centralised yet sturdy managerialism, would resolve the past failures of the
private sector in vital but fragmented industries such as coal, gas, electricity and
transport. Through a combination of manpower investment, the rationalisation
of industries, assistance to the depressed manufacturing and extractive industries
and better industrial relations, flagging British industries would be revitalised.
This corporate model aimed to increase economic efficiency to avoid a repeat of
the economic slump and social crises experienced after the previous war.
Prosperity however did not arrive immediately. In fact the general standard
of living for many people got worse. The disparity between vision and reality
was brought about by factors triggered by the decision of the United States
News Chronicle 16 March 1946.
Reynolds News 17 March 1946.
Calder, A. (1971). The Peoples War: Britain 193945, Granada. pp. 6645.
Kynaston, D. (2007). Austerity Britain 194551, Bloomsbury. p. 136.

Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment


to terminate the vital Lend-Lease arrangement six days after the installation
of the Labour Government. If carried out immediately this decision would
have initiated a major economic crisis. The situation was not helped by labour
shortages in vital export industries such as cotton and industrial unrest in
the docks. While the Government urgently negotiated with the Americans,
Jennings wrote from Germany in mid October 1945 disparaging the attacks of
the British right-wing press: England appears from the belated papers nearly
all Kemsley productions to be standing on its head in gloom and confusion I
dare say all rubbish. And of course all the fault of the Russians.31 By the time of
his return the dock dispute was near its end and by early December a large loan
had been agreed with the United States. During 1946, although tired from six
years of exhortation and deprivation, the Government urged the people to work
harder. Industrial production and exports rose while the country had to bear
more stringent rationing of food, clothes and fuel. With wheat supplies directed
to prevent starvation in Germany, for the first time rationing included bread.
This caused national uproar in June. It is against this background of popular
frustration, but rising hopes in Government circles that increased efficiency
would propel the economy forward and improve international competitiveness,
that Jennings set about his next project.
On completion of A Defeated People he was assigned to make a film for the
Ministry of Fuel and Power. It was originally conceived before the general election
to outline for audiences within the mining industry the findings of the recent
Reid report published in late March 1945.32 The Reid Committee had been set
up by the Coalition Government in September 1944 to investigate the efficiency
and productivity of the British coal industry. Their report concluded that in all
aspects of production its organisation, technical efficiency and productivity
compared to international competitors the British coal industry lagged far
behind. Its fragmented system of ownership, antiquated production systems and
lack of long-term investment in new forms of mining technology was so bad
they could not envisage how the industry could effectively be reorganised and
modernised. The industry continued to suffer from poor industrial relations,
strikes, manpower shortages and absenteeism. Productivity was in decline and
the winter months of 1945/6 had exacerbated shortages as demand rose due to
the cold weather.
Letter October 1945 reprinted in Jackson, K., ed. (1993). The Humphrey Jennings
Film Reader, Carcenet. p. 106. Kelmsley Newspapers included the broadsheet Daily
Telegraph, Sunday Times and the tabloid Sketch.
NA INF 6/385 The Cumberland Story (reorganisation of British coalfields). The
Ministry of Fuel and Power was created in June 1942. It was responsible for the allocation of
fuel supplies, the control energy prices and petrol rationing.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


The Labour victory meant that the nationalisation of the coal industry
was to become a reality and with it the chance to sweep away the old system.
Under new Labour leadership the Ministry of Fuel and Power now wanted
a film which embraced more than just the technical considerations of the
Reid report, therefore the brief for the film Jennings received changed.33 It
would now be shown in public theatres rather than just to a specialist audience
and would articulate the wider, and implicitly political, arguments for the
nationalisation of the mining industry as well as promote the crucial efficiency
and productivity drive.
The film was made between January and October 1946 while the first wave
of bills to nationalise key financial, industrial and transport industries passed
through Parliament. The Cumberland Story, a prime example of state propaganda,
provides a vision of a state controlled industry that bears no relation to its past
under private ownership. The problems faced by the Cumberland coalfield were
symptomatic of the issues facing the national industry in the post-war era. Based
on a wartime case study of a rundown mining area set in a region of economic
decline, it tells the story of how the endemic problems of the industry were
overcome to create an efficient modern coalfield at the forefront of the new
post-war productivity drive. The story Jennings tells is shaped by his reading
of economic and social history, his experience in South Wales and perhaps the
industrial relations system at Pinewood when serving on the rank and file works
The film includes human drama and a detailed technical exposition
about mining. The statistical findings of the Reid report, the illustration and
explanations of the new mining machinery, the changes needed in the attitudes,
values and skills of both managers and miners is set within a story enlivened by
the reconstruction of a past disaster and the recent struggle of the main characters
in the film to modernise the pit. The story focuses on the differences, struggles
and finally collaboration between two individuals a newly arrived forwardthinking mine manager and a conservative local area union official. Gradually
there is a shift from the entrenched self-interest and class conflict of the past
to a new form of collectivism in which a community works together both for
themselves and the national good. Through the enlightened and collaborative
actions of both the managers and miners and with long-term investment by the
state in new technology, a newly skilled and productive workforce is created.
Work and future prosperity is offered in a once economically depressed and
poverty stricken region and the return to the misery of the inter-war years is


NA INF 6/385 The Cumberland Story (reorganisation of British coalfields).


Humphrey Jennings and British Documentary Film: A Re-assessment

avoided. This particular wartime experience, the film states, if grasped, could be
translated across the post-war mining industry.
The narrative covers a period between the outbreak of war in 1939 until
the formal nationalisation of the coal industry at the beginning of 1947. It is
built around a series of sequences which take the audience through the struggle
faced by the new manager, James Nimmo, to transform the productive capacity
of the rundown West Cumberland coalfield which is plagued by fire damp
and fractured seams. Like the farmers Fred Martin in Spring Offensive and
Alan Bloom in A Diary for Timothy, he willingly takes on the wartime task of
revitalising a region with a history of poor industrial relations and suspicion of
Government motives, into a modern, dynamic and productive coalfield for the
national good. He develops an imaginative plan to open up a new mine shaft
and restructure existing work practices and industrial relations by introducing
new power loading mining technology into the pits. The film traces the process
of implementation, the breaking down of entrenched ideas and the hostile
relationship between the miners and mining engineers who the miners regard
as agents of the private owners. When he eventually understands what Nimmo
is attempting and the benefits that will accrue for all, Nimmo is eventually
supported by Tom Stephenson, the district miners leader. They collaborate
to push forward the region into a new era. The underlying argument, as in
A Defeated People, is that change is vital to avoid a possible reversion to prewar conditions. What is required, Jennings asserts, is an imaginative leap from
all participants to build a new future. In this sense The Cumberland Story
expresses in practical terms those hopes for a new post-war mining industry
articulated by the miner Goronwy Jones in A Diary for Timothy (1945).
The Cumberland Story
The implication of the opening titles is that a new era has arrived. The audience is
told that the film was made for the Ministry of Fuel and Power in collaboration
with the United Steel companies and the National Union of Mineworkers. This
is quickly followed by reference to the new spirit of industrial collaboration
which would form the basis of the new industry: It is a true story of a pioneer
effort in the re-organisation of the British coalfields and is played by the actual
people concerned; in particular James Adam Nimmo Mining Engineer and
Tom Stephenson Miners leader.

The Last of Crown: May 1945December 1946


The Challenge: The Dead Hand of History

The opening is divided into two parts which link the past with the present.
Nimmo drives through a grim pit village towards pit number 3; one of the
several he has recently taken responsibility for as General Manager on the West
Cumberland coast. He describes his challenge of maximising production for the
war effort with an old coalfield which has suffered a lack of investment, years
of poor productivity, a dispirited workforce and depleted seams. It is therefore
all the more reason to have a go at it. All this is illustrated in the following
sequence. On his way to the mine office he passes a miner complaining to his
union representative, who turns out to later to be Tom Stephenson, about
underpayment of wages which he cannot get rectified. In the office Nimmo
learns that the field is in inevitable decline because of difficult geology and
the short-sightedness of the past owners who only exploited the easily mined
coal of the landward side. The short-term policy of the private owners, of
concentrating on immediate profits rather than long-term planned investment,
is confirmed when, watched by a young, obviously suspicious, surface worker,
he goes underground. He is met by cramped conditions, old technology and
inefficient methods of production. This dire situation, he concludes, had meant
local difficulties had got on top of management and consequently they were
stuck so the men no longer looked to them for leadership. At this point the
screen fades to darkness.
Nimmo realises that the future of the field lies with a rich seam called the
main band which is geologically d