Humphrey Jennings - Director

Nationality: British. Born: Frank Humphrey Sinkler Jennings in Walberswick, Suffolk, 1907. Education: Perse School and Pembroke College, Cambridge, until 1934. Career: Joined General Post Office (GPO) film unit as scenic designer and editor, 1934; worked with Len Lye at Shell films, from 1936; returned to GPO film unit (became Crown Film Unit, 1940), 1938; became associated with Mass Observation movement, late 1930s; director for Wessex Films, 1949. Died: After falling from a cliff while scouting locations for film, in Poros, Greece, 1950.

Films as Director:


Penny Journey


Spare Time (+ sc); Speaking from America ; SS Ionian ( Her Last Trip ); The First Days ( A City Prepares ) (co-d)


London Can Take It (co-d); Spring Offensive ( An Unrecorded Victory ); Welfare of the Workers (co-d)


Heart of Britain ( This Is England ); Words for Battle (+ sc)


Listen to Britain (co-d, co-sc, co-ed)


Fires Were Started ( I Was a Fireman ) (+ sc); The Silent Village (+ pr, sc)


The Eighty Days (+ pr); The True Story of Lilli Marlene (+ sc); VI (+ pr)


A Diary for Timothy (+ sc)


A Defeated People


The Cumberland Story (+ sc)


Dim Little Island (+ pr)


Family Portrait (+ sc)

Other Films:


Post-Haste (ed); Pett and Pott (Cavalcanti) (sets ed, role as grocer); Glorious Sixth of June (Cavalcanti) (role as telegraph boy); The Story of the Wheel (ed)


Locomotives (ed)


The Birth of a Robot (Lye) (color direction and production)


By JENNINGS: books—

Pandaemonium 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers , edited by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge, London, 1985.

The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader , edited by Kevin Jackson, Manchester, 1993.

On JENNINGS: books—

Grierson, John, Humphrey Jennings: A Tribute , London, 1951.

Hardy, Forsyth, Grierson on Documentary , revised edition, London, 1966.

Lovell, Alan, and Jim Hillier, Studies in Documentary , New York, 1972.

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson , Berkeley, California, 1975.

Hodgkinson, Anthony, and Rodney Sheratsky, Humphrey Jennings: More than a Maker of Films , Hanover, New Hampshire, 1982.

Jennings, Mary-Lou, editor, Humphrey Jennings: Film-Maker/Painter/ Poet , London, 1982.

Vaughan, Dai, Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor , London, 1983.

Aldgate, Anthony, and Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the Second World War , Oxford, 1986.

Tomicek, Harry, Jennings , Vienna, 1989.

On JENNINGS: articles—

Wright, Basil, "Humphrey Jennings," in Sight and Sound (London), December 1950.

Lambert, Gavin, "Jennings' Britain," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1951.

Védrès, Nicole, "Humphrey Jennings—A Memoir," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1951.

Anderson, Lindsay, "Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey Jennings," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1954.

Dand, Charles, "Britain's Screen Poet," in Films in Review (New York), February 1955.

Strick, Philip, "Great Films of the Century: Fires Were Started ," in Films and Filming (London), May 1961.

Rhode, Eric, and Gabriel Pearson, "Cinema of Appearance," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1961.

"Jennings Issue" of Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1961/62.

Millar, Daniel, " Fires Were Started ," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1969.

Belmans, Jacques, "Humphrey Jennings, 1907–1950," in Anthologie du Cinéma (Paris), vol. VI, 1971.

Sharatsky, R.E., "Humphrey Jennings: Artist of the British Documentary," special issue of Film Library Quarterly (New York), vol. 8, no. 3–4, 1975.

Zaniello, T.A., "Humphrey Jennings' Film Family Portrait : The Velocity of Imagistic Change," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 1, 1979.

Eaton, Mick, "In the Land of the Good Image," in Screen (London), May/June 1982.

Robson, K.J., "Humphrey Jennings: The Legacy of Feeling," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Winter 1982.

"Humphrey Jennings," in Film Dope (London), December 1983.

Colls, R., and P. Dood, "Representing the Nation: British Documentary Film 1930–45," in Screen (London), January/February 1985.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, "Humphrey Jennings, Surrealist Observer," in All Our Yesterdays , edited by Charles Barr, London, 1986.

Britton, A., "Their Finest Hour: Humphrey Jennings and the British Imperial Myth of WWII," in Cineaction (Toronto), no. 18, Fall 1989.

Stewart, S., and L. Friedman, "An Interview with Lindsay Anderson," in Film Criticism (Meadville, PA), vol. 16, Fall-Winter 1991–1992.

Thomson, D., "A Sight for Sore Eyes," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 29, March-April 1993.

Quart, L. "Wartime Memories," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20 1994.

Harris, Paul, "The Past Pays Off," Filmnews , vol. 25, no. 5, July 1995.

* * *

Though Jennings was (from 1934 on) part of the Grierson documentary group, he was never fully part of it. Grierson regarded him as something of a dilettante; Jennings' tastes and interests were subtler and gentler than Grierson's. It wasn't until Grierson had left England to become wartime head of the National Film Board of Canada that Jennings gained creative control over the films on which he worked. The outbreak of World War II seemed to let loose in Jennings a special poetic eloquence, and his finest work was done at the Crown Film Unit during the war years. Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started , and A Diary for Timothy are generally regarded as his masterpieces.

Jennings was part of the English intellectual aristocracy. Extremely well educated, he had done a good deal of research into English literature and cultural history. He was also a surrealist painter and poet. In his wartime films his deep-felt affection for English tradition mingles with impressionist observations of the English people under the stress of war. Rather than following the sociological line of the Griersonian documentaries of the 1930s, Jennings offered a set of cultural notations—sights and sounds, people and places—illuminated by his very special aesthetic sensibility and complete mastery of the technique of the black and white sound film. His films present an idealized English tradition in which class tensions do not appear. They record and celebrate contemporary achievement in preserving a historical heritage, along with commonplace decencies and humor in the face of an enemy threat. They also are experiments with form, of such breathtaking distinctiveness that they never really have been imitated. (Though Lindsay Anderson and other Free Cinema filmmakers would later acknowledge the importance of Jennings's work to them as inspiration, the Free Cinema films are radically different from Jennings's films in what they say about England, and are also much simpler in form.)

Listen to Britain , a short, is a unique impressionistic mosaic of images and sounds, including much music (as is usual in Jennings' work)—a sort of free-association portrait of a nation at a particular historical moment. The feature-length Fires Were Started carries the understated emotionality of the British wartime semi-documentary form to a kind of perfection: a very great deal about heroic effort and quiet courage is suggested through an austere yet deeply moving presentation of character and simple narrative. In A Diary for Timothy , which runs about forty minutes, Jennings attempted to fuse the impressionism of Listen to Britain with the narrativity of Fires Were Started. In its formal experimentation it is the most complex and intricate of all of Jennings's films.

With the Germans massed across the Channel, and bombs and then rockets being dropped on Britain, the British people needed a kind of emotional support different from the wartime psychological needs in other countries. In rising to this particular occasion Jennings became one of the few British filmmakers whose work might be called poetic. He is also one of a small international company of film artists whose propaganda for the state resulted in lasting works of art.

—Jack C. Ellis

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