Damsons and Custard

Paul Laity

  • Humphrey Jennings by Kevin Jackson
    Picador, 448 pp, £30.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 330 35438 8

Humphrey Jennings never lacked a sense of self-worth. Peggy Guggenheim, with whom he had a brief affair in 1937, remembered him jumping up and down on their Parisian hotel bed crying out: ‘Look at me! … Don’t you think I’m beautiful?’ In fact, she thought he looked like Donald Duck, and insisted he put his clothes on and take her to meet André Breton. ‘There has only been one really good edition of anything that Shakespeare wrote,’ he told the writer Ruthven Todd, ‘and that is an edition of Venus and Adonis that I did myself.’ Stephen Spender, who met Jennings in Germany in 1945, noticed the film-maker’s ‘bumptious expression’, as well as his ‘pin-head face’ and ‘flapping ears’.

Jennings talked and talked, a great gush of words: about art, theatre and history; about Blake, Ruskin, Faraday, Milton, Constable and Purcell. William Empson, who studied English with him at Cambridge in the late 1920s, and with whom he started the magazine Experiment, thought of Jennings as ‘quite unaffectedly a leader’ who ‘was rather unconscious of other people, except as an audience’. Another Cambridge contemporary, Gerald Noxon, remembered his restlessness, along with his ‘exceptionally prominent Adam’s apple which jumped around all over the place when he talked – which was a great deal of the time’. David Gascoyne described in his journal in 1936 how Jennings dominated a meeting of the English Surrealists, ‘as usual … boiling over with energy and excitement’. He reported, too, the scene when Jennings and Tom Harrisson met to discuss the formation of Mass-Observation: ‘He was at one end of the mantelpiece talking at the top of his voice, and Harrisson was at the other end, doing exactly the same thing.’

In 1934, Jennings, a young artist and intellectual about town, joined John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit on a freelance basis, mainly, it seems, because he was hard up. He went on to become Britain’s most admired wartime documentary film-maker, and although his is far from a household name, his critical reputation has for decades been extremely high; Lindsay Anderson, an influential champion of his work, considered him ‘the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced’. The best, and best-known, of his films – the 20-minute montage Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started, an account of a day in the life of an auxiliary fire brigade during the Blitz – make him, in David Thomson’s view, ‘one of the few major English directors’. That this status isn’t more generally acknowledged is partly because Jennings died only five years after the end of the war, at the age of 43, but mostly because, as Kevin Jackson says in this engaging, adulatory biography, he ‘spent most of his professional life not in the glamorous and highly publicised world of features’, but as a jobbing documentary-maker on the payroll of government-sponsored organisations.

His wartime films are hymns to the landscape, culture and people of a country fighting to survive. They were intended as propaganda; yet, as Jackson argues, Jennings’s distinctive vision of Britain, and his lyrical sequences of images and sounds – the Pennines, the Downs, bombsites, swirling ballroom dancers, children in the playground, singing factory girls, coal-encrusted miners, clanking trains – easily transcend their wartime origins and context. Like many other commentators, Jackson refers to him as a cinematic poet – thinking of his documentaries in terms of poetry gives a sense of their intricacy and ambition, and also their powerful emotional pull (Jennings himself called them ‘camera poems’) – and this biography sets out to achieve wider recognition for its subject as a film-maker and as a radical, charismatic patriot.

On leaving Cambridge with a top first, several prizes and a reputation for brilliant (endless) conversation, Jennings was undecided where exactly he was going to excel. He scattered his talents: at the time of joining the GPO Film Unit, he thought of himself primarily as a painter, though he also wrote poetry and literary criticism, designed theatre sets, collected rare books and had begun to compile texts for an ambitious anthology about the machine age and its dehumanising effects, which owed something to his parents’ William Morris-inspired guild socialism. He couldn’t sell enough paintings to live, however, and found working at the Film Unit, mostly under the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, to be ‘exhilarating stuff’: he had, according to Noxon, an ‘insatiable appetite for new experiences in communication’, and was in sympathy with the unit’s spirit of experimentation and its left-leaning politics. He was soon asked to direct a couple of short instructional films, and had a minor role in the making of several landmark documentaries – Coal Face, BBC: Voice of Britain, and Birth of the Robot, directed by Len Lye for Shell. Two of his prewar films centred on lifelong passions: Locomotives and English Harvest (Jennings grew up in Suffolk and constantly painted and filmed horses and ploughs). But he was too fidgety and too much of an individualist to devote himself to cinema as one of Grierson’s boys, and his long apprenticeship in cinema coincided with his involvement in other new movements.

In June 1936, the English Surrealist group held its notorious exhibition in the New Burlington Galleries; Jennings sat on the organising committee. At the opening, Dalí, wearing a deep-sea diving suit, delivered a lecture about a student who eats a wardrobe; Dylan Thomas wandered through the crowd offering teacups full of boiled string; and Sheila Legge, her head stuck in a cage of roses, brandished a raw pork chop. Jennings, who had several pieces in the show, had written Surrealist prose-poems and translated Breton and Benjamin Péret. In the previous couple of years, he had begun producing collages, poetic ‘objects’ and photographs, and there’s a direct link between these techniques in art and his preference for montage documentaries, which operate on the principle that to bring together is to transform. His films show the influence of Surrealism in their surprising elisions, and in seeking out the symbolic, enigmatic and edgy: they are Surreal, too, in their startling evocations of the violent processes and effects of machine power.

Jennings’s conception of Mass-Observation, like that of his friend and fellow founder Charles Madge, was broadly Surrealist. The project began at the end of 1936 with a letter Madge wrote to the New Statesman arguing that the abdication crisis and the burning down of the Crystal Palace had produced a ‘symbolic situation’, a ‘coincidence in which’ the ‘otherwise repressed condition of the British people materialised’. Jennings and Madge shared with Tom Harrisson an interest in ritual and popular myth, but had less time than him for the practices of social science. For Jennings, the ‘problems’, or research subjects, set out in the initial M-O manifesto – they included ‘beards, armpits, eyebrows’, ‘the aspidistra cult’ and ‘the private lives of midwives’ – were gestures towards an exploration of England’s collective unconscious and the mysteries of the everyday. When Jennings assembled a collection of M-O ‘day reports’ on George VI’s coronation, published under the title May the Twelfth, he was sure it marked the beginning of an entirely new form of literature. He thought of the methods of Mass-Observation less as sociology than as a kind of poetry, one which, in Roland Penrose’s words, paid particular attention to ‘what was implied by the expression: “Poetry ought to be made by all.”’

Mass-Observation was also political: an attempt, characteristic of the decade, to narrow what Julian Trevelyan, a fellow collagist and M-O activist, called ‘the gulf of education, language, accent and social behaviour’ that separated conscience-stricken Cambridge graduates from the working class. In the summer of 1937, Jennings spent some time in Bolton (the city known in M-O literature as ‘Worktown’), taking photos, painting, getting involved in Harrisson’s social survey there, and staying, for a short while at least, in an unemployed miner’s house. His friend Allen Hutt later wrote of this as a turning point in Jennings’s life: his upbringing had instilled in him a Ruskinian obsession with the impact of mechanisation on work and on ways of thinking, but he now encountered at first hand ‘the land of industry, of the factory’ and of workers. The lives of ‘ordinary people’ in industrial Britain were already being depicted by Basil Wright and other documentary-makers at the GPO Film Unit: Jennings realised that cinema offered a way of combining his painterly sense of image with both the ‘poetic’ and political impulses behind Mass-Observation.

Jennings joined the Film Unit full-time early in 1939, and within months had made his first significant film, Spare Time, an 18-minute study of the leisure pursuits of workers, sometimes referred to as his ‘Mass-Observation film’. It focuses on three industries – coal in South Wales, steel in Sheffield and cotton in Bolton – and takes in pigeon fancying, wrestling, amateur dramatics, the fairground, brass bands, football and pubs. It is the work of a ‘poet-reporter’, disclosing a complex social world never before seen on film. Julian Trevelyan thought it amounted to ‘a Surrealist vision of industrial England’. One much discussed scene shows a children’s kazoo band, its members kitted out in gaudy uniforms, marching on desolate waste ground to the tune of ‘If You Knew Susie’. Grierson and others in the documentary brotherhood thought the film over-intellectual, insufficiently educational and condescending. Most critics now strongly disagree: if Jennings’s camera sometimes seems to regard working-class culture as exotic, Spare Time’s many generous images – the flash of a smile on the face of a boy mending his bike, the keen concentration of a darts player – make a winning case for that culture’s vibrancy and self-sufficiency.

Jennings’s ideas about national collective symbols and the poetry of the everyday became much less elusive and abstract once the war had started, providing as it did special circumstances, both personal and political, in which his vision of England could become resoundingly public. As Lindsay Anderson argued, ‘the hot blast of war’ quickened his symbols to emotional as well as intellectual significance, and in Jackson’s opinion, too, ‘it was the war – the urgencies, the dangers, the intensity and the sudden warm comradeships – that forced him into greatness.’ He finally had a subject – the homeland in danger – grand enough to encompass his interests and concentrate his energies. In 1940 the Film Unit was placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Information, and documentary-makers found themselves in demand as producers of propaganda. Ian Dalrymple, the director of the new Crown Film Unit, became Jennings’s supporter and trusted adviser.

London Can Take It (1940), his first notable wartime documentary, made with Harry Watt, is in many ways typical ‘spirit of the Blitz’ propaganda. Intended for release in the still-neutral US, its commentary pays stock tribute to the doughty residents of the British capital, but the film also has distinctive Jennings touches. It captures the Surreal accidents of war (a bus up-ended against a bombed house; smartly dressed civilians riding on the back of a horse-drawn cart) and brings together very different national symbols: the film ends with a civil defence warden cadging a light from a cab driver, followed by a shot of the statue of Richard I flourishing his sword outside the Houses of Parliament. It was a huge success, both in the States, where it was seen by Roosevelt at a private screening, and when later released in Britain. Heart of Britain followed, a montage which features the Lakes, a Sheffield furnace worker, mill girls in an air-raid shelter, and the blitzed ruins of Coventry (the camera pans across churches and houses with their walls ripped off, the interiors exposed to the sky). Every frame was, for Jennings, steeped in cultural allusion and symbolism. The uplifting finale to the film is provided by the Huddersfield Choral Society belting out the Hallelujah Chorus.

Filming the Blitz was a revelatory experience for Jennings. A letter written in October 1940 to his wife, Cicely, who had moved to New York, captures his patriotic exhilaration and a new, intense feeling of closeness with his compatriots:

Everybody is in good spirits: after one’s first bit of bombing one is all right. Some of the damage to London is pretty heart-breaking – but what an effect it has all had on the people! What warmth – what courage! … People in the North singing in the public shelters … WVS girls serving hot drinks to firefighters … Everybody absolutely determined: secretly delighted with the privilege of holding up Hitler.

Not that Jennings had lost his sense of self-importance. He was a deliberately hopeless soldier in the Pinewood Studios unit of the Home Guard, and, having volunteered to do a stint at a Naafi-style cafeteria, he would serve the food with one hand while reading the copy of Shakespeare’s plays he was holding in the other. But he was moved by the ‘red flame of love and comradeship’ he saw around him, and had no time for intellectuals who were refusing to become patriots even though Britain ‘was on the right side and on the right track at last’. As a ‘general effect of the war’, he reflected, he was ‘really beginning to understand people’ rather than ‘just looking at them’.

Juxtaposing images of countryside and city, north and south, middle-class and working-class life was an effective way of suggesting and celebrating a single national consciousness. In Listen to Britain (1942), Jennings’s ‘sound picture’, which Jackson rightly considers his masterpiece, the cut ‘on a chord’ from Flanagan and Allen singing ‘Round the Back of the Arches’ in a works’ canteen (‘scotch broth, lemon pudding, damsons and custard’) to the RAF orchestra playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major at the National Gallery, confirms class solidarity on the Home Front more compellingly than a written assertion could ever manage. The film, which owes much to Jennings’s editor, and in this case co-director, Stewart McAllister, is, as Jackson writes, wholly free of commentary, and

ranges over the life of the nation from late afternoon, through the watches of the night and into the next day, concentrating on the performance of music – in a ballroom, on the radio, played and sung by a solo pianist, blared out by a military band – but also, rather in the spirit of later avant-garde composers, making a kind of musique concrète from other sounds: steam engines heaving into motion, bells and whistles, snatches of half-heard conversation, the clopping of horses’ hooves, metal being beaten in furnaces.

A folksong, Big Ben’s chimes, the British Grenadiers’ march, birdsong, the introduction to Music while You Work: individual tunes and sounds are, as Jackson says, gathered in a way that is ‘a pleasing metaphor for a nation united in a common cause’.

In Fires Were Started (the title refers to the formula used to report enemy bombing on the radio), the auxiliary fire brigade similarly represents a diverse people working together at a time of crisis: Barrett, a posh advertising copywriter, is new to the brigade, but soon bonds with Jacko, a newsagent, and the others (all played by ‘real’ auxiliary firemen). Having finished their daytime preparations, the men nervously anticipate nightfall – a full moon means air raids are guaranteed. Eventually the brigade is called out to a warehouse fire in the London Docklands; a warship moored nearby is being loaded with guns and ammunition and it is vital that the blaze doesn’t spread. The fire, like the enemy, can be overcome only through teamwork and individual sacrifice. High and low culture are unified: a rollicking version of ‘One Man Went to Mow’ as the firemen sing to forget about their fear is followed, after the air-raid siren has sounded, by a quotation, mournfully read out by one of the firemen, from Walter Raleigh (‘O eloquent, just and mighty Death!’).

Fires Were Started was filmed around Trinidad Street and Alderman’s Wharf. During its shooting, Jennings wrote to Cicely that ‘the place and the people’ were ‘illuminating beyond everything. The river, the wharves and shipping, the bridge in Wapping Lane smelling permanently of cinnamon, the remains of Chinatown, the Prospect of Whitby and another wonderful pub called the Artichoke which is our field Headquarters’. He went on to detail the difficulties of reconstructing the Blitz for the film: ‘Life concerned with a burning roof – smoke fire water – men’s faces and thoughts … falling walls, brilliant moonlight – dust, mud, tiredness until nobody is quite sure where the film ends and the conditions of making it begin … But what one learns at midnight with tired firemen.’ According to the novelist William Sansom, who played Barrett, the cast – conscious that they couldn’t match Jennings’s ‘personal passion’ or ‘obsessive drive’ – soon developed ‘a kind of hero-worship’ of him. Joe Mendoza, an assistant editor, remembered working with Jennings on Fires Were Started as ‘a perpetual seminar’. The two ‘would walk around London for hours and hours … talking – that is, he did the talking, I did the listening … he would talk to me about Blake … And he had this thing about the Industrial Revolution.’

Jennings always brought his own intellectual enthusiasms to bear on his films: he structured Words for Battle (1941), for example, around favourite inspirational texts (Camden, Browning, Blake). ‘Bring me my chariot of fire’ is read on the commentary as a steam engine leaves Waterloo Station; RAF pilots assemble around a Spitfire while Milton’s Areopagitica tells of a ‘mighty and puissant nation … shaking her invincible locks’. At the same time, Jennings’s films effortlessly produce a kind of public poetry, connecting up the different parts of British life. In A Diary for Timothy, a portrait of the closing months of the war, shots of the graveyard scene from Hamlet (then running at the Haymarket) are intercut with an ARP man talking to his companions over a mug of tea. When he asks how long they think a type of missile would take to reach its target, his question ‘Do you know?’ is answered by Gielgud in the play: ‘Nay, I know not.’ A Christmas toast to ‘absent friends’ is given across the country, in the varying accents of region and class.

Jennings’s patriotism was deeply felt but unconventional, summed up by Roland Penrose as ‘certainly anti-military. And anti-society when it became organised in an absurd way.’ The version of Englishness presented in his wartime films is never simply pastoral or rural, never embraces nostalgia, and doesn’t fix on a particular region or class (or race). His London is not usually imposing or imperial, and politicians hardly get a look in; there are few references to the enemy and much use of German music. Most shots – a fireman surrounded by flames lighting a cigarette; the endless October rain in A Diary for Timothy, pounding down on streets, fields, a train-driver’s windscreen, and on beaches strewn with barbed wire – carry no dogmatic message. But he also set out purposefully to stir and rouse: at the end of Listen to Britain, for example, as a choral rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ swells on the soundtrack, swaying corn stalks are succeeded by smoking chimneys and then a patchwork of green fields, until finally, in Jackson’s description, ‘high among the clouds, the camera lifts gently upwards in an almost subliminal flourish of Triumph.’ One witness in the South-West wrote that audiences, ‘under the strain of war’, were reduced to tears ‘as a result of Jennings’s direct appeal’ to the nation’s cultural heritage ‘going back to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans’.

In A Diary for Timothy, the last film Jennings made during the war, he allowed himself to be more pointedly political, in emphasising how things should change once victory had been secured. The film’s rather patrician commentary, read by Michael Redgrave and addressed to Timothy, a baby born on the fifth anniversary of Britain’s entry into the conflict, explains what is happening on the home front in 1944 and 1945. In one sequence, Goronwy, a Welsh coalminer, hospitalised by an accident at his pit, reflects: ‘The unemployed, broken homes, scattered families … has all this really got to happen again?’ The final words of the film, addressed to Timothy, rephrase the question: ‘Are you going to have greed for money and power ousting decency from the world as they have in the past? Or are you going to make the world a different place – you and all the other babies?’ The overall mood is one of melancholy, expressive of a general war-weariness, but also perhaps sceptical about the likely brightness of the political future (‘the bad so mixed up with the good, you never know what’s coming’). Jackson wonders, too, in a typically perceptive comment, whether Jennings may also have understood ‘that he was about to be robbed of his ideal subject – war – and his clear vision of what he could do in and with his films was being inevitably clouded.’

Lindsay Anderson’s recently published diaries contain an entry which refers to Jennings being ‘given a miraculous transfusion of vitality by the war, then lapsing again into frustrated dilettantism when that influence was removed’.[*] The films he made after 1945 rehearse favourite themes – the perils of coalmining (The Cumberland Story), the need to reconcile ‘prose’ (science) and ‘poetry’ (art) in modern British life (Family Portrait) – but there is an absence in them of the high-pressure inspiration provided by a national crisis. Jennings resigned from the Crown Film Unit, and various of his cinematic projects failed to take off; Pandaemonium, his vast and extraordinary Industrial Revolution anthology, remained unpublished (it finally came out, in shortened form, 35 years after his death). He accepted an OBE, took up painting in earnest again, and was still short of cash (on his death, he had £1 in the bank; his wife had to return to a dealer an engraved Victorian volume on parrots costing £25 that he had just bought himself).

He also remained a vigorous, inspired talker. His old friend Kathleen Raine remembered their last walk together, during which his conversation invoked Dryden, Thomas Gray and Inigo Jones: ‘Halfway across Battersea Bridge, Humphrey paused and raised his arm in the old 18th-century orator’s gesture.’ But he no longer seems to have experienced what he described during the war as ‘iridescent moments of excitement and clarity’. The film he was working on when he died – he fell climbing a cliff on the Greek island of Poros, while on a search for locations – concerned the state of European health and medical care: commissioned by the US Economic Co-operation Administration, it dwelt, among other things, on TB inoculations and DDT. Not much poetry there. But no matter; on the strength of the wartime documentaries, Kevin Jackson is sure Jennings remains ‘Britain’s greatest film-maker’, and his is an enjoyable, spirited advocacy.

[*] Lindsay Anderson: Diaries, edited by Paul Sutton (Methuen, 400pp., £25, November 2004, 0413773973).