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.

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