Heritage: Literary opus by pioneering film maker Humphrey Jennings inspired Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony

Documentary maker Humphrey Jennings

Documentary maker Humphrey Jennings - Credit: Archant

The films of pioneering documentary maker Humphrey Jennings played a key role in boosting the nation’s morale and in encouraging the United States to join the Second World War, Adam Sonin discovers

Starting with paint and prose, Humphrey Jennings later combined artistic disciplines and was dubbed “the only real poet British cinema has produced”.

As an English undergraduate he designed sets for many theatrical productions, including the first British performances of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and Honneger’s King David. By his late 20s, already making films, he was a leading modernist and helped organise the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, along with Herbert Read, Roland Penrose and André Breton.

At the show, where Salvador Dali grabbed attention by turning up in a deep sea divers suit, Jenning’s collage Minotaur, an unflattering portrait of Lord Kitchener, proved to be one of the most notorious exhibits.

The following year Jennings co-founded Mass-Observation, a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain.

“To the real poet,” he once wrote, “the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea.”

In 1939, and with this in mind, Jennings returned to film-making and during the war years produced his finest and most influential work, all for the Ministry of Information’s Crown Film Unit. This included London Can Take It (1940), Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945). Not only did the films play a critical role in boosting the nation’s morale but they also served in encouraging the United States to join the war.

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Tall, skinny, bony-faced with short blond hair and blue eyes, Jennings was photographed, in 1941, by Lee Miller, Roland Penrose’s wife, and captured in a cloud of smoke.

Miller wrote: “Humphrey Jennings, surrealist, painter, poet and film-maker – known for his brilliant conversation – an attribute easily forgotten as words disappear like smoke.”

Pandæmonium, Jenning’s history of how the human imagination experienced the Industrial Revolution, had its roots in a short article for the surrealist journal London Bulletin in 1938, and was the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

(Frank) Humphrey Sinkler Jennings (1907-1950), film-maker, was born at The Gazebo, Walberswick, Suffolk, on August 19. In 1916 he went to the Perse School, Cambridge, and was taught English and drama by Caldwell Cook, ­author of The Play Way. Jennings soon excelled both at work and at games and showed promise as an actor, set designer, and poet. In 1926 he won a scholarship from Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read for the English tripos. With his fellow undergraduates Jacob Bronowski and William Empson he founded and wrote for Experiment, a student magazine of unusual distinction.

Despite these and many other distractions he managed to take a first in part one of the tripos (1928) and a first with distinction in part two (1929).

In 1934, Jennings joined the General Post Office film unit, later renamed the Crown Film Unit, which gave him his first training as an editor and director. For the next five years he earned his living making short documentaries, both for the Post Office and for ­independent production companies. His first distinctive film, Spare Time (1939), is a rapid series of vignettes, cut to the music of brass bands, kazoos, and other amateur performances.

Jennings’s real talent lay in finding the exceptional in the ­ordinary.

Coincidences, he said, “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.”

The Second World War was Jennings’s making. He co-directed the first of several masterpieces. Listen to Britain spoke with economy and extraordinary power, about how the British people faced up to the war. Jennings combined image and natural sound with an often unexpected and usually emotionally charged effect.

The pianist Dame Myra Hess is seen playing Bach in a lunchtime concert in the National Gallery, with an RAF man turning the pages for her. Outside, service-men and women hurry through the London streets carrying gas masks. A goods train is seen in an industrial setting and the scene changes abruptly to a tool room in which young women are working at lathes.

According to Joe Mendoza, Jennings’s colleague on the film: “He was never patronizing, and he was never lecturing, he just talked... He didn’t pontificate, he wasn’t that sort of person at all. Everybody adored him, that was what was so marvellous about Humphrey.

“Very ordinary people who you would think would think, ‘Oh, he’s a very weird man,’ always took to Humphrey. I mean Humphrey was awfully strange. He had green teeth and his flies were always undone, and flopping fair hair, and this funny sort of manner.” Jennings lived at 8 Regent’s Park Terrace, Camden Town, from January 1944 until his accidental death in a ciff fall while on a location-scout in Poros, Greece.

He rented part of the property from his friend, the journalist Allen Hutt (1901–1973).

During Jennings’s residence, Regent’s Park Terrace was noisy and sooty, the proximity of the railway line to Euston meant that the house shook and windows and books needed constant cleaning.

Jennings commented that it was “rather noisy at times but ­extremely romantic”.

He originally lived in two rooms at ground-floor level but, on being joined by his wife Cicely (1908–1975) and two daughters in summer 1946, moved to the top two floors of the house.

As space grew tighter, and interruptions more regular, Jennings acquired a room at 2 Regent’s Park Terrace in which to paint.

Throughout his time at number 8, Jennings worked on his great literary opus Pandaemonium, first published in 1985.

The plaque commemorating him was unveiled there in 2006 by Marie-Lou Legg, Jennings’s daughter.