Caught by the River

The Complete Humphrey Jennings

10th November 2011

Volume One: The First Days (BFI dvd/blu ray)
Reviewed by C.P.Lee

Humphrey Jennings was described by Lindsay Anderson as “The only real poet that British cinema has yet produced”. Born in 1907 into a well-off artistic family he studied at Oxford and more or less drifted into film making when, in 1934, he joined the GPO Film Unit which was then being run by the ‘founding father’ of the British documentary movement, John Grierson.

At first his colleagues, with the exception of Alberto Cavalcanti criticised him for what was seen as a lack of commitment, possibly because of his association with the Surrealist movement; he was a friend of Andre Breton and together with Roland Penrose organised the first exhibition of Surrealism in London in 1936. He was also a founder member of the Mass Observation Unit, a research organisation that was created to study cultural and social trends by compiling reports through interviews and ‘observations’.

Eventually though he found his feet as a filmmaker and this DVD from the BFI (The Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume One) is a welcome retrospective of his early work demonstrating how he differed from the more ‘socialist’ inclined documentary makers of the time, like Paul Rotha or Basil Wright. Jennings comes at his material from a more lyrical angle, less analytical and more representational. The poetry in his films emerges through the lens and augments the often ‘straightforward’ dialogue of the narrative., he was making films for the GPO and not for the Tate after all.

On first viewing of the collection I was transported back to school in the 1950s. There we’d sit at our desks, curtains drawn while a rickety projector behind us played out ‘educational documentaries’ on a swaying screen. Films about cocoa production, or rubber tress in Malaya, how cargoes arrived in Britain from around the Empire – Whoops! Commonwealth – cut glass accents and little piles of trivia being swept into mounds. We weren’t watching Humphrey Jennings of course, but we were watching the legendary documentary maker’s ‘children’, the films from the next generation, those who were influenced by Jennings and Co. But somehow they just don’t get it. They lack the breath of human spirit that Jennings was able to breathe into his subjects.

His movies come at us now like postcards from the past, apt really when you think how they were made for the Post Office. In the early films like Post-Haste, Locomotives and The Story of the Wheel (all 1934), the narrative is resolutely tied in with the sending of mail in one way or another. Jennings manages to break free from the constraints of sponsorship (or patronage!) when we watch Farewell Topsails (1937). This eulogy to the rapidly disappearing world of the commercial sailing ships and their replacement by steel and steam is where Jennings magic begins to work. It’s hard not to be romantic about Clippers under sail, matelots aloft in the rigging and topsails unfurling, anchors weighing and bows slicing through the waves.

The difference between steam and sail is made even more apparent in a film that at first I couldn’t see a reason for. SS Ionian (1939) appears at the beginning to be a straightforward documentary about a grubby little cargo ship sailing round the Mediterranean dropping of its load of cement, explosives and telegraph poles to outposts of the Empire such as Malta, Alexandria and Cyprus. The monologue is seemingly nothing more than a lesson in mercantile shipping until you begin to realise that in almost every shot of our little tramp steamer, there, somewhere behind her, tucked away at first, almost out of shot and then becoming more and more obvious, are British Naval ships of pretty every calibre from frigates to destroyers to tenders to battleships. This film is both a warning and a reassurance. A warning to foreign aggressors that the Navy will never allow our ships to be sunk and Britannia will always rule the waves, and a reassurance to the people of Britain that the supplies will get through and by all pulling together the Empire will get through the war that’s just around the corner.

There’s more out and out propaganda in the form of the better-known wartime documentaries of Jennings – The First Days (1939), and London Can Take It! (1940). But these aren’t the thrusting, Soviet montage type of documentary that you might expect, these are the works of a man who is a member of the Mass Observation Unit and who can reflect those feelings and passions of the public by articulating those feelings and passions on film. Jennings always reflects rather comments, or if he is commenting he’ s doing it in such a subtle way that it’s hard to see his wizards hands at work. He still keeps a Surreal eye open as well – look for the shot of the girl in battledress checking her makeup in the side mirror of an army truck.

My favourite film of the collection is 1939’s Spare Time, a real corker of detailed analysis and representation, nothing to do with posting letters, just simply, what do people do in their spare time. One of its surprises for me is the narrator who turns out to be none other than Laurie Lee, who, presumably had just got back from the Spanish Civil War. But it’s the bit that’s set in Manchester, Hulme to be exact, that blew me away. A group of youngsters, mainly girls, all in matching outfits, are gathered on a croft practicing marching in unison while playing kazoos. This is what was known as a ‘Marching Jazz band’ too poor for instruments they bravely hum away through bits of tin and toilet paper covered in cardboard to look like trumpets, while biscuit tin drums on sashes round their necks provide the beat for the girls to parade. This was one of the most common forms of self-made entertainment in the years between the Wars, a ragged burst of pride and joy against poverty and pain. The Jazzters lift aloft a kid dressed as Britannia and hoist the slightly worried looking figure up to shoulder height and begin their triumphal parade around the croft… a masterpiece from Jennings and a gift now available for us to see, for this alone the set is worth the price.

The Complete Humphrey Jennings, Volume One, is available from our shop, priced £19.99

Check out CP’s Manchester Film History site.