Frank Humphrey Sinkler Jennings (19 August 1907 – 24 September 1950) was an English documentary filmmaker and one of the founders of the Mass Observation organisation. Jennings was described by film critic and director Lindsay Anderson in 1954 as: "the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced."
Early life and career
Born in Walberswick, Suffolk, Jennings was the son of Guild Socialists, an architect father and a painter mother. He was educated at the Perse School and later read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge. When not studying, he painted and created advanced stage designs and was the founder-editor of Experiment in collaboration with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski.
After graduating with a starred First Class degree in English, Jennings undertook post graduate research in the poet Thomas Gray, under the supervision of a predominantly absent I. A. Richards, who was teaching abroad. After abandoning what looked like being a successful academic career, Jennings undertook a number of jobs including photographer, painter and theatre designer. He joined GPO Film Unit, then under John Grierson, in 1934, largely it is thought because Jennings needed the income after the birth of his first daughter, rather than from a strong interest in film. Relations with his colleagues were difficult, they saw him as something of a dilettante, but he did form a friendship with Alberto Cavalcanti.
In 1936, Jennings helped with the organisation of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, in association with André Breton, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read. It was at about this time that Jennings, along with Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson helped found Mass Observation and co-edited with Madge the text May the Twelfth, a montage of extracts from observer reports of the 1937 coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for Mass Observation. A fiftieth anniversary edition of this text was published in 1987 by Faber.
In 1938 he edited an issue of the London Bulletin which included a "collection of texts on the Impact of the Machine" and he used this material to prepare a series of talks to miners in the Swansea Valley while making The Silent Village. This prompted him to add more material and he obtained a contract from Routledge to work it up for publication as a book; he worked on it fitfully and thought it was almost ready just before his death. His daughter, Mary-Louise, asked Charles Madge to assist in finally editing it for publication in 1985 as Pandaemonium, 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. The book was cited by writer Frank Cotrell Boyce as an influence in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony with an early section of the ceremony named after it.
The war years
Jennings only feature length film, the 70-minute Fires Were Started (1943), also known as I Was A Fireman, details the work of the Auxiliary Fire Service in London. It blurs the lines between fiction and documentary because the scenes are re-enactments. This film, which uses techniques such as montage, is considered one of the classics of the genre.
His films are otherwise shorts, inclusively patriotic in sentiment and very British in their sensibility, such as: Spare Time (1939), London Can Take It! (1940), Words for Battle (1941), A Diary for Timothy (with a narration written by E.M. Forster, 1945), The Dim Little Island (1948) and Family Portrait (his last completed film, which tells of the Festival of Britain, 1950). Co-directed with Stewart McAllister, Jennings' best remembered short film is Listen to Britain (1942). Excerpts are often seen in other documentaries, especially portions of one of the concerts given by Dame Myra Hess in the National Gallery while its collection was evacuated for safe-keeping.
Jennings married Cicely Cooper in 1929; the couple had two daughters. He died in Poros, Greece in a fall on the cliffs of the Greek island while scouting locations for a film on post-war healthcare in Europe, and was buried in Athens.
Humphrey Jennings' reputation always remained very high among film makers, but had faded among others. His films appear strikingly different from the 'social critique' approach which typified the documentaries of Grierson and his "school" of the 1930s and the feature films of the 1960s and '70s such as Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1962) or Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).
After 2001 this situation was partly rectified: firstly by the feature-length documentary by Oscar-winning documentary-maker Kevin Macdonald, Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain (made by Figment Films in 2002 for British television's Channel 4); and secondly by Kevin Jackson's 450-page biography Humphrey Jennings (Picador, 2004). In 2003 two of his films, Listen to Britain and Spare Time, were included in the Tate Britain retrospective, A Century of Artists' Film in Britain which featured the work of over one hundred filmmakers. The Macdonald documentary is included in the Region 2 DVD of I Was a Fireman (Fires Were Started) released by Film First in 2008.
- Post Haste (1934)
- Locomotives (1934)
- The Story of the Wheel (1934)
- Farewell Topsails (1937)
- Penny Journey (1938)
- Speaking from America (1938)
- The Farm (1938, aka English Harvest)
- Making Fashion (1938)
- Spare Time (1939)
- SS Ionian (1939, aka Cargoes)
- The First Days (1939)
- Spring Offensive (1940)
- Welfare of the Workers (1940)
- London Can Take It! (1940, aka Britain Can Take It!)
- The Heart of Britain (1941, aka This Is England)
- Words for Battle (1941)
- Listen to Britain (co-director 1942)
- Fires Were Started (1943, aka I Was A Fireman)
- The Silent Village (1943)
- The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944)
- The Eighty Days (1944, aka V. 1)
- Myra Hess (1945)
- A Diary for Timothy (1945)
- A Defeated People (1946)
- The Cumberland Story (1947)
- The Dim Little Island (1949)
- Family Portrait (1950)
- The Good Life (completed by Graham Wallace 1951)
As producer/creative contributor
- Pett and Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1934)
- The Birth of the Robot (dir. Len Lye, 1936)
- Edgar Anstey
- Alberto Cavalcanti
- Arthur Elton
- Robert Flaherty
- E. M. Forster
- John Grierson
- Tom Harrisson
- Stuart Legg
- Charles Madge
- Stewart McAllister
- I. A. Richards
- Paul Rotha
- Harry Watt
- Basil Wright
- Lindsay Anderson "Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey Jennings", Sight and Sound Vol.23 no.4, Spring 1954, reprinted in Paul Ryan (ed) Never Apologise:The Collected Writings, London: Plexus, 2004, p358-65, 359
- Aitken, Ian ed. Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge (2005)
- Jackson, Kevin (Ed.). The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (Carcanet, 1993)
- Jackson, Kevin. Humphrey Jennings (Picador, 2004).
- Winston, Brian. Fires Were Started- (BFI, 1999)
- Humphrey Jennings at the Internet Movie Database
- Bibliography of books and articles about Jennings via UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
- Channel 4 site about Jennings
- the BFI's "screenonline" site about Jennings
- Review of Kevin Jackson's Jennings biography
- Humphrey Jennings at Find a Grave