Humphrey Jennings was called “The only true poet of the English cinema” by Lindsay Anderson, something that could be thought of as true, but Jennings has fallen out of favour with today’s audiences, even though many of his images have been endlessly used in documentaries about the War.
Cinema is just a series of images that remain with you, but how many films are truly memorable, most are made up of memorable sequence such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”, but most just have a memorable moment rather than memorable as a whole, does this mean that cinema is really just memorable moments? Probably the answer is yes and the more memorable the moments are, the more memorable the film, even and perhaps especially if it is a short.
Jenning’s was born into a wealthy family in 1907 and educated at Cambridge, he then was involved in the surreal movement and was responsible for an exhibition of paintings that brought Salvador Dali to London. After this he drifted and was involved in the Mass Observation of the late 30s which watched the day to day movements of everyday people, it was this that gave him this incredible technique for giving back a respectability to working class people that has been missing before, they had been mostly been portrayed as comic characters, which makes his films so appealing to break down barriers.
After his time with the Mass Observation project he joined the GPO Film Unit (which became the Crown Film Unit) he developed his style under Harry Watt and with coming of the Second World War came his own style.
LISTEN TO BRITAIN tells the story of one night in Britain from dusk until dawn, the countryside, a concert at the National Gallery (it had to be used for something, all the paintings had been taken out for safe keeping!), a ballroom dance in Blackpool, the vast countryside and the blitz. How everyday people go about their everyday lives in very different circumstances. Though the images are of a time in place, it has a timelessness that has made it last longer than most of the time.
I think what makes LISTEN TO BRITAIN stand out from other documentaries of the time is that is doesn’t have a narration, the voices and noises are what’s there on screen, you don’t need someone to tell you what is going on here.
After this Jennings made his only feature film “Fires Were Started” (known in the US as I Was A Fireman (which is how it is unfortunately available on DVD as, it sounds like a sequel to “I Was A Teenage Frankenstein” or something like that!)), Derek Malcolm chose that one. He made many other memorable documentaries during the war such as “The Silent Village” (filmed in Wales) and “The 80 days”.
At the end of the War he made “A Diary For Timothy” about a baby being born into a world just after the war and what we working towards was his last masterpiece (Timothy became a Mod in the 60s, moved to Brighton and became a teacher, he died in 2000). He then drifted again, he died falling off a cliff in Greece looking for locations in 1950.
It seemed he needed the War and the war needed him. If Riefenstahl needed the Nazi Party for propaganda, then Jennings needed the Second World War and these 19 minutes are his masterpiece.
Released 1942, filmed in the Summer and fall of 1941
DF Viewing 15/03/2005 on VHS.