Britain's poet of the cinema
Lindsay Anderson called him "the only real poet the Britishcinema has
yet produced." A prizewinning student of English at Cambridge in the latetwenties, Humphrey Jennings continued to write and paint when he beganto make films. A brilliant conversationalist, he spoke perfect French andwas close to Surrealists like André Breton. Beginningin the earIy forties,he directed a series of documentaries for the Crown Fil~Unit, intendedby the authorities to publicize Britain's war effort.But the personal andhumane nature of Jennings's films transcends their official origino 1nthem, the conventional bombast of wartime propaganda is displaced bysincerity. At a moment of crisis for his country, the deep, understated lovefor it Jennings' films express remains touching, because he was toughenough to remain civilized in a time of war.His documentaries build acomplex mosaico1n A
Diary for Timothy,
a lunchtime audience at the National Gallerylistens toBeethoven, and the commentary adds: "Some
think it' sthegreatest music. in the world. Yet it's German music and we' re fighting theGermans ... "
f he landscape of Britain and its common people, civiliansand conscriptS, are Jennings' principal theme. Battle itself is inferred, andthe viewpoint remains a decidedly civilian one throughout.
Listen to Britain
is a twenty minute poem where picture and soundcombine to reveal the links uniting a whole society.
Words for Battle,
whereLaurence Olivier is heard reading Milton, Robert Browning,
KiplingandChurchill, welds word to image, to create something intricate
and new: film metaphors.
Diary for Timothy,
already mentioned, with itscommentary by E.M. Forster, has subtleties of montage which continueto inspire film-makers today.
Fires Were Started,
illustrated on top left,is Jennings' dramatized documentary, the story of London's Fire Brigadeduring the Blitz.Humphrey Jennings died in 1950, aged 43.On the Greek island of Porospreparing another documentary, he slipped off a rock and fel!.A copy of Trelawney's
Last Days of Shelley and Byron
was found in his pocket.Thinking of Byron, someone said: "Greece has claimed another Englishpoet."