The Poet of British Film

posted January 13, 2011

The British director, Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), has been described as the foremost poet of British cinema for his documentary films of Britain at peace and war, and for a range of representational approaches that transcended accepted notions of wartime propaganda and revised the strict codes of British documentary film of the 1930s and 1940s. Jennings, a propagandist and surrealist, mixed startling apprehension, personal expression, and representational innovation in films like Spare Time, Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, The Silent Village, A Diary for Timothy, and Family Portrait.

Keith Beattie, a senior lecturer in history, heritage, and society at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, presents a study of his work in Humphrey Jennings (Manchester University Press, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan), which appeared last spring in the U.S. In his films, Jennings, who was also a poet, propagandist, and surrealist, merged startling apprehension, personal expression, and representational innovation, Beattie writes.

His book appears in the series, British Film Makers. Beattie’s previous books include Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand (Wallflower Press, 2007), Documentary Display: Re-Viewing Nonfiction Film and Video (Wallflower Press, 2008), and Albert and David Maysles: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2010), and he is working on D.A. Pennebaker, a volume in the Contemporary Film Directors series of the University of Illinois Press.

Keith Beattie talks about finding the films of Humphrey Jennings:

Stills from "Defeated People" (public domain)

Linked to, and reinforcing, Humphrey Jennings’ reputation as a pre-eminent member of the British documentary film movement is the fact that the majority of his films are now accessible in a variety of formats in various locations.

The film holdings of the Imperial War Museum in London and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne were useful in writing my book (Manchester University Press, 2010), as were commercially released DVD collections of Jennings’ work. Most of the commercially available DVDs include central Jennings films such as Spare Time (1939), Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943), and A Diary for Timothy (1945). Certain DVDs contain other valuable inclusions, such as Leonard Brockington’s spoken introduction to Listen to Britain, a feature not always found on archival copies of the film.

A series of DVDs issued by the British Film Institute provided further points of access to Jennings’ work. The BFI’s GPO Film Unit Collection, volumes 1 to 3, includes a number of early and otherwise rare films by Jennings. The first volume in the collection, Addressing the Nation, includes Pett and Pott (1934), a film based on an idea by Jennings; volume two, We Live in Two Worlds, includes Jennings’ early film Penny Journey (1938), and If War Should Come (1939); volume three includes his film S.S. Ionian (1939). An associated collection issued by the BFI in 2008 as the four-disc Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950 includes Jennings’ film Farewell Topsails (1937). While rich sources for British documentary film generally (and as of 2010 a further collection was issued as Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977), the value of these collections to the study of Jennings’ films is underlined in the fact that certain print sources dealing with Jennings’ work, among them a biography of Jennings, list a number of the early works by Jennings collected on these DVDs as lost or unavailable.

Interestingly, since the release of these collections (volumes one to three of the GPO Film Unit Collection were issued in 2008) many of Jennings’ early films (including those mentioned here) are now publicly available via the BFI Screenonline site (

International film festivals provide another point of access to Jennings’ films. In recent years Jennings’ films have been exhibited at, among other festivals and meetings, the Imperial War Museum (in September 2000 and May 2006) and the Huesca Film Festival in June 2005, and in 2007 Words for Battle (1941) was exhibited in the Classics Section of the Cannes Film Festival. Other screenings in 2007 of Jennings’ films included the Documentary Film Institute at San Francisco State University in March, his birthplace of Walberswick, Suffolk in September, the Hull International Short Film Festival in October, and Anthology Film Archives in New York in November.

In these and other ways my research was enriched by archival practice and the curatorial activities of film festivals.

Stills from "Diary for Timothy" (public domain)

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