Humphrey Jennings Collection Review

Having previously issued Carol Morley’s The Alcohol Years, Film First stay with British cinema – and British documentary cinema – for their sophomore effort. This particular release is likely to garner the greater attention, however, as it compiles three of the finest works of one of the country’s finest directors, namely Humphrey Jennings. In Listen to Britain, I Was a Fireman (perhaps better known under the title “Fires Were Started-”) and A Diary for Timothy we are offered a trio of undoubted classics of forties British cinema, each deserving its company amongst the likes of David Lean’s Great Expectations, for example, or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Yet this also points up the genuine need for this release as Jennings has never gained the same wide recognition as Lean or the Archers. During the forties numerous filmmakers worked within the military or produced propaganda efforts – there were Jennings’ Crown Film Unit compatriots such as Harry Watt and Pat Jackson; the Boulting brothers worked for the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit and the British Army Film and Photographic Unit respectively; plus the likes of Charles Frend, Alberto Cavalcanti and Thorold Dickinson were all making morale boosters – yet Jennings never really developed a career outside of the war years. As such he has sunk into relative obscurity, a situation not helped by the fact that his filmography boasts only feature – though DVD should go some way to rectify this. After all, the short film is no longer the relative stranger to the film fan that it once was courtesy of compilations such as the Cinema 16 volumes or the special feature; we can now readily catch up with film school debuts as we rifle through menus or, as in the case of the recent release of Andrew Kötting’s Gallivant, view an entire career previously kept secret to those outside the proximities of specialist cinemas and film festivals.

That said, Listen to Britain, the earliest film on the disc, has previously been available on VHS, but as a single title and thus poor value for money. That said, its 18 minute look at the war effort proves utterly timeless and may well be Jennings’ masterpiece. The set up is deceptively simple inasmuch as it captures a 24 hour period across England, yet its execution is decidedly complex. Before switching its name in 1940, the Crown Film Unit had been the G.P.O. Film Unit and housed such talents as Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Much like their respective works - Colour Box, say, and Love on the Wing - Listen to Britain uses its “message” (in the G.P.O.’s case selling stamps and the like; here one of an overly propagandist bent) as a loose remit under which Jennings can experiment. He does away with any narration (though the Ministry of Information later insisted on a contextualising talking head prologue which appears amongst the disc’s extra features) and thus any kind of direct propaganda in the style of The True Glory or Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of documentaries. In its place we get a blend of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Kötting’s Gallivant as Jennings travels from train to train detailing the minutiae of life on the home front. On one level this world is completely alien today – a world of boiled potatoes and Flannagan and Allan – yet it’s communicated with such immediacy that it feels completely alive and, despite the obvious wartime dangers, oddly inviting. His intentions may have been wholly different to hers, but Jennings was undoubtedly a film poet on a par with Maya Deren.

Following Listen to Britain, Jennings turned to The Silent Village (sadly not part of this collection) before embarking on his most ambitious, and best known, work, the feature I Was a Fireman. Made “with the full co-operation of the Home Office, Ministry of Home Security and National Fire Service”, the film is a paean to the latter, but once again its propagandist nature provides only the framework. Indeed, I Was a Fireman is a far richer work than this (derogatory?) term suggests. Made in 1943, it would have been released at the same time as two other flag wavers, Millions Like Us and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and in some ways sits happily between the two. It shares the obvious patriotism of the former but also the great sense of drama and taste for experimentation which shaped the latter, and nowhere is this better seen than in its straddling of the documentary and fiction forms.

I Was a Fireman’s strengths lie in two areas: firstly, in its casting, and secondly, in its structure. With regards to the first, every role in the film was occupied by a non-professional, in most cases from the same job as the one they occupy on-screen. In other words, this is firemen playing firemen and as such an added texture of realism is the result. Of course, it’s very much the next logical extension from the simple observation of Listen to Britain and some of Jennings’ earlier works (and also an approach that would imitated on a grander by Pat Jackson for Western Approaches a couple of years later) and as such he has a great handle on it. Understandably, there are awkward moments to be had, moments which you wouldn’t get with a Mills or an Attenborough, but then it’s doubtful that these more experienced professionals would bring the same level of humanity.

It is here where the structure comes in as slowly the lack of dramatic logic to many of the scenes (some contain mere half-arsed anecdotes or seemingly unnecessary chatter) begins to make sense. I Was a Fireman is, much like Listen to Britain, given a 24 hour timeframe meaning that once the German bombers and inevitable fire arrive during the second half we’ve built up both a picture of each of the men who are about to risk their lives and a rapport. Indeed, though the documentary qualities cannot be denied (it’s impossible to ignore that the film was made during wartime), it is the dramatic weight which proves most forceful. Some of the fire sequences may look a little wobbly courtesy of the low budget, but Jennings has created the suspense with such deliberation that any flaws can be easily overlooked. In this respect he also shows himself to be a great action director – the final half hour is as thrilling as any war scene, whilst the preceding ‘One Man and His Dog’ build-up is one cinema’s finest ever set pieces, even if it involves only a piano and a handful of cast members.

The final film on the disc, A Diary for Timothy, returns to Listen to Britain territory albeit with a greater specificity. Once again we are an intricate guide to the home front – a Myra Hess concert again, an injured pilot recuperating, the removal of landmines, even John Gielgud performing Hamlet - told with a lightness of touch, of course, but with the addition of a voice-over and an audience of one, the eponymous Timothy, born of the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of WWII. At first glance this may appear to be a somewhat cheap concept, an invitation for sentimentality and an opportunity to skip over any real issues. Yet none of this proves to be the case, rather it’s very much a hard-nosed look at the end of 1944 and start of ’45: the BBC provide war reports of both good and bad news; and the “everyday life and everyday danger” are conveyed in equal measure. Moreover, the film was completed before VE Day and as such doesn’t have the celebratory tone of The True Glory, made the same year. Instead, E.M. Forster’s narration (spoken by Michael Redgrave, warming up for his similar gig on The Great War 20 years later) offers a greater consideration of the war and its future thereby allowing it to move on from the (undoubtedly fine) historical record that The True Glory is and takes on a far wider significance. Indeed, as with all of Jennings’ great works, it is of course tied down by the Second World War yet proves ultimately timeless.

The Disc

Using prints obtained by the BFI and the Imperial War Museum, none of the three films could be described as having a flawless presentation, though each demonstrates a fine clarity. Scratches and other print damage are apparent in all three cases, but never to a degree which proves overly distracting. Certainly, the photography is ably captured and any defects in this respect – such as some of the night shots in I Was a Fireman - are more likely the result of their documentary nature than any technical defaults in the disc’s manufacture. Each film also comes in its original Academy ratio and accompanied by its original mono soundtrack (each one utilising the front two channels). With regards to their quality, much the same is true as with that of the image: none could be described as without fault (the first sound to accompany Listen to Britain is a sizeable pop), yet the dialogue and music remain as crisp, if not as clear, as they should. Once again, however, it’s worth noting the documentary properties of each which may have some sway on some, if not all, of the flaws.

As well as the three films and the optional opening to Listen to Britain already mentioned, Film First have also included Kevin MacDonald’s Humphrey Jennings : The Man Who Listened to Britain documentary on the disc. As should be expected from the director of One Day in September and Touching the Void (between which this piece was made), as well as works on his grandfather Emeric Pressburger and Donald Cammell, this provides a wonderful 50 minutes. This duration covers most of Jennings’ life with an especial focus on the wartime films, therefore allowing us to be treated by clips from various shorts not included on the disc: Spare Time, The First Days, The Heart of Britain, London Can Take It! and The Silent Village as well as a G.P.O. offering (presumably The Glorious Sixth of June) in which he made an on-screen performance. That said, his work in the theatre, as a surrealist artist and as founder of the Mass Observation project are all covered resulting in a continually enlightening watch. As a final testament to its quality just consider those who have been interviewed: family members, ex-colleagues, former actors, historians and curators, biographer Kevin Jackson, Christopher Frayling and even Mike Leigh and Lord Attenborough. And if the documentary doesn’t quite offer enough satisfaction then the disc is also accompanied by a 12-page booklet which reprints Lindsay Anderson’s famed 1954 essay on Jennings for Sight and Sound alongside an introduction from Lord Puttnam and reminiscences courtesy of assistant director Joey Mendoza on the filming of Listen to Britain.

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