Keith Beattie’s monograph on the seminal British documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings is a significant contribution to the scholarship on this fascinating, mercurial and multi-faceted artist, as well as on British documentary cinema itself. Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Jennings is both central to the canon of British cinema and a figure who is difficult to place and categorise within its prevailing traditions and orthodoxies. Although Jennings has long been celebrated as one of the most personal, influential and lyrical filmmakers who ever worked within British cinema, accounts of his career – somewhat understandably – have tended to focus almost exclusively on a number of the extraordinary documentaries he made during World War II: London Can Take It! (1940, co-directed by Harry Watt), Heart of Britain (1941), Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942, co-credited to Stewart MacAllister), Fires Were Started (1943), The Silent Village (1943), and A Diary for Timothy (1945). In fact, as Beattie argues, the common narrative attached to Jennings’ career and artistic flowering is almost completely predicated on the heightened expressivity found in his wartime work and its response to the specific and curious communality and temporality of the era. But what is often so remarkable about Jennings’ work during this period is its lack of urgency, its focus on the dailiness of wartime conditions, its side-stepping of many of the trappings of the wartime documentary, and its complex exploration of the shared diversity of the British people during this period (and this “diversity” is a key quality highlighted by Beattie). Jennings’ wartime work acts as both propaganda and something that is far more ambiguous and longer lasting. As Beattie carefully and consistently documents, Jennings’ cinema is both nostalgic and forward looking, introspective and expansive, “poetry and prose” (to quote from the repeated refrain of 1950’s Family Portrait). It is also a limited body of work – Jennings fell to his death at the young age of 43 – that needs to be looked at afresh, examined in both an holistic fashion and in relation to the numerous and varied contexts of British social, artistic and intellectual life of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. It is a mark of his achievement that Beattie’s book provides an important focus on precisely these elements and areas.
In many ways Beattie’s book is a complementary work that should be placed alongside Kevin Jackson’s 2004 biography of Jennings (1). Although Beattie provides a neat and evocative account of Jennings’ formative years at Cambridge University, his connections with significant fellow pupils such as Jacob Bronowski, William Empson, Malcolm Lowry and Michael Redgrave, his early work as a Surrealist painter and for the GPO Film Unit, and his important contribution to the establishment of the Mass Observation social research organisation, the book’s primary concern is with the films themselves and how they can be placed within various social, critical and aesthetic traditions (as well as alongside one another). There is very little in the way of biography within Beattie’s book, and I would recommend reading it alongside Jackson’s important work. That said, I do not wish to give the impression that Beattie has neglected to discuss the production conditions of the films or failed to undertake substantive contextual and archival work of his own (he has). Humphrey Jennings is also deeply engaged in a dialogue with the existing scholarship on the filmmaker and the various dominant forms this has taken over time. It engages fruitfully with many of the key writers and thinkers on Jennings’ work – Lindsay Anderson, Brian Winston, Andrew Britton, Jeffrey Richards, Basil Wright, et al. – while providing a number of novel insights into the director’s motivations and preoccupations. Beattie often provides a neat corrective to the more outlandish claims of various critics and provides a balanced and nuanced reading of the historical context of both Jennings’ work and its attendant film criticism. For example, Beattie foregrounds the Griersonian elements of Jennings’ work while also highlighting the significant departures it makes from this dominant tradition. Unlike several other critics, he doesn’t set Jennings up in opposition to John Grierson, argue for the “un-Britishness” of some of his work, or attempt to reposition his films outside the mainstream (and even form) of documentary. Although Beattie’s book could have examined the immediate context of Jennings’ documentaries in more detail – by making a more sustained comparison to the work of his contemporaries in documentary such as Harry Watt and Pat Jackson, as well as such feature filmmakers as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – it does still provide some useful comparisons to the work of such figures as Alberto Cavalcanti.
Although I would have preferred further and more extensive discussion of Jennings’ pre- and post-war work – as well as those works from the war period that are often dismissed or neglected in the critical literature: Spring Offensive (1940), Welfare of the Workers (1940), The 80 Days (1944), The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944); all of which he virtually doesn’t mention – Beattie’s book does provide an important corrective to most accounts of Jennings’ career. It provides astute critical accounts of his initial film work and does well to place this within the mainstream of Jennings’ interests and preoccupations. Similarly, most of the post-war works are re-examined within the context of Jennings’ overriding and sustained social, intellectual and aesthetic concerns and approaches. Beattie’s discussion of Spare Time (1939) – along with Listen to Britain and The Silent Village, one of my own favourite Jennings films – is particularly astute in this regard. Beattie repositions the film as an important turning point in the director’s career and distances it from its common reading as a work of Mass Observation. Within this extraordinary documentary, Beattie traces a complex pattern of influence and approach, chastising those critics who regard the film as condescending and essentially classist. He also makes a number of connections to such unexpected works as Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971), positively comparing the ways in which they represent a specific localised cultural practice (in this case, a Northern kazoo marching band). Beattie also distinguishes Spare Time from social documentary and Mass Observation through its genuine engagement with its subject, openness to ambiguity and strangeness (the costumes of the band members are genuinely peculiar), and its unwillingness to rest at mere observation and documentation. But Beattie’s approach to the film is also symptomatic of his generally expansive reading of Jennings’ work. He cites Dai Vaughan’s comparison of specific moments in Spare Time with the works of Italian neo-realism and later makes his own connections between this “movement” and such dramatised documentaries – often utilising “everyday” actors – as The Silent Village and Fires Were Started (though I have the sense that Beattie is a little less sympathetic to these works than several of the others he discusses). These often-surprising connections and comparisons provide some of the greatest pleasures of Beattie’s book and help to pinpoint the overriding communality and singularity of Jennings’ work. A very quick sample gives a sense of the range and specificity of Beattie’s choices: George Orwell’s wartime essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”; Cavalcanti’s Ealing feature Went the Day Well? (1942); Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) (in a brief discussion of the “absent” paintings that mark the walls of the National Gallery in Listen to Britain); Italian neo-realism; Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent, etc.
The final two chapters of Humphrey Jennings provide some of the most rewarding and challenging passages in Beattie’s work. Although I would have liked a little more attention to be given to Dim Little Island (1949) – in my opinion, equivalent to Jennings’ early war work – Beattie’s detailed analysis of Jennings’ final film, Family Portrait, acutely illustrates how it provides a fascinating summation of the director’s work. Beattie repositions the film as both a core work within Jennings’ filmography and a sign of the future directions his work might have taken. As he does throughout the book, Beattie provides an astutely articulated account of the critical reception of the film and how this has shifted from an immediately positive response, to seeing it as a sign of Jennings’ decline as a filmmaker (this was apparent even by the time of the publication of Anderson’s seminal essay on Jennings in 1954) (2). In contrast, Beattie correctly sees Family Portrait as a continuation of the key aesthetic and intellectual concerns of Jennings’ wartime work. In many ways, this negative critical response to the film reacts against what can be seen as the more conservative, nostalgic and nationalistic elements of Family Portrait (it is, after all, meant to be a “celebration” made in preparation for the Festival of Britain in 1951). These overly parochial elements are more commonly excused within the framework and context of World War II and the fight against fascism, but were seen as out-of-step with the more mundane vision of post-war documentary. But as Beattie argues, Family Portrait, like much of Jennings’ work, is actually a more complex, contradictory and paradoxical object than a more surface reading might suggest (though its distinct and surprising lack of female figures is left unremarked by Beattie). The film does highlight the imperial significance of various famous men to the concept or “imagination” of Britain – scientists like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, artists like William Shakespeare and J.M.W. Turner – but it also looks forward to the end of empire and Britain’s unification with Europe. Like so many of Jennings’ films, it is built on the principles of collage and dialectics, viewing Britain’s “genius” as its ability to join together factory and farm, science and faith, interiority and exteriority, past and present, “poetry and prose”. But this analysis also pinpoints Jennings’ overriding fascination with the processes and imagination of modernity, and many of the historical and pictorial references found in Family Portrait are explicitly engaged with Britain’s seminal and continuing (much is made of the invention of radar) contribution the modern. As Beattie argues, “in Family Portrait, [Jennings] would endorse modernity as the engine of British history” (p. 20).
The last chapter, “Legacies”, provides a neat and elegant correlative to the first, which focuses on “Modernity, Myth, Colour and Collage: The Early Films”. In these chapters, Beattie irises in and out on the key influences on and of Jennings’ work. The first chapter examines Jennings’ early artistic practice through the key influences of Surrealism, leftist politics, his colleagues at Cambridge, collage and modernity, as well as such figures as Alberto Cavalcanti. The final chapter shifts this perspective by examining the “legacy” of Jennings’ work, and its significant influence on such filmmakers as Patrick Keiller, Terence Davies, John Boorman, Lindsay Anderson, Derek Jarman and Dennis Mitchell (several of whom are the subject of other volumes in Manchester University Press’ British Filmmakers series). Beattie does not overplay this influence – or regard it as in any way exclusive to documentary – but rather sees it in a shared concern for the nature of Britishness, the everyday, modernity and history, as well as in the complex relationship and patterning of sound and image. Although this chapter could have been developed further by trying to distinguish between specific influences and more generalised shared perspectives, it nevertheless provides a wonderful sense of the continuing importance and relevance of Jennings’ work. In this respect, Jennings’ cinema can be regarded as a living and breathing legacy rather than consisting of artefacts of another place and time (though they are that too). As is typical, Beattie’s chapter is both expansive and specific, covering a broad swathe of British film history while examining specific incidents and artefacts. In this regard, Beattie’s approach is truly sympathetic to Jennings’ inclusiveness.
The great contribution of Beattie’s beautifully written book lies in its ability to provide both a critical summary of the existing scholarship on Jennings and its own particular insights into the director’s work. In this regard, Beattie places a particular emphasis on the concept of ambiguity as a key or defining principle of Jennings’ work. He finds the basis of this in Jennings’ early work in Surrealism, particularly its fascination with the uncanny effects of collage and association. For Beattie, collage is the overriding aesthetic that drives Jennings’ work, and undercuts more simplistic readings of the nationalistic and the nostalgic elements of his films. Beattie also sees modernity as a key impetus for all of Jennings’ work. In this regard, his discussion of Jennings’ literary compilation of the “imagination” of modernity – Pandæmonium (3) – places it at the core of his concerns with collage, montage, industrialisation and Britishness. Ultimately, it is unsurprising that Beattie still prioritises Listen to Britain as the core work in Jennings’ filmography. Although it is now a little difficult to fully register the gently iconoclastic approach of Jennings’ great work – it has been so widely copied, evoked and excerpted (even by Jennings himself) – its complete reliance upon the collage of sound, music and image was so radical that the producers insisted upon an explanatory introduction. Although Jennings’ lucid, vivid and lyrical work requires no such act of explication, Beattie’s book does provide a sympathetic and invaluable critical (re)introduction.
Humphrey Jennings, by Keith Beattie, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2010.
- Kevin Jackson, Humphrey Jennings, Picador, London, 2004.
- Lindsay Anderson, “Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey Jennings”, Sight and Sound, vol. 23, no. 4, Spring 1954.
- Humphrey Jennings, Pandæmonium – 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, ed. Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge, Papermac, London, 1995.