The distinctive films of Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), is widely considered to be one of Britain’s greatest documentary filmmakers, with a distinctive style much admired by cinema-goers and critics alike. Born in Suffolk to a painter mother and architect father, he was creative in a number of fields before working in film: after attending the Perse School, he studied English literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where in his spare time he painted, designed sets, and also managed to find time to co-found the literary periodical ‘Experiment’, with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski (later to become well-known figures themselves).

A still from "London can Take It!", Jenning's documentary made in the early days of World War 2.

In 1934, Jennings joined the GPO film unit, where he worked with colleagues such as John Grierson and particularly Alberto Cavalcanti, and developed an experimental style that became instantly recognisable. Having helped to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 it’s no surprise that the movement influenced his work: he strove to see the extraordinary in the everyday, stating that ‘to the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea’. This sensibility was perfect for his work for the General Post Office, and is evidenced in films like ‘Penny Journey’, where the seemingly simple journey of a postcard is followed with a focus on the behind-the-scenes processes that enable its arrival, and, most famously, ‘London can Take It!’, a film that celebrates London’s enduring spirit, resilient even during the Blitz.

GPO Public Relations Department poster - "Visit the Post Office film display - Free" - a projector is projecting an image of a GPO badge. (POST 118/506)

Many of Humphrey Jennings’s films (alongside other GPO classics) feature on the compilation GPO Film Unit DVDS ‘Addressing The Nation’, ‘We Live In Two Worlds’, and ‘If War Should Come’, available from the BPMA shop.

Or if you want to see even more of his work, a brand new compilation released by the BFI features some of his GPO work as well as his other films. ‘The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Volume 1’ is available from the BFI shop.

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