Tag Archives: London Can Take It!

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.

If War Should Come

Today sees the release of If War Should Come, the third and final deluxe double-disc box set of films from the GPO Unit.

Created in 1933 out of the ashes of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, the GPO Film Unit was one of the most remarkable creative institutions that Britain has produced. A hotbed of creative energy and talent, it provided a spring board to many of the best-known and critically acclaimed figures in the British Documentary Movement, including John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Harry Watt, alongside innovators and experimentalists such as Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Their work embraced public information films, drama-documentary, social reportage, animation, advertising and many points in between.  

The British Postal Museum & Archive, in partnership with The BFI National Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage, has curated and preserved the legendary output of short films produced by the GPO Film Unit.

This final volume of three sets covers 1939-1941, the last years of the GPO Film Unit before it evolved into the Crown Film Unit. This period saw it at its most technically sophisticated, with directors such as Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti leading the way in the use of documentary cinema in support of the war effort. Among the films in this collection are Jennings’ poetic masterpiece Spare Time and the rousing classics Christmas Under Fire and London Can Take It!

The discs are presented in a deluxe box with a 68-page bound book containing introductory essays, film notes and selected biographies.

Disc one:
The City (Ralph Elton, 1939)
The Islanders (Maurice Harvey, 1939)
Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
A Midsummer Day’s Work (Alberto Cavalcanti (uncredited), 1939)
If War Should Come (uncredited, 1939)
The First Days (Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings, Pat Jackson, 1939)
SS Ionian (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
War Library Items 1, 2, and 3 (uncredited, 1940)

Disc two:
Squadron 992 (Harry Watt, 1940)
La Cause Commune (Alberto Cavalcanti, uncredited, 1940)
French Communiqué (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1940)
The Front Line (Harry Watt (uncredited), 1940)
Men of the Lightship (David MacDonald, 1940)
London Can Take It! (Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings (both uncredited), 1940)
Spring Offensive (Humphrey Jennings, 1940)
The Story of an Air Communiqué (Ralph Eton, uncredited, 1940)
War and Order (Charles Hasse, 1940)
Christmas Under Fire (Harry Watt, 1941)

Special features:

  • Britain Can Take It! (1940) Slightly shorter version of London Can Take It! which was made for British audiences
  • Interview with director Pat Jackson (2007)

PAL Region 2 DVD, designed to be played on Region 2 encoded DVD players.

If War Should Come is available now from the BPMA Shop. More information on the GPO Film Unit can be found on our website.