There are a number of good answers to that question, since Jennings was a man of many accomplishments. He was the editor of an innovative collage of texts about the coming of the Machine Age, Pandaemonium. He was a painter, and a key member of the British surrealist movement. He was a co-founder of the domestic anthropology project Mass Observation. He was also a poet, a critic, a translator, a broadcaster, a photographer . . . and he directed films.
To be exact, he directed a number of documentaries about the Home Front during the Second World War. Since programmes about the war regularly plunder sequences from them, almost everyone has seen at least some footage, but few would recognise Jennings's name. The bulk of his work was sponsored by the Ministry of Information for the war effort, and propaganda, we tend to think, has nothing to do with art.
But Jennings has always had his ardent supporters, who maintain not merely that he can be seen as a democratic counterpart to Leni Riefenstahl, but that his is a name that should be set beside those of Hitchcock or Powell or Lean. In the verdict of director Lindsay Anderson, Jennings is 'the only real poet the British cinema has so far produced'.
Extravagant? Possibly, but Anderson has abundant evidence to support his claim. Jennings's greatest films - Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy - always met Milton's requirement that poetry should be 'simple, sensuous and passionate'. Half a century on, their complexity is as evident as their simplicity. It's not just that their editing is at once graceful and startling, or that their pictorial beauty can be intense. More importantly, they are charged with ideas and feelings Jennings had developed in his other careers.
Jennings believed that the business of the poet was to show his compatriots who they were, and that this involved showing who they had been in the past. In time of war, his films did just that; and today, at a time when debates about our national identity have reached fresh pitches of masochism and jingoism, his calm, eloquent voice has a fresh cogency.
Fortunately, the British Film Institute is even now at work on a scheme to restore a dozen of Jennings's best films; the first few titles will be screened next week. Coming hard on the heels of Remembrance Sunday, the timing of this revival is all the more apt. The season when we commemorate our war dead is also a good time to recall and recover one of our great war artists. KJ
The Jennings restorations will be shown at Momi at 2pm and 6pm on 17 November. Paintings by Jennings are on show at the Mayor Gallery, Cork St, London until 25 November. 'The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader' is published by Carcanet at pounds 25.
The London Film Festival continues until 21 November. Box Office: 071-928 3232Reuse content