The Guillotine: Too fey for the fast-forward future

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 4: Humphrey Jennings
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The Independent Culture
The case of the film-maker Humphrey Jennings is a special one. To begin with, even prior to his involvement with the cinema, he had established himself as a literary scholar, painter, set designer and social historian, his labours in the latter capacity culminating in the uncompleted Pandemonium, a prodigious anthology of texts relating to the Industrial Revolution. Although the GPO documentary film unit had variously employed him on a few Thirties shorts, its redoubtable supremo, John Grierson, distrusted, maybe even feared, the poetic eclecticism of his magpie sensibility, and it was not until the following decade that he was able to direct a trio of minor but authentic masterpieces - Listen to Britain (1941), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945, with a commentary by E M Forster, who had been Jennings's professor at Cambridge).

These were masterpieces of a quintessentially national character, juxtaposing images of a potent, semi-mythical Britishness (or, in truth, Englishness): RAF Spitfires bisecting a landscape by Constable; dancers on a packed ballroom floor in Blackpool; a BBC studio; the Houses of Parliament; infants playing in a schoolyard; a Myra Hess recital at the National Gallery. Jennings's films were meant exclusively for his war-beleaguered compatriots, without the selectivity or readiness to compromise which result from angling after an international audience. In a wholly unpejorative sense, he was preaching to the converted, except that Jennings never preached.

"Masterpieces"? "Prodigious"? "Poetic"? "Potent"? Why in heaven's name, then, should the poor man be destined for posterity's chop? Put bluntly, because he has never caught on. It's as simple as that. Virtually everyone in the film-critical community acknowledges his achievement, and attempts to bring his films to a wider, non-specialised public are still fairly frequent, but to no avail.

It's possible that his work was simply too essayistic, fey and introverted for the fast-forward, finger-drumming mores of Nineties moviegoing. It's possible, too, that, Cool Britons as we affect to see ourselves, we've grown alienated from the indomitable, threadbare ordinariness of British life by which Jennings was inspired, an ordinariness he found all the more poignant in that it was, during the Forties, permanently under siege. It's possible, above all, that even posterity, that 13th-hour judgement once thought to be infallible, has been contaminated by the reigning, rampant philistinism of our contemporary culture.