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Pembroke and Pandaemonium

As a new display at Pembroke shows, the College was once home to the man behind the pandemonium of the 2012 London Olympics.

Resident members of the College may have noticed a new display in J staircase. Put together by our Graduate Trainee Librarian, Peter Czosnyka, it explores the life and works of Humphrey Jennings (1926).

It includes Jennings’ identity card, stills from his films and a slim volume of tributes by other filmmakers that was published after his death.


Despite making over 30 films and being considered one of Britain’s most important documentary filmmakers, Jennings’ name has largely fallen into obscurity, recognised only by film fanatics.

Jennings was educated at the Perse School in Cambridge. He won a scholarship to come to Pembroke in 1926 to read English. When he arrived, he was given a room in Old Court and placed in the care of his Director of Studies, Aubrey Attwater.

Jennings was a gifted student, winning several prizes and scholarships. Whilst a student, he co-founded and edited Experiment, a journal on sciences, philosophy and art. One of the other founders was William Empson, who would become a lifelong friend.


Jennings was not only interested in literature; he saw himself primarily as a painter and spent much of his time talking energetically about the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He was also heavily involved with the ADC, where he acted, danced and created stage sets for student productions.

In his final year he gained a starred First Class degree and married the painter Cicely Cooper. He started a PhD on fellow Pembroke man Thomas Gray (1756), supervised by the literary giant I.A. Richards. However, Jennings soon drifted from the academic path and casually took a string of jobs as a photographer, editor, teacher, actor and painter.

In 1934 he joined the GPO Film Unit, a subdivision of the Post Office, probably to secure some income after the birth of his first daughter. Although he was paid to produce documentaries advertising the Post Office, he was not interested in the idea of film as a social tool. Many of his early films were experimental. Critics now consider them to be replete with surrealist influences and in 1936 Jennings helped organise the Surrealist Exhibition in London. He included some of his own photographs and collages; one collage showed a larger-than-life swiss roll placed in front of a mountain landscape, and it inspired a painting now in the Tate.

Swiss Roll (1939), Oil on canvas mounted on board, Tate. A painting based upon his collage.

Swiss Roll (1939), Oil on canvas mounted on board, Tate.

In 1936 he founded the Mass Observation movement, which aimed to create an anthropology of everyday life in Britain. Volunteers were recruited to observe, record and analyse the ordinary people around them and write down what they saw. Within this huge-scale project, Jennings was particularly interested in the lives of working class northerners and this fascination became evident in his work.

When war broke out, the GPO Film Unit came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information. Somehow the war seemed to galvanise Jennings’ talent. All of his major works were produced during the war, including Listen to Britain (1942). This audio record of a day in Britain was an innovative collage of sounds and music. In honour of this remarkable work, we have created our own version, Listen To Pembroke, to help you hear a day in the life of the College in 2015:

Jennings was particularly skilled at producing morale boosting public service broadcasts. His unusual style of war propaganda rarely mentioned the enemy. Instead, his documentaries were gentle, respectful and focussed on what it meant to be British. One critic describes it like this: ‘The British faces these documentaries record are hardly suggestive of ferocious Anglo-Saxon, Norse or Celtic warrior ancestry, but are humorous, patient, shy and touchingly ugly.’

Jennings’ only feature-length film was also his most influential work. Fires Were Started or I Was a Fireman (1943) used re-enactments to show twenty-four hours in the life of the Auxiliary Fire Service in London. It was warmer, more authentic and more respectful than anything he had made before.

The last film he completed, Family Portrait (1950), finally allowed him to articulate what he was hoping to do with his films: he claimed that he was trying to create ‘a new kind of poetry and a new kind of prose’. However, he struggled after the war to find a way to articulate himself. Several people speculate that he had reached a point where wanted to get out of the film industry.

However, he was asked to make a film about health improvement in Europe and agreed. He travelled to Greece to shoot footage and, whilst searching for a suitable location, slipped and fell off a cliff, sustaining fatal injuries. He was 43.

He left behind him an almost-complete manuscript for ‘a collection of texts on the Impact of the Machine’. He had been fascinated for decades by the mechanisation of modern life and its impact on the human imagination, and had worked fitfully on an anthology about the subject since the late 1930s. It was finally published in 1985 as Pandaemonium, 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. It was this that became the inspiration for a key section of Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in London.

Danny Boyle’s recognition of Jennings as an influence helped Jennings to gain new prominence. Diana Athill wrote an article about him in the Guardian. In July 2013, the BFI released the third and final volume in The Complete Humphrey Jennings DVD series. In May 2014, his film Spare Time (1939) was featured on a postage stamp. In December 2014, Mary-Louise published a new book about her father, titled Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet.

Jennings’ archive is now stored at Pembroke, but his connection to the College does not stop there. His biographer, Kevin Jackson (1974) also studied at Pembroke and recently wrote an article for the Martlet about Jennings. As with all pieces in the Martlet, it was illustrated by Martin Rowson (1978). Rowson is, by coincidence, married to Jennings’ granddaughter. Their son in turn attended Pembroke; Fred Rowson (2007) is now a filmmaker, neatly bringing the story almost full circle.

If you are a resident member of Pembroke, do stop by and take a look at Peter’s display in the next few weeks.


For more on Jennings and Pandemonium, see Marie-Louise’s article in a recent edition of the Gazette (p11). If you really want to know more about Jennings, you might be interested to know that as part of the Pembroke-King’s Programme, Dr Charlie Ritchie is offering a course titled ‘Imagining the Real: Humphrey Jennings and Contemporary Documentary Filmmaking’.

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