Made for the New York World Fair of 1939, Spare Time is an incredible
portrait of the prewar working class and an early illustration of Humphrey
Unlike many films of the Grierson school, Spare Time does not expound on
social, economic or industrial problems. Narrative is all but abandoned as clips
of wrestling, ballroom dancing, card games and pigeon fanciers are strung
together in startling combinations to the sounds of brass bands, choirs, and
jazz. Indeed, art historian David Mellor has argued that the film offers the
strongest concentration of pop iconography in any work by a British artist until
the emergence of Tom Phillips and the Independent Group in the 1950s.
By abandoning the editorialising approach of the documentary movement,
Jennings' film escaped the classic trap of the British realist tradition -
namely of passing comment on working-class life as if it existed only as an
object to be 'improved' - but not the ire of his high-minded contemporaries.
Basil Wright believed that Spare Time displayed a "patronising, sometimes almost
sneering attitude towards the efforts of low-income groups". A judgement which
the contemporary viewer may find rather overstated and unfair.
Spare Time's coyness reflects not just Jennings' anxiety that the material
must speak for itself, but his previous involvement in the amateur
anthropological movement Mass Observation. Springing out of an advert in the New
Statesman, the group toured Britain recording everyday conversations overheard
in amusements, pubs and shops. Spare Time is an obvious extension of Jennings
prior involvement in MO.
Yet Spare Time is edited with artistic purpose. Joyous shots of people
running, cycling and walking contrast sharply with the static uniformity of the
working world. After the kazoo band parade lift a child dressed as Britannia on
their shoulders, the film cuts away to a caged lion - an example of the
associative cheek that Jennings learnt from the Surrealists. Likewise, the
undertow of Laurie Lee's commentary - "as things are, Spare Time is a time when
we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves" - is
unmistakably that 'things' could be different.
Throughout his life, Jennings worked steadily on a literary volume entitled
Pandemonium, a compendium of human responses to the introduction of machines in
the industrial revolution. Spare Time works as a similar cinematic catalogue,
capturing the fads and pastimes of inter-war Britain.
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.