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Spare Time (1939)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Spare Time (1939)
35mm, 15 min, black & white
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti
ScriptwriterHumphrey Jennings
PhotographyH. Fowle

Commentator: Laurie Lee

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A survey of the ways in which working people in England spent their spare time, including hobbies, dancing, card-playing and participation in group activities.

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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 Jennings' genius.

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.

Scott Anthony

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Steel town (4:08)
2. Mill town (2:20)
3. Pit village (4:38)
Complete film (13:53)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Tomorrow's Saturday (1962)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
Short Films
The GPO Film Unit: 1939