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Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor

Main image of Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)

Richard Massingham was born on 31 January 1898 in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, the son of a distinguished newspaper editor. He trained in medicine, and reached the position of Senior Medical Officer at the London Fever Hospital. Passionate about cinema and sophisticated in his tastes, he began making amateur films in his spare time; his first known foray in 1933 was about the hospital where he worked. The following year he completed a short about a traumatic visit to the dentist, Tell Me if it Hurts, made with experimental trimmings and great assurance; critical acclaim followed its distribution in 1935. And So to Work (1936), a comic account of a lodger's miseries preparing for the day, offered the same leading player, Russell Waters, in another wry variation on the same basic theme, further capturing the essence of mundane existence in Britain in the 1930s. Champions in the industry helped Massingham secure a part-time berth at the GPO Film Unit, though his output there proved less successful. Awkward whimsy, indebted to French cinema, particularly afflicted The Daily Round; the black humour of his independently made Come for a Stroll survives the years better.

Professionally insecure and a hypochondriac, Massingham finally made the difficult decision to leave medicine for full-time professional film-making. He registered his own company, Public Relationship Films, in 1938, though it took the Second World War to make the outfit active, producing short films for the Ministry of Information and other government departments, along with numerous advertisements. Alongside directing, Massingham began to loom large onscreen, appearing as an avuncular figure exhorting audiences in trailer-length films to save fuel, sneeze into a handkerchief, or bathe in the war's recommended limit of five inches of water. As an actor he possessed an amazingly expressive face and a childlike charm that made for easy identification across all classes; by casting himself as the absent-minded 'everyman', always a little denser than the audience, he allowed them to feel amused and superior, though with the film's message firmly dinned into their heads. Longer post-war films like They Travel by Air (1947) and Pool of Contentment (1946), made for private training purposes, adopted a similar strategy, constructing hypothetical scenarios of good behaviour and bad to lighten the business of becoming an expert secretary in a government typing pool or an air steward for BOAC.

In his earliest films Massingham used relatively sophisticated contemporary film-making techniques, borrowed particularly from Russian and European art cinema: Tell Me If It Hurts especially contains obvious twinges of German Expressionism and the 'city symphony' films. Wartime needs required a more simplified approach, though his delight in abrupt cutting and surreal juxtapositions, and an aversion to dialogue, remained. After 1945, when the company output expanded, Massingham often relegated the director's duties to young recruits to his staff, most notably Michael Law, but he remained in charge as producer, deviser, and onscreen presence. The black humour of What a Life! (d. Michael Law, 1948), inspired by contemporary moans about post-war Britain, could only have come from Massingham; while The Cure (1950), a satire on the medical profession and his own hypochondria, is a home movie writ large. In the early 1950s, the sponsored film market began to shrink in ambition. Massingham moved sideways with a lightly charming short for children, To the Rescue (1952), co-directed with Jacques Brunius; the film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, though it gives no clinching proof that Massingham's skills were fitted for fiction.

As a director, actor, producer and original creative talent who worked outside the feature format, Massingham is easily overlooked by film history. But within the ninety or so films he made - many only a few minutes long - there is enough British eccentricity and cinematic wit to earn him a special place alongside the other individualists of the British short film, Humphrey Jennings and Len Lye. Massingham died at his home in Biddenden, Kent on 1 April 1953, during production of The Blakes Slept Here, a lavish and curious Technicolor amalgam of gas advertisement and historical cavalcade.

Baker, Bob, 'Richard Massingham', Film Dope n. 41, March 1989, pp. 1-3
Brown, Geoff, 'Richard Massingham: the Great English Cineaste?', Cinegraphie 15, 2000, pp.351-361 (earlier version: 'Richard Massingham: the five-inch film-maker', in Sight and Sound, Summer 1976, pp. 156-9)
Langlois, Henri, and others, Richard Massingham: A Tribute by his Friends and a Record of his Films (London: British Film Institute, 1955)

Geoff Brown and Bryony Dixon, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Another Case of Poisoning (1949)Another Case of Poisoning (1949)

Witty but terrifying public information film about food hygeine

Thumbnail image of Coughs and Sneezes (1945)Coughs and Sneezes (1945)

Comic health propaganda film on the dangers of spreading germs

Thumbnail image of Cure, The (1950)Cure, The (1950)

Enjoyable short film about the misfortune of back pain

Thumbnail image of Five-Inch Bather, The (1942)Five-Inch Bather, The (1942)

Joyous celebration of shallow bathing in wartime

Thumbnail image of Help Yourself (1950)Help Yourself (1950)

Witty public information film warning householders about burglary

Thumbnail image of Jet-Propelled Germs (1948)Jet-Propelled Germs (1948)

Enjoyable short information film about the health risks of sneezing

Thumbnail image of Mony a Pickle (1938)Mony a Pickle (1938)

A film advocating thrift by use of the Post Office Savings Bank

Thumbnail image of Pedestrian Crossing (1948)Pedestrian Crossing (1948)

Fun public information film explaining how to cross the road

Thumbnail image of Read Any Good Meters Lately? (1947)Read Any Good Meters Lately? (1947)

Entertainingly daft film promoting gas economy

Thumbnail image of Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)

Classic Richard Massingham short about a painful visit to the dentist

Thumbnail image of What a Life! (1948)What a Life! (1948)

Comic skit on the complaint 'this country is going to the dogs'

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Public Information FillersPublic Information Fillers

Messages for the masses

Thumbnail image of Richard Massingham on ContinuityRichard Massingham on Continuity

A piece written for Sight and Sound in 1939

Thumbnail image of Short FilmsShort Films

The feature's older but less celebrated brother

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Central Office of Information (1946-2012)Central Office of Information (1946-2012)

Film Unit, Sponsor