Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)


Main image of Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)

Penrose Tennyson was born in Chelsea on 26 August 1912, the eldest great-grandson of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. His father was a senior government official. Tennyson was educated at Eton and Oxford, but left university after only two terms and in 1932 joined the scenario department at the Gaumont-British studios in Shepherd's Bush. He was promoted to third assistant director on The Good Companions (d. Victor Saville, 1933), and then to assistant director to Alfred Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The 39 Steps (1935) - where he also doubled for Madeleine Carroll in high heels and a blonde wig. While at Gaumont-British, Tennyson was active in helping establish the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT) as an effective union.

Michael Balcon, a personal friend of the family, "looked upon Pen as if he were my own son", and took a close interest in his career. Tennyson followed him first to MGM, acting as assistant director on A Yank at Oxford (d. Jack Conway, 1937) and The Citadel (d. King Vidor, 1938), and then in 1938 to Ealing, where he made his directorial debut as the youngest feature director then working in Britain. That same year he married the actress Nova Pilbeam, whom he had met while working on The Man Who Knew Too Much. There Ain't No Justice (1939), based on a tough novel by James Curtis, set out to be an exposé of corruption in the boxing world but never hit hard enough, anticipating the cycle of earnest, conscientious films that Basil Dearden would make at Ealing in the post-war period. Graham Greene, trenchant as ever, noted that "the whole picture breathes timidity and refinement".

Tennyson's second film, The Proud Valley (1940), also set out to be an exposé but was hijacked by events. Set in a mining community in South Wales, it was planned to end with the miners defiantly opening a pit closed by the blinkered mine-owners. Overtaken by the outbreak of war, the film was changed in the interests of national solidarity to show the workers winning over the bosses by dint of their patriotic fervour. But in the earlier part of the film Tennyson created a powerful sense of community (always a key Ealing concept), even if he could do little with the stilted acting of Paul Robeson, awkwardly cast as a saintly and self-sacrificing black migrant mine-worker.

Convoy (1940), a naval flag-waver, much praised at the time, now looks old-fashioned and stagy with its unconvincing shipboard sets and its roster of '30s actors giving clipped performances as stiff-upper-lip officer types. With the arrival of Cavalcanti and his documentary-trained colleagues Ealing would soon develop a far more downbeat and realistic style of war movies. But Tennyson didn't survive to take advantage of it. Refusing exemption, he had joined the navy as a lieutenant and was about to take charge of the Admiralty's Educational Film Unit. On 7 July 1941 he was flying from Shetland to the naval base at Rosyth in a small Fleet Air Arm plane when it crashed, killing all those on board.

Balcon, Michael, 'Sub-Lieutenant F. Penrose Tennyson' in Derek Tangye (ed), Went the Day Well (London: Michael Joseph, 1995), pp. 196-200
Greene, Graham, Mornings in the Dark, ed. David Parkinson (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993)
C.T. [Charles Tennyson], Pen Tennyson (London: A S Atkinson, 1943)

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 39 Steps, The (1935)39 Steps, The (1935)

Classic Hitchcock thriller about spies, secrets and Scotland

Thumbnail image of First A Girl (1935)First A Girl (1935)

Musical comedy in which a woman dresses as a man dressing as a woman

Thumbnail image of Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)

The original version of Hitchcock's classic man-on-the-run thriller

Thumbnail image of Proud Valley, The (1940)Proud Valley, The (1940)

Paul Robeson's last British feature, set in a Welsh mining community

Thumbnail image of Sabotage (1936)Sabotage (1936)

Dark reworking of Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'

Thumbnail image of Secret Agent (1936)Secret Agent (1936)

Hitchcock thriller starring a young John Gielgud

Thumbnail image of Young and Innocent (1937)Young and Innocent (1937)

Hitchcock thriller about an innocent man suspected of murder

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Related people and organisations