Fires Were Started*

*Fires Were Started is a 1943 British film written and directed by Humphrey Jennings.

Above: plaque to the memory of Sidney Alfred Holder, in Shoe Lane, City of London, current site of the offices of Goldman Sachs.

At the beginning of the Second World War the British artist Leonard Rosoman joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, which in 1941 became the National Fire Service, and began making paintings based on his experiences as a fire-fighter during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz in London. One of these A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 (1941), now in the Imperial War Museum, shows the incident on the night of 29/30 December 1940 in which a 33 year old railway porter turned fireman, Sidney Alfred Holder, who had just relieved Rosoman at his position, was killed by a collapsing building in the City of London. Whilst the other fireman, William Sansom, survived, the scene haunted Rosoman and he re-worked the painting several times. Rosoman sometimes called his work, The Falling Wall. It was completed in August, 1941, and was shown in that year’s Firemen Artists exhibition at the Royal Academy.

In 1944 William Sansom’s short story The Wall was published in the literary journal, Horizon. After the war, Sansom became a full-time writer.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) joined the GPO Film Unit, then under John Grierson, in 1934. In 1936, Jennings helped with the organisation of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, in association with André Breton, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read. It was at about this time that Jennings, along with Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, helped to found Mass Observation. The GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit in 1940, a film-making propaganda arm of the Ministry of Information, and Jennings joined the new organisation.

Jennings’ only feature-length film, the 65 minute Fires Were Started (1943) – known in its first 74 minute cut as I Was A Fireman – details the work of the Auxiliary Fire Service in London. It blurs the lines between fiction and documentary because the scenes are re-enactments. This film, which uses techniques such as montage, is considered one of the classics of the genre. Exterior shots were filmed on location, while the interior scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios.

The film uses actual firemen – including Cyril Demarne, a British firefighter (who, like Sansom, served in London throughout the Blitz of the Second World War) rather than professional actors. Sansom appeared in the film as the fireman who plays the piano. (Sansom described his positive experiences making the film in Film Quarterly in 1961.) Film critics mostly praised the film for its realism and documentary value, despite its reconstructions. Dilys Powell, of the Sunday Times declared its authenticity to be ‘moving and terrifying’.

Humphrey Jennings died in Poros, Greece, in a fall on the cliffs of the Greek island while scouting locations for a film on post-war healthcare in Europe.

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