The building of Pandaemonium

From the cover of Pandaemonium
From the cover of Pandaemonium

It’s that time of the year when people start producing lists of their books of the year. This year the choice ought to be an easy one. The book of 2012 is one collated between 1937 and its author’s death in 1950, then not published until 1985, left to dwindle into obscurity except in the hearts of a diehard few, then resurgent (and republished) once again in 2012 as the inspiration behind the extraordinary opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

The book is Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium, or to give its full time: Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers. I wrote a post on my British Library Moving Image blog a couple of days after the opening ceremony, entitled Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder, which pointed out the profound relationship between Jennings’ book and Danny Boyle’s vision of a new Jerusalem. I had been a bit bewildered at first by the ceremony on TV, but the scenarist of the ceremony, Frank Cottrell Boyce, mentioned in a Guardian piece that Pandaemonium had been an inspiration to Boyle and himself, and suddenly everthing fell into place. Others picked up on the association as well, and there was a rush of people seeking copies only to find that it was out of print and copies were scarce and pricey. Happily someone had been thinking ahead, as Icon Books have republished the book, with a foreword by Boyce. For anyone interested in social, political, industrial or scientific history, or in the relationship of film to such matters, Pandaemonium is an essential read.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) was a documentary filmmaker, renowed for such impressionistic yet forceful records of Britain in a time of war as Listen to Britain (1942, co-directed with Stewart McAllister), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1946). Like others in the British documentary movement Jennings was greatly interested in the underlying forces of industry and economics that shaped society and thereby the films that he made of that society. He began collecting historical texts (extracts which he called Images) from poets, diarists, sientists, industrialist and the like, dating from 1660 (when John Milton wrote a passage in his epic poem Paradise Lost which includes the the key Image of the building of Pandaemonium, the capital of Hell, that particularly inspired Boyce and Boyle) to 1886, which collectively documented the rise of the machine age. In his notes for an introduction, Jennings called it “the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution”. The work was unfinished at Jennings’ untimely death and was only completed by editors Mary-Lou Jennings (daughter of the filmmaker) and Charles Madge in 1985.

The new edition has a foreword by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who describes how the booked helped inspire the vision of the history of the modern age in Britain that was expounded in Boyce and Boyle’s ceremony. He expresses key elements that Jennings brought to their work through his own set of Images. He also supplies the narrative of how the book came to him. He was originally given a copy by the film director Julian Temple, whose incendiary documentary London – The Modern Babylon, was released this year (and is now available on DVD); itself a collection of Images (in the form of archive footage of London) documenting how London’s outsiders have helped change the city throughout the course of the twentieth century.

Glastonbury Tor, disgorging workers
Glastonbury Tor, disgorging workers

A few years later, when Danny Boyle was directing Frankenstein at the National Theatre, Boyce lent him his copy of Pandaemonium. It’s not clear whether the book influenced Boyle’s acclaimed 2011 stage production, but when it came to Boyle being commissioned to direct the Opening Ceremony, with Boyce as scenarist, Pandaemonium was at the forfront of their thinking – indeed the opening section of the ceremony would be entitled ‘Pandaemonium’. As Boyce writes:

Its most striking images – an industrial powerhouse rising before your eyes, a green hill disgorging workers into the arena, rings forged in molten steel – all come from here

Only by reading Pandaemonium can you appreciate how Jennings’ collection of texts (and the thematic indexes that accompany it) inspired the opening ceremony, not simply through the historical narrative but in shared technique (impressionist argument through collage and montage) and a shared understanding of national identity, place, industry and history, the fate of human beings caught up in the machine age, where what happened in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries still matter deeply to those of us of the 20th and 21st centuries. Pandaemonium is very much a book for 2012.

Pandaemonium is available in print and e-book form, and the latter would seem to be particularly appropriate if only each individual Image (there are 372 of them) were chaptered and cross-searchable, though I rather suspect that this will not turn out to be the case. But also now available is the BBC 5-disc set of its Olympic Games coverage, which includes one-and-a-half discs given over to a ‘specially edited’ version of the opening ceremony, with commentary supplied by Boyle and Boyce plus background extras. The re-edit includes shot that didn’t feature during the original broadcast, and mercifully is free of the BBC commentary.

Pandaemonium doesn’t get a mention in the DVD commentary, but the whole thing is so multi-layered it would take a dozen commentaries to unpick every reference and correlation. Watching again, however, and reading Boyce’s foreword to the book, made me think that their work was not just inspired by Jennings’ work but a response to it. Jennings seems concerned primarily about the continuation of imagination and vision (the survival of poetry) aid the great changes wrought by industrialisation. Boyce and Boyle were concerned more about the progressive nature of that revolution, which brought about suffrage, democracy, literacy and universal health care. Yet both Jennings and Boyce are romantics, who know and believe that Jersualem can be built again, in England’s green and pleasant land.

Oh, and Danny Boyle contributes two lines to the foreword, which are extraordinary for what they say about film. Here they are:

Peyps, the Domesday Book, the films of Mitchell and Kenyon – there are certain works of record without which the lineage of our lives would be lost. For those who care how we are and how recently that journey took place, this book is essential.

Let’s see it on the national curriculum soon.

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