Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Article spotted by Columba Powell, given to me at NFT screening of Black Narcissus & interview with Kathleen Byron. 18th March 2000.
Paul Quinn on a celluloid journey from Canterbury to Notting Hill
From the Tate Gallery Art Magazine
The audience files into the Colpeper Institute, Chillingbourne, a magic lantern show as time machine. Thomas Colpeper is a driven ascetic, played in Powell and Pressburger's remarkable 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, by Eric Portman. His mission is to excite an audience of soldiers, a GI and a land girl about the rich, rooted continuities of Kentish life. His monkish profile is framed by the slideless projection light beamed on to the wall like a full moon. The camera pans around the squaddies' faces, each the trace of a medieval type. "Cook, clerk, doctor, lawyer, merchant, they came to Canterbury to ask for a blessing or to do penance ... follow the old road and as you walk think of them and of the old England ..."
As it turns out, there is much going on outside the frame in a film that transposes Why We Fight into Who We Are, What We Desire; Colpeper is also the mysterious Glueman. By night he secretly and serially pours glue on girls' hair. His motivation is revealed ultimately to be a mission to attract soldiers to his lectures, to remove the distractions of local girls by a curfew of fear: "I'm going to defend pouring knowledge into people's heads by force if necessary ... knowledge of our country, love of its beauty."
Like all in the quiver of films the Archers (as Powell and Pressburger collectively termed themselves) released in this period, this one is both didactically targeted and tangentially bowed. In many ways the scene, the entire film, is an echo of the many paeans to England threatened or estranged by time or distance, from Rupert Brooke (and where does that association end? With another Archer, and is there fragrance still for tea?) to political co-options of similar sentiments such as Stanley Baldwin's litany in On England ("the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone and the sight of a ploughteam coming over the brow of a hill ..."), through a round of warm beer epiphanies, reaching last orders in John Major's dregs: bat on willow, spokes of the spinster's bicycle.
A Canterbury Tale partakes of many of these national metonyms, replete with wartime agricultural workers that seem to have stepped directly front the pages of the Luttrell Psalter. But given the atypical place of the Archers in British film culture, these imagined communities are floated in a sea of considerable strangeness: to the conservatism and pastoralism that marked their vision as profoundly as those less idiosyncratically rooted in the traditions of British culture, is wedded an obsessional quality, a voyeurism and scopophilia, more sinisterly cinematic, reaching its apex in Powell's Peeping Tom, but already present here in fetishised form - that glue pouring, like the film, is too overdetermined. Sublimation? An allegory of the need to make Britain's fragments cohere, become adhesive? Native misogyny? These and many, more explanations are left hanging, totally overbalancing the film's other axis, its didactic drive.
In fact, in this sequence, we only get as far as slide one from Collpeper's magic lantern, "the bend on the pilgrim's road"; but if we went further down that road, on what slides might Colpeper draw with the image-bank of his culture's cinematic as well as its literary heritage at his disposal? Which films persuasively, convince us of a recognisable national identity? And which act as aporias, anomalies, blindspots and multiple vanishing points for a more fluid sense of identity than the nation's cinema traditionally invokes?
Slide one: the pastoral
That bend on the pilgrim's road is as good a route as any through British cinema. Everywhere you turn are rose-tinted visions of hedgerows and hills; the army vehicles that tear up the terrain in A Canterbury Tale bring home how precarious is this countryside, so that film itself becomes a vehicle of conservation. The country becomes an enclosure for imperilled ways of life: islanders beating off bureaucrats and business, from Whisky Galore (aka, tellingly, Tight Little Island) to Local Hero. In another Archers film, A Matter of Life and Death, an archetypal arcadian vision - a goatherd resting on a sand dune regaling his herd with panpipes - makes its protagonist believe he is in heaven until a low flying spitfire [Spitfire?? It was a Blenheim light bomber] brings him to earth. Tensions simmer beneath the placid surface of the pastoral, because while it signifies timelessness, exigencies of plot and progress mean that structurally it cannot but be an interlude: war, developers, the encroaching outside world are constant threats. A clump of trees might harbour an endangered tawny pipit, or 39 steps across a Scottish moor may, lead to a nesting German agent. What defines the British is always under siege, so attempts to stay rooted are always tenuous. In Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man, the Everyman hero stumbles across a bucolic picture postcard image, a village church at harvest festival; in the midst of this plenty the vicar's wife breastfeeds the exhausted Travis, before sending him back into the big bad world. In this way, the maverick social-surrealist Anderson mercilessly mocks the sunlit, infantalising sufficiencies of the pastoral idyll.
Slide two: the urban
The pastoral and the urban are mutually dependent in British film imagery. The urban hell is defined by the pastoral paradise. The world of work and labour is usually one from which to escape. The vehicle of escape is, ironically, the engine of industrialisation, the train. It is odd that two of the first films ever made - the Lumi re Brothers' shots of workers leaving their Lyons factory and a train arriving at a station - were to feature imagery subsequently central to British film culture (the very idea of which one of Lumi re's countrymen, Truffaut, thought oxymoronic): the factory and the train. The factory gates open to a buoyant Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, admit the possibility of post-war Labour landslides in Millions Like Us, entrap Albert Finney until Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, harbour sinister commie seditionists in The Angry Silence or comic ones in I'm All Right Jack.
To study the national sense of collectivity we have only to sit back and watch competing ideologies clock in. The train is an enclosed world or an escape from the workaday world; in films such as Bank Holiday, Holiday Camp, or the opening of Brighton Rock, the urban poor head for the seaside, a licensed transcendence of everyday life. This image of escape reccurs in various guises and the desired transcendence is usually defeated; it takes bathetic forms such as a yearned-for move to the suburbs in Room at the Top, a missed train to the bright lights for Billy Liar (would-be working class escapees in British films of the 1960s hear a comic voice from 1930s cinema, Moore Marriot's in Oh, Mr Porter echoing down the platform "Next train's gone!"). The soaring kestrel in the prologue of A Canterbury Tale undergoes a cross-cut evolution into a fighter plane; in Ken Loach's realist riposte, Kes, it's a grimly inevitable flightpath to the trashcan.
Even Lynne Ramsay's recent Ratcatcher envisions utopia in pastoral terms - a new estate outside the city opening on to wheat fields. The inner city by contrast is something out of nineteenth- century demonisations of "how the poor live", such as Henry Mayhey's with his account of rats attacking men "with such fury that the people have escaped from them with difficulty". In Ratcatcher, a strike by dustmen means rubbish heaps strew the streets and rats prowl. Such a cityscape is an ultimate affront to the vision of a Ruskin for whom "a good sewer" was "a far nobler and a far holier thing ... than the most admired madonna ever painted". Though appositional in purpose, and born out of experience, a film such as Ratcatcher incorporates traditional images of the proletariat as portrayed from above - a danger being that rats function as the metaphoric poor, as well as metonyms of poverty; a system-directed critique becomes a confirmation of ancient stereotypes, a symbolic space where garbage, rats and the poor engage in a dance of substitutions, while the bourgeoisie sit it out in the arthouse, at worst disgusted, at best moved but, worryingly, unsurprised by, prejudicial representations ground deep in the national psyche.
Slide three: surveillance
Colpeper watches and bids his audience watch. At the same time, lie is spying on them, ready with his glue. The ambivalence of surveillance is registered in many British films; appropriately, enough, it relates also to the history of cinema itself.
Colpeper gives his history lesson by means of cinema's antecedent, a magic lantern; this machinery again comes into play much later in British film, in Bill Douglas's Comrades. But in the latter, we are given a very different kind of history instead of continuities in an homogeneous island story we have "a lanternists account" of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Sliding between both films and their divergent tableaux, see get a sense that the apparatus of the gaze can both fire and freeze. In A Matter of Life and Death, another of the Archers' benign authority figures, Dr Reeves, watches village life roll by (there actually is a proto-Majorite vicar's wife abroad on her bike) with a camera obscura; in his raised eyrie he peers at the mirrored disc below him like a god crouched over a world. He is the good doctor with power of life and death, but he is also that other British obsession - the spy, the licensed voyeur.
Frequently in British films, the Benthamite, panopticon model of surveillance infiltrates the pastoral one: to get to his arcadia, Anderson's Travis moves between less idealised constants of the British countryside; it is a stopover after a military intelligence base where he is tortured over tea by ministry men, and before a research institute where geneticist forbears of the men who made Dolly the Sheep (and Dolly surely is at once the apotheosis and antidote of modern British pastoral) attempt to cross him with a pig. A similar. warp in the woolly pastoral fabric occurs in the 1950s classic Quatermass II, in which a village that ten years earlier would have been populated by Ealing whimsy is surrounded by barbed wire and off-limits to outsiders. The alien domes of the secret plant bespeak new truths of the changing British countryside, and provoke new questions about watching and being watched. A survey of Britain's obsession with the look, be it secret, sinister or salacious (edited by Nicolas Roeg for best effect), would move through Powell's Peeping Tom, spies seedy or suave, from Palmer to Bond, Witchfinder General's period proof that the inquisitional is ever ready to gallop out of a dappled glade, an appalled Michael Caine watching a porn film featuring his dead brother's daughter in Get Carter , Robin Askquith peering, leering, through a suburban upstairs window in Confessions of a Window Cleaner, and Roeg's own Performance , a play of Borgesian mirrors - perhaps the scene where hoodlum James Fox threatens a lowlife projectionist: "You know, I don't think I'm gonna let you stay in the film business." Made in the 1960s (though canned until 1970) when identity seemed at its most productively blurred, when we are most unsure just what we are looking at.
Slide four: diplomacy, or wedding bells
British cinema has long been, perforce, a diplomatic medium. Adept at explaining an island to itself, it must also look to overseas relations. Thus, Colpeper's converts critically include an American GI who also learns he has a stake in Britain's past. Reunited with his buddy in a Canterbury teashop, he can recite the story of the pilgrim's road verbatim.
The war brought out the best in the British, coaxing them out from under their understatement and revealing a renewed sense of history. The Archers' first post-war film, A Matter of Life and Death, was conceived as propaganda for the new peace; though characteristically baroque in its conception, at its heart is a simple love story, culminating in the eternal love of an RAF pilot for an American girl. This film, this union, can be said to mark the salad days of a "special relationship" that has been abiding if problematic. Subsequently Britain's most ambitious filmmakers depart for Hollywood, America's falling stars land over here; Dana Andrews finds occult traces in the English countryside of Night of the Demon, the very American Brian Donlevy incarnates the quintessentially British boffin, professor Quatermass. A bizarre unwritten edict emerges that every B-film should have an American protagonist, while canny British actors find they can earn a shilling or make a buck by repressing their RADA or Rank charm schooling and approximating an American drawl: who can ever remember a trilby sporting, pre-DJ Pete Murray as wise- cracking Biff in Escort for Hire? There was never an unequivocal golden age, of course, when Britain made non-ambivalent representations of itself. The ambivalences are in many ways what's most interesting. Before and during the war Scotland's crofters and shipbuilders are dutifully recorded in grainily poetic documentaries; afterwards, we get whimsy galore - a kilted Bill Travis tossing the caber in Geordie , or taking The Bridal Path; then, after the success of Hammer aesthetics, its island fringes are returned to a threatening pagan past in The Wicker Man there is the Hollywood rewrite: Mel Gibson, the painted face that launched a thousand devolution votes. Welsh representation undergoes a similar. trajectory: Paul Robeson bringing his commitment to The Proud Valley, the Hollywood version of How Green Was My Valley , its miners played by Oirish-Americans returning from the pit singing in perfect harmony. Significantly, a recent Welsh based film like Human Traffic eschews national stereotypes, but replaces them with the generic ones of yoof Culture. This is anywhere Britain, the nation as Gap ad.
As for England, what remains? A sociology teacher realism for some, a heritage franchise for others, a few attempts to convey a fractured, multi-cultural reality constrained by televisual limitations, or diamond geezer gangster movies, as infected as anything else by the dominant bathos like the Krays trying to impress their mafia "betters". The most indicative recent image is the marriage of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. If the union in A Matter of Life and Death was born of post-war idealism, this is a marriage of convenience, an act of commercial diplomacy as blunt as anything touted to Elizabeth I. Notting Hill best represents the wedding of calculation and the global market, screened for the approval of a docile press, unable to argue with success, and all too ready to provide it with a five-star epithalamium. We have strayed far from the pilgrim's road. If the Glueman's aim was to knit peoples, histories, nations together, something has come unstuck along the way.
- Powell and Pressburger
- Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, makers of magic.
- Columba Powell
- Columba is the son of Michael Powell and memorably appeared in Peeping Tom.
- Luttrell Psalter
- Illuminated manuscript written about 1325. Classic medieval images of everyday folk.
- Gracie Fields
- Northern English (Lancashire) singer & comedienne. Made a reputation for singing "cheery" or "sentimental" songs during WWII. Made a dame after the war.
[Roger (who is not quite old enough to remember) points out ... Gracie Fields was most popular in the 1930s, rather than in WW2 ... Because her husband, Monty Banks, was of Italian origin, he was threatened with internment by the British authorities (like Anton in Blimp), and this led Gracie and Monty to relocate to the USA for most of WW2, which caused some bad feeling from the British public during the War. See The Gracie Fields site and about Gracie's War years ]