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Archive for the ‘British Cinema’ Category

The First of the Few (UK 1942)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 August 2014

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.

The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).

The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.

The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.

Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.

Posted in Biopic, British Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Brassed Off (UK/USA 1996)

Posted by keith1942 on 12 August 2014

Brass band

30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.

This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.

The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.

Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local bus company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.

Women picket

The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.

The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focusing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. (Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately). There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.

Chuckles

Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles (a party clown) at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall.

Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.

What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.

Pithead 2

The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s ‘Jerusalem’, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ (‘Land of Soap and Glory’). The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.

The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.

An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.

There is now a successor to this feel-good drama, Pride (2014). Set in Wales in 1984 it takes actual events involving gay and lesbian supporters of the miners to create a comedy-drama.

It opens at the National Media Museum in September and there will be a Study Day to accompany the screening on the 14th, ‘Miners – One hundred years of film’.

Posted in British Cinema, Comedies, Politics on film, Stars | Leave a Comment »

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (UK 1960)

Posted by nicklacey on 5 August 2014

Working class sitting-dining room

Working class sitting-dining room

Part of the freshness of the British New Wave was the films’ use of relatively unknown actors such as Albert Finney (above) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first New Wave films to focus on working class life. The film that heralded the ‘wave’, Room at the Top, had a protagonist, Joe Lampton, who is desperate to join the middle classes whereas Saturday Night’s Arthur Seaton (Finney) relishes his working status with his ‘chippy’ attitude as his opening voice over states, above an image of him working in a factory:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s one thing I’ve learned . . . I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.

Finney’s brilliant performance shows both the charisma of the rebel the immaturity of Seaton, particularly when his face breaks out in a childish grin when he fires pellets at a local gossip. Despite the fact that, in common with other films of the time,  it represents popular culture negatively, Seaton criticises his dad for watching television all the time (see above), its treatment of race, although incidental, is progressive. During Seaton’s introductory monologue he says ‘I’m like him’, and at that moment the camera frames one of the few Afro-Caribbean workers. Seaton identifies himself via his class and rebellious attitude and not race.

At the end of the film it appears that Seaton has been recouped for a conventional lifestyle, as he decides to wed Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) after, it is implied, they’ve had sex. However, this doesn’t stop him throwing stones at a site where the ‘nice’ semi-detached homes he’s destined for are being built.

The cast is brilliant giving a debut to some who would become stalwarts of British cinema: Colin Blakely, Bryan Pringle and Norman Rossington. Hylda Baker is a standout as Seaton’s Aunt Ada and Rachel Roberts, as the married woman with whom Seaton is having sex, is heartbreaking when faced with an abortion.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Norman McLaren Centenary Film Tour

Posted by keith1942 on 1 August 2014

Pas de Deux

Pas de Deux

This programme, organised by McLaren 2014 in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is a celebration of one hundred years on from the birth of Scottish animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. In Yorkshire both the Hyde Park Picture House (Friday August 8th) and the National Media Museum (Sunday August 3rd and Saturday 9th) are offering screenings. And both venues are also offering Digital Animation Workshops (with different age ranges – for HPPH) in which participants can use the McLaren iPad App (National Film Board of Canada) to create short animations. These will later to uploaded to the McLaren 2014 Website.

Norman McLaren was born in Stirling on April 11th 1914. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. His notable films include Hell Unlimited (1936) an impressive and innovatory anti-war short film with touches of the surreal. This film led to him being invited to join the GPO Film Unit by John Grierson in 1936. He also worked as a cameraman in Spain during the war to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion. He emigrated to the USA in 1939 and in 1941 was invited by Grierson (again) to join the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. He also worked in Asia for a time helping to develop visual methods in overcoming illiteracy. He died in 1987.

McLaren frequently worked on live-action documentaries and animated films where he drew directly onto the celluloid. He was an important innovator in the techniques of drawing on film and also experimented with 3D animation and animation translated into synthetic sound waves.

He won an Academy Award for his 1952 live action film Neighbours, which made use of pixilation techniques.

The screenings will feature 13 of his short animations, mainly from his work at the National Film Board of Canada. His best works are beautifully drawn, technically assured and both stimulating and sometimes very humorous. His technical ability encompassed a range of styles, including abstract works. The prime focus tends to be movement and colour is often added for emotional resonance. Included in the screenings will be his first professional film, Love on the Wing (1938), an advertisement for the Empire Mail Service, but also an exercise in technique and surreal combinations: a war-time contribution V is for Victory (1941): A Chairy Tale (1957) which ‘brings to life inanimate objects’: Blinkity Blank (1959) which explores motion by painting directly onto raw film stock: and Pas de Deux (1968), a live-action film of ballet dancers, which uses step-printing on an optical printer.

The workshops promise to be instructive but also fun. And the screenings offer a rare opportunity to see masterworks from the field of animation on the big screen.

http://www.mclaren2014.com/

http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Films/N/NormanMcLarenCentenaryFilms.aspx

Hyde Park Picture House – email: admin@hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk

Posted in Animation, British Cinema, Canadian Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Fatherland (UK-West Germany-France 1986)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 June 2014

Klaus in the machine shop where his stepfather works. The sign says "This machine does the work of 40 men". The added graffiti says "Bet it won't replace the Central Committee [of the Party]"

Klaus in the machine shop in East Berlin where his stepfather works. The sign says “This machine does the work of 40 men”. The added graffiti says “Bet it will never replace the Central Committee [of the Party]“

Fatherland was the only cinema feature by Ken Loach that I hadn’t seen so I was pleased to find the Region 2 DVD from Park Circus. This is an unusual film for several reasons and although it presents some problems I did enjoy watching it. It raises a range of interesting questions.

Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.

Outline

This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.

Commentary

The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.

The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.

Political discourse

Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a 'stakeout' of a post office in Cambridge.

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a ‘stakeout’ of a post office in Cambridge.

The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. (Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in (Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.

Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach  and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.

References

Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in FatherlandHidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books

Posted in British Cinema, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Three Clear Sundays (UK 1965)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 June 2014

The closing sequence of the play with Danny about to be executed (from Sixteen Films)

The closing sequence of the play with Danny about to be executed (from Sixteen Films)

In 1965 Ken Loach began working on ‘The Wednesday Play’ for BBC Television. These feature-length films, initially shot on video in studios but gradually moving into 16mm film production, attracted audiences of over 10 million. Many of them dealt directly with contemporary social issues, often creating headlines in the press the following day. Three Clear Sundays is a drama about capital punishment – the title refers to the statutory period between sentence and execution in which an appeal for a reprieve could be made. This was a live debate in the UK at the time – the death penalty for capital murder (death by hanging) was commuted to life imprisonment later in the same year, 1965. The last executions had actually taken place in 1964.

The script was written by an ex-con James O’Connor. It tells the story of Danny Lee (Tony Selby) a London street trader (‘barrow boy’) who is sentenced to 6 months in Pentonville for punching a police officer (who had provoked him). Danny is illiterate and not very bright. He is the only ‘straight’ member of a criminal family headed by Brittie (Rita Webb) and he has ignored her 11th commandment “Thou shalt never plead guilty”. In prison he is easily led and eventually finds himself involved in a scheme which requires him to cosh a prison officer. He hits the man too hard and discovers that killing a prison officer is one of six capital murder offences.

Over the course of 1965 BBC production teams experimented further with the mix of film and video and Ken Loach emerged as one of the prominent figures in the development of ‘documentary dramas’ utilising film footage. How much of this actually came from Ken himself and how much from his collaborators is not clear. In April 1965 he was working with producer James MacTaggart and story editor Roger Smith. Three Clear Sundays has three ‘filmed’ sequences depicting the barrow boys in the market, Brittie outside the Old Bailey and outside the prison gates. These are relatively static scenes – like the studio sequences. A prison-based drama doesn’t give many opportunities to show the city environment. The key aesthetic decision perhaps concerns the use of music, an important feature of two later Loach plays in the same year (and of Loach’s work over his whole career). Danny’s story is told from different perspectives (e.g. his mother and his girlfriend) and each ‘chapter’ is introduced by a song. All the lyrics are written by Nemone Lethbridge and set to some familiar folk tunes. Loach uses a technique in this play which involves presenting characters speaking but with the songs are dubbed over the speech. I wonder if this was related in any way to Godard’s deliberate mismatching of sound and image in his early 1960s films? (In the Graham Fuller interviews (1998) Loach says that he rarely saw British or American films as a teenager, being more interested in theatre and once at university saw mainly European films.)

Not surprisingly perhaps, the Lee family are portrayed as  ‘cockney characters’ and the girlfriend Rosa is Irish. The Irish connection might come from O’Connor the writer. Rosa and Danny are both Roman Catholic. There is also a West Indian character in prison and others in the street scenes. There is a palpable sense of trying to ‘root’ the drama in a recognisable London, but aesthetically it isn’t quite there yet. The social commentary is certainly there with references to both racism and homophobia in the script. Overall the play now appears ‘rough and ready’ and seems best categorised as still ‘experimental’. The closing scenes in the condemned man’s cell are very moving and the social chatter of the hangman and his assistant is quite startling. Years before Pulp Fiction, their chatter about the techniques of the job (where to place a knot in the noose etc.) alongside sleeping arrangements and tales about the Nuremburg trials in 1945-6 are effective in making executions ‘real’. Loach would later be accused of being didactic but Three Clear Sundays works well because Danny is clearly ‘guilty’ but in no way ‘deserves to die’ –the story may well be ‘loaded’ in this sense but the presentation is ‘straight’. There is no evidence that the play greatly influenced audiences (public opinion in the UK seems to have been unchanged throughout the 1960s) but it must have had an impact. Unfortunately, none of Loach’s interviewers seemed to have asked him about this play (please comment if you know of any other interviews).

Presumably Loach and the cast and crew had little time to make these plays. Loach directed six such plays of 75-80 mins each all of which appeared in 1965. Three Clear Sundays is the earliest example of Loach’s work available on the DVD boxset ‘Ken Loach at the BBC’. I’ll try to comment on other titles in the set over the next few weeks.

Reference

Fuller, Graham (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Those in Peril (UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 June 2014

George MacKay is Aaron, seeking his dead brother

George MacKay is Aaron, seeking his dead brother

I wanted to see this because it is one of the films identified as part of the raft of new Scottish films that appeared in 2013 when it was first shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Two central questions are whether it is indeed a ‘Scottish’ film and, if it is, what it suggests about Scottish cultural identity. Both questions are pertinent during the run-up to the Scottish independence vote in September.

Not many people have seen For Those in Peril which didn’t receive a significant release in the UK (though it has been seen at several overseas festivals). I was able to watch it projected from a DVD in a community cinema operation. The film includes a mix of video and Super 8 as well as higher resolution material and the DVD projection wasn’t ideal. Unfortunately, there is no Blu-ray as far as I am aware. This début film from writer-director Paul Wright is set in a Scottish fishing village (and filmed mainly in Gourdon in Aberdeenshire). The relatively simple narrative follows the psychological breakdown of Aaron (George MacKay), the only survivor of a fishing tragedy which sees four men drowned, including Aaron’s brother Michael. The people of the village appear to blame Aaron in some way for what happened and he can’t remember anything about the accident. Only his mother (Kate Dickie) and his brother’s girlfriend Jean (Nichola Burley) offer him any support. Gradually Aaron loses contact with reality and begins to pursue a memory of his mother’s stories about the ‘monster of the deep’ which she told him as a child. He becomes convinced that the monster has taken Michael and that he must bring him back from the sea.

Wright initially plays the film as a quasi-documentary story, including faux documentary footage with voiceovers and home movie clips. Then he moves into social realism and finally into a fantasy sequence (which may also offer the subjective experience of someone suffering from schizophrenia or something similar). In visual terms, the film is quite disturbing with a camera style that features hand-held shooting with big close-ups and shallow focus. Occasionally the film moves into long shot, framing the protagonist in the landscape – much the better option for me. The performances are generally very good. Kate Dickie and Nichola Burley are solid performers and George MacKay has a real screen presence. I don’t know if his acne was real or painted on, but he appears the real lump of a 19 year-old that the script requires.

I wish I had seen this on a DCP or film projection. I still wouldn’t have ‘enjoyed’ the aesthetic, but I might have been able to make a more balanced judgement. When we left the cinema, Nick said that it didn’t work but the interesting question was what went wrong. I tend to agree but also to be a bit more forgiving. The reactions by reviewers generally seem to have been more extreme, both in praising the film and condemning it.

To return to the initial questions, the film is Scottish only to the extent that the writer-director is Scottish and it’s located on the Aberdeenshire coast. The main producers are Warp X films from Sheffield working with funding from Film 4’s ‘Low Budget Film Production’ scheme. Some further funding came from Creative Scotland and Screen Yorkshire.  I’m not sure how the latter organisation justified funding. Apart from supporting local producers, Nichola Burley is from Leeds. Otherwise I wonder if any of the post-production took place in Sheffield? BFI supported the release of the film for export with £19,000 going to sales agent Protagonist Pictures. It’s not really a great promo for the Aberdeenshire coast however! Soda Pictures released the film in the UK but only on 3 prints for three weeks as far as I can see.

In the end, I’m not sure that the film represents Scottish culture directly. The village could be in Ireland as easily as in Scotland – or indeed anywhere with fishing boats and a fish-processing industry. The fact that this is a low-budget film makes it much more like a typical Scottish production (since there are no established studio facilities to make Scottish films in Scotland). Of the three lead actors only Kate Dickie is Scots and she’s from the Central Belt not the North East. Still. it shows that there is Scottish talent and as a drama this is much more interesting than most of the films that come out of London. It does in some ways share a mixture of realism and fantasy in a Scottish setting with Under the Skin. I’ll return to discussing contemporary Scottish cinema soon.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Jimmy’s Hall (Ireland-UK 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 June 2014

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY'S HALL

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY’S HALL

Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.

Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending 'Jimmy's Hall' – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.

In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.

The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?) Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.

Posted in British Cinema, Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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