Carry on in the countryside
From rural Buckinghamshire in Hell Drivers to Lancashire’s Ribble Valley in Whistle Down the Wind, the British countryside has long graced the silver screen, says Andrew Roberts
British scenery can enhance a good film and even save a bad one, says Andrew Roberts
IN the annals of British cinema, Crooks
in Cloisters (directed by Jeremy Summers, 1964) is rarely listed as a masterpiece, yet anyone who comes across this ABPC comedy will find that it doesn’t lack for charm. There’s the always welcome sight of Ronald Fraser as the pompous leader of a criminal gang, a young Barbara Windsor with better lines than she was ever allotted in the ‘Carry On’ films and—one double-takes—corin Redgrave as a monk. Above all, there’s the extensive footage of St Mawes in Cornwall and its surrounding landscape that will have many a viewer reaching for the pause button.
Crooks in Cloisters is only one example of how the countryside was so often an integral aspect of a British film, regardless of genre, be it an international production or even a B-feature with an approximate budget of 3/6d. For those of us of a particular vintage, these pictures were encountered not at a crowded Odeon, but on afternoon TV, where you would find Norman Wisdom’s last major comedy for Rank,
Press for Time (Robert Asher, 1966), in
which the Teignmouth locations partially compensated for the awful script. You might also see the 1957 crime classic
Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield), with its utterly bleak rural Buckinghamshire, or two criminals played by young George Cole and a pre-dixon of Dock Green Jack Warner on the run in Oxfordshire in My Brother’s Keeper (Alfred Roome, 1948). In The
Long Memory (Robert Hamer, 1953), John Mills’s embittered former convict seeks refuge in a network of wooden huts amid the bleak Thames Marshes.
On late-night TV, there would be the ultrabrylcreemed Laurence Harvey driving his new Jaguar S-type across the Yorkshire moors in Life at the Top (Ted Kotcheff, 1965).
What was noticeable was that the cameras would so often capture a world that would have been recognisable to a Victorian, with barely any motor traffic in the streets and ivy-wreathed inns and houses not yet sporting TV aerials. One common theme of 1950s British cinema was keeping modernity at bay from such a village community, one that was famously described by the historian Angus Calder as containing ‘a pleasant Anglican vicar, an affable squire, assorted professionals, tradesmen and craftsmen, many of whom will be “characters”, plus a complement of sturdy yeomen and agricultural workers learned in old country lore. It has a green, on which the village plays cricket, with the squire or his son as captain’. This was the world of The Titfield Thun
derbolt (Charles Crichton, 1953), which was primarily shot at Limpley Stoke near Bath and was the first Ealing Comedy to be made in Technicolor. The message of T. E. B.
Clarke’s script is clear—the new bus service that rivals the local branch line is run by spivs and wide boys—but, even more than the eponymous steam engine, the real star of the film is the Somerset landscape.
Any connoisseur of the studio’s output is further urged to acquire the DVD of Lease
of Life (Charles Frend, 1954), which features exquisite footage of the East Riding, and also to explore the works of Group 3 films. Between 1950 and 1955, its productions frequently celebrated the rural life and almost no one who has ever seen Conflict of Wings (now Fuss over Feathers, John Eldridge, 1954) will ever forget the scenes of the Norfolk marshlands shot, to quote The New York Times, in the ‘loveliest Eastmancolor used to date’.
By the beginning of the 1960s, a typical narrative trope was the uneasy co-existence of the ancient and the modern in a decade that saw the rise of the motorway and the demise of the steam train. This was also a frequent theme of Rank’s ‘Look at Life’ series of colour travelogues, which ran from 1959 to 1969. Looking at the 1962 entry The
Village Sleeps Again is to be reminded once
By the 1960s, a typical narrative trope was the uneasy co-existence of the ancient and modern
more of the sheer remoteness of the recent past. There are the roads filled with Austin Cambridges, the gosh-golly voiceover from Tim Turner and the sight of Maidstone some 55 years ago, a town of red Morris GPO vans and earnest chaps in sports coats.
There’s also a group of films in which the countryside isn’t depicted as a place of respite, but one of hidden poverty and even menace. The writer-director Val Guest excelled in making dramas and thrillers on location; the murder plot of Jigsaw (1962) makes adroit use of East Sussex, as well as serving as a reminder of John Le Mesurier’s brilliance as a character actor.
Many of the most effective horror and science-fiction narratives employed a recognisable location in which the standard rules of behaviour no longer applied. Village of
the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) was, in reality, Letchmore Heath in Hertfordshire, a picturepostcard setting for an alien invasion by proxy. Night of the Demon (1957) suffers from an incredibly silly-looking monster, but director Jacques Tourneur evokes an England where even the hedgerows seem menacing.
All these features—and countless more— have the power to create memories that continue to abide after decades have passed. One of the most potent cinematic themes is how the countryside can sustain and renew the spirits of the protagonists: this occurs in three very diverse and equally striking films.
Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961) remains one of the most notable directorial debuts in British cinema, with the Ribble Valley and the village of Downham providing the background to a vision of childhood that’s already tainted—but never corroded—by bullying, cynicism, death and adult indifference.
Four years later, Catch Us If You Can (now Having a Wild Weekend, John Boorman) was a road movie disguised as a vehicle for the Dave Clark Five. The plot has Dave— whose acting range describes an arc that ranges from ‘sullen’ to ‘cheesed off’—as a stuntman who escapes from Swinging London together with model Dinah (Barbara Ferris) in a borrowed Jaguar E-type.
However, when the young people reach their destination of Burgh Island, their hoped-for haven is now corrupted by commercial developments. Critic Pauline Kael thought that it was ‘as if Pop art had discovered Chekhov—the Three Sisters finally set off for Moscow and along the way discover that there isn’t any Moscow’.
One of the film’s most poignant moments is when the two protagonists do temporarily find refuge in a snowbound Devonshire countryside; a rare upbeat moment in a narrative suffused with disappointment.
Finally, there’s A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944), which it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to compare to Crooks in Cloisters: both are centred on the theme of the countryside as a place of solace and renewal. The narrative concerns how a Land Girl (Shelia Sim), a British NCO (Dennis Price) and an American serviceman (John Sweet) find peace and acceptance with the inhabitants of Wingham and Fordwich.
The writer Alexander Walker noted how the camerawork of Erwin Hillier captured ‘the radiant look of the land in the last years before postwar despoilation’. Indeed, there can be few more moving depictions of the British landscape than this creation of a Kentborn director and an émigré Hungarian writer who wished to pay tribute to his new homeland. In short, this is one of the few films to merit the description of ‘masterpiece’.
From far left: England turns terrifying in Night of the Demon, 1957; The Long Memory, 1953, on the Thames Marshes; Limpley Stock, near Bath, starred in The Titfield Thunderbolt, 1953; Burgh Island in Catch Us If You Can, 1965; Hell Drivers, 1957, in bleak Buckinghamshire
The best thing about Crooks on Camera? The 1964 caper offers sterling performances from familiar faces, but St Mawes is the star
In Whistle Down the Wind, the Ribble Valley offers solace for the beleaguered children