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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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