The pattern under the plough: the ‘old, weird Britain’ on film

The rhythms and rituals of rural life have seldom been conspicuous in British cinema. But in this feature from our August 2010 issue, Rob Young looks back to feature films of the 1960s and 70s, and to documentaries across the decades, and finds that traces of the ‘old, weird Britain’ can still be unearthed.

3 November 2022

By Rob Young

Winstanley (1975)
Sight and Sound
This feature originally appeared in our August 2010 issue

Early on in Alfred the Great (1969), a Dark Ages costume drama seldom screened today, the young King Alfred (David Hemmings), clad in a fighting suit of red and gold, is spattered with blood in a ferocious ambush on an army of marauding Danes. As the orgy of impalings, stabbings, spearings and dismemberments reaches fever pitch in a welter of clangs and war cries, the camera suddenly begins to rise up, affording a kestrel’s-eye view of the combat.

This battleground is white as snow, but as the vantage point becomes still more vertiginous, the white is revealed as a giant, galloping horse etched in chalk upon the hillside, modelled on the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. The king, who has earlier been shown renouncing priesthood in order to lead his people, is fighting a battle for the nation’s spiritual soul – warding off the pagan menace, on land that’s visibly scarred with indigenous pre-Christian art.

The sequence only lasts a few seconds, but it’s a telling detail from a film made at the heart of an extremely fertile but seldom recognised moment when Britain’s creative industries unconsciously examined the ‘matter of Britain’.

Shirley and Dolly Collins’s Anthems in Eden (1969)

In music, 1969 was a high-water mark for the folk-rock movement, with albums such as Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief, Shirley and Dolly Collins’s Anthems in Eden and Pentangle’s Basket of Light ransacking century-old folk archives for inspiration, while Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left invoked the pastoral chamber arrangements of English composers such as Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Warlock. (Three years later, Hemmings himself bankrolled Mellow Candle’s Swaddling Songs, an Irish acid-folk record lately heralded as a cult classic.)

The ‘period instrument’ tendency in Early Music had just sprung into being, spearheaded in the UK by David Munrow, an enthusiastic adopter of the shawm and crumhorn who contributed not only to the Collinses’ record, but also to several film soundtracks of the time, including Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

Period reconstruction was in the air: 1968 saw the foundation of the Sealed Knot, a society dedicated to recreating English Civil War skirmishes in full Cavalier and Roundhead garb, while the decade roughly from 1966 to 1976 produced an array of cinematic costume dramas.

An enormous spectrum of British history was represented, especially the Tudor era: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969, about Anne Boleyn), A Man for All Seasons (1966, on Thomas More), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972) – itself a big-screen adaptation of the BBC’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII – as well as Glenda Jackson’s immortal 1971 BBC portrayal of Elizabeth R (both the latter featuring Munrow’s ensemble). Then, moving into the Civil War era, came Cromwell (1970) and Winstanley (1975), about the Digger in search of Earthly Paradise.

From the realms of mythology, you could watch Arthur of the Britons (1972) on HTV, while cinemas offered us Sherwood Forest’s hero in A Challenge to Robin Hood (1967) and Robin and Marian (1976), and more medieval greenery in Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), adapted by David Rudkin and starring singer Murray Head.

From the pages of English literature, meanwhile, came a range of visions of the past: Julie Christie and Alan Bates swinging around Hardy’s Dorset in John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967); Ken Russell’s decadent D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969); Joseph Losey’s elegiac version of L.P. Hartley’s Norfolk-set The Go-Between (1971); and Stanley Kubrick’s bleak iteration of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975).

The antiquarian eye

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

British period drama is now celebrated, largely on the basis of the stellar casts and elegant set-dressings of TV adaptations of Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Brontë et al in the 1990s and 2000s. But the great age of period drama, from the mid-1960s to mid- 70s, is one of muted greens and umbers, mud, filth, grey skies and rain, where landscape is more than simply picturesque backcloth.

Just as 20th-century British classical music is rarely considered as seriously as the modernist avant garde of serialism and modernism, so certain aspects of British cinema tend to suffer by comparison with the great French, German, Italian and Japanese auteurs.

But perhaps it’s time to admit that certain indigenous traits have been ignored by mainstream film critics for too long. Britain’s cinema is comparable to its architectural heritage, in that both, by and large, have proved less good at incorporating avant-garde tendencies and forms, but very good at adapting past glories (Gothic, mock Tudor, neoclassical etc, in terms of architecture). As with the outcome of the English Revolution, radicalism is never far away from Restoration.

So can we identify a specifically British film tendency – more of a pervasive undercurrent than a tradition or genre – that might accommodate some of these traits? British culture frequently exhibits and even celebrates a desire to focus on the historical essence of place, and screen out modernist intrusions; or to envision buried spirits of a place bursting into the present. Alongside this runs the pervasive mystique of the pastoral, the push and pull between nostalgia and progress, the socio-political tension between country and city.

The Pattern under the Plough by George Ewart Evans

These tendencies have been exhibited ever since the great Edwardian heyday of folk-song collecting: the mystic landscape painting tradition of Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer et al; the ‘Georgian poets’ such as Rupert Brooke, Richard Aldington and Edward Thomas – or visionaries such as David Jones and Geoffrey Hill; novelists including Arthur Machen, John Cowper Powys and Alan Garner. The sense of the past lying just behind the present – “the pattern under the plough”, as the folklorist George Ewart Evans put it – is a key feature of British, especially English, art of the past century. Let’s call this tendency the ‘antiquarian eye’.

Far from the lush greens and azure skies of more recent costume dramas, the cinematography of Arthur Grant proved highly influential on a more muted palette of outdoor photography in British cinema. As Hammer Films’ chief cinematographer between the late 1950s and his death in 1972, Grant stripped away the cobwebbed, studio-lit, Gothic expressionist noir that had dominated horror since the age of German silent cinema.

He also took an entirely different aesthetic to his contemporary at Hammer, Jack Asher, who traded in lurid, non-realistic colours. In films such as The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1967), Grant shot in real outdoor locations, using natural light to depict the land in muddy terracotta and dismal greys. (He was also behind the camera for the London murk of 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit.)

Witchfinder General (1968)

A clear inheritor of Grant’s technique was Michael Reeves’s celebrated Witchfinder General (1968), set in a Civil War Suffolk rendered in dirty realist style. In the open fields and fenlands of East Anglia, Reeves and his cinematographer John Coquillon (later to shoot Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in a remote village in Cornwall) discovered the wide open skies that marked the Westerns of the era.

The following year, Chris Menges pointed his cameras skywards over Sheffield, training his sights on a bird of prey for Ken Loach’s Kes. Taking place on the fringe of the industrial city, the film shows young Billy’s attempt at freedom via his stewardship of a kestrel; his falconry sessions involve tramping through a greenwood portal to reach the open meadows where he lets Kes fly, accompanied by the flute of Harold McNair, whose instrument also flitted across free-wheeling folk-rock records of the period by Donovan and John Martyn.

Akenfield (1974)

Peter Hall’s Akenfield (1974) was shot around several Suffolk villages, and cast with real-life inhabitants. It’s an Edenic visual anthem, in which World War I is seen to have represented a turning- point for the local way of life. A boy, Tom, attends the funeral of his grandfather, who never left his village after he returned from the trenches. Tom is subjected to comparable pressures: should he stay or go, and will he suffer the same failures as his ancestor if he abandons his rural home?

The film was shot over a whole year, and the passage of the seasons is embedded within its grain. Hall and cameraman Ivan Strasburg, together with a sound- track comprising Michael Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli and folk songs arranged by Dave and Toni Arthur, “capture[d] a part of England in a way that few films have done since the death of Humphrey Jennings,” as one newspaper critic observed. “A rare work of art, as perfectly composed as a Constable painting,” crowed another. Screened on television and in cinemas in 1974, Akenfield ’s exquisite, unsentimental period tone made a strong impression on audiences in the midst of the oil crisis, attracted to simpler, more pastoral alternatives to modern life.

Gideon Koppel’s recent documentary portrait of the Welsh village of Trefeurig, sleep furiously, is a painterly elegy very much in the Akenfield mould, whose rhythm derives from the pace of village life itself, with an outwardly relaxed mundanity concealing stoicism in the face of change.

The hawk and the Hurricane

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A posse of medieval travellers gallops through the ferny brushwood of the Pilgrims’ Way, towards the spiritual magnet of Canterbury. A knight unhoods his falcon, gazing up at the sky as it takes wing. The scene cuts abruptly: the falcon transforms into a World War II Hurricane fighter plane swooping low over the field, and we see the same knight’s head in the same attitude, now clad in a 1940s military beret.

Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) is one of the most concentrated fictional examinations of the ‘English condition’ produced during the war years. The rural Kentish scenery is the constant backdrop as the action plays out in a village where the local blacksmith still plies his ancient trade, timber is lopped and prepared according to time-honoured methods and the mail is delivered by horse and cart. The film is permeated by the persistence of historical memory. Many shots are composed in such a way that the scene might be set at any time in the 600 years between the age of Chaucer and the 20th century.

Certain quarters of specialist music criticism at the moment are obsessing over the notion of ‘hauntology’ – essentially a method that involves sampling and invoking ghostly echoes of musics past, often stirring cult film and TV references into the mix. Spool forward from Powell and Pressburger’s Canterbury to the 1970s, and the Public Information Films so beloved of hauntological musicians such as Broadcast, the Focus Group and Moon Wiring Club.

To advertise their rural network of acorn-shaped waymarks, the Countryside Commission made a short film depicting the kind of rugged back- packers they hoped to encourage to ramble along Britain’s rural lanes and bridleways. But then the ghosts of a milkmaid and a cloaked minstrel materialise and vanish again on the same footpaths.

Similar hauntological emanations can be detected in many enduring cult children’s television programmes of the same period. The Changes (1975), based on a teenage speculative-fiction trilogy by Peter Dickinson, posits a mass reversion to Luddism, as the entire populace destroy their technological goods and machinery and instigate an agrarian, superstitious and intolerant society in which any mention of machines or modernity is condemned as heresy. The two child protagonists wander, confused and hunted, in this British wilderness of canal travel, primitive farming and careless brutality.

The Owl Service (1969)

Another strain of children’s programming stirs the supernatural into the mix – ITV’s Children of the Stones, for instance, or the 1969 adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service. The latter revels in the depth of the Welsh valley where the book is set, sheer camera angles emphasising its utter remoteness from any other human settlement. With the soaring crag of Cader Idris (‘The Seat of Arthur’) looming darkly over the action, and the megalithic stone that acts as a portal to actions that took place in the myth-time of the Welsh Mabinogion, it’s a ritual landscape in which an older, weirder Albion peeps through the cracks.

In a similar context, it’s worth mentioning the folkloric documentary made in the early 1950s by Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax as part of that decade’s vibrant folk revivalism. Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953) was shot during the Mayday celebrations at Padstow in Cornwall – one of the strange survivals whose actual date of origin is almost impossible to trace, but whose very alienness points to an England from which modernity is almost insulated.

The film’s weird pub sequence and the carnivalesque of the Obby Oss parade itself manages to make this tiny fishing village appear as peculiar and exotic as Haiti in Maya Deren’s films of voodoo rituals, made almost contemporaneously in 1954. Kennedy and Lomax’s film portrays folk ritual as an atavistic communing with the ancestors.

Requiem for a Village (9176)

In a different mode, David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village (1975) is a curious hybrid, an essay film that slips into reverie and fantasy. The Suffolk community of Witnesham (in reality only a few miles west of Charsfield, location for Akenfield) is typical of so many villages in England in the 1970s, its medieval centre flanked by new housing developments and bypasses.

The ageing local churchyard warden (Vic Smith) is increasingly prone to seeing visions of his past life in these fields rising before his eyes. He is eventually knocked off his bicycle by a squadron of bikers (fateful descendents, to be sure, of the bike gang who prowl the streets of Weymouth in Joseph Losey’s 1961 rural sci-fi flick The Damned) and his dying moments are like something out of a cheap zombie picture, with graves opening up and Edwardians emerging from their earthen tombs to enjoy a cosy final folk-dance together in the churchyard.

Dreams and journeys

The Open Road (1926)

The ‘English Journey’ – to borrow the title of the 1925 book by J.B. Priestley – is a popular method of assessing the mood and tenor of the nation. The same year, Claude Friese-Greene’s film The Open Road documented a car journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Initially intended as a technical demonstration of his father William’s new All- British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process, The Open Road survives as a tip-to-tip social and visual document of the British Isles between the wars.

In parallel to such straightforward documentary runs the art of psychogeography. British literature is richly populated with psychogeographers and diviners of the landscape’s hidden properties, from 1920s ley-line follower Alfred Watkins to folklorist George Ewart Evans, and more recently Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane. Sinclair himself began as a shooter of amateur Super 8 footage in the late 1960s, and has collaborated with his friend and colleague Chris Petit on, for instance, the documentation of the M25 motorway, London Orbital (2002).

A Journey to Avebury (1972)

Cinematic equivalents include Derek Jarman’s poetic Super 8 A Journey to Avebury (1972), Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), Andrew Kötting’s more whimsical Gallivant (1996), and Andrew Cross’s 110-minute artistic road movie An English Journey (2004), shot from the cab of a container lorry driving from Southampton to distribution parks in the Midlands. (Petit’s most recent feature-length film, Content, also investigates the phenomenon of container transport among its themes of urban nihilism and digital intimacy.)

According to one critic, Cross’s film encapsulates “a productive boredom wherein it is possible to stop and consider how social changes (such as globalisation) manifest themselves on the landscape; how the tended earth itself has been, since the advent of agriculture, constantly in a state of Heraclitean flux.” Another Cross film, English Field, which formed part of the same installation, surveys Salisbury Plain from the vantage point of a glider – a communing with the Wiltshire landscape where Cross was brought up and his father farmed.

A different type of survey of the nation’s geography can be found in the long-running series of British Transport Films produced by the Transport Commission from 1949 onwards. Screened in cinemas nationwide, the films, averaging 20 minutes apiece, are tone poems intended to inspire the public to purchase a ticket to Arcadia Junction and reconnect with the landscape and history that city life obscures.

The Hereford Three Counties Show or the Cotswold villages depicted in The Heart of England (1954) or the pageant of the Tudor legacy in The England of Elizabeth (1957) confirmed the beauty, wonder and mystery of the nation’s hinterlands and fringes. The films’ mannered commentaries contain the unspoken assumption that the viewer’s pleasure-seeking urge is underpinned by an interest in local history.

West Country Journey (1953)

“Our land is very old,” runs a typical voiceover from West Country Journey (1953), a panorama of Wessex and Cornwall’s weird juxtapositions of balmy coastlines, Arthurian ruins and prehistoric relics. “We have lost its origins. Our fields grow neat, our hands grow smooth, forgetting their rough and hard beginnings. But on Dartmoor the spirit of our island seems to heave itself out of the bracken, and we find in the weathered rock its strong and enduring character.”

The Transport Films seeded a generation of key cinematographers. The cameraman on Holiday, for instance, was the 32-year-old David Watkin. Seven years later, he began a long association as cinematographer to Richard Lester, working on the Beatles vehicle Help! (1965), How I Won the War (1967) and the post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969), set in a wasteland London of smashed china and gargantuan dust- heaps.

Watkin was a master manipulator of bounce lighting; his set pieces often appear grubby and parched. His antiquarian eye was operating at full stretch when he scoured second-hand dealers to find a Ross lens dating from the 1850s, through which to filter Tony Richardson’s anti-war historical drama The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

That film’s editor was Kevin Brownlow, whom Richardson had assisted in 1964 with the completion of the vividly imagined alternative-history film It Happened Here – and who went on to co-create Winstanley, a film whose libertarian impulses chimed in with the underground free-festival movement. (The group of Ranters who intrude on the Diggers’ encampment on St George’s Hill in Winstanley were played by real-life modern-day ‘Diggers’, led by Sid Rawle, legendary organiser of free festivals at Windsor and Watchfield.)

Indeed it’s productive to watch a film like Winstanley in a thematic triangulation with music-festival documentaries such as Message to Love (about the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, which turned into a violent siege) or Glastonbury Fayre (1972), and HTV’s serial Arthur of the Britons (1972), which recast the glamorous Arthurian corpus as a series of territorial tussles between Britons, Saxons and Celts, defending filthy temporary settlements that uncannily resembled the rural rock festival.

Sacred daemons

Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)

The bones and ancient spacecraft dug out of the damp clay in Hobbs End Tube station in Quatermass and the Pit (1967) are mirrored, several years later, in the opening scene of Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970). Like the Quatermass film, its plot turns on a sinister object churned up from underground: a gruesome skull unearthed by a farmer’s plough that turns the young people of a 17th-century village into a wood-dwelling pagan cult with a penchant for erotic blood sacrifices.

There is a genuinely malevolent magic at work here; and as in Witchfinder General, it is presented not as a fairytale, but as an eruption of terror in a community of working people. This common trope in British cinema – the sudden unearthing of a long-buried object, and the disquiet and havoc it inflicts on its surroundings – lies squarely in the macabre literary tradition of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James etc. In metaphorical terms, this is the effect of disturbing settled layers of compacted history.

In Quatermass and the Pit, following one of the least rigorous archaeological digs ever conducted, the professor trawls local archives and discovers records of disturbances of the ground that led to ‘weird happenings’ and ghostly sightings dating back to 1341. Hobbs Lane, where an Underground station is being expanded, is revealed under its original folk name: Hob’s Lane – ‘Hob’ having once been “a sort of nickname for the Devil”.

Penda's Fen (1974)

The same sort of literary detective work provides the key to Penda’s Fen (1974), one of the most impressive of the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’ series, directed by Alan Clarke. David Rudkin’s script focuses on the teenage Stephen, who lives with his vicar father in Pinvin, a remote hamlet in the Malvern Hills. On the verge of acknowledging he’s gay, and harbouring an obsession with the music of Elgar, Stephen becomes attuned to the lingering spirit of paganism in his area as he unpicks the etymology of Pinvin: Pendefen = Penda’s Fen.

The realisation hits home when he plays Elgar’s ‘visionary discord’ from The Dream of Gerontius on the organ of his local church – and the aisle is rent asunder, releasing the soul of the buried 7th-century warrior-king, Penda of Mercia, who praises Stephen as a “sacred daemon of ungovernableness”, commanding him to cherish his “strange, dark, true, impure” attributes – the desired qualities for renewing the spirit of old Britain.

The Wicker Man (1973)

After all, as Robin Hardy’s enduring cult film The Wicker Man insisted the previous year, paganism could still be found alive and well in 70s Britain, if you knew where to look. The alternative ritual society that draws the Christian Sergeant Howie into its web on Summerisle, led by Christopher Lee’s magus character who has elected to “reverence the music, and the drama and the rituals of the old gods”, exists in an Eden of its own making (clue: its chief export is apples).

As the sacrificial wicker man blazes in the famous final sequence, the clash of belief systems is conducted through music: Howie breaks into Psalm 23 in a desperate counterpoint to the islanders’ ‘Sumer Is A-cumen In’. The songs grate against each other, but the Christian is consumed by fire.

The Wicker Man daringly broaches the casket of Anglo-Saxon tribal memory and, in the battle between the old gods and the Judaeo-Christian cult which supplanted them, declares the pagans victorious. As the film’s writer, Anthony Shaffer, later said of these deeply ingrained impulses: “The more you cut it back, the more it grows.”

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