I came across a documentary about one of my favourite films this morning and spent a happy half hour watching it. It dawned on me as I did so that I had seen it before but I enjoyed watching it nevertheless.
In the film, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) takes a trip to Scotland to marry her rich fiancé on the fictional Hebridean island of Kiloran. Bad weather prevents her from making the final crossing to the island. Waiting to make the trip she is forced to spend time with Torquil MacNiel (Roger Livesey) and his friends. As a result, Joan discovers that she’d rather catch her salmon in a river than buy it in a tin.
Not only does the film tell a gripping story – it’s also peppered with the quirky details that make Powell-Pressburger films so enjoyable. There are a couple in that well-chosen, two and a half minute clip above. Most famously, perhaps, there’s a roadside telephone box at the foot of a waterfall. It was built in the Summer. No-one realised that the waterfall was so loud the rest of the year that no-one using the box would be able to make themselves heard. The box actually exists – on Mull. Powell-Pressburger fans make pilgrimages to the island to see it.
I wish I knew more about John Dowland. I decided recently to find out more – only to discover that there isn’t a lot to know. He was born in London -or was it near Dublin?- in 1563. He died sometime between receiving his last “pay cheque” in January, 1626, and being buried in February of that year. He worked in Paris for a time, then as a lutenist for the Danish royal court and, later, for James I. He was married and had children but they stayed in England during the periods when he worked abroad. He became a Catholic and, for a while, was suspected of treason.
People debate as to whether he was as doleful in life as his music or whether he was, on the whole, a cheerful bloke with a talent for writing sad songs. It doesn’t really matter either way. The music he wrote speaks for him and why should I need to know about his life any more than I need to know about the life of a contemporary celebrity creative artist? However many details one knows about someone’s life, if one doesn’t know them personally, then one doesn’t know them. Even if you do, of course, you only know a part of them. One can seek out details from a distance, in the hope that the next revelation will shed light on the music, the poetry or whatever, but it won’t and probably can’t. Patti Smith, I read the other day, likes watching TV detective dramas. I like listening to her albums and wish her well but I don’t need to know.
One whistles a tune at one’s peril. It might catch on and one has no idea where it might end up hundreds of years later. Dowland has fascinated many modern musicians, with sometimes enchanting, sometimes execrable results. Dowland fascinated Philip K Dick. He borrowed a Dowland line, Flow My Tears, for a novel-title and hijacked the composer’s name as a pseudonym. Surfing the net in search of Dowland, I found this. I like the combination of a Dick-inspired film and music that inspired Dick. There’s an uncanny quality to the way the two things come together:
That was one of Dowland’s best-known pieces. This isn’t but it’s one of my favourites (of the Dowland pieces I’ve got to know so far):
I posted a post the other day about Ken Russell’s early documentary film, A House in Bayswater. The film made such an impression on me that I scoured Youtube in search of other films he’d made around then.
It didn’t take me long to find Amelia and the Angel (1957), an amateur black-and-white film he made before he started making films for the BBC. I mentioned in the earlier post I referred to how Russell had actually, a few years before , been a tenant in the Bayswater house. Watching Amelia, what I quickly realised -and found enchanting- was how he’d used his fellow tenants as actors in his amateur efforts.
Amelia is playing the part of an angel in the school play. Although warned by her dancing teacher to take good care of her wings, she defiantly takes them home. Her brother plays with them and ruins them. Will she be able to find replacement wings in time? A voice-over narrates it as if it’s a children’s moral tale but (like many such tales) it runs deeper than it first appears. The girl (played by Mercedes Quadros, daughter of the Ambassador of Uruguay) acts her part really well. Russell himself has a cameo role as the man she runs into in the street. And keep half an eye out for those other tenants from the Bayswater house…
Sometimes you see, read or hear something that has a real impact you. I’ve just had one such experience. I’ve just watched A House in Bayswater, an early documentary film made for the BBC in 1960 by Ken Russell. It’s about a large terraced house that’s about to be demolished and the lives of the people who live in it. Russell himself lived there in the fifties, apparently, but one wouldn’t know from the film. There’s the eccentric landlady who lives in the basement, with a weakness for flea-markets, who serves sherry to her tenants when they call – and who tries to sell them her acquisitions.There’s the married couple who work in the wine business. There’s the artist who, sadly, probably isn’t very good. There’s the photographer, who photographs a girl in a hip-bath on the balcony – he knocks out photos of girls, he says, to pay for the photos he really wants to take. There’s the retired ladies’ maid who spends her time feeding the birds, looking at the garden and looking at her photos of America, which she is nostalgic for and where she spent most of her working life. And then there’s the elderly dance teacher, who seems to have only one pupil The film critic John Baxter said:
The dancer, leading her willing, wispy pupil through a two-woman show hazed in memories of better days (“My next solo is one I did on Broadway in 1929 and I am wearing the same costume”) is faded but not absurd, the maid’s images of New York have the insouciant fever of Scott Fitzgerald, and the concierge who… cultivates toadstools and deadly nightshade in the garden with a philosophical “They might come in useful” celebrates the indestructible eccentric.
Interestingly, we see more of the imaginative life of the tenants who are not trying to make art than we do of the artist and the photographer.
I have personal reasons for falling in love with the film. I was two when I was it was made: it describes a world that was happening around me before I was really aware of it. Only a couple of years earlier my parents had lived in a flat in a shared house (though not in London). I spent the first ten days of my life there.
The film ends with the demolition of the house and Ken Russell builds up to it in an uncanny, dream-like way that explores the potency of the inner lives people live in their heads – lives that in the day-to-day anonymity of a shared house remain concealed but which are as fantastic -and touching- as the communal staircase is mundane. It’s something most people think about at one time or another, walking up and down the stairs in shared houses or flats. Ken Russell riffs on it brilliantly.
The film is also currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.