(Directed by Rob Curry and Tim Plester, written by Tim Plester, 2011)
Way of the Morris is a very heartfelt and personal documentary film by the English actor/writer/director Tim Plester. The film follows Tim on a return visit to his childhood home in the small Oxfordshire village of Adderbury. Here Tim traces the story of the local Morris side, revived in the 1970s after a fallow period of nearly sixty years. The revival has proved to be rather resilient, and despite an almost ever-present feeling that Morris dancing is an "endangered" English custom, the Morris side is still going strong today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Now unable to dance due to a knee injury, Tim's father was a member of the revived Adderbury Morris side when Tim was growing up. Though he is clearly very close to his father, Tim does not seem to have particularly fond memories of witnessing this spectacle, admitting to a lingering embarrassment that remains with him today.
Tim is not alone in this feeling, with Morris dancing widely regarded as something of a joke by many English people. Although it is an ancient national custom (“as English as a game of cricket,” as Tim says), there remains a collective unease, an unwillingness to embrace Morris dancing, a feeling that it no longer represents what England has become and has little value in helping us remember and celebrate what it once was.
Tim doesn’t dance, and resists some gentle family pressure to get involved, his reticence preventing him from carrying on a family tradition in the village. Now a city-dweller in adult life, he sees a partial explanation for this alienation in the perennial town-and-country divide in English culture and society: the fact that England, as the world’s first industrialised nation, lost touch with many of its folk traditions and indeed, in many ways, became embarrassed by them.
More fundamentally, though, he discovers--particularly in the case of Adderbury--that there is a powerfully resonant explanation to be found in the cataclysm of the First World War. The sixty-year hiatus in Morris dancing is explained by the tragic reality that of all the members of the village side who went to war in 1914-1918, only one survived to return.
It wasn’t until the folk revival of the 1960s, with the influence of the new folk-rock hybrid musical form pioneered by Fairport Convention, that Morris dancing began to emerge once again from the cultural shadows. The impetus came partly from the seminal record Liege and Lief in 1969, but more specifically, later on, from the album Morris On, which featured members of the band and others playing a selection of old Morris dance tunes on a range of traditional and modern instruments. This inspired the revival of Morris dancing in villages such as Adderbury in the 1970s.
The origins of Morris dancing are difficult to pinpoint, with some theories highlighting the "Moorish" derivation of the word as indicative of a general European lineage to the tradition, and the possibility that it is an imported and adapted idea: a "mongrel dance for a mongrel nation," fusing rites of passage, courtship, fertility, Jack in the Green, John Barleycorn and the Celtic festival of fire. Whatever the dance's origins, this wonderful, intelligent and warm-hearted film invites a new look at an English tradition that has been seen by many as irrelevant and faintly ridiculous, some kind of quaint manufactured version of Englishness. Instead, it should in fact be viewed in a new light, celebrating the past in an inclusive way that should be embraced, not rejected. Morris dancing is a custom that honours those who went before, such as the lost men of the pre-war Adderbury side. In the film the Adderbury Morris team make a pilgrimage to the First World War cemeteries of Northern Europe, to pay their respects to their fallen predecessors. It is a very affecting scene, and it leads Tim Plester to re-assess his own feelings and previous ambivalence towards Morris dancing. Perhaps he --and we-- should no longer resist the call of the mythical "old Mr Fox," the creature who "helped dance the world into being."--Steve Cox
Review of A London Trilogy: The Films of St Etienne 2003-2007
BFI release, 2013
This collection of documentary films (chiefly) about London by St Etienne offers a thoughtful vision of the city, tinged with Blakeian resonances. Counter-intuitively but fittingly, Finisterre opens with birdsong, a reminder of that former London of interconnected villages. Indeed, the soundtrack is particularly noteworthy: throughout, the St Etienne music is skittish and buoyant, and perfectly suited to the footage.
While the film explores the timeless aspects of London life, it also emphasises the rapid and sometimes vertiginous change that threatens to destabilise it (a point made by the small, perfect short films on old-fashioned London tearooms which are also included on this disc.) The conversion of old businesses into apartments is a common theme. When exploring the club and night life ("Pulp at The Falcon, Happy Mondays at The Black Horse"), the film-makers reveal themselves as devotees of the gloriously grotty, off-kilter, old-fashioned London -a vision with roots in Dickens and Bill Brandt—rather than the shiny new identikit redevelopments, interchangeable with their counterparts in New York or Tokyo. (Here again, the choice of You've Got Me Where You Want Me to soundtrack this section is inspired). Of the older London, the narrator comments, "You could lose yourself here," with an echo of Billy Liar. (Indeed, the sixties influences on this film are obvious--there is more than a touch of the Free Cinema aesthetic.)
Not all modernity is to be distrusted, however. One particularly interesting aspect of the St Etienne films is their respect for modern English (and European) architecture. In Finisterre, this is the Barbican, where "You can be invisible.....You can get a notion of floating across the city. Escape. Escape. Escape." The film also looks at the Isokon, once home to Gropius but now sadly decayed, and the optimistic Highpoint I, inhabited by Mrs Peel in The Avengers. "When I look of it, I think of angels singing," explains one of the interviewees, bringing Blake, again, to mind.
Surprisingly, the most uplifting part of the film is an homage to London rain, accompanied by Soft Like Me, which expresses a sort of peaceful exuberance, and echoes the opening, urban-pastoral conceit. It is a gentle and remarkably positive film, though it resists the temptation to idealise the city: a bargee interviewed in voiceover notes the dangers of having things chucked at you from bridges and estates, and a disturbing and touching segment consists of portraits of council estate children, blinking at the camera against grim concrete backdrops. If Finisterre has a message, it is that spoken slowly and deliberately by the narrator:"Nothing's too good for the ordinary people."
What Did You Do Today, Mervyn Day? is set in the Lower Lea Valley before its redevelopment for the Olympics. It is a powerful example of how documentary film can be used to explore and illuminate places obscure in the popular imagination. Superbly impressionistic but tightly pulled-together, it follows the journeys of a newspaper boy through this forgotten, half-rural part of the East End on the day after London was awarded the Olympics. We watch him going about his business, carefree and alone, in the knowledge that he, at any rate, is being vouchsafed another day of innocence. It is an innocence oddly reflected by the derelict landscapes across which he cycles ("Dick Turpin used to roam around here and before the war there were sheep on the marsh," says one narrator). The film's theme, again, is change—both material and spiritual loss—and the choice of a rather seventies-looking teenager for the main part is a stroke of genius. Its companion piece, Seven Summers, is also about the Lower Lea Valley and uses a similar approach (as well as, apparently, some of the same footage). It celebrates the area as the little-known birthplace of the modern world, home to inventions including petrol and plastic. In contrast to Mervyn Day, it agues passionately for regeneration, and features an extremely effective, eerie soundtrack. Nevertheless, there is a subcurrent of criticism, with the voiceover to images of the new builds for the Olympics enquiring "What are they aiming for? What are they trying to get out of it?"
Monty the Lamb, which focuses on the experiences of Hendon FC's mascot, feels somehow unfinished and insufficiently developed in comparison with the other films on the disc. More could have been made of the central theme, though there are some brilliant moments of dry humour ("Most people still say, 'What are ya?' which is quite annoying," grumbles the protragonist).
This is Tomorrow, the third major film on the disc, is a triumph, focussing on the sudden surge of hopefulness that fuelled the 1951 Festival of Britain and, with it, the building of the Royal Festival Hall on the Thames' South Bank. It begins with a chilling animation of the Blitz in blues and greys, and explains that the Queen's Hall was devastated by an incendiary bomb in 1941, making London's orchestras homeless and necessitating the building of a new concert hall. Nevertheless, the Festival of Britain itself—the brainchild of Labour politician Herbert Morrison—was a wider response to the bomb damage, the slums and smoke, and, to quote one interviewee, it "lit the place up" in the austere immediate post-war period. Yet the Festival was a visceral reaction to more than just the war: one commentator notes that it was an expression of a socialist ideal, a vision of a bright, colourful future that the English had never had before. Its wide scope was particularly striking, celebrating not just culture, but also science, design and technology, and the jolly mood amongst the hordes of visitors has gone down in legend. "People hadn't been happy for quite some time --I don't need to tell you it was a ghastly war," reminisces an older interviewee. Then the Conservatives came to power and took it all down, including the famous Skylon.
The Festival Hall itself, however, was thankfully more permanent. It was allowed to decay for a few decades up until 2003, when work started on its refurbishment: the film's main focus. The in-depth examination of the Hall's architecture is fascinating, highlighting the genius of the original design, while the footage of the renovations allows the viewer to appreciate the extraordinary amount of work required by such a project. (One amusing footnote is that, when the Hall was originally being built, a piano was winched up to celebrate the completion of the roof, so that the first piece of music ever performed in the Royal Festival Hall was Put another Nickel in the Nickelodeon.)
This is Tomorrow's companion piece is The Other South Bank, a heartbreaking look at an area of Middlesbrough which has been in decline since the dockyard's closure. In the interviews that it features with local people, the loss of community feeling and consequent sense of bleakness and stasis is the main theme. (Before the dockyard closed, explains one woman, people didn't have a lot, but they had a loaf, and they shared it with each other.) One major criticism can be levelled at the film, however: it is far too short for the importance of its subject.
The Films of St Etienne is a superb collection in the finest tradition of English documentary film. Thoughtful, poetic, and deeply humane, it exceeded this reviewer's expectations.--Isabel Taylor