Despite a scattering of allusions to the crime mystery genre, the true nature of Radio On, Chris Petit's extraordinary and individual film debut, is that of English road movie: a monochromatic glide through provincial landscapes, weather systems and a legacy of post-war urban development. The movie also predicts the pattern of Petit's subsequent career. He would go on to direct adaptations of P D James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: A Caribbean Mystery, and TV documentary films such as Weather (1992) and Surveillance (1993), in addition to his many collaborations with peripatetic writer Iain Sinclair. As a novelist, his finest work is 1993's Robinson. In an essay included in the BFI's superb re-packaging of Radio On, Petit identifies his dissolute front-man's influence even at the time of the film's inception, over ten years before a full realisation in novel form. "I didn't know it at the time," writes Petit, "but I was saving Robinson for the first novel I would write, named after him." Yet the particular Robinson who exerts creative influence over Radio On (and, I suspect, a great deal of Petit's work) is that of Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, the tale of a man's fruitless quest to gain control of his destiny. This is a subtly present theme in Radio On, and the overriding, exasperating premise of Petit's excellent post-Robinson novel of the London Irish, The Hard Shoulder.
Radio On follows Robert B (the late-shift, in-house DJ of a nondescript factory, played with notable detachment by David Beames) on a car journey from London to Bristol. There he intends to investigate the mysterious death of his brother. A post-punk and new-wave soundtrack accompanies his journey, providing a cultural angle on the prevailing social and political conditions, and giving meaning to the film's title. Indeed, in the film's opening a body in a bath is progressively revealed to the sounds of David Bowie's Heroes/Helden. The German-language part of the song is a jarring intrusion on the familiar, suggesting to the viewer -were it not already evident— that Radio On is not going to conform to a template of whodunit-by-numbers. In fact, any initial attachment to that style is wilfully discarded, leaving us largely bereft of dialogue (albeit with an occasional vague nod towards plot) but with a striking and, at times, profound visual artefact. By Petit's own admission in the DVD booklet, the viewer is issued with only a casual invitation to watch.
The dialogue that Petit did include in Radio On is good (and anticipates his future career in novels), particularly a sequence in which Robert B picks up a deserting squaddie, only for their initially satisfactory—if rather stilted— conversation to career alarmingly downhill. His exchanges with a German woman are also engaging, but increasingly the aspect of the film that really matters, along with the perpetual soundtrack, is the straightforwardly visual. Robert B seems to cease caring about his original quest or any of his interactions with others, becoming only marginally more active in the film than its flyovers, motorways, aeroplanes, quarries, pylons, flashing fruit machines and declining hotels. These are the stars of Radio On, beautifully captured by stunning camerawork throughout. England is presented in a fundamental (unmistakeable, timeless) way, yet at the same time as an idiosyncratic historical document reminiscent of the fixed-shot works of Patrick Keiller, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). These two films are connected to Radio On in more than spirit: respected filmmaker Keith Griffiths was the producer of all three, and each has the kind of latent addictiveness that suddenly activates itself on a drab Tuesday and has us reaching for the DVD. In some ways the irrelevance (or, more fairly, the optional nature) of plot in Radio On serves to strengthen its longevity for those of us who are inclined to look on film as art. Viewers who prefer a strong narrative would be excused for finding Radio On a somewhat thankless experience.
With regard to what I've termed the 'optional nature' of plot in Radio On, the pieces of a mystery jigsaw are undoubtedly there if required. There is mention on the radio news of a pornography ring, and Robert B discovers a stash of hardcore images in Bristol, tying in his brother. Also in the mix is a youthful Sting, still raw of accent, in a cameo role as an Eddie Cochrane obsessive in charge of a remote petrol station. At first this seems gratuitous (Sting would have been a burgeoning star at the time of release), especially at the scene's conclusion, when he performs an acoustic Three Steps to Heaven. However, it must be said that he carries off the role rather well; even the song works, as Robert B drives off into the distance. The sequence generally serves to support the film's view that any car journey out of London in the late 1970s was like a trip back in time (hence the soundtrack's musical regression from the avant-garde of Kraftwerk and chums to traditional rock'n'roll, with the subtext: out here, they have not moved on). Robert B himself does, in the end, move on. Alone and lacking purpose, he finds a railway station and apparently boards a train at random, without a thought for its destination. Always on the verge of disappearance throughout the film, he finally disappears -and so, without a formal conclusion, does Radio On. When Robert B symbolically abandons his car, with its wide windscreen and reality-suppressing soundtrack, we as viewers are also ousted from a parallel situation; we must leave the cinema, or finish watching the DVD at home. Back in reality, we must stop drifting.
The BFI release includes a wonderfully informative booklet comprising a wealth of essays and commentaries on Radio On. The DVD itself contains a fascinating interview with Chris Petit and also features 1998's Radio On Remix, which re-visits a number of the locations used in the original, with a soundtrack reworked by musician Bruce Gilbert.--Neil Jackson
(Dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo 1975; BFI DVD release, 2009)
"Freedom is the man who will turn the whole world upside down. Therefore no wonder he has enemies."
This beautiful and undeservedly obscure film, based on David Caute's novel Comrade Jacob and using voice-over narration from Gerrard Winstanley's visionary pamphlets, opens a window into the seventeenth century and its most fascinating social experiment: the Diggers' agrarian commune at St George's Hill in Surrey, a refuge for people displaced by the Civil War and the enclosures. It captures both the joys of Winstanley's attempt to make England "the first land in which truth shall sit down in triumph" and its ultimate frustration by the local landed interests, personified by the venal, vituperative and fretful Parson Platt.
Directors Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo had previously made their names at an implausibly young age with the much-misunderstood It Happened Here, an alternative history film which depicted a Nazi-occupied Britain. They showed their real political leanings in this film, celebrating what in their view is originary English socialism, pacifist, tolerant, and worlds away from Marxian violent revolution. Opening with dramatic reconstructions of the Battle of Naseby (soundtracked to the inevitable Alexander Nevsky), the highly-charged Putney debates, and reprisals on Army Levellers, the film then undergoes a mood-change, achieving a moving contrast between the battlefield and Winstanley's pastoral life, adopted following a failed career as a London cloth merchant. Despite the drama of its subject matter the film is a quiet and thoughtful piece, with many contemplative languors in between the recurrent persecution of the Diggers. There is even a sprinkling of comedy, provided by a scene in which the Parson hears his children recite their Scripture lesson ("Against how many sorts of men doth Isaiah pronounce woe in Chapter Five?" he enquires), and the fussy little dogs who scamper in and out of the room, lightening the tension of an interview between Winstanley and the local gentry.
The film captures the essential conservatism of the Puritan revolution—when General Fairfax sends soldiers to accuse the Diggers of trespassing, there is a bitter sense that one set of oppressors has simply been exchanged for another—and the subversive implications of Winstanley's agrarian communism. Winstanley's call to restore the land to the people has echoes of the Jubilee of the Old Testament; indeed, his writings combine a creative deployment of Scripture with his own highly personal mysticism in a manner anticipating Blake, a similarity that is especially striking when he proclaims "Action is the life of all". From religion, Winstanley chose love as the central element of his new philosophy, and this is highlighted by the Parson's greed and devotion to social hierarchy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that following the commune's failure Winstanley joined the Quakers, another product of that most formative time for English radicalism. One of the film's most interesting moments comes when another radical group, the licentious Fifth Monarchists/Ranters, invade the commune. Though the Diggers are initially alienated by the Ranters' free love and profanity, under Winstanley's influence a mutual accommodation is reached: his welcoming of outsiders is a logical extension of his rejection of private ownership. Interestingly, the famous hippy Sid Rawle plays the Ranters' leader, a casting choice which intriguingly connects the counterculture of the mid seventeenth century with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The black and white cinematography by Hungarian cameraman Ernest Vincze is beautiful yet melancholy, showing the clear influence of Dreyer (noted by contemporary reviewers), while the film's other influences include Gerlach, Free Cinema, and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight, and the light in the interior scenes suggests Vermeer. There are numerous shots which linger in the memory: a thoughtful, weary face is glimpsed through the smoke of a fire, a woman patiently nurses her sick husband, and the camera lingers on the visible roots of trees. Though the film captures the struggles and setbacks of the Diggers' lives—they build cottages of branches and wattle, and a starving family share a piece of bread between them— it also shows the rewards, particularly in the unforgettable harvesting scenes. The natural world seems to become a character in sympathy with the Diggers, particularly the hill itself, which provides Winstanley with a symbolic bird's-eye view of the countryside below and around him.
All the characters are well-drawn, especially Parson Platt's conflicted wife, and the actors look as if they have all stepped out of seventeenth-century paintings. The superb Miles Halliwell, not a trained actor but a schoolmaster by profession (in particular, an outstanding teacher of maladjusted children), radiates gentle mildness and otherworldliness as Winstanley. (In fact, he was the inspiration for the film, lending Comrade Jacob to Brownlow and Mollo.) Halliwell's tired, lined countenance expresses Winstanley's inner life, ranging from childlike happiness in the early days of the settlement to bewilderment and, eventually, sorrow and despair at the cruelty of the world around him, as he laments "England is a prison." Although his public school accent does not ring true, he delivers his lines with such sincerity that the viewer quickly ceases to notice.
The extras on this beautifully restored release are fascinating, particularly Mamoun Hassan`s interview with Brownlow and Mollo in which all three reminisce about the problems of funding the film, only solved by the intervention of Hassan, the then-head of the BFI's film production board. The colour documentary It Happened Here Again (misleadingly named, since it is in fact about the making of Winstanley) captures the dedication of the young, international crowd who gave freely of their time to make costumes, stand about in the cold, and plant authentic seventeenth century crops. Their passion for authenticity was obsessive, even extending to finding rare seventeenth century breeds of pig, and borrowing actual Civil War costumes from the Tower of London. The well-known novelist Marina Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) specialised as a PhD student in the history of Civil War radical groups, and was both a servant in the film and a script consultant: the DVD booklet contains a superb essay about her Winstanley experiences.
Winstanley is a film infused with the spirit of English egalitarianism and a sense of the dignity of the individual, telling a story that is both parochial and universal. As David Gardiner comments in a booklet essay, "Winstanley had a dream of a wonderful, gentler, more just and happy world; a dream that came again to other people in succeeding centuries, but for whose realization we are still waiting."--Isabel Taylor