My family origins are partly in East Anglia, a region of sublime skies, epic flatnesses, and at atmosphere both serene and mysterious, Nevertheless, whenever I read or watch anything about its agricultural economy, dominated by a notorious class of gentleman farmers, I understand why my ancestors were compelled to escape. This film, based on Ronald Blythe’s masterpiece of the same title, is no exception. It opens with glorious music by Michael Tippett laid over idyllically lush Constable-esque landscapes, but this initial soothing of the English soul is suddenly interrupted by an old man’s voiceover about the hardships of rural life: “The village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. That’s not just talk. That’s what happened to me.”
The old man is the protagonist’s grandfather, and the film’s main plot revolves around his funeral. His grandson is battling both with grief and the decision whether to emigrate, or succumb to the surviving semi-feudal system that still surrounds him in the 1970s, and accept a house from the farmer —somewhat sinisterly referred to as the Governor by his tenants— in exchange for, essentially, vassalage. We see the Governor at the funeral, eyeing Tom with a sort of predatory expectation, as the grandfather’s voiceover warns Tom: “He wants to own you.” Indeed, the Governor’s machinations are in evidence throughout the film. He sends a large wreath to the funeral, and Tom’s mother reads out his letter of sentimental, formulaic sympathy (“he was part of the backbone of Old England”) while Tom drifts off to look at the photograph of his grandfather in First World War uniform. The war was, for his grandfather’s generation, the only real hope of a temporary escape to a different place, a hope which turned to ashes at Gallipoli: “I thought of Suffolk, and it seemed a happy place for the first time.” Leonard Thompson’s unbearably moving testimony from Blythe’s book is integrated into the voiceover: “We wept, not because we were frightened but because we were so dirty.” The jump cut from the grandfather’s funeral via the memorial tablet on the church wall and the hymn The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended to a much earlier church service for First World War troops is extremely effective and poignant.
Tom’s possible flight to Australia is paralleled by his grandfather’s own unsuccessful pilgrimage to Newmarket in search of a job with horses, a journey which takes on appropriately epic dimensions in this small world. There is a circular, pre-Christian sense of time throughout the story, drawing on and feeding an intense, mutual intergenerational identification. The same actor plays both Tom and, in the flashback scenes, his grandfather. This can be rather confusing for the viewer, as is the fact that all the men in the family seem to have been christened Tom. Some of the flashbacks merely baffle because they occur with no warning, and this is particularly true of the scene where the same actor apparently steers a plough past himself. Although we are in a world where there is no real progress and grandfathers return in their grandsons, there are some allusions to change: the grimness of the rural schools that Tom’s grandfather attended (a scene strongly reminiscent of the similarly horrifying school in Dennis Potter’s later The Singing Detective) is contrasted with the relative enlightenment of 1970s education, and harvesting is now down by tractor. For young Tom, however, these changes seem of little relevance: the sufferings of previous generations bear down heavily upon him.
What the film lacks in traditional narrative twists and turns is compensated by the tension between the lushly bucolic environment and the suffering of the men who inhabit it. Although women’s experience is alluded to in the film, the lives of this otherwise little-noticed group of labourers are in the central focus. A distinctive portrait emerges: long-suffering, gentle, withdrawn, hard-working and reflective. It was a character that those at the top of the pyramid did not care to become acquainted with: “There was a wall between farmers and their men,” the grandfather observes. However, it should not be assumed that the men were too meek to organise. They tried, but the attempt to maintain a union failed: the men were paid so little that they could not afford the fourpence a week in dues. It is hardly surprising that the comfortingly egalitarian message of Non-Conformist churches, such as the Baptists, was so successful in this region. (Incidentally, a rare moment of humour is provided by the juxtaposition of the sheep dip with an adult baptism.)
The enormous gulf between the farmers and the people is captured in the very interesting harvesting section, which also evokes those proverbially endless summers before the First World War. As the harvesters, giddy with success and relief at the end of the day’s physically exhausting labour, come home through the dusky fields, they bellow the traditional demand “Largesse!” in all directions. A lady wearing evening dress on the steps of the big house observes censoriously, “They’re a little bit merry tonight. Rather forgetting themselves.”
The question remains: how does the film compare to its superb source material? The strength of Akenfield the book was its multiplicity of voices, and attempting to compress its most arresting aspects into a single narrative cannot help but lose much of the original richness. In particular, the book benefitted from a number of outsiders’ perspectives, which have—perhaps inevitably—been dispensed with for the film version. However, this does give the impression of greater insularity than was actually the case.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the film is a triumph. The BFI have restored the original print with their usual thoroughness, and it glows. The misty, sometimes opaque East Anglian light is masterfully exploited throughout the film, most effectively in the interior farmhouse scenes, sometimes reminiscent of Vermeer. Flowering trees dazzle the viewer, shedding colour and radiance. Yet this extraordinary beauty is deceptive, coexisting with a social system in which “The farms used to swallow up men as they’d swallow up mud.” The heavens of East Anglia —enormous, cloud-banked, enigmatic —play a key role in the film and in its characters’ lives. The appearance of rain in the bad old days would mean no work and no pay, and too many days of that would spell disaster for the labourer’s family. Tom’s grandfather wistfully cites the local expression for success in escaping the village: such people “changed their sky, as they say.”
Apart from the grandfather’s memories of his childhood (“our great desire was to have cake”), perhaps his most touching observation is that the country people did have one pleasure. They sang continuously, in the fields, at church, in the evenings. When the viewer remembers that early folk song collectors often mistook musicality for happiness, this cannot help but summon an ironical wince.--Isabel Taylor