On the brilliance of The Archers
Dum dee dum dee dum dee dum. Dum dee dum dee dum dum. “Oi Shula. Eddie Grundy’s only gone and left the back gate open again. Them ewes is halfway to Lower Loxley.” No, we’re not talking about the 450-year-old …
Dum dee dum dee dum dee dum. Dum dee dum dee dum dum. “Oi Shula. Eddie Grundy’s only gone and left the back gate open again. Them ewes is halfway to Lower Loxley.”
No, we’re not talking about the 450-year-old BBC Radio 4 soap opera. We are, rather, considering the partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The British film-making team are currently the subject of a retrospective at the Irish Film Institute and, glad to tell, the films look as spooky, seductive and luscious as ever. The pair — like The Coens after them — shared writing, directing and producing credits, but it is fair to regard Powell as the directorial force and Pressburger as the man who wrote most of the words. Their body of work remains one of the oddest in mainstream cinema. Films such as The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp veer so close to the avant garde that it remains astonishing the duo managed to remain in business quite so long. Fired by a kind of high-Tory romance, the pictures gouge the same vein of English eccentricity that gave the world Gormenghast, Viv Stanshall and Ronald Firbank. Yet they still managed to stay within respectable society. For all the weirdness, an Archers film never quite looked out of place on Sunday afternoon telly. Peer closer, however, and you will see all manner of socio-sexual botheration among the tweeds and buttonholes. Archers experts were less surprised than casual observers when, 50 years ago, Powell shocked the world with the more explicitly repulsive Peeping Tom. You can see his influence throughout the work of Martin Scorsese — eventually a friend, who rescued Powell from poverty — and, by several removes, in the various film-makers who took influences from the great Italian-American.
The partnership came together in the second World War and, though beautifully made, those first few films — The 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft is Missing — look like reasonably conventional conflations of propaganda and action cinema. The real shift into glorious madness came with Colonel Blimp in 1943. Part sponsored by the state, the film famously appalled Churchill — though patriotic, it’s respectful to the German martial tradition — and, for many years, was only available in a heavily cut print. The 163 minute version, restored with the aid of Kevin Macdonald, Pressburger’s grandson, remains one of the jewels of English cinema.
There are, however, quite a few other candidates for the title of The Archers’ best film. A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes are, perhaps, the most obvious pretenders, but there is something inordinately diverting and eerie about both “I Know Where I’m Going” and A Canterbury Tale. These two monochrome films, the first a romance set in The Isle of Mull, the second a mystery story involving a villain who flings glue in girls’ hair, mine a more obscure, atavistic school of Britishness than is found anywhere else in the team’s cinema. Though neither as lush as The Red Shoes or as romantic as A Matter of Life and Death, they remain every bit as psychologically (ahem) adhesive. That is to say you can’t get them out of your mind. And then there’s Black Narcissus. What a slate.
All this should clarify that I bow to nobody in my devotion to Powell and Pressburger’s cinema. A few years back, I had the good fortune to meet Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and, eventually, the last Mrs Powell, and she delighted in telling me that he never resisted the opportunity to be creative. Often, she would return from work to find that he had arranged all the fresh fruit into a beautiful abstract shape or that he had made a likable face of the food upon his plate. How lovely.
Powell would probably be appalled at the vulgarity of ending such a post with a list, but that’s how these things work. So here are the five unmissable Archers films in descending order of wondrousness.
1. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943)
Three Deborah Kerrs for the price of one. (Though, in her BFI monograph, A L Kennedy puzzlingly counted four.)
2. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)
“Yes June, I’m bailing out. I’m bailing out but there’s a catch, I’ve got no parachute.”
3. BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
4. A CANTERBURY TALE (1944)
Let me say it again. It’s about a bloke who flings glue in blameless hair. Really?
5.“I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING” (1945)
And we haven’t even mentioned (lowers voice eight registers) Roger Livesey.
What no Red Shoes? Well, it is brilliant, but it is also about ballet. Eugh!