Rediscovered film gem: Dulcima (1971)

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dulcima

Network DVD have just released the 1971 film of H E Bates’ novella Dulcima (a story from a collection of three called The Nature of Love). It’s a well-deserved and long-awaited release for a film which has had something of a cult status.

It’s an undiscovered gem for several reasons. The cast is excellent: John Mills, who I would guess was fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in Ryan’s Daughter, and Carol White, the acclaimed actress from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow.

It’s also an incredibly beautiful snapshot of an unselfconscious rural Gloucestershire in the early seventies – not the contrived ‘chocolate box’ prettiness of today. The photography revels in the height of full summer down dusty tracks, and the dream-lives of the trapped.

dulcima001The story is H E Bates at his best: natural and earthy, sensitive to a rural reality, fatalistic as Hardy (creating a working-class version of Bathsheba Everdene in the process).

Dulcima Gaskain is a down-trodden ‘daughter at home’, the drudge for a family of ten, who sees a way out keeping house for Mr Parker, a ramshackle widower. Her bank balance creeps up and she begins to access the world she has glimpsed in her magazines, a sunlit, soft-focus world of hairspray, eyelashes and Terence Stamp look-alikes from knitting patterns. (Carol White and Stuart Wilson are indeed the Terry and Julie of the meadows, reminiscent too of 90s Britpop, like a less simian Liam Gallagher teamed with Sarah Cracknell.) The score is by the composer who worked on The Railway Children, and soars and shimmers like the lemonade light through the trees.

Of course, when her dreams are in reach, Dulcima’s gentle wiles can’t support their consequences.

There was a documentary about Carol White some years ago called The Battersea Bardot, and there’s always a tinge of melancholy to her performances. It’s ironic that a fair few blonde, beautiful actresses of the time strived to escape the sexist crap of the era and be judged for their ability alone, whereas Carol White was given unglamorous roles at which she excelled and for which she was respected, but longed to be the typical film star. There’s something great in the fact that she begins Dulcima in a typecast role, scrubbing floors, but emerges later with all the trappings of a Julie Christie romantic lead. So much further potential never realised: not long after her career floundered, and she died young at 48 in Florida.

Network DVD have done a wonderful job producing a great, clean print of the film, which won an award for director Frank Nesbitt at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971.

earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
albertferret

There’s also a fantastic cameo role by ‘a polecat with a bit of ferret in him’ (right, Stuart Wilson on left). Uncredited – where was the actor’s union back then?

 

 

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H E Bates and the paperback cover

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I love H E Bates. His short stories are perfect examples of drowsy, bee-filled summers or glowing winter afternoons, and full of bittersweet melancholia not unlike Hardy shorn of some melodrama. Incredibly prolific and versatile (which, along with The Darling Buds of May is probably a reason why he’s not allowed to be admitted as one of our literary greats), his stories often, and perhaps surprisingly, centre on outsiders, the downtrodden, the innocent, where circumstance is quicksand. You’re quite likely to find a patriarch crushing his wife’s lesbian idyll, or a husband humiliated by his gin-sodden wife finding release with the village lad she attempts to devour.

I imagine publishers were keen to exploit his sense of liberated, almost pagan sensuality that finds outlets amid the sourness in small English towns and villages (see The Sleepless Moon – illicit meetings by a disused mill, bare legs and – well, I imagine the first sketch was sent back with a request to ‘cover things up a bit’). As such, on some occasions his other paperback covers almost depicted that seventies male-fantasy, the ‘dolly-bird’. Dulcima is interesting here: Carol White, who appears on the cover, took the role of a downtrodden country girl in the 1970 film with John Mills. Known for Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, she was a respected dirty-realism actress who ironically wanted the Hollywood glitz instead, dying young in its failed pursuit. Despite attempts with the bed and the bath towel, due to her skill as an actress this film-still cover tells us something quite different: about hope and hopelessness, frustration and resignation.

It’s hard to describe the particular sensibility in these covers: they occupy a particular space of time from the late sixties into early seventies. These are interesting faces, enigmatic characters whose images have to tread a fine line in making sure they aren’t sending out Trojan horses to poison romantic fantasies. There is resignation to lamplit gloom in Glenda Jackson’s The Triple Echo; and the girl in the The Four Beauties is no-one’s fool – here is freedom, independence.

Apart from the odd one out of course. That’s A E Coppard marketed as shampoo. With a slug.