Properly rediscovered: 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd

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It’s heartening to see John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd getting a well-deserved reappraisal, with some fairly glowing reviews for the restored version released in cinemas this Spring:

“One of the most entrancing and elemental landscape films ever shot in these isles, thanks in large part to Nicolas Roeg’s peerless cinematography and Schlesinger’s decision to cram the soundtrack with folk songs and country dances.”
Time Out

“What is striking, almost 50 years on from when it was made, is its extraordinary craftsmanship and its emotional intensity… This is not one of those handsomely mounted but stilted period dramas that is stifled by the fussiness of the costume and production design… Schlesinger’s film has a raw, elemental charge. It manages to portray rustic life without seeming quaint.”
The Independent

“The Hardy adaptation that really captured the scale, beauty and menace of the landscape, and all its colours and moods.”

“Christie carries the film with her own insouciant vulnerability. A classic.”
The Guardian

“Quality oozes from every pore.”
The Times

“Splendidly lusty fare, its feet deep in the mud of the English countryside, its head in the lens-flared glare of a dreamy tragi-romantic sky.”
The Observer

Not so long ago critics would dismiss the film as swinging-sixties style tacked onto Hardy’s Wessex – to the casual observer, perhaps not unfairly. The popular notion was that The Kinks had name-checked Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in ‘Waterloo Sunset’ in the year of release (something Ray Davies denied: “It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world”).

Filmed in Dorset in the autumn and winter of 1966-1967, it’s not surprising Schlesinger’s film didn’t translate well to a Hollywood expecting a Dr Zhivago epic. After all, Schlesinger wanted to “dig out the dark spiritual side of Hardy… with verisimilitude”. As any Hardy aficionado will appreciate, this could be tantamount to setting your picnic in a crypt.

The restoration has been supervised by its cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who in 1967 was yet to be the lauded director). At nearly three hours, it does demand a little of the viewer, but it’s a truly beautiful film, with a lush Oscar-nominated score from Richard Rodney Bennett, and the superlative casting of Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.

Perhaps its renewed appeal owes something to Schlesinger unearthing the landscape of a Victorian past in 1967, to clash with the hipster faces of Britain’s gentle, modish revolution. You could say Schlesinger’s film is now an uncontrived landmark, part of a timeline that tracks how we’ve looked to the landscape for authenticity: whether then, in the face of a ubiquitous ‘sixties scene’, or now, in the face of rampant capitalism.

And contradictions of style and substance – are they not the very heart of Bathsheba’s dilemma?

Released throughout the UK – see here for screenings.

Below: things to be grateful for in 2015 include the film now getting the poster it deserves (above), and not this excrescence from 1967:

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Autumn fires

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Hardy's Return of the Native, Agnes Miller Parker

One of Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings for a 1930s edition of The Return of the Native. And then, from the same decade, a short film by Herman G. Weinberg called Autumn Fire.

There’s a man in the city, a woman in the country – both gazing mournfully at their landscape: autumn leaves, splashes of gleaming rainwater, city skylines, billowing clouds, and even a squirrel. If time is short, skip to eight minutes in for the general atmosphere. Whoever posted this on YouTube has used Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for the soundtrack, which is perfect.

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After London: dreaming Wild England

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I was born in a small town not far from the New Forest. Now and again in the evenings, as a family, we would go and watch the deer from a viewing platform. It was like theatre, and we were in the dress circle, looking with binoculars at a sun-dappled herd lazing under a canopy of oak trees, or an antlered monarch stood on ceremony. There was also the Rufus Stone – a memorial to King William II, slain in 1100 while hunting.

Deerhead

A deer’s head made from plastic, circa 1970, made in France (oddly). There are four cow bells which go with it and a plastic beater for chiming. This was in our 1970s house until a bad taste purge sometime in 1981 in which it was replaced. I’ve since rescued it: for one thing, nothing died to make it, and he has a certain presence (as long as the bells stay in the attic).

I loved stories of Robin Hood, dreamed of living and waking among trees, and later devoured the wild landscapes covered in Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories of King Arthur. Winchester, home of Edward I’s recreated round table, seemed magical, and one summer I watched my brother’s girlfriend in a play at the Great Hall. It was inspired by Richard Jefferies’ book After London: Wild England, in which the country is ‘returned to nature’ by a great flood. In the final scene she took a white mouse from a small box, which ran over her hands as she spoke… the last living creature?

Wild England

On reading After London: Wild England, William Morris made these dark comments: “I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of civilisations: which I know now is doomed to destruction, probably before very long – what a joy it is to think of! And how it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions taking the place of our wretched hypocrises”.

Earlier, I had inherited Enid Blyton’s Country Walks with Uncle Merry from my brothers (I doubt Uncle Merry would pass many checks these days). One day a supply teacher entranced our class of six-year-olds with Edith Holden’s Country Diary. (Nothing was as fascinating as the beetle who had crawled into the pages and been reproduced in the facsimile.)

I took anything by BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), author of Brendon Chase and Bill Badger. Otters were my favourite animal – Philip Wayre’s The River People was rarely left in the local library. As an eight-year-old member of his Otter Trust my heart stopped at the line in the newsletter: ‘It’s time to renew your subscription – don’t let the otters go hungry!’

In 1980, en route from the New Forest to Devon, through Tolpuddle and Dorchester, you could still imagine Thomas Hardy’s heart fluttering past the cottages, the window-frames layered with paint from his lifetime.

Whatever our experience of nature and landscape, it becomes part of us. It’s not something we might acknowledge until there are some years behind us. The realisation comes through a growing susceptibility to pain at seeing it fade and become unfamiliar. And it’s different for each generation; what is still beautiful to a 20-year-old today might be wrecked in the eyes of someone who knew it decades ago.

Some passing things might be rescued in the only way our age seems capable of doing – over-analysing, creating niches to attract like minds and consolidate exactly what it is we want to perpetuate: unaltered landscapes, timeworn buildings, to preserve an ancient thread over centuries and keep in check our ability to modify and obliterate within a few minutes.

Eldridge Hardy

A beer mat from 1980.

But we cannot picture ‘the countryside’ as existing outside the trends of our century. I’m typing this in a cottage with walls eighteen inches thick. You would barely hear a dog bark from next door, and yet I can hear incessant bombing from an Xbox, and when they’re not obliterating war-torn cities, it’s Formula 1 racing. There will be a huge hyper-real screen, the key point of interaction for the now and future, unless you disconnect, edit your life and put a shepherd in your garden like Marie Antoinette. I can, however, walk out on the moor and see the sheep, see the ponies, think of how many were recorded as neglected and emaciated earlier this year. It’s not so unlike urban life.

Since the Industrial Revolution our national consciousness has bred art and writing attempting to capture the essence of the countryside. Generally we’re told that this vision exists only in our imagination. It’s not long since there was derision in many quarters that the Olympics ceremony should draw on our ‘green and pleasant land’: how old-fashioned, how twee, how backward.

But perceptions are remoulded as the years pass.

Over the last decade a particular appreciation of the natural world has grown up: the fashionable face of nature-loving. Cooler record stores stock books from Caught by the River, music festivals are entwined with food and literary festivals… it is traditional non-corporate life as we might imagine it, restyled in a way palatable to lifestyle media. Fashion became obsessed with images of a stark, skeletal nature – animal heads, something dark in the forest. Chuck out your Beatrix Potter, to paraphrase Ikea.

In the 2010 preface to David Pinner’s Ritual, the book which inspired the 1971 pagan film classic The Wicker Man, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley writes:

“It is easy to take nature for granted in the 21st century, to see it as tamed by an increasingly urbanised world. We grow plants in pots and perch them on sills, herbs thrive on our balconies, parks and gardens are open air nail bars of plucked hedges and manicured rose bushes. But a trip to the countryside can soon remind you who’s boss, and of how small you are in the scheme of things, as soon as your jumper gets caught by a thorn or your bare leg grazes a thistle. The further west of London you go, the more this seems to be the case. It isn’t that the countryside there is any wilder than in other parts of Britain, just less known, and it becomes less and less familiar until its otherness dwarfs you. People don’t take nature for granted here. Here be monsters… behind the photogenic wildlife skirting the unseen bogs of the New Forest; ultimately, on Dartmoor.”

Whether this rings true depends on your circumstance, but it captures a moment, a place where the new godhead is Robert Macfarlane, who took the authenticity of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas et al and washed away sentiment.

Caught by the River

One of Stanley Donwood’s beautiful ‘holloway’ illustrations which appear in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book.

This is all far from a knitted, unfashionable image of walking holidays in the countryside. But at the turn of this century, the nearest the lifestyle media might come to indulging such pursuits was a photo of Alison Steadman as Candice-Marie in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.

Of course, that quiet, ancient thread was always there and had never faded: the small publisher reissuing work by BB; people like Jack Hargreaves (as a child, he was a regular at 7pm most evenings on Southern TV – an elderly chap in a garden shed intoning about country pursuits with all the manner of a leisurely mull over beer in his village pub); the bench thoughtfully positioned in the unfashionably-termed ‘beauty spots’ on some unsung track – Frank loved this view and this seat was put here by his wife; the plethora of ornaments featuring wild animals in immaculately-crafted detail, endless prints of badgers, foxes or kingfishers in faux-gilt frames; Watership Down; Alan Titchmarsh enthusing about something or other… the solid dark green livery of the National Trust, set in stone and as yet uninterpreted; unflattering waterproofs before a testosterone-fuelled industry kicked in, now entreating us to ‘take all nature can throw at you and throw it back’.

Our new century is growing up but are we still living by illusions? Is our search for wild nature, the individual and the independent any different to the 1930s retreat to Olde England in the face of modernity? We like to think so. Perhaps we’re just the same as any age, hankering after Utopia, but won’t admit it.

Let’s be cynical for a while.

You can no longer drive through England and pass rows of cottages that would be familiar to their generations of owners, sun-faded with wrinkled render, mossy roofs and watery window panes. Well, you can, now and again, but it will be so beautifully preserved and Farrow-and-Ball’d that it’s a stage set without a cast. Yet the metal-embossed road sign at the cross-roads is at ease and true, a little rusted. Stand in the village square and choose your century. Not so long ago, it seemed we would always be able to come here and reconnect.

Tempted by practical comforts, low maintenance and rewards for environmental friendliness (or beaten by blanket-bombing marketing) the buildings in our villages and towns have been given make-overs with flawless float-glass double-glazing, immaculate shadowless render and plastic doors holding just an echo of beaded moulding to remind us what a timber door looked like. Shop signs are sheets of plastic screwed to the wall with the freedom of any font, any colour and any clipart the software allows. The signpost at the crossroads has Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s carefully-constructed Transport font condensed and squashed to fit the space on the standardised reflective board. This is life lived with care for immediate practical needs, even survival. These villages will not age gently and fade into the landscape anymore, or admit eccentricities, but they are no less authentic than the badger in his sett.

Exmoor

It’s OK, they’re part of a stuffed display, but this is confusing for dogs.

Preserved cottages are more often empty, the 19th century hovel a 21st century luxury from coffee table books. In off-track villages they’re part of the idyll, reassuring visitors that somewhere things are running in computer safe-mode, waiting for a some-day-soon.

They are stage sets, and outside showtime life is still reduced to the comforting essentials: no shop, no pub, no jobs, refuelling with coal or damp wood on the hour to keep a radiator working, no salt or grit for frozen roads, no privacy.

Decimated, the last of generations remain knowing they cannot make a living from the land like their fathers and mothers and yet struggle on. It’s in their skin and has been there since birth, every nuance of weather, every flutter of wing. Those dependent on the countryside know it as the rabbit knows the fox or the sparrow knows the hawk. This is becoming nature, where survival is king.

Are the rest of us able to say we really know the countryside? Or are we indulging the luxury of being able to consider a longing for nature’s otherness, a reminder that we are part of something truly beyond humankind’s control, the pull of the primeval? We might infuse our responses with modernity, a scrabble for authenticity: ultimately, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. We are looking to ideals, a pursuit of beauty, the antidote to over-sophistication, a dream of Utopia, a return to Eden.

No matter whether we express this with a well-placed bench, a faded print or bestselling literature, it’s an illusion that belongs to us all.

Dorset in 1940

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This is one of a series of photography books by S W Colyer produced in the late 1930s and during the war, each featuring a different English landscape. They’re described as photogravure plates, so each image has quite a lot of depth and looks quite cinematic – a great insight into a time when it wasn’t felt necessary to daub our villages and lanes with fluorescent orange signage or paint the road yellow and green… though maybe I’ll concede that the tarmac comes in handy these days…

Thomas Hardy and the paperback cover

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Macmillan published a whole series of Hardy paperbacks around 1975. Stylised illustration had given way to making use of full-colour photography (no-one bothers to say full-colour now of course, because it’s cheap and easy, but it wasn’t back then – it was still a bit special). Bleed-off edges keep everything uncluttered and simple, with one of those fonts that managed to look both ancient and modern at the same time. Key characters were posed in various outdoor settings, with lots of natural light. (Click to enlarge.)

I think ‘being outdoors’ was a feature of this sort of image – I keep thinking of Jarvis Cocker’s lyric about ‘lemonade light’, probably because he draws heavily on the 70s, but also because it suggests lens flare, and those washed out, coloured circles of light. Of which there aren’t any here, but it’s the kind of thing that characterises the era for me.

Again these are treading a fine line – a little too much in one direction and it could be Hardy as pulp romance. There are a few fine images here though – I think Return of the Native is great with its perfect perspective capture of Egdon Heath, as is The Trumpet-Major with the Osmington Horse in the background. Both The Mayor of Casterbridge, with its grim respectability, and Far from the Madding Crowd, with clever use of a fan to suggest Bathsheba’s flighty aspirations, are just as good.

Then things start to fall apart. Tess is just a bit dull; Under the Greenwood Tree has a bright summer haze, but it’s the start of taking the titles all a bit literally instead of imaginatively… and then there’s a raid on the BBC props department. Two on a Tower? Just that. The Hand of Ethelberta? (Monty-Python-esque as a title at the best of times, but go on, give me your hand woman!)… and then it’s just random thespians adrift in the park.

Street Markets by Martina Selway, London Transport Poster, 1965

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One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and London is a hunting ground for the unlikely.

© London Transport Museum

…says the text on this poster, and I see a London of 1965 – in that slightly barking way in which we feel we know the decades before our own existence. Anyway, this London street is thronged with vehicles made of curves, in elephant greys or dirty creams; plate glass shop fronts with sans serif fonts (they’re olive green) mingle with Victorian stalwarts that brushed off the war; and in their lunch hour, a certain type of woman is collecting cakes for the office and something for her supper.

I’m thinking of the first librarian I knew. Her name was Mrs Peach, and Mrs Peach was nice. Like a lot of women when I was a child, she had hair not unlike the Queen, the slightly pointed practical NHS glasses, and a twin set. Her capability and efficiency was such that if a nuclear reactor happened to go into meltdown somewhere in this Hampshire village, then you felt that the rest of us could just carry on browsing the shelves for books about otters or the Tudors (blame Ladybird books). I imagine Mrs Peach would have it all in hand: she would simply glance over the top of her glasses, ask us to wait a moment, and slink out of her library (which was small, but as light and modernist as something from Farenheit 451) only to return moments later with order restored and library cards to deal as coolly as a casino host.

I like the poster because it’s such a perfect stylised take on a Victorian past, when it was still living memory. Even though it dates a couple of years before Julie Christie and Terence Stamp went Far From the Madding Crowd, the scarlet tunic is brilliantly evocative. The picture book jumble conjures whiskery tobacco, a sonorous stiff-upper-lipped ticking of the clock, the pot dog on the mantlepiece as a gentle shawl shuffles a game of cards and wonders if it’s time to start the tea.