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Peas and Cues (1930)


Main image of Peas and Cues (1930)
For Secrets of Nature
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films

The germination of pea seeds.

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Peas and Cues was the first Secrets of Nature film to have a sound commentary. In their memoirs, Percy Smith and Mary Field recalled the dramatic circumstances of its production. They had been approached:

with an offer to put on one of our 'Secrets of Nature' with the first night of Douglas Fairbanks' Taming of the Shrew, but the 'Secret' had to be a "sound-film". We had never made one.

In the rush to meet the deadline, the sound recording was made at a Welwyn studio, but the first three attempts were failures caused by a workman's nearby hammering dislodging the tone-lamp in the sound camera by a hundredth of an inch.

Despite the teething troubles, Peas and Cues was, according to Field and Smith, an audience success: "the first, and to many people the most lovely, of all the talking 'Secrets of Nature'". Partly this success can be attributed to the simple 'life story' structure that is now a cliché in nature film narratives. The film shows the birth, life and reproduction of sweet peas, a familiar and well loved plant of British gardeners. The commentary personalises the life story further by likening the germinating and growing plant to a boisterous human youngster. The seed is the 'cradle of the baby green pea plant', while the plant is a 'vigorous child'.

While sweet peas might be familiar objects, and therefore an effective means to connect with the audience, the movement of growing plants, captured and revealed through gorgeous time-lapse cinematography, is unfamiliar and potentially disturbing. Plants seem to be moving like animals. In Peas and Cues, however, this uncanny movement of plants is presented as endearing rather than, as was the case with The Strangler (1930), on the parasitic dodder plant, sinister.

There are hints of natural theology - the drawing of morals from nature - but never such as to distract from the aesthetic spectacle of moving living plants. For example, the contrasting fate of the two seeds, one falling on barren land, the other growing in fertile soil, would have been immediately suggestive to church-going viewers. Less directly religious is the moral that life on earth is a cycle of hard work in which flashes of beauty are temporary and brief. "Once more", the commentator concludes, "there is a struggle of growth and endeavour", in which the "all too fleeting beauty of the flower" is merely part.

Jon Agar

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Video Clips
1. Five days' growth (0:59)
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)