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England of Elizabeth, The (1957)


Main image of England of Elizabeth, The (1957)
35mm, 26 min, colour
DirectorJohn Taylor
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
Executive ProducerEdgar Anstey
ProducerIan Ferguson
CinematographyJames Ritchie
 David Watkin
MusicRalph Vaughan Williams
Music DirectorMuir Mathieson

Narrator: Alec Clunes

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Elizabethan England as seen through its architecture, art, furniture, music and literature.

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John Taylor had been one of the documentary movement's youngest members - for instance, as camera operator on Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935). After World War Two, he was a prolific, accomplished exponent of the evolving documentary tradition, working in various settings, including British Transport Films (BTF) under Edgar Anstey.

The England of Elizabeth initially seems very different from the much-loved Holiday (1957), another Taylor-directed BTF film. In fact, they make fine, contrasting and complementary, companion pieces. Both films ultimately emerged as collaborative productions, with relatively light involvement from Taylor after initial shooting. Though Holiday is joyously contemporary, and The England of Elizabeth a stately evocation of English history, they share certain feelings. Both films, while apolitical, suggest a nation finding ease with itself after turbulent times, able to enjoy the moment but respectful of distant pasts' ghosts in its midst.

This 1950s world-view is more appealing to some modern viewers than others, but there is no doubting the craftsmanship. The England of Elizabeth should be dull, given how much screen time is devoted to shots of static objects: stately homes and ruins, paintings, manuscripts, maps and other Tudor artefacts. That it's thoroughly engrossing is down to three factors. The most obvious is the lush score by Ralph Vaughan Williams, alternately majestic and thrilling. The second is the high quality of all other elements of the production, characteristic of BTF: painterly colour cinematography, skilfully unobtrusive editing, and a soothing, well-spoken commentary (by Alec Clunes, from a script by historian A.L. Rowse - the David Starkey of his day). Finally, the opening scenes are crucial to the impact of the whole, immediately putting viewers into the right, contemplative state of mind. Low-angle or slightly off-centre urban shots of modern feet and cars suggest a bustling yet fleeting, fragile present, preparing us for brief immersion in history. Further shots encapsulate the continuity of rural England: British documentary had a long history of suggesting national unity by rhyming the urban or industrial with the pastoral.

The film's purpose is partly to encourage audiences to visit some of the historical attractions that go on to be shown, but as in all the best BTF films, 'promotion' is very subtle, while deeper meanings are lightly brushed upon. Parallels between the original and the current 'Elizabethan age' are unstressed but obvious. But the optimism is never brash - indeed, it has undertones of melancholy.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'See Britain By Train'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (24:56)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Holiday (1957)
Stratford-on-Avon (1925)
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)
British Transport Films