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