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Britishness by Michael Brooke
Introduction The British Character Ancient & Mediaeval Royalty & Empire The Class System Conflict
Landscape Foreigners Culture Leisure Eccentricity Shopkeepers
 
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Landscape
Still from Elgar

Gloucestershire's Malvern Hills
in 'Elgar' (1962)

Britain is not a country of extremes, either of climate or landscape. When a hurricane laid waste to parts of the South Coast in October 1987, the collective reaction was that it was a most un-British phenomenon: natural disasters were something that happened elsewhere, and it was dashed unsporting of it to come here. Though parts of Wales and Scotland boast magnificent mountain scenery, the popular image of the British landscape is firmly in line with William Blake's "green and pleasant land", as immortalised in the final line of his poem 'Jerusalem'.

But it's also an indelible part of the British psyche. When Ken Russell was planning his famous documentary about the composer Edward Elgar, he insisted on shooting on location in Gloucestershire's Malvern Hills, their ridge forming the backbone to the entire film (a metaphor that Russell himself used when pitching it to his BBC bosses). Later, Russell became addicted to the more spectacular landscape of the Lake District, and would film there whenever possible, regardless of the film's actual setting.

Michael Powell was another major British director who paid intense attention to the qualities of the British landscape. The Edge of the World (1937), The Spy in Black (1939) and 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945) were all set in remote Scottish communities. Gone to Earth (1950) captured the Shropshire countryside in Technicolor, but the most important Powell landscape film (and one of the defining films about Britishness in general) is A Canterbury Tale (1944). In it, a bizarre series of random attacks involving girls having glue poured into their hair leads to a complex and ambiguous drama in which three modern-day pilgrims arrive in Canterbury on war-related business, only to find themselves enthralled by both city and countryside, and what each reveals about Britain's rural past.

Powell's most obvious successor was not a filmmaker but a television playwright: Dennis Potter grew up near the Forest of Dean, and his work is intensely conscious of the role that landscape plays in shaping his characters' emotional outlook, often through their formative memories. The series Pennies From Heaven (BBC, 1978) and The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) and the one-off drama Blue Remembered Hills (BBC, tx. 30/1/1979) are the best examples, the last casting adults as children and filmed entirely on location in the real-life landscape of Potter's own childhood.

As for one-off films, The Railway Children (1970) is indelibly set in the Yorkshire Dales, to which the central family gets reluctantly uprooted at the beginning. Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) is about a Texan oilman trying to take advantage of Scottish natural resources, but who ends up falling in love with the whole environment, not least the Northern Lights. (The villagers are altogether less romantic about their surroundings, and happy to do business). The first part of Bill Douglas' Comrades (1986) is embedded in the soil of rural Dorsetshire, home of the men who would become the Tolpuddle Martyrs. And some of the more distinctive British horror films owe that distinction to their sense of location, whether Cornwall in The Plague of the Zombies (1966), Norfolk in Witchfinder General (1968) or an isolated Scottish island in The Wicker Man (1973).

1997 saw the release of two remarkable and largely unclassifiable films that are deeply indebted to the British landscape. Andrew K├Âtting's picaresque road movie Gallivant took the director, his grandmother and his daughter round the coastline in search not of conventional tourist imagery but of the peculiarities of Britishness, as expressed in speech, dress, language and culture. At about the same time, Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Space restaged Daniel Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, originally conducted in the 1720s, in an attempt to find a solution to "the problem of England". That the unnamed narrator and his companion Robinson fail to reach a definitive answer is unsurprising, but Keiller's film constitutes one of the richest and most enthralling interrogations of the significance of the British landscape (industrial and urban as well as rural) that anyone has made in recent decades.

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