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Blue Remembered Hills (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Blue Remembered Hills (1979)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 30/1/1979
75 minutes, colour
DirectorBrian Gibson
ProducerKenith Trodd
ScreenplayDennis Potter

Cast: Colin Welland (Willie); Michael Elphick (Peter); Robin Ellis (John); John Bird (Raymond); Helen Mirren (Angela); Janine Duvitski (Audrey); Colin Jeavons (Donald Duck)

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Dark undercurrents come to the fore as seven West Country children play in the Forest of Dean during the Second World War.

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Following on from his breakthrough success with Pennies From Heaven (BBC, 1978), Dennis Potter produced perhaps his most straightforward and naturalistic play, one that also signalled a significant stylistic shift in the presentation of his work.

'Blue Remembered Hills' (Play for Today, BBC tx. 30/1/1979) in fact completely breaks away from the studio-based, video-recorded productions with which he had been closely associated until then, and of which Pennies From Heaven can now be seen as the apotheosis. Instead, the new play was shot entirely on film and on location (in Dorset), and it is clear that cinematographer Nat Crosby and director Brian Gilbert revelled in the scenic possibilities offered by the locations, alternating fluid camera movements with static, sumptuously photographed tableaux of the countryside.

The title comes from A.E. Housman's 'Into my heart an air that kills', a paean to lost childhood which Potter himself recites at the end of the play over images of the burning barn. This serves as an ironic counterpoint to Potter's typically complex and ambivalent look at childhood, something also subtly reflected in Marc Wilkinson's music score, which combines simple melodies evoking the childhood of the period (it's set in 1943) with a dissonant underlay to suggest something more sinister.

The play offers a fairly dark meditation on pre-pubescent imagination and innocence, a point emphasised through its celebrated use of well-known adult actors in the roles of young children, a technique Potter first explored in 'Stand Up, Nigel Barton' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 8/12/1965). 'Blue Remembered Hills', as if to offset the very artificiality of this conceit, observes the unities of time and place very strictly, so that all the events take place over the 71 minute running time of the play in and around the Forest of Dean, never abandoning the exclusive point of view of the seven children, the only characters in the piece.

As the tormented Donald, the dour Colin Jeavons is perhaps the only one of the cast who physically fails to be entirely convincing as a young child, while the moon-faced Colin Welland and Michael Elphick are particularly well chosen.

Strong religious symbolism is felt throughout, from the opening scene, in which Welland bites into an apple, through to the conclusion, when, after the accidental death of Donald, the remaining children shamefully hide in a field as if expelled from their Edenic childhood existence.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. War Games (3:06)
2. Happy families (3:08)
3. Best friends (3:00)
4. Prisoner on the loose (2:08)
5. Not our fault (1:56)
Production stills
Bird, John (1936-) and Fortune, John (1939-)
Elphick, Michael (1946-2002)
Mirren, Helen (1945-)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
Welland, Colin (1934-)
Play for Today (1970-84)
WWII Dramas