Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A revelation and a mystery

It's so cold and wet, and my right wrist aches and creaks and my left thumb twinges at odd moments, and yesterday evening thanks to all this I lost my grip on all my resolve and slid into feeling thoroughly blue. Coming equal first with Emmanuel College Cambridge in University Challenge couldn't assuage my mood. Even a piece of apple pie with clotted cream didn't help. So I took refuge in the world of romantic love; or rather, in the bittersweet, romantic-yet-anti-romantic version that you find in the films of Powell and Pressburger. Those magic words on the screen in the opening titles - "A production of The Archers - Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger", with the arrows thumping into the target behind, are an instant guarantee of quality...

I once wrote an essay on the Archers films for college - rather to the surprise of my tutor, who didn't think Michael Powell had made anything worth considering apart from "Peeping Tom", and so hadn't seen any of his other films (and this was a professional lecturer in film studies - shame on her!). I was able to burble about them to my heart's content with impunity, since she couldn't criticise my work without first working her way through more films than she had time for. I probably displayed the depths of my nerdiness to great advantage, but I was happy.

Last night I put on my dvd of "I know where I'm going!", which is one of the most wholeheartedly romantic of the Archers films. Tonight I'll probably follow it up with "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp". Movie heaven; my perfect cinema date would be these two films, in a double bill at the Riverside Studios with a good meal first and a glass of shiraz in the interval.

"I know where I'm going!" is a love story, filmed in 1944 and released in 1945. Joan Webster, a confident and self-possessed young woman (played by Wendy Hiller) has by the age of 25 convinced herself that the way to happiness is to marry a wealthy man who she does not love and enjoy all the good things his money can buy her. On her way to the planned wedding in the Hebrides, however, the great British climate intervenes, stranding her on Mull for a week. Under the influence of a mystically beautiful landscape and of the friendly local people, and especially of Roger Livesey as the handsome but impoverished local laird, she is forced to face the folly of her dreams. As the film ends she decides to give up her planned marriage and acknowledges her feelings for Livesey. Returning up the hill from the little port accompanied by three pipers she joins him in the ruins of Moy Castle - and I have a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball.

Summed up like that, it sounds like the worst, most formulaic Hollywood sludge, yet it couldn't be more different. It is subtle, ironic and delicate, treating its gold-digging heroine with sympathy even while pulling holes in her values, and allowing her to retain her astringent determination to the end. Her relationship with Livesey's warm, sardonic, honest hero is human and credible. I want to cheer when they get together.

Visually the film is absolutely sumptuous, creating more richness with black and white than many a colour movie achieves, and offering a succession of haunting images. The first entry of Pamela Brown's character Catriona, whistling on a hillside in the thick fog, surrounded by wolfhounds; the shots of the local girl Bridie waiting on the quayside, afraid her sweetheart has been drowned trying to earn the money to be able to marry her, her tension and grief conveyed through her stillness; countless outdoor shots of the local scenery; perhaps above all the wonderful sequence of the ceilidh at Ardnacroish, where the locals dance and sing puirt á beul and the lovers watch first the dancing and then one another (Powell having a lovely time here mucking about with all those po-faced theories about "the fetishistic Gaze"); over and over one is jolted by simple yet stunning imagery that tells much through little and draws you imperceptibly into the film's quiet magic.

Trying a while back to write a query letter for "Gabriel Yeats" I found myself thinking it would appeal to fans of Powell and Pressburger; watching this film last night I found myself thinking how accurate a description that was. It's almost as if I had been trying, unconsciously, to script my own Archers' movie. It's rather embarrassing to realise how much "Gabriel Yeats" pulls together themes and motifs from all my favourites.

One other thing I had never realised until last night was how much my protagonist owes to that wonderful actor Roger Livesey, who appears in this and two other great P&P films. I'd never seen it until now, but just as "Gabriel Yeats" is a fantasy Powell and Pressburger film, so Simon Cenarth is a dream Roger Livesey rôle. It's a revelation to me. How oddly the mind works; I've been looking for "the right face" for Simon for years, when all the time he had been right in front of me in three of my favourite films. If that hyperlink has come through okay, by the way, it's a still from "Colonel Blimp"; the beginning of the duelling scene.

There's a long-standing family mystery about Roger Livesey; according to the story, his family and my father's are connected. But no-one now can fill me in on the truth of it; my father couldn't remember the background when I asked him shortly before he died, and went off onto a tangent about the school his stepfather ran; my mother only knows the gist of the family story and none of the facts; the grandparental generation, who would have known the truth, are all dead now.

There is one piece of evidence, if one can call it that. When my parents married in 1962 they were given, by someone (no idea who) in my father's extensive family, a wedding present of a piece of glazed stoneware made by a potter called Evelyn Livesey. My mother still has the piece of pottery - it's gorgeous, a large dish shaped like a flattened cylinder seal, decorated with incised patterns and abstract shapes in a rich greenish glaze. It always serves as the main fruit platter on the Christmas dinner table, and I have adored it since I was a kid. My mother was told at the time that that Evelyn Livesey was a relative of Roger Livesey's and that the Livesey family were connected to my father's family, and I have always cherished this tentative connection, though I do wonder if it is not in fact a case of Chinese whispers. I've tried looking up the name "Evelyn Livesey" online but have got nowhere. I'd love to find out the truth about this someday.


Startled bunny said...

Hi there,

I have a beautiful piece of glazed art by Evelyn Livesey. This piece and also a painting by her husband (who may also be called Roger Livesy) of boats on Whitstable beach were given to my grandmother and I believe they were friends. I don't know anything else, but I will now try to find out more from my mother and uncle!

Startled bunny said...
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