thu 23/05/2019

DVD: Visions of Change, Vol 1 | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Visions of Change, Vol 1

DVD: Visions of Change, Vol 1

Fascinating BFI collection of BBC docs from 1951-1967

Pub scene in Dennis Mitchell's film with Dennis Potter, 'Between Two Rivers'

There was a time when the BBC provided a creative context – free of the anxiety-fuelled micro-management that characterises commissioning today – that gave a great deal of space to original and experimental film-making. While the pioneering work of French documentarians in the 1950s and 1960s was subsidized by an enlightened state, British documentary made advances thanks to public (and later commercial) television.

Subtitled "The Evolution of the British Documentary", this well-curated BFI compilation of BBC films from 1951-1967 pays homage to a variety of films and TV programmes that provide a vivid evocation of British society at a time of seismic social and cultural change. The collection from the BBC will be followed in March 2016 by a compilation of ITV-produced docs from 1958-1967.

For all the socialism, there was a deep vein of elitist yet benevolent paternalism

The ghosts of Grierson and the GPO Film Unit haunt the earlier films of of the collection: beautifully-shot portraits of Northern working-class life – Joe the Chainsmith is a characteristic hymn to a particularly heroic and Herculean form of skilled labour, and Night in the City focuses as much on the dispossessed as it does those who work when most are asleep.

Many of these films give a voice to Britain’s work-force in a manner at once romantic and un-sentimental. Hardship and the relentlessness of the working week are filmed as if their very authenticity guaranteed an aura of beauty. These films resonate with the mood of plays like Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, or David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life, adapted for the screen by Lindsay Anderson.

For all the socialism, there was also a deep vein of elitist yet benevolent paternalism – though the Oxbridge voices were already on the way out. The shift in perspectives and narratives are brought to life in Dennis Mitchell's Between Two Rivers, Dennis Potter’s personal exploration of his cultural displacement as a grammar school success who returns to his native Forest of Dean, with the nostalgia that comes as the price of social mobility. A different and yet not unrelated sense of being uprooted and cast adrift is present in The Colony, Philip Donnellan’s moving account of the experience of Jamaican immigrants in Birmingham.

The winds of change are perhaps most noticeable in Ken Russell’s stylish film about British pop art, Pop Goes the Easel, a kind of trailer for Swinging London, with notes from the city’s Bohemian underground, the practice of art fuelled by pop music and parties, and a world in which the medium had become the message and style was beginning to win over content.


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