sun 13/06/2021

A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain | reviews, news & interviews

A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain

A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain

John Krish's intriguing portraits of British life emerge from the archive

An English teacher in a brand-new Hertfordshire secondary school is about to lose his rag. “You said ‘relaxed, like,’” he storms at a boy. “Why like? Like what? Why do you use that expression? What does it mean?” This is 1962. It’s a scene from Our School, sponsored by the National Union of Teachers, one of four documentaries made between 1953 and 1964 by John Krish in the BFI’s Boom Britain: Documenting the Nation’s Life on Film, a project that celebrates the neglected heritage of the post-war documentary.

It’s usually Humphrey Jennings’s work for the Crown Film Unit in the 1940s, with its unified wartime message, that gets all the attention, so it’s high time for a new look at this fascinating archive. Krish, born in 1923, is also famous for directing the groovy opening credits of The Avengers in the 1960s, but these melancholy black-and-white films are a very different, wonderfully expressive portrait of the era.

The first, The Elephant Will Never Forget, is a 10-minute film about the last days of the London tram in 1952. It was made against the wishes of his boss at British Transport Films. Krish was told just to film the chairman of London Transport shaking hands with the driver of the last tram, but he was sure there was more to be said. So he made the documentary and was sacked soon afterwards - the BTF was supposed to celebrate new technology, not look back sentimentally - even though the film was a success and shown at the Leicester Square Odeon.

We see trams passing bombed-out sites from the Blitz and a jolly old couple - the voiceover says primly that Cockneys were particularly fond of trams - taking a last shilling ride all over London. Krish picked two people from the Darby and Joan club in Lewisham, making sure they weren’t married so they wouldn’t sit in silence. There are dramatic shots of scrapped trams in flames, a wonderful grainy night shot of a lone tram going over Blackfriars Bridge, filmed very slowly in order to get an exposure and a rousing send-off at the New Cross depot. "Goodbye, old tram," says Lord Latham, chairman of London Transport, in refined RP tones.

"You said 'relaxed, like'": A clip from John Krish's Our School:

Krish always used real people, not actors. In They Took Us to the Sea (1961), made for the NSPCC about a charity outing from Birmingham to Weston-super-Mare, he made the children promise not to look at the cameras. None of them do, which gives the strangely subdued atmosphere - these children look as though they’ve lost some vital spark, even when they’re eating fish and chips or going on the big dipper - an even greater poignancy. Krish says in a BFI interview that the crew gave a tea party for the kids the day before filming began and "that tea party was deathly quiet". The camera lingers on the children’s faces as they look out of the train window, make sandcastles, get sticks of rock, and somehow we’re given a visceral glimpse into bleak lives, all to the tune of "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean". It’s a relief to move on to 15-year-old girls discussing marriage in the secondary mod in Our School. They all want to settle down and have babies, a house and a car - but will they be able to afford to go out dancing as well as pay the babysitter? "What will you bring to a marriage, Heather?" asks the teacher. Not surprisingly, Heather looks blank.

There’s more bleakness in the fourth film, I Think They Call Him John, made in 1964 about an elderly widower living on his own in a high-rise London flat. The narration, like the filming, is spare and moving, allowing the silence and slowness of this lonely life to unfold. We follow John Ronson, a retired miner and old soldier, through his careful regime of putting the budgie out on to the balcony, eating a boiled egg with sliced white bread - these films remind you how depressing food was in the Fifties and Sixties - doing the ironing and watching TV from a stiff-backed kitchen chair. Krish made the film over two weekends because being with Ronson for four days straight was too much for him. "They were heavy days," he says in the BFI interview, though Ronson liked having the film crew around - company at last - and became convinced that Krish had been in the trenches with him. “The documentary is an essay that contains the essence of the film-maker, unlike the newsreel,” says Krish. These committed, hard-working films also contain the essence of our past.

John Krish on being sacked after filming The Elephant Will Never Forget:

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