I had the pleasure of a trip to Shetland recently, in the company of Birder/Presenter Stephen Moss. Without going into the details of the seasickness, among the many delights was mention of a wartime film called Tawny Pipit. When I got home, I ordered myself a copy from Movie Mail.
Co-directed by, and staring Bernard Miles, this was a propaganda piece aimed at supporting the Home Front. These period pieces can be fascinating for bringing into focus what we might think of as ‘our’ country, if we live here – or, I suppose, if we don’t! Powell and Pressburger produced several of the genre. I know Where I’m Going (with the mesmerizing Pamela Brown stealing the show for my money), A Matter of Life & Death (starring a London Tube escalator), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (reputedly hated by Churchill). There was also Cavalcanti’s amazing Went The Day Well, based on the Graham Greene story, The Lieutenant Died Last. I blogged at length about that sometime ago.
All these films lay on the rose coloured spectacle view to some extent, but what they are all trying to do, is to present what it is we, whoever that may be, think, or thought then at least, was what was worth fighting, and dying for in the ‘British’ way of life, and, more than implicitly, in the ‘British’ place of life. I put British in quotation marks, because it’s not quite the simple label it must once have been thought. I never think of myself as British, for the simple reason that I want to make no claim on parts of the United Kingdom that I have no claim on. Scotland, for example, I think of as my favourite foreign country, and I have thought that way for as long as I can remember – this is no post referendum stance. But there is another reason for questioning the term where these wartime films are concerned, for mostly, they are set in England, and in the south east quarter of it for that matter.
There is perhaps a practical element to this. The bulk of the population lives there, for example. London, more importantly, is situated there, and London stands at the heart of what the ‘state’ was fighting for, and has done since Roman times. Bonnie Prince Charlie, it’s worth reminding ourselves, was not marching to London to liberate Scotland, but to secure his hold on London. Arguably, who holds London holds the rest, if they want to.
Yet the England (or Britain), that these World War Two films was selling to that South-East, London-centric population was the England that lay just outside the capital: the Home Counties. Cumbria, it’s worth pointing out, and Staffordshire – where I come from – lie well outside those green and pleasant heartlands. I’m not sure what word you’d describe the counties with which are not ‘Home’ ones, but it would have to suggest somewhere and something else.
Tawny Pipit is set in the fictional Lipsbury Lea and was filmed in the Slaughters villages of the Cotswolds. Out of all the films I’ve so far mentioned it has been the one where the stereotyping of English society has been carried to such an extreme that it goes beyond charming, or idiosyncratic, or even ‘grotesque’ – the word used to describe Coppard’s ‘English of the English’ stories – and enters the realm of what I would have to call odious.
From its attitudes to women, to the rusticals, to the lower classes, to foreigners, and to warfare itself, the minutiae of the film seems horribly dated. The background story still resonates: the eponymous birds – in fact Meadow Pipits made up to look like the rare, continental Tawnies, which, of course, in wartime could not be accessed – have made their nest in a corner of an English field, for only the second time ever recorded. The villagers, rallying round, protect them from bird-nesting boys, avaricious egg-collectors, and various ministries of state. It is a timely story to revisit perhaps, with several thousand refugees on our borders again. Despite the underlying decency, from a liberal-democratic perspective, of the story, the words and actions of the characters, intended explicitly to make plain that decency, betray to the hindsightful eye the darker side of British, or should that truly be English, culture.
I love these old films, but I had watched only a few minutes of Tawny Pipit, before my hackles began to rise. It’s a simple scene, as the hero, Jimmy Bancroft, played by Niall MacGinnis and his girlfriend, Hazel Broome, make their way back to the village, having seen the birds. MacGuiness leads the way, opting to jump a gate, and walk down through the fields to the village, lying, beautiful, below.
Wait a minute? Where’s the fingerpost? Taken down for the war, to confuse the invader? He doesn’t mention it being a Right of Way. I grew up in the English midlands, where you wouldn’t dream of crossing anyone’s field, if you didn’t know them and had permission, unless you were sure you were on a Right of Way…and even then, you’d have to be braced to argue the point, possibly, and this happened to me, with a man holding a shotgun. Scotland really is a foreign country, and in this respect especially. In Cumbria too, I’ve been faced off, in the nineteen seventies, by a farmer who had actually taken the trouble to move the stile so it took you off the path and into what was more or less a swamp. I was working for the County Council Planning Department at the time, on a footpath project, but when I got back to the office – rather shaken – there was no appetite for sorting out the issue. So perhaps my raised sensitivity prejudices my viewing of the film. There was also the issue of who the MacGinnis character is: a fighter pilot recuperating from wounds received in the Battle of Britain; a DFC, and DSO, but also a middle class man, nicely spoken. Perhaps he would feel he did have the Right, whether or not there was a Way? Perhaps the landowner, or tenant farmer would have agreed.
There’s a scene later in which a land-girl, who is in fact a grown woman, offers a lift on her horse-drawn cart, to some old buffers from the Ornithological Society, up, or rather down, from the city, to twitch the birds. The oldest of them, old enough to be her father, sits close behind her on the cart, far too close, I would have said, and treats her to a patronage that to my ears sounded cringe-makingly cheesy. The scene is used as one of the dvd sleeve stills. She laps it up, and I guess there would be individuals then and now who would do so. But uneasy doesn’t cover the sense of discomfort I experienced watching the scene. Personally, I would like to have seen her smack him one, and throw him off the cart, or insist that he travelled the rest of the way under the netting, with the pigs! The scene might be intended to be mildly comic – the film is categorized as ‘comic’ by the distributors of the dvd – but it is a comedy that has not time-travelled well.
The treatment of the locals is interesting too, being both timeless, and very much of its time. Shakespeare we know, was famous for his comic rusticals. My favourite is Bottom, played by gangster-playing movie star James Cagney, in the 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Shakespeare was already in the footsteps of Chaucer and no doubt the ignorant and stupid, slow-witted local was by his time already a well established figure of fun; but also one who, as in Tawny Pipit can, and will run rings round his incomer adversary – usually an urbanite. This is in the tradition that leads to Local Hero among others.
Class, which is not quite the same thing, and social and working roles are also shown. Notable here is the scene where the usher, or whatever you might call him, tiptoes on squeaky shoes into the meeting of the ornithologists, to pass on the professor’s note about the finding of the pipits. He is waved away, twice, almost with contempt, though his message will completely overshadow the boring talk being given, when it is finally read.
Attitudes to children have changed too since the nineteen forties. Within the first half hour or so of the film, we have seen them humiliated by a teacher, manhandled by a stranger, and sent out on their own into the far corners of the locality: abuse, risk, and assault by modern standards. It didn’t do them any harm. They were the generation that went on to popularise sex, drugs and rock and roll. Thanks for that chaps. Much appreciated.
More explicitly political is another early scene, in which Colonel Barton-Barrington, played by Bernard Miles, at the invitation of the vicar, chairs a village meeting, in the open air of this glorious summer of their self-content, and puts forth the official word, on democracy, community, and foreigners. It is an astonishing assertion of values with which one could hardly disagree, yet couched in language, and enacted in a setting that more than undermines and actually contradicts some of what is being said. The Colonel’s speech presses so many buttons, some of them intentionally, others without, perhaps, even an ironic awareness. Here are some nuggets from it:
Of the foreigners: ‘a lot of them are pretty decent people’ besides which ‘they can’t help being foreign.’
Democracy, is distinguished from Nazism: because ‘the hun doesn’t know the meaning of play the game. He never did and he never will.’ – the idea of ‘playing the game’ in contrast to ‘fighting a war’ was the main theme of the aforementioned Powell & Pressburger Life & Death of Colonel Blimp.
The villages are told ‘it’s for you to decide,’ but also reminded that they will decide ‘on the right side.’
The Colonel isn’t so much electioneering, as making plain what the local establishment wants to happen, and not a single dissenting voice, gesture, or expression is shown. That some of this was intended to satirize the Colonel cannot be doubted – a very young child, from its pram, burbles a parody of his words – especially his jibe about ‘them’ not being able ‘to help’ being foreign, but there is much that is prejudicial here, in the general ambience of the film, about foreigners, about women, about the capabilities and even rights of what we might fudge as ‘ordinary’ people, and about democracy itself. There is a point at which proselytizing becomes dictatorial. How could it be otherwise, in the circumstances?
The war itself is described, by the hero, as like a cricket match before an unusually large crowd – I’ll leave you to imagine what might be its fours and sixes, its leg before wickets, and its bodyline bowlings.
There are counter-currents though, and that British capacity for laughing at ourselves, without enquiring too deeply into why we should. Though the tank commander does not take seriously the story being told by Hazel Broome to persuade him not to drive his tanks through the field, he defers instantly to the specialist knowledge of his corporal, who is an ornithologist. This shows a real change in British attitudes, one that had come about during the war, but could trace its roots back to the previous war, as technical expertise began to replace breeding as the quality upon which the functioning of the armed forces depended. The scene tells us not only that such a change was happening, but that it had been recognised as doing so. Indeed, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp is based largely on that premise.
The message throughout though, and perhaps in films like this it always has to be, is that things are basically all right the way they are, with everyone in their place, and knowing it. It is that security that gives us the strength to take in and nurture the outsider. The fact that the battles are fought against ‘intransigent authority’ is, I feel, another example of the ‘safe’ revolution, which both people and Establishment can indulge in without actually changing anything. Kate Fox, in her Watching the English, sums it up rather well in her proposed English revolutionary slogan: What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course.’ I quote from memory, the book being lent out!
After a protracted set up, the discovery and identification of the birds and the plan to protect them, the potential assaults against them seem progressively less threatening. McKee hadn’t written his book on story, in those days, so perhaps they didn’t know, or perhaps the types of threat they offer carry different magnitudes of jeopardy to modern eyes. The tanks on exercise are turned away easily enough, and the Ministry plan to plough up the field, though insisted upon by the officials, is quickly overruled by the Minister himself, when he discovers that the Colonel is in charge of the ‘save the pipits’ campaign – he was the Colonel’s fag at Pubic School.
The renegade farmer who decides to plough anyway has his tractor sabotaged, and the ‘professional’ egg-stealer bumps into a military exercise and is easily overcome! There’s a half hearted attempt to link all this to real foreigners, with a visiting female Russian sniper, giving a rousing chorus of the ‘Internationale’ to which the Colonel raises a fisted salute (though the vicar doesn’t approve wholeheartedly). A village girl (sic), hopes that she too would kill as many Nazis – though not with a wood axe as does the housewife in Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well! The whole thing has the feel of a school play: enthusiastically shallow, skimming the surface of truths, rather than plumbing their depths. When the villagers sing that revolutionary song, I’m reminded of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley, but not by similarities.
The question I came away asking, was to what extent did the film makers recognise and consciously carry out what seems now such an exercise in hypocrisy? Was it conscious? Were they deluding their audiences only, or themselves as well? Or is it one of those situations in which we are genuinely blinkered, in which we really don’t see the true implications, or even the explicit meanings of the words we are saying?
Britain, by 1943, when the film was made – it was released in spring of 1944 – had suffered four years hardship and loss. Those at the top might have been fairly confident, though by no means sure, that the victory would go to them, but for ordinary people that could still have been only a hope, and for people who had suffered from the loss of friends, relatives and loved ones, and who had seen their towns and cities, and their individual homes destroyed, it must have seemed at times a forlorn hope. What we can see from a distance, will of necessity look different from close to.
But can films of this type and from so long ago still speak to us of what Britain, or England, is, or was, or might be wished to be? The love of the natural environment still rings true with us, and nowadays at what is perhaps a deeper level, though the threat to it is greater than it has ever been. Our idea of rural England is still, perhaps, unrealistic, but we have footage here of actual scenes, and we can find our way to the places from which that footage was filmed, and we can make our comparisons. I have a paperback booklet of English villages, published in the late nineteen forties. What strikes me about those black and white photographs, of village streets in particular, is the lack of road vehicles, stark even by comparison with the minor Cumbrian lane with its five dwellings to the mile that I live on now. The wartime HMSO magazine-format history of the Land at War, tells a tale of some of the darkest days in the British farming industry, and shows how wartime necessity tried to turn it around. How to use the land without ruining it, and yet still make a living from it, and feed the mouths that need to be fed, is still an issue today (a current Archers storyline touches on it).
The human environment too, still carries echoes of the nineteen forties. The voices are so different, yet so similar. The rusticals might seem positively Shakespearian, even music-hall, but regional accents are still strong, and revered too, because, perhaps, and not despite that, they divide us. Class accents are still here, and they represent the same classes, even though we are often in denial about their continued domination. I shan’t live to see the great celebrations in 2066 of the arrival of the current ruling class, but what, I wonder, will be seen of them? Will a thousand years of Norman-French occupation be celebrated on the streets, or behind the closed doors of those who recognise it as their victory?
The notes included with the dvd throw an interesting light: Miles, they tell us, was the son of a farm labourer, but won himself a place at Oxford. He was not only co-director, but co-writer. Was he the man who put the words into the mouths of the film’s yokels, and into the mouth of the character he himself played? Also in the notes is a reference to A Canterbury Tale, the Powell & Pressburger film nearest in spirit to Tawny Pipit. From the point of view of rural images, and characters, the similarities are striking. As the children in Miles’ film cycle out to the scattered rural properties to call in the people for their open air meeting, we see locations very like the carpenter’s workshop in Powell’s. Yet Powell’s film, apart from an uncomfortable sequence with a ‘village idiot’ – which seems out of place in the film – seems to be able to stereotype, and propagandise without offending the sensibilities of even a half a century later. The Tawny Pipit notes describe the film as ‘light’, ‘bucolic,’ and ‘benign, ’ and I’ve no doubt that was what it aspired to be, and was seen to be at the time, but in the harsh light of the twenty first century those labels cast a shadow, even when we take into account the possibility, the likelihood even, that some of the scenes were mildly satirizing what they displayed. We have come a long way from the in-built unfairness in our way of ‘playing the game,’ but we have a long way to go. We still haven’t levelled the playing fields. We still haven’t even considered starting the game with a score of nil-nil. What was said of Coppard’s England still holds true, that ‘accidents of heredity and environment’ outweigh industry and perseverance.
Tawny Pipit remains a visual feast though, of a people, and a place that might have been, and perhaps was, and which, if we look hard enough, and carefully, might still be.