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Earthed, but hopeful of heaven  

23 September 2016

Stephen Brown on the rural society captured on film by Akenfield


Rex Pyke

Manual work on the farm: villagers recreate Victorian agriculture in Akenfield

Manual work on the farm: villagers recreate Victorian agriculture in Akenfield

AKENFIELD, Ronald Blythe’s classic book, chronicles changes in Suffolk based on the memories of what he calls “The Survivors”, running from the late 19th century through to the concerns of country people in the 1960s. It was turned into a film of the same title in 1973, now digitally restored in dual-format Blu-ray and DVD (Cert. 12).

Lovers of Blythe’s writings could find themselves repeating something that regularly occurs at my film-studies classes: that the original book is better. “Not better,” I say to members. “Different. Is Shakespeare’s Othello ‘better’ than Verdi’s Otello, for instance?” It would be like comparing apples with oranges.

The director, Sir Peter Hall, Suffolk-born but London-based, wanted to film Akenfield. Blythe quickly realised that in its then form the book wouldn’t make a movie, and swiftly wrote a brief synopsis. The booklet accompanying the disc contains excerpts from Sir Peter’s diary expressing his delight. “This is a film, not literature. It’s waiting to be shot.”

We get snatches of Blythe in the voiceover of Old Tom (Peter Tuddenham) recalling how tough life was. “It was the farm against our bodies.” Short pause, then: “The farm always won.” Mainly, though, the dialogue was improvised by local people playing the characters, a method primarily associated with Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thieves) — a painstaking process that needed 43 hours of footage to produce a 98-minute film.

This is not Housman’s “land of lost content”, nor Cider with Rosie. Although there is much beauty to behold in the landscape or honest faces, it’s no bucolic idealisation. There is a strong sense of people settling for what they can get, not altogether unpleasant, but by no means reaching the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualisation.

Garrow Shand plays the young present-day farm-labourer Tom, as well as, in flashbacks, his father and his grandfather. The latter left the village only to fight in the First World War, but yearned to escape Suffolk altogether. Old Tom marries a pretty maid working for the parson, who is played by Ronald Blythe. Back-breaking work is mitigated by communal events such as harvest suppers, or the outing to Southwold aboard a high wagon, as villagers sing “The Keys of Heaven”.

Much of what punctuates the yearly cycle bears a Christian imprint. The film bears testimony to — without being an angry polemic — resentments against oppressive landowners. Old Tom’s son doesn’t fare any better. He dies prematurely. Blythe’s Christianity subtly breaks through at times. Not just the church scenes, but questions about vocation.

Young Tom, like his forebears, is torn between staying, or leaving his rural background. Australia beckons. Farming is of a different order from his grandfather’s time, but there is the same feeling of being trapped: a conflict between domestication and liberation. Having put his hand to the plough, should he be looking elsewhere? Or is his restlessness a prompting of the Holy Spirit?

It parallels the lives of Peter Hall and Ronald Blythe. One felt that Hall could only become himself by leaving Suffolk; whereas the other has amply found fulfilment within his native community. Akenfield, among other things, reminds us that you can change your sky but not your soul. Extras include extensive interviews with cast and crew members.


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