Sunday, 11 August 2013

Powell and Pressburger - A Canterbury Tale

A pilgrim's progress: on the trail of A Canterbury Tale
Seventy years after it was made, Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale remains the perfect remedy for self-pity. Xan Brooks seeks out the film's locations, still haunted by the ghosts of a film that celebrated the values and traditions of an England under fire

Xan Brooks
The Guardian
Friday 9 August 2013

In August 1943 the director Michael Powell came to east Kent to shoot his most ambitious and personal film to date. A Canterbury Tale took its lead from Chaucer to spin the story of three modern-day pilgrims uprooted by the war. It showed us the hedgerows and the hop gardens and the ancient road atop the downs. It celebrated the values and traditions of an England under fire. That wartime summer, the film's locations came haunted by the ghosts of the pardoner, the falconer, the garrulous wife of Bath. Today, for me, they are haunted by the ghosts of A Canterbury Tale. Seventy years on, it's as though a fresh layer of myth has been thrown across the first.

I doubt there is another film I love as unreservedly as A Canterbury Tale. I first watched it two decades ago, when I was out of college and out of work, the road-map in tatters. On balance, it was the perfect film for an imperfect time. The film reeled me in from the opening scene. It was a remedy for self-pity, a poultice for despond. There on the screen, Powell's broken pilgrims forged through the long grass, reconnected with old magic and found the things that had been lost. The ending was a heartbreaker, like Larkin's arrow-shower, somewhere becoming rain. It floored me then and it floors me now. However many times I see it, its power is undimmed.

The film's plot runs something like this. Three weary travellers (land girl, British soldier, US sergeant) find themselves waylaid for a few days in the village of Chillingbourne, 10 minutes outside Canterbury. None of them want to be there, they would rather be at home, except that they are so beat-up, lonely and saddlesore that they hardly know where home is any more. The movie throws them together and has them solve a local mystery. Then it cuts the ties and turns them loose, batting the pilgrims on to Canterbury where they wander the bombsites and blank spaces, their lives a mess, their futures uncertain. Eventually, against all the odds, they each receive a blessing.

For Powell, the production marked a kind of homecoming. He had been raised in the Kent countryside, the son of a farmer, and he relished the chance to head back there again. "An artist often hesitates to use material that is too familiar to him, too near to home," he would recall in his autobiography. "But now I had this feeling no longer. I was looking forward to the great swags of laden hop vines, to the dusty lanes with the dog-rose in the hedges, to the sharp Kentish voices." His intention was to make a film about the bones and the bedrock, the elements that endure. Back in 1943, east Kent was the first line of defence against incoming bombers. And yet A Canterbury Tale reminds us that "the hills and valleys are the same". It suggests that, if we sit very quietly, we can still hear the voices of bygone pilgrims on the road at our backs.

A Canterbury Tale is a film of torpid summer heat, 90F in the shade of the chestnuts – and it's not much cooler when I drive out to find how Chillingbourne has changed. In the hills beyond Canterbury, the country roads swing back and forth, past orchards and oast houses. A wrong turn leads me up a gravel drive to a stately home and a pristine lawn where musicians are rehearsing. The sun is so fierce it frazzles the senses. The oboist pauses, totters and must be steadied by a colleague.

Where Powell followed Chaucer, I'm traipsing in the footsteps of Paul Tritton, a Kent historian who ferreted out the film's locations and collated them in a book. ("The book is self-published," he tells me. "I don't make any money.") Tritton first watched the film on TV in the 1970s. There, on screen, he recognised bridleways that he had cycled as a youth and caught a glimpse of his aunt among the throng of extras outside the cathedral. For all that, his curiosity is purely practical. "I'm more interested in where the film was made than its deeper meanings," he cautions. "I'm still a bit baffled by what it's actually about."

Sad to say, he's not alone. Not everybody shares my love for A Canterbury Tale. Contemporary audiences found it too weird, too wonky and even borderline distasteful in its focus on the "glue-man", a nocturnal predator who throws adhesive at the girls who date soldiers. Even the film's director would dismiss it as a failure. Powell blamed a compromised casting process (he wanted Deborah Kerr to play the land girl, and Roger Livesey as the glue-man). He blamed the script ("frail and unconvincing") by his regular collaborator Emeric Pressburger. At the time of its release, the duo were flushed from the success of the more convivial, conventional The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But A Canterbury Tale bombed at the box office and disappeared from view. It was only decades later, following a BFI retrospective, that they saw it reappraised as the "most original, iconoclastic" picture that Powell and Pressburger ever made.

The village of Chillingbourne turns out to be a fiction – a composite of four or five settlements that orbit Canterbury. My first stop is the Red Lion at Wingham, which once doubled as the exterior of the Hand of Glory public house. The building sits on a busy road, with a sign above the door inviting buyers to "run this fantastic pub business". I visit the watermill at Chilham, where the schoolboys staged a battle. The mill is now owned by South East Water, closed to the public and commandeered by a local angling club. The anglers eye me froggily as the car noses down the drive.

Towards the end of the film, the glue-man is revealed to be none other than Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) – an urbane local magistrate and self-appointed guardian of the old ways, who organises history lectures for the soldiers but neglects to invite the women. The land girl, Alison (Sheila Sim), initially can't believe it. She feels a kinship with the man and covets his lifestyle. "Oh," she says on spying his house. "What wouldn't I give to grow old in a place like that." Colpeper's house can be found off the village green in Wickambreaux. It has a porticoed entrance and bottle-green shutters. It looks, reassuringly, just as it did in the film.

Tritton explains that Kent has changed since 1943. The hedgerows and hop gardens are in steep decline. The countryside has been carved up by motorways. These days the villages are less working farming communities than affluent dormitories for city commuters. Happily, though, the place is still honeycombed with tranquil pockets; small reminders of the past. The historian used to conduct an annual August walk, revisiting the locations with fans of the film. But he's getting old, he's had to quit. "I did the walk for 15 years," he tells me. "All good things have to come to an end."

With each passing year A Canterbury Tale grows more antique. Pressburger died in 1988. Powell followed two years later. Sheila Sim (who later married Richard Attenborough) is the only surviving member of the principal cast, although she is now elderly and in poor health. "Time marches on," as the American sergeant puts it. Powell's modern-day pilgrims have slipped into the past.

"It is an awful mess," remarks a pedestrian as Alison walks the streets by the cathedral. "I don't blame you for not knowing where you are." In the bombed-out centre of Canterbury the effects of the war are nakedly apparent. Alison loses her way amid a maze of streets that are no longer streets and sees forlorn signposts ("Sun Insurance", "Singer Sewing Machine Co") perched amid the rubble. Since then the place has been sewn up, darned back into existence. Cities are more subject to change than the countryside around them, their metabolism is quicker. Redevelopment follows redevelopment and one business is written over the top of the other. The wasteland by the clock tower is now a modern shopping district, while the old Boots on Mercery Lane has re-kitted itself as a Pret A Manger. I walk in search of the "Cathedral Tea Rooms", where the US sergeant received his Canterbury blessing. These days it's a Starbucks.

What I love most about A Canterbury Tale is the way that it roots its magic and mysticism in the humdrum everyday. I love the way it casts ordinary people as vessels of greatness, unwitting keepers of the flame. The film harks back to a time of glory, the old pilgrims on the ancient road, while simultaneously reminding us that there was no time of glory, or rather that every time is a time of glory, that we live in flux and that's OK. The only world is the one that's here, bashed about and bent out of shape, and the only heroes are the people around us, frail and fearful and coping as best they can. Powell and Pressburger's pilgrims have a hat-full of troubles and no idea where they're going. They strive and they falter and leave very little trace. But along the way, they receive blessings. They come stumbling through the ruins to find salvation inside abandoned caravans and hear the voices of angels in the train whistle's yelp.

My own trip ends at Selling railway station, tucked away in the hills, behind a small housing estate and a battalion of skips. It was on this platform that the pilgrims disembarked for Chillingbourne. And was here, at the end, that they boarded the train to continue the journey. Today the sun is pounding and the place feels becalmed. After a few minutes an elderly woman walks out on to the opposite platform. Shouting across the gap, she informs me that a water‑main has burst up the lane to the village. The whole street has flooded; that's why she's wearing wellingtons. She appears to believe I am somehow to blame.

A Canterbury Tale gives us the gauche American from the Oregon forest, the hard-bitten Londoner who used to play the organ, and the lonely land girl who once worked behind a shop counter. All of them are frayed at the edges and ostensibly unremarkable. All of them, the film assures us, are utterly precious and deserving of miracles.

The train pulls in and the woman clambers aboard. She is addled and irritated, her bare legs thrust into wellington boots. I stand on the platform and watch her set out, another modern pilgrim bound for everyday glory. She's off to Canterbury, in search of shopping or blessings, whatever comes first.

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