The passing of actor Alan Howard brings to mind a rare film that most obituarists will struggle to recall. I never saw Howard on the stage, (I never see people on the stage much), where I believe him to have been magnificent, but John Madden's film for the BBC is something else. Filmed in the summer of 1984 Poppyland was transmitted only once to my knowledge, in January 1985. Howard played Clement Scott, the poet and Daily Telegraph drama critic who visited the Norfolk coast around Cromer in 1883. His subsequent pieces for the papers brought the crowds thronging to Cromer, the countryside being dubbed 'Poppyland' by the Great Eastern Railway Company.
At 90 minutes long, this is a proper film, one that transcends the medium it was made for. Apart from Howard, the narrative is helped along by Scott's friends turning up at the mill house that is the centrepiece of the film, played with much Victorian vigour by John Shrapnel, Jonathan Hyde, John McEnery and the delightful Phoebe Nicholls as the miller's daughter Louie Jermy. Films made by the BBC around this time tend to get forgotten (or worse) unless the archives are trawled through by the British Film Institute who have done a marvellous job in resurrecting the early work of Ken Russell and the Christmas M.R.James stories for DVD. I did in fact record Poppyland on a VHS tape, which although still in my possession is missing the opening couple of minutes. I sincerely hope the BFI will find something more substantial so that we can all enjoy the film again.
Yesterday morning I felt as though I'd come out of hibernation. I sat listening to The Archers (when is that Rob Tichener going to get his very just desserts?) as I got down to cleaning my cameras on the kitchen table and recharging numerous batteries. As I did so I noticed that the two bunches of daffodils that I'd bought last week were suddenly bursting out. I think I love the spring above all, and here was the perfect harbinger of both the season and the fact that this week I get back on the highways and byways of Unmitigated England. I just thought I'd share them with you.
Normally I don't take issue with pedants who criticise production values of films and television, possibly because it's usually me being annoying by shouting at the black box in the corner. But I'm going to make an exception with that renowned cinematographer Alastair Campbell. Yes that one, who presumably directs film photography when he's not Tippexing documents. Missing the point by the length of a focus puller's tape measure, he complains in a 'tweet' about BBC's Wolf Hall that he's: "Not entirely persuaded by the lighting strategy". By which we must take it to mean that he, and the other critics who live their lives in everlasting sunlight, can't see the night interiors properly because they're shot using just candles. Which funnily enough is how it was all those years ago Alastair. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing with NASA lenses to shoot Barry Lyndon interiors, and that probably hasn't been bettered until Peter Kosminsky's production. Wolf Hall is stunning television, one we will remember for years, long after the Broadchurches have been stacked in the remainder bin. Of course it's not faultless, (pity about propane gas fires instead of the real thing), but it very nearly is.
So, having got that out, I may as well tell you two other things that have recently made me shout out intemperately. Over on the other side as it were, I have to look away everytime anyone gets on a train in Downton Abbey. For all the correct cutlery and meticulous positioning of butler's trays they would still like us to believe that they travel southwards from northern Yorkshire by the Southern Railway. Of course we in Unmitigated England know why. It's because the Bluebell Line's Horsted Keynes station is so much nearer to Downton's Highclere Castle location than anything up north. And then, nearly finished, there's that Routemaster bus that kept coming round the corners and passing at the end of streets of late forties 'London' in the otherwise excellent last episodes of Foyle's War. But then, they tried very hard to make us think that Dublin was London as well.
Photo of the mesmerising Mark Rylance: BBC / Company Productions Ltd
Today Unmitigated England takes a very tentative step into the past and over the border. The reason is that I read this weekend of the passing of one of my clients at 90, namely Ena Baxter of the eponymous Baxters of Speyside. With her husband Gordon, who died aged 95 in 2013, they ran one of the most successful family businesses in the kingdom. As Martin Vander Weyer wrote in the current Spectator: "Gordon was an irascible chap- 'independent as hell' as he said- who ran the business founded by his grocer grandfather in a frugal style, free of debt and scornful of modern management fripperies, that was very much the tradition of the region, shared by some of the great malt whisky distilleries and such homely enterprises as Walkers Shortbread and Aberlour'. (I also did a job for the latter's distillery. Which was fun.)
I met Gordon and Ena with my colleagues at the Baxter's Moray factory fastness in Fochabers, in order to present ideas for new chutney jars and labelling. My designs were stared at intently, and I received a very stern telling off from the indomitable Ena for daring to suggest a faux stone jar as one of the options. "You have to be able to see the product" she said, waving a metaphorical wooden spoon at me, probably the one she used to personally dip into vats. Ena was right, but the ones you see were adopted. They needed tweeking, so a couple of weeks later I found myself early in the morning in a private wood panelled room for breakfast in Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street off Piccadilly. I think they were both in kilts, but that may be my fevered imaginings. I put the revised jars on the mantelpiece for them to view. They were both so welcoming and kind, and very positive about their new jars. It was one of the most pleasurable jobs I'd worked on; for the jars and labelling obviously, but also for that very rare thing. To be able to work directly with a pair of household names face-to-face, instead of staring at the fluorescent lights in a focus group meeting. I shall go and buy a tin of cock-a-leekie for my lunch.
Footnote: The illustrations of the fruit and veg were beautifully executed by Andrew Riley.
Something I've wanted to do for a while was to visit the Allen Jones retrospective at the Royal Academy. I've always loved the unashamed colourful eroticism of his work, particularly Table and other sensually posed mannequins. So after breakfast in The Wolseley (bacon sandwich on the back seat of a Hornet) we drifted slowly down Piccadilly in the bright morning light to the RA. One distinct advantage of getting up at five o'clock for this kind of visit to London is that you can drive down the motorway relatively unimpeded by traffic, drive through Regent's Park at dawn with giraffes and penguins waking up and then as it's Sunday park virtually where you like all day for nothing.
After I'd had inappropriate thoughts looking at the girl with the glass table on her back we wandered into the first of the main galleries to be confronted by the above. I'd never seen it before, and it knocked me sideways. This is Male Female Diptych, 1965, and I could've stared at its immense size for a long time. Until it occurred to me just how badly lit it was. As indeed, apart from a room filled with mannequins, was everythingelse. I understand that paintings should be kept out of sunlight, but surely galleries must have lighting rigs that fully illuminate pictures properly? I brought the subject up with what I supposed was an 'attendant' (when due to her immobility I'd first mistook her for an exhibit). She a) appeared to have no view whatever and b) also appeared not to understand anything I said. So I moved down a flight of stairs to another room where an older woman looked as though she was openly seething at having to circulate amongst so many fetishistic fantasies. Either that or she'd taken exception to my Routemaster bus seat patterned scarf. I said nothing. My third attempt was with a chap who said "This stuff really isn't my thing" and nodded us towards the exit. The girl in the mini shop was more forthcoming, but still couldn't help us. So we're still in the dark.
Far more welcoming was our pit stop in Limehouse. I hadn't been in The Grapes in Narrow Street for a long time, but thankfully so little has changed. The Thames at high tide (and low come to that) is right outside, there's the good natured hubbub of a Sunday lunchtime and the beer's good. It's part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen, who must surely find the wooden stairs to the upper floor a bit narrow for his wizard's hat.
This is that stray card that falls on your doormat two days late, but even the maelstrom that is the pre-Christmas rush should not have prevented it's being sent. So here we are, wishing you seasonal greetings, and now, in particular, my wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Sorry to have been off air for so long, but this will, I hope, be the start of a return that heralds more over Christmas. My lodge keeper at Ashley Towers couldn't wait to get on her Rudge bicycle in order to bring this message up from the gatehouse. Oh how we laughed over our slices of Colston Bassett Stilton and tumblers of vintage port. Me even more so as I watched her unsteady retreat back down the drive in the glowing afternoon light.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012) and Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012)