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By Tom Charity
British cinema is notoriously careless with its visionaries, as students of Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, and Peter Greenaway will recognize. Some eight or nine years their senior, Bill Douglas belongs in this company of nonconformists, and certainly merits wider attention both within the UK and abroad. The belated release of his three autobiographical films—collectively known as The Bill Douglas Trilogy—and his sole stand-alone feature, Comrades (1986), on DVD and Blu-ray this summer (both from the British Film Institute) should help rectify that neglect. Not that it will be of any help to Douglas; he died in 1991at the age of 54.
Like Jarman et al., Bill Douglas began by making 8mm shorts. He graduated from the National Film School in 1970, and his first three films were made with the support of the British Film Institute: the 48-minute My Childhood (1972); My Ain Folk (55 minutes, 1973); and My Way Home (72 minutes; 1978). These intensely personal films excavate a childhood of working-class poverty and neglect in stark monochromatic imagery; an austerity so meticulously composed and weighted that we’re infinitely closer to Bresson than the kitchen sink.
At least the Trilogy received a measure of international acclaim (including a Silver Lion at the Venice film festival for My Childhood) and in Britain, anyway, it’s stayed in circulation on video and has been available to repertory programmers courtesy of the BFI. (In the US, Facets released a DVD in 2008.) The same cannot be said for Comrades, one of the great lost films of the ‘80s, and as curious an artifact as any of a briefly resurgent episode in British cinema. This was the time, in the wake of the success of Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982), and with the emergence of an ambitiously progressive new source of funding in Channel Four, that Wardour Street produced projects as eclectic and vainglorious as Hugh Hudson’s dour American War of Independence epic Revolution (1985) and Julien Temple’s gaudy musical Absolute Beginners (1986).
If it sounds strange to put Comrades in such a commercial context, bear in mind this is a three-hour costume drama, with more than two-dozen speaking parts, set on two continents—in contrast, My Way Home cost just GBP 33,000. Douglas first conceived of a film based on the history of the Tolpuddle Martyrs on a visit to Dorset in 1979—coincidentally the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power. He rewrote the screenplay on and off for five years, eventually securing the backing he needed (considerably more than the BFI could afford) from the National Film Finance Corporation and Channel Four, with a further contribution from Curzon Cinemas, a distribution outfit specializing in middlebrow art-house fare of the Merchant-Ivory school (Ismael Merchant was originally set to produce Comrades, before it fell to Simon Relph).
Comrades owes precisely nothing to the literary “heritage cinema” Merchant traded in. With its Brechto-Bressonian delineation of space (emphatic close ups interrogate the predominant medium shots, while key events occur offscreen) and sound (the score is by Hans Werner Henze), its elliptical way with narrative and especially the playful series of trompe l’oeil optical effects and pre-cinematic tableaux that punctuate the action, Comrades might be the antithesis of this tradition. (Of course this may also explain the film’s disappointing commercial returns and subsequent obscurity.)
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were six Dorset farm labourers who protested the abject conditions in which they lived, working under landowner James Frampton. Led by George Loveless, a Methodist lay preacher and ploughman, the six men formed a “friendly society,” or union, in 1834 to demand the restoration of a living wage. Instead they were charged with sedition, convicted by a grand jury—that included James Frampton, his son, and his brother in law—and exiled to the penal colonies in Australia. These injustices so outraged public opinion that within a year the Home Secretary had pardoned the men, but even then they weren’t returned to Britain until 1837.
An important story in the history of British trade unionism, the Tolpuddle Martyrs would assume greater relevance in 1984. The year Douglas spent shooting Comrades coincided with industrial action led by Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers against coal-pit closures. It turned out to be a an exceptionally violent, year-long strike that would claim at least ten lives, and would ultimately end in a definitive victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the decimation of the coal industry, and the neutering of Trade Union power in Britain.
Douglas grew up in a Scottish mining town, and like most of the British intelligentsia was a dedicated anti-Thatcherite. Comrades is unapologetically didactic in its class politics. It’s a paean to working-class solidarity, honest labour, and egalitarianism, and such an angry denunciation of Establishment exploitation and persecution—particularly the insidious role of the Anglican vicar who preaches the status quo, no questions asked—that Trotsky himself would surely have approved.
An avid collector of early cinematic memorabilia and pre-cinematic optical entertainments (his collection is housed at the University of Exeter), Douglas doesn’t go the whole Guy Maddin hog, but he does draw on silent cinema’s visual eloquence, the insistence on the primacy of the image. Indeed, the film is subtitled “A Lanternist’s Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and What Became of Them.” In a Brechtian touch, that lanternist turns out to be a multi-talented fellow, popping up in various guises to show off myriad Victorian optical devices throughout the course of the show—including a diorama and a Zoetrope, a silhouette, and eventually a camera – but always in the person of actor Alex Norton, who takes ten roles in all. The lanternist is an outsider, divorced from the action, but he’s also an honest showman, a travelling entertainer who by virtue of his occupation can also be a source of news and information. “You pay for the entertainment—the news is free,” he promises.
The play of light and dark is the film’s dominant motif; the first image is an eclipse of the sun, and it’s last is the bulb of a projector. The exiles’ journey to Australia is rendered as a magic-show panorama. It’s the turning point of the story, as would have been even clearer if Douglas had been allowed to shoot the UK scenes in black and white, as he intended. Nevertheless, the frame seems to expand when the convicts reach the wilderness of the outback, a new world that seems to renew Loveless’ optimism and faith in God, for all the fresh deprivations that come with it. (Ironically it’s back in Britain that his faith is rewarded, with the charity and support visited on the families: “People are good!” is his wife’s ecstatic realization that their grim fortunes have turned.)
Wittily reversing industry norms, Douglas cast unknowns as the heroes—the labourers and their families —and veteran “establishment” actors in vignettes as the upper classes; among them, Robert Stephens as Frampton, Freddie Jones as the vicar, Vanessa Redgrave and James Fox as Australian landowners, and Michael Hordern as Mr. Pitt. The impact of the conceit has been lessened by the subsequent success of some of the newcomers, including Keith Allen, Philip Davis, and Imelda Staunton, but for all its considerable faith in the common cause, the film is dominated by the inspirational figure of George Loveless (played by Robin Soans).
No secular humanist (and this is where Trotsky might have demurred), Loveless is a devout Christian, and in this telling a saintly figure of rare forbearance, compassion, and eloquence. Soans has scarcely made a film since, but he plays Loveless with palpable restraint and intense feeling. It’s in George Loveless that Douglas finds a true visionary, someone who sees so clearly that he’s immune to the illusions and distortions of the lanternist’s show, as well as to the mercenary greed that holds the poor in their place.
In a key exchange between Loveless and Frampton, the former rebuffs the landowner’s condescension with a tart little parable. Pointing to an illustration of the magi before the manger, he asks Frampton if he can see what the three kings are worshiping.
“Of course,” Frampton replies.
Loveless then covers the head of the infant with a coin. “Can you see it now?” he asks. “What prevents you?”
“The silver, of course.”
“Ah,” says the lay preacher. “That’s just it!”
It’s not easy, today, to share the optimism that courses through Comrades—Loveless’s unshakeable conviction that fraternity will eventually triumph. It wasn’t easy when the film was released in 1987 either, and inevitably it would prove Douglas’s last movie (among his unrealized screenplays was a film about Edweard Muybridge.) There is something heartening, though, in the re-emergence of this singular picture, a film that would have been an anomaly in any age and from any industry, and yet which impresses with its enduring hope in humanity and in the light shows that illuminate our progress.