Arcadian Adventures in the Archive

by Simon McCallum

The ebb and flow of rural life in Britain has proved a perennial attraction for filmmakers since the turn of the last century. We’re all familiar with the chocolate box image of quaint villages and romanticised agricultural labour. Man in harmony with nature; the simple life. And even the most ardent townie will be familiar with some of the myriad folk traditions that pepper the history of these ancient isles. Yet Arcadia was never intended as straight retelling of these tales through archive footage. Paul Wright’s film is the latest in a series of major BFI archive co-productions, including Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond (2012), yet it is an altogether different, indeed darker, proposition.

This footage would not be available to filmmakers without archives to preserve it, and without the huge investment of time, skill and money required to research and digitise moving image collections. Arcadia was made possible by the BFI-led Britain on Film initiative which saw thousands of titles from the BFI National Archive and partner archives around the UK transferred from film and made available online, in most cases for the first time. Wright’s immersion in this new resource and in the BFI’s back catalogue of archive DVD releases (such as the 2011 compilation Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow: A Century of Folk Customs and Ancient Rural Games) formed the foundation of the project.

Of the thousands of films considered by the production team drawn from multiple archive sources, perhaps 100 were used; but all shaped the project’s development across more than a year of research and editing. Among the earliest featured is A Day in the Hayfields (1904), produced by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth, showing Edwardian children larking about during the midsummer haymaking season. What could be more Arcadian?

Wright was drawn to records of alternative communities across Britain and Ireland, from the Spielplatz naturist resort in Hertfordshire, captured in Pioneers of Nudism (1938), to the commune led by ‘King of the Hippies’ Sid Rawle on Dorinish Island, County Mayo (owned by John Lennon). Colour footage of the commune was shot for Tribe of the Sun (1972) by Leeds filmmaker Alan Sidi, whose work is preserved at the Yorkshire Film Archive.

That we can and should learn from our furry and feathered friends was a key feature of educational documentary series such as Secrets of Life. One example glimpsed in Arcadia, Wisdom of the Wild (1940), directed by the prolific and underappreciated Mary Field, deploys anthropomorphising tactics to urge restraint in times of rationing. A key concern for Wright is our subjugation of the animal kingdom: see the sorry parade of donkeys, camels and llamas ridden by their keepers at a private zoo in Bedfordshire (Tame Animals at Work, 1909); and the Devon butcher who keeps a pet puma to guard his stock, filmed for a 1976 local TV report held at the South West Film and Television Archive.

A noteworthy evolution in the archive essay film is an inventive blending of fiction work and artists’ film with more traditional documentary material, an approach taken by Daisy Asquith on Queerama (2017). In Arcadia we go down the rabbit hole with the earliest film version of Alice in Wonderland, made by Hepworth in 1903, and witness the brutality lurking beneath the rural idyll in David Gladwell’s extraordinary short An Untitled Film (1964) and Christian Marnham’s The Orchard End Murder (1986), a “chiller set in the fecund Kent countryside”. Amateur work holds some unnerving surprises too: beware The Hungry Grass (1981), one of several spooky treats from the collections of Northern Ireland Screen.

Wright’s framing motif, a visitor from the future surveying our descent into chaos – and offering a glimmer of hope perhaps – is embodied by the heroine of Chris Newby’s debut feature Anchoress (1993), a tale of religious ecstasy inspired by the life of Christine Carpenter in 14th century Surrey. Just as our cities have been reimagined for the cinema, so too has our hinterland; Newby’s stark vision of medieval southern England was shot on a disused military airfield in Belgium.

A standout rediscovery, Richard Foster’s eerie BFI-funded short The Watchers (1969) imbues the rugged landscape around West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley with extra-terrestrial menace. Strange happenings seeped beyond the filmic frame with the area later dubbed ‘UFO Alley’, in part due to an unexplained death attributed to alien abduction. The Watchers‘ unsettling theme music by Donald Fraser is sampled by Will Gregory and Adrian Utley within their new score for Arcadia. Snippets of dialogue and sounds from a variety of other original sources are incorporated, alongside folk songs performed by Anne Briggs, and new music, to create an entirely fresh, genre-bending seasonal soundscape. This is an aural as well as visual collage, a potent reminder of the power of archive audio.

Arcadia is one of the most ambitious and painstaking exercises in archival repurposing to date. It’s certainly a thought-provoking, beautiful and at times disturbing piece of work in its own right. We might also hope it leads audiences on their own journeys of discovery though Britain’s moving image archives, whose collections are more accessible than ever, reflecting back to us our complex relationship with the land – and responsibilities towards it.

Simon McCallum is Archive Projects Curator at the BFI, and was archive consultant on Arcadia.