UK 1974, 98 mins
Director: Peter Hall

The screenplay, written by Ronald Blythe, derives from his book Akenfield, a documentary microcosm of rural life in this country which uses as its framework a series of taped interviews with the inhabitants of a single Suffolk village; in the film, the people of East Suffolk are being asked to play themselves. ‘A feature made like a documentary,’ is how Peter Hall, now directing, described it in 1970 when it was still an unfinanced project. Though Akenfield is a 35mm widescreen feature with a cast of 150 and period settings from the 1890s onwards, it is being made with a strictly functional economy of means and manpower, and a maximum of individual involvement. The pervasive, almost pioneering spirit of cooperation on the film is undoubtedly stimulated by the knowledge that here for once a worthwhile project is actually off the ground, that it is not costing a penny more than its basic budget requirements, and that (like almost all the dozen or so films of lasting value completed in this country in the past decade) it is being made despite rather than because of the existing film establishment.

The crew is a young one, and most people are doing their jobs for the first time on a feature production. The cameraman, Ivan Strasburg, was focus puller on Family Life; the wardrobe and make-up team have come in from television; and the art direction has been taken over by two props supervisors who have got hold of almost everything necessary for the film by begging, borrowing and hiring cheaply in the Suffolk locality. Research into locations and casting was taken on by Ronald Blythe himself.

Peter Hall directs his cast without the use of scripted dialogue: ‘controlled improvisation’ is the name he gives it. He much admires Bresson, but there is no similarity of approach here beyond the use of non-actors. During the shooting of a scene he keeps the camera running, playing through, then repeating and re-repeating the action and the verbal sense of the scene in an uninterrupted series of permutations. The actors, selected by improvisation tests, have been briefed in what they say but not in how they should say it. By calling them in when they least expect it, unemphatically and without exhortation, he creates – after the initial tensions – a relaxed flow of interchanges in which time and again moments of genuine spontaneity occur. These moments, one suspects, are when the Suffolk people will seem closest to their ancestors. Judging by his previous work, Hall is not a born filmmaker; but in relying upon his unquestioned ability with actors, and in taking this undogmatic, rabbit-from-hat approach, he is getting extempore effects which are vitally close to the individuals’ own reactions.

The production had come up with an expected handful of ‘naturals’, the most notable being a pig-farmer. During his first take in the dance-hall scene, set during the Second World War, I was in a room adjoining the hall. Three old dears in print dresses and immaculate 1940s hairstyles filled the doorway, peering out nervously towards the shooting area. The dancers were motionless for the take, in which the farmer discussed with a young man at the bar wartime problems for agriculture. His rolling dialect droned on for a good five minutes, and the old ladies got into difficulty, their eyes watering, bursting to laugh. During that time there was not a pause or repetition. When the camera stopped turning the hundred and fifty onlookers, somewhat awed, gave him a round of applause.

In a satisfying kind of symmetry, and with typical economy, the casting of the film echoes its theme. Akenfield presents a view of the underlying continuity of rural life, and the same set of actors have been cast as, in effect, themselves, their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. Ronald Blythe is emphatic in describing himself as a poet; but, he adds, the sociology of Akenfield is none the less accurate. The very Elizabethan achievement of his book, which may account for its combined popular and academic success, is to have fused poetry and sociology without compromising either. In adapting material from the book to the screen, he has put stronger emphasis on the ‘poetic’ concept of the essential continuity beneath all the changes in country living standards and styles over the past 80 years. Shooting is taking place throughout the seasons – at weekends, because of the money. The same locations are visited in each but at different periods; birth and death, spring and winter, are presented in an archetypal balance. It will come as no surprise to find that the finished film has a definite structure. Hall, a Suffolk man himself, commented that a first reading of the script evoked memories of his own grandfather, and that what most drew him to the project was its powerful suggestion of the passage of time and the interrelation of the generations.

The film is being shot using a camera technique developed by Hamburg cameraman Wolfgang Trau; no lights are being used, even on interior shooting. ‘What stock, gauzes, filters and lighting set-ups did you use to get these beautiful monochrome effects?’ the labs are asking. The film is being shot on the Techniscope system, whereby the final widescreen image is produced with a camera taking standard (non-anamorphic) objective lenses, and in which the pull-down and aperture plate have been modified to produce a frame image two perforations high, i.e. widescreen-shaped. All ‘squeezing’ is done at the labs and the cost of negative stock and processing is half that of a regular widescreen system such as CinemaScope.

To all intents and purposes Akenfield is an independent film; none of its money comes from orthodox sources, and it is self-produced, using non-actors, cheap local resources and a crew of newcomers. Yet despite the qualms of Establishment onlookers, it is as much a product of the contemporary British film industry – creating as large a turnover in labour terms – as Father, Dear Father or Bequest to the Nation. The crux, of course, is how good it is. But even at the shooting stage, in its calculated astringency of means and collective commitment, Akenfield is an object-lesson for serious feature production in this country.
Gareth Jones, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1973

Directed by: Peter Hall
©: National Film Trustee Company Ltd.
Made by: Angle Films Ltd.
Produced by: Peter Hall, Rex Pyke
Production Manager: Richard Dobson
Accountant: Ernie Shepherd
Made by: People of Suffolk
Written by: Ronald Blythe
Based on Ronald Blythe’s book
Cameraman: Ivan Strasburg
Assistant Cameramen: John Metcalfe, Peter Ormrod
Edited by: Rex Pyke
Assistant Editor: Bob Gavin
Art Directors: Ian Whittaker, Roger Christian
Costumes: Sally Bacon
Make-up and Hairdressing: Penny Bell
Hymns Arranged by: Ian Kellam
Hymns Sung by: Wandsworth School Choir
Under the Direction of: Russell Burgess
Folk Music Arranged by: Dave Arthur, Toni Arthur
Radio Music by: Philip Goodhand-Tait
Sound Recorded by: Bob Allen, Peter Handford, Richard Laughton

Peter Tuddenham (voice of old Tom)
Garrow Shand (Tom Rouse)
Peggy Cole (Dulcie Rouse)
Barbara Tilney (Jean Quantrill)
Lyn Brooks (Charlotte Rouse)
Ida Page (Aunt Ida)
Ted Dedman (Ted)
Mollie Dedman (Mollie)
Charlie Cornish (Charlie)
Charlie Whiting (Charlie)
Robin Buckingham (Robin)
Mary Hammond (young Dulcie Rouse)
Ronald Blythe (vicar)
F.O. Staddon (minister)
Bob Wilson (farmer)
Ethel Branton (Mrs Quantrill)
Stanley Baxter (blacksmith)
Reg Hall (policeman)
Clifford Arbon
Ernie Cole
Ray Cornish
Victoria Peacock
Barry Martin
Neil Scopes
John Simpson
Ron Wood
Sidney Bedwell
Andy Chenery
Allan Cole
David Cole
John Meek
Walter Whatling
Roger Clark
Sean Wood
Wilfred Frost
Roger Burroughes
Jonathon Fox
Monty Hale
Phyllis Grant
Mark Thorpe
Fred Collins
Lucy Dedman
David Dedman
Helen Tydeman
Arthur Smith
Margaret Allen
Erica Zant-Boer
Violet Smith
Ena Bower
Claire Bateson
Kenneth Runnacles
Sarah Noakes
Romy Jacob
Cecil Barrell
Eunice Carpenter
Gladys de Brisay
Wendy Keable
Joan Piper
pupils of Charsfield School
pupils of Framlingham Secondary Modern School

UK 1974
98 mins

El Sur (The South)
Sat 1 Jul 12:50; Fri 7 Jul 14:40; Mon 17 Jul 20:30
All That Heaven Allows
Sat 1 Jul 13:10; Tue 4 Jul 20:50; Thu 13 Jul 20:40
Shadow of a Doubt
Sun 2 Jul 13:20; Sat 15 Jul 12:40
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Ladies of Rochefort)
Mon 3 Jul 20:30; Thu 13 Jul 20:30; Tue 18 Jul 18:10
The Harder They Come
Wed 5 Jul 18:00 + intro by author Lloyd Bradley; Mon 10 Jul 20:30
The Piano
Thu 6 Jul 20:35; Sun 16 Jul 13:10
Sat 8 Jul 18:00; Fri 21 Jul 20:30
Babette’s Feast (Babettes Gæstebud)
Sun 9 Jul 13:30; Thu 27 Jul 20:45
The Searchers
Tue 11 Jul 20:30; Sun 23 Jul 12:10
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Wed 12 Jul 18:10 + intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large; Wed 19 Jul 20:45; Sat 22 Jul 18:00
My Night with Maud (Ma nuit chez Maud)
Fri 14 Jul 20:40; Thu 27 Jul 18:10
Tue 18 Jul 20:50; Fri 28 Jul 18:10; Mon 31 Jul 20:50
The Straight Story
Wed 19 Jul 18:10 + intro by Lindsay Hallam, Senior Lecturer in Film, University of East London; Mon 24 Jul 20:40; Sat 29 Jul 18:00
Thu 20 Jul 20:55; Wed 26 Jul 18:10 + intro by Becca Voelcker, Lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London
The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta)
Tue 25 Jul 20:30; Sun 30 Jul 15:30 + intro by Chantelle Lavel Boyea, BFI Assistant Curator of Television

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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