Some time in 1987 I walked past the Penguin Bookshop in Camden. (Imagine that, a bookshop just for penguins.) I looked in the window and saw a man in his seventies with glasses talking to two or three people round a table. A bottle of golden liquid appeared to take centre stage. So this is how I came to drink cider with Laurie Lee and he signed two copies of the Jubilee Penguin edition of his classic Cider with Rosie for me.The second copy he dedicated to my girlfriend, and if I remember rightly wrote something typically flirtatious next to his fountain pen signature.
So once again I looked through my fingers last night at the last of the BBC English Classic series that have played out over the last four weeks.Gradually I settled down to enjoy it, until during a scene quite early on the camera tracked across a row of schoolchildren reciting the Lord's prayer in the classroom, and they morphed into their older selves. And not just older, but in most cases almost mature adults, still in the same junior school room, still with the same teacher. I almost expected to see the buttons popping off their coarse jackets and smocks as they expanded.This was made even stranger when they gambolled and frolicked like their previous six year olds down to a designer icy pond. But I needn't have worried, they quickly found their short trousers and little frocks again and shrunk back to their small selves.
Was it all bad? Certainly not, mostly because of Samantha Morton as the mother, Archie Cox as a very passable Laurie Lee becoming the pipe smoking violin playing author and Timothy Spall as a superb narrator. When the director bothered to use him that is. Again, I don't want to make unfair comparisons, but I couldn't help thinking all the while about watching Claude Whatham's Cider with Rosie on Christmas Day 1971. With a screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Laurie Lee himself.
Anyway we don't have to worry now in Unmitigated England about such things and we can get back to grubby 1939 railway tickets and tins of cocoa. And the landmark milestone of this coming Thursday, as you will see.
I'm sorry if it's turning out to be a critics forum here, but whilst the BBC are showing English classics every Sunday it would seem rude not to comment from an Unmitigated England perspective. And it's raining again. The latest offering I was dreading, the main reason being that The Go-Between of 1971 is quite possibly my favourite film, and L.P.Hartley's book one that I continually go back to. But I think it's probably unwise to compare Joseph Losey's two hour film masterpiece with a once again cut-down comfortable Sunday evening view in front of the telly. As it went on though I did find a lot of merit in the new attempt, not the least because of its concentration on the hurt and confusion that can ruin lives and leave poor old Leo Colston (Jim Broadbent) with his 'ashes and cinders' expression looking brokenly into the distance. So I'm going to restrict myself to just one big gripe, and if you saw it you'll know what's coming.
The opening caption told us 'Norfolk, 1900'. In the convention of such things we obviously know it ain't 1900, but by any stretch of the imagination we couldn't be fooled into thinking this was Norfolk. Perhaps the BBC creamed-off a greedy slice of the budget so that cast and crew had to drive an hour down the M4 to Theale everyday to shoot at Englefield House rather than living in Norfolk for a couple of weeks. It's just such a cheat. And it's that thing of producers thinking "well, who's going to know anyway, and what does it matter?". I hope I'm wrong, and that a determined effort was made to find an empty Norfolk house, after all there's enough of 'em. Anybody who knows the book and Losey's film will also appreciate that a Norfolk house and its surrounding acres are as much a character as Marian or Ted. But as usual I guessed that somewhere along the line (sorry) the green Southern Railway station at Horsted Keynes station in Sussex would once again be pressed into service, this time as a highly unlikely Norwich. Just as it is for Downton Abbey's local station, which they pretend is in Yorkshire.
The past is a foreign country, they don't bother with any of this there.
Looking at this third class train ticket, as one does on a wet Monday morning, I fell to musing about exactly how old it was. 'Third class' tells me it was bought before 1956; 'Southern Railway' puts it between 1923 and 1947. The departure station name 'Boxhill & Burford Bridge' doesn't help at all. Can any station in England have had more names? Opened in 1867 as West Humble for Box Hill it changed in 1870 to Box Hill & Burford Bridge, in 1896 to just Box Hill, and then back to Box Hill & Burford Bridge in 1904. Then someone decided to change it again in 1958 to Boxhill and Westhumble, presumably to save space on a platform sign. Finally, phew, in 2006 local residents insisted it should be Box Hill & Westhumble.
Still with me? Well, I thought there has to be another clue as to when a passenger went to Ashtead for seven pence ha'penny from a station that appeared to have adopted a name on its tickets it never officially had. So I went and had a coffee, stared at the rain for five minutes and then for the first time turned the ticket over to see it stamped '8th April 1939'. Which was a Saturday.
Sorry about that, you could have watched some paint dry. (Drums fingers on desk.) But last night's BBC1 classic An Inspector Calls was simply superb. Everything an adaptation (in this case from a play by J.B.Priestley) from stage to screen should be. Anyway, no more obscure railway tickets for a bit, I promise.
PS: Even the hotel at the foot of Box Hill can't keep out of the game. It's now the Mercure Box Hill Burford Bridge Hotel.
I was wondering how D.H.Lawrence's classic would fare at the hands of the BBC on Sunday. Part of a season of films that will include Cider With Rosie and, heart in mouth, The Go-Between. And all I could think was: Everyone's a loser. We the audience in particular, because an hour and a half is simply just not long enough for this bucolic tale of pheasant rearing near coal mines. Ken Russell did a very creditable job back in 1993, but then he had nearly three and a half hours. This attempt should really have been called something different, like Coal 'n' Camisoles, based on an idea by D.H.Lawrence. Because the second loser was the author himself. The whole point of his novel is total honesty in sexual matters, but our two lovers lost out because from where I was they didn't even get a decent shag. And didn't say any earthy Nottinghamshire endearments to help it along either, which was the whole point of 12 days in the Old Bailey for Penguin Books in 1960.
I think that when you have limited time to tell a story as good as this you should try and stick to most of the 'facts' of the book you're adapting. As far as I remember, gamekeeper Mellors wasn't in the army under Clifford Chatterley, and having glossed over this after it was established at the outset it didn't rear its head again until the end. And then used just to make a cheap political point when Mellors came with Constance to the mine in order for her to ask for a divorce. (Oddly in a very expensive car driven by the pheasant rearer.)
However, there were at least two good things: Stirling performances from both James Norton as Clifford Chatterley and his eccentric invalid carriage made from an upturned bath. But what will happen in a low budget The Go-Between? Leo Colston just having to run back and forth across the lawn to a greenhouse? Cider With Rosie in a Gloucestershire pub yard with a bottle of Woodpecker? Let's see, I don't want to be hasty.
I do hope that as many of you as possible managed to get to the Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, superbly curated by James Russell. I had the good fortune to be taken there by Only Daughter as a Father's Day Treat, followed by lunch at one of my favourite watering holes, La Brasserie in South Kensington. O Lucky Man!
Anyway, the other day I was sifting through my archive looking at images for a forthcoming project and found the above photograph. Two or three years ago I went and looked at the Westbury White Horse, hoping to find the exact spot where Eric Ravilious had painted it (top). What I should've done of course was to have taken a reference print with me, but I didn't. So on my return home I was immensely gratified to discover that one of my pictures had the location pretty much nailed down, probably where that inquisitive sheep is standing. I waited for a train to be in the same position as in the painting, but when a diesel horn alerted me to one arriving I realised that Ravilious had exaggerated the size of the train for dramatic effect, although in exactly the same spot. There is a companion painting that shows the White Horse as seen from inside a railway carriage, the kind of double exposure that I sometimes get obsessed by. The thought that someone could look up from a newspaper in a train and see someone on the brow of the hill looking down and. '...how their lives would all contain this hour' as Philip Larkin had it in The Whitsun Weddings.
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), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)
"Open this book with reverence. It is a hymn to England". Clive Aslet
"Enchanting...delightful". The Bookseller "Cheekily named" We Love This Book
The Cigarette Papers
"Unexpectedly pleasing and engrossing...beautifully illustrated". The Bookseller
"Until the happy advent of Peter Ashley's Cross Country it has, ironically, been foreigners who have been best at celebrating Englishness". Christina Hardyment / The Independent
More from Unmitigated England
"Give this book to someone you know- if not everyone you know." Simon Heffer, Country Life. "When it comes to spotting the small but telling details of Englishness, Peter Ashley has no equal." Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph