Authentic Akenfield? Rural Realism in Peter Hall’s Suffolk

Akenfield, released in 1974 and directed by Peter Hall, tells the story of a Suffolk village across three generations of the 20th century. On the day of his grandfather’s funeral, young farm worker Tom Rouse tries to decide whether to accept the offer from the farmer who employs him to move into his grandfather’s tied cottage. This, he knows, will mean essentially repeating his grandfather’s life of hard labouring on the land, which we see through frequent flashbacks. The alternative is to leave the village and seek a different life elsewhere. Peter Hall enumerated the central themes of the film in his diary entry of 20th September 1969, the day of his first meeting with Ronald Blythe, the author of the book – ostensibly a series of interview transcripts with local residents – on which the film is based: ‘the desire to escape, the necessity to stay; the continuing march of the generations….; the tragic disruption of the place by two ravening world wars – yet how temporary that disruption seems now; the unavoidable fact that a man’s present contains his past – and all his future too.’ Innovatively financed by London Weekend Television, which involved a simultaneous release in cinemas and on television, it received significant critical acclaim and in 2016 a restored edition was released by the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray.

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I am hugely fond of, and deeply admire, the ‘rural time-collage’ that is Akenfield. I am fond of Akenfield for reminding me of the teenage years during which I worked on farms and then went to live in the region of Suffolk in which it was filmed to attend Otley College of Agriculture for a diploma in rural studies. The college is just four miles from Charsfield, the ‘real’ Akenfield (for Akenfield is a village name invented by Blythe to stand for Charsfield and surrounding parishes). While there, I took the conservation option of the diploma; at least once a week for those two years my classmates and I would be out and about in the countryside on practical conservation tasks, many of which were the kind of traditional woodland and estate management crafts that the book to some extent laments the passing of: hedgelaying, coppicing and pollarding, charcoal burning and so on. There was also an agricultural option for the diploma, so for many classes we were together with the farmers’ sons and daughters, the young Tom Rouses of the mid-90s, who, at least for the time being, had made the decision to stay on the land, and stay in their home patch.

I admire Akenfield for its moving and sensitive exploration of the centuries-old but still-ongoing movement of people away from agriculture and the land. It helps me reflect on the theme of a project I am currently working on to map the loss of small farms in the Upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire, where I live. The purpose of this project is to aid us in seeing this particular landscape as one which is undergoing the scale of loss that any upland region must undergo in order to make possible the rewilding that many are calling for, so that this loss can properly register in our deliberations over potential alternative futures for these landscapes. In my conversations with some of the remaining farmers, I am finding that the futures of their farms are uncertain because their children – the young Tom Rouses of today – are still undecided between ‘the desire to escape, the necessity to stay’. Akenfield sympathetically dramatises this tension.

The 2004 documentary Akenfield Revisited characterised the film as one which ‘combined documentary and fiction to create a portrait of rural life across the decades’. Hall went further in that same documentary, downplaying the documentary element: ‘We took real people, shot many many many miles of film, and out of that made a fiction. Out of fact we made fiction.’ Given that it was not a documentary, it may seem unfair to hold it up to a standard of authenticity in its portrayal of rural life. Nonetheless, it is praised as such. Upon the occasion of its 2016 BFI re-release, Adam Scovell claimed that ‘[p]erhaps more so than any other film from this period, Akenfield captures the shifting elements of English village life with a deep affection that is devoid of the usual oversimplifying lens of nostalgia’, and James Rocarols labelled Akenfield ‘a very Anglo Saxon strain of neorealism’, whose ‘authenticity lies in a depiction of Suffolk that’s romantic but not romanticised.’

I find such claims of unromanticised authenticity made for the film convincing. At the level of filmmaking approach, we can straight away point to two sets of decisions – concerning locations and casting – that go some way to explaining this perceived authenticity. The film, apart from one minor scene, was shot entirely in Charsfield and six neighbouring parishes, the very Suffolk villages from which the book’s interviewees were drawn. The heavy soil we see clinging to old Tom Rouse’s boots in the flashbacks to the early 1900s as he flees from school across the fields for a life on the farm is indeed the clay of the Deben valley, and the graveyard in which he is committed in the present day 1970s is that of Hoo Church, not two miles from Charsfield. For those who know the area, there were none of the jarring geographical leaps or unconvincing landscape stand-ins that are the usual results of location shooting practicalities.

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Decisions concerning casting, and also shooting without a script and instead relying on improvisation, were even more instrumental in reflecting, as Adam Scovell puts it, the ‘documentary precision’ of the book. On meeting with Blythe, Hall explained that he wanted to see if they could ‘invent a story that would catch the themes of the book’, and that he had in mind using non-actors and improvisation. A month later, Blythe had produced a twenty-page synopsis, ‘dense with a lifetime’s experience of Suffolk.’ Blythe explained, in the 1975 programme for the Aldeburgh Festival, that his synopsis consisted ‘entirely of images of agriculture, education, religion, nature, love, death, social pressures, etc., as these subjects appeared in the book, but now set in a story context. There was no ‘play’. Instead, I had provided an open structure of great and small village situations in which ordinary country people could talk, do their normal tasks and thus, without their knowing it at the time, act out some eighty years of Suffolk life.’ The decision to use non-actors went hand in hand with the decision to shoot without a script. Hall explains in his diaries his confidence in using non-actors: ‘I believe that in any 40 or 50 people there are two or three who have not lost the ability to ‘play’ – as children play. They are not actors, but they can lose themselves, lose themselves in their own fantasies.’ Later, during filming, Hall’s diaries are full of praise for the ‘extraordinary improvisation’ of the cast. The synopsis guided the filming, and with Blythe present throughout the shoot, Hall’s directions for the cast members were simple statements such as ‘It’s a wet day long ago and you can’t work and you won’t get paid’, or ‘It is a Saturday night dance in the village hall in 1943 and the bombers are going out from Debach aerodrome.’ This resulted in somewhere between 43-48 hours of footage, providing a formidable editing task for Hall and editor/producer Rex Pike. (Early cuts were shown to Harold Pinter and John Schlesinger, who were enthusiastic and provided constructive feedback.) While the decision to use improvisation appears to have been Hall’s intention from his first meeting with Blythe, Equity, the actor’s union, after initially ‘blacking’ the film, acknowledged that the film belonged in a special category exempt from using professionals (along with, for example, Bicycle Thieves) but they ruled that there could be no written dialogue, nor even any repetition of improvised lines, and that the ‘actors’ could only play ‘themselves’.

It is unclear the extent to which the latter part of this ruling was responsible for the way in which many of the key roles in the film were played by people with lives and livelihoods very close to those of their characters, and how many of these were serendipity. This is a further element of the casting decisions which explains the perceived authenticity of the film. Garrow Shand, who played young Tom Rouse as well as his grandfather and father, was (and still was at the time of the 2004 documentary, Akenfield Revisited) an agricultural contractor. Robin Buckingham, who plays the gravedigger, was himself a gravedigger. Barbara Tilney, a school teacher, plays both young Tom Rouse’s school teacher girlfriend and his grandfather’s school teacher. Ronald Blythe, who was a Charsfield church warden and a lay reader, plays the vicar. Children from Charsfield Primary play themselves. Most notably, Peggy Cole, who plays young Tom Rouse’s mother, was, as Hall characterised her, ‘ace gardener’ of Charsfield and ‘at the centre of its life’. She had two sons, one nearly grown up. Blythe actually had Peggy Cole – who was the wife of Blythe’s fellow church warden – in mind when he created the character of Dulcie Rouse, and he took Hall to see her presiding over the village flower show. Hall went and spoke to her, without Cole knowing who he was (she thought he was visiting to see about buying a house in the village), and returned to Blythe, agreeing without hesitation that ‘she’s the one’. Blythe told her in church on Sunday that he and Hall would like her to be in the film; Cole thought at first that they wanted her to make the tea.

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Cole’s involvement in the film also illustrates a third element of the casting decisions which had an influence on the film’s authenticity, which was the choice to use local people. Casting was carried out at a school in Woodbridge, six miles from Charsfield, and as far as one can tell, all the principal characters are portrayed by Suffolk residents. (Only two professional actors appeared in the film: Stanley Baxter makes a brief appearance as a blacksmith, and Peter Tuddenham – from nearby Ipswich – narrates as the voice of old Tom Rouse.) The most obvious consequence of this was that the accents were authentic; it is difficult to imagine how the ‘soft burr’, as Hall describes it, of the Suffolk accent would have fared in the mouths of non-local, professional actors. There may also have been more subtle ways in which this choice influenced the film’s authenticity. Sally Bacon, the costume designer, says that for most of the crowd scenes in the pre-First World War scenes, non-central cast members brought along a selection of their grandparents’ clothes from their attics. And as Rex Pyke relates, he approached the meeting with the wardens of Hoo Church, which was used for the funeral scene, in a standard way, reassuring them that the crew would take care of the church and not put them to any trouble. ‘What about the flowers?’, they asked. ‘No trouble, we’ll get the flowers from florists in Ipswich’, he replied. But he then realised that they actually wanted to do the flowers themselves. ‘And that was the pattern for this film. They wanted to participate in many ways, and in fact every way. It was their film; they weren’t just acting in it. They were making this film. We knew then whose film it was.’ Cole herself was the epitome of the way the film was, as Akenfield Revisited wonderfully puts it, ‘an unusual artistic partnership’ between the film crew and the residents; she helped find and persuade locals to be in the film, baked for the crew, brought out her homemade wine when cast members needed relaxing before the camera. As the film’s credits foregrounded, the film was ‘Made by People of Suffolk’.

Effective as these location and casting decisions may have been in achieving a degree of authenticity, they need not have succeeded in avoiding rural romanticism. To explore how Akenfield may have done this, a comparison with the book is instructive. Blythe’s classic is, as mentioned earlier, ostensibly a series of edited transcripts of interviews with members of a single small Suffolk village: the old farm workers, the doctor, the teacher, the farrier, the blacksmith, the headmistress, the district nurse, the vet, the gravedigger, and so on. It is universally acknowledged as avoiding overt rural romanticism. As the rural sociologist Howard Newby put it in a 1975 article in the journal Oral History, ‘It is one of the enduring merits of Akenfield that readers attracted to the book by this sentimental vision [of rural romanticism] are brought up short by the opening chapter, ‘The Survivors’ [with its portrait of ‘crushing poverty and injustice’]….Whatever else Akenfield may be, it is not part of the simplistic, romanticised version of rural life’. But in that same review Newby argues that a more subtle form of romanticism runs through the book, consisting in a tone of regret at something which is being lost which accompanies acknowledgement of the hardships of the past. ‘Blythe…ironically suffers from many of the delusions which he attributes to the new urban immigrants – a belief in village life as somehow being more meaningful, representing ‘real values’ and generally having stronger roots than the more cosmetic and transient existence that passes for life in the towns…Beneath the torments of a stricken past and the plastic world of the present, the rural idyll endures.’

Both Newby, and also Jan Marsh in a 1972 review of the book in The Cambridge Quarterlydetail a series of editorial choices made by Blythe concerning both the selection of his interviewees and the presentation of the interviews which serve this subtle rural romanticism. For both, these choices undermine the book’s social scientific credentials. Whether these claims are justified cannot be pursued here, although it is worth noting that Blythe himself never made any claims for such credentials; he has called the book ‘a kind of poem’ and a ‘personal interpretation’ of the rural life he witnessed. For our purposes here, what is interesting is that Newby argues that the film avoids the subtle romanticism that he perceives in the book: ‘Where the film improved upon the book was that much of this subtle romanticism was removed…The tone of regret which runs through the book was almost totally absent from the film and along with it went much of the mystification.’ In trying to come to a decision over whether to leave or stay, young Tom weighs the ‘very real economic and social relationships’ he is in with his family and his employer, not the ‘alleged metaphysical advantages of working on the land’.

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Given Blythe’s deep involvement in the film, if we are to accept Newby’s claim that he was not able to wholly disavow pastoral idealism in his book, what accounts for the film’s more thoroughgoing eschewal of nostalgia for the vanishing of the old ways? The most obvious explanation lies with Peter Hall’s different relationship to his native Suffolk (he was born in Bury St Edmunds). His family did not have a connection to the land (his father was a stationmaster) and, although reading Akenfield provoked an emotional response in him (it ‘made my eyes prick…I could hear my grandfather talking’) and drew him back to the county of his childhood, his relationship with the place was not one that was likely to result in a romanticised depiction: when he visited Blythe in 1972 to scout for locations and cast members, he bluntly states in his diary, ‘I don’t like Suffolk: it frightens me’. Attending the village flower show with Blythe and hearing the ‘soft burr’ of the Suffolk accent, he comments that it is a sound that ‘upsets’ him.

The two central figures who collaborated on the film, therefore, had very different relationships to and attitudes towards the rural Suffolk landscape. We can see this difference manifesting in their respective desires for how the 1911 harvest scene should appear on the screen. As Adam Scovell claims, cinematographer Ivan Strasberg ‘manages to capture some of the most haunting and beautiful evocations of Suffolk ever committed to film, with a dreamlike soft-focus permeating throughout.’ But for Newby, at points this photography – particularly with ‘some idyllic shots of Suffolk cow parsley’ – undermined the work done in the film to remove the romanticism that he perceived in the book. Indeed, Strasberg’s photography has been likened to Vermeer, Renoir and Constable, and Time Out’s review highlights the ‘lush, soft-focus landscape photography…[which] imbues the past with a not unappealing romantic aura.’ The harvest scene, therefore, had enormous potential to be the scene whose photography was most freighted with the rural idyll. Blythe, in a summer 1973 article for The Countryman magazine before the scene had been shot, expressed what appear to be hopes that it would precisely be so freighted: ‘We are praying for traditional harvest sun and moonshine so that we can capture something of those toiling idylls reflected in the Suffolk Photographic Survey’. As it happened, though, although some of the harvest shots used in the film are in bright sunshine, the main scene in which Tom Rouse and his new bride, Charlotte, are accompanied into the field by Blythe’s vicar and help bring in the last wagons, takes place in a misty twilight. Although we can surmise from his expressed hopes that Blythe may have been disappointed by this, Hall was not. In his diary entry for 19th August 1973 he writes, ‘We had no sun yesterday for the harvest and I was very glad. I wouldn’t have shot. I didn’t want the yellow cornfields over-glamourised.’ Perhaps, then, it was Peter Hall’s influence in the collaboration which ensured that even the subtle romanticism that Newby perceived in the book was not present.

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But this suggestion that it was Hall’s wariness towards Suffolk that kept Blythe’s inclination to romanticise the rural past in check is, ultimately, unconvincing. It was, after all, Blythe who wrote the story, and it is not one that lends itself to a sentimentalisation of rural life. The ‘crushing poverty’ of old Tom Rouse’s life in the early 1900s is there in Blythe’s treatment, as it was in the chapters forming ‘The Survivors’ section of his book. Similarly, in its depiction of the life young Tom Rouse can expect if he accepts the tied cottage and continues to till the same fields as his grandfather, the story does not seek to present his serious consideration of leaving as in any way a mistake, or as inevitably leading to regret. That this is so is confirmed in the film’s ambiguous ending. We are not shown Tom’s definitive decision, we are not afforded a glimpse of his future. But it would have been simple to have added a final scene that would have issued a note of rural romanticism which could potentially have invited a reappraisal of all that had gone before. This could either have shown Tom content in his cottage or, perhaps more powerfully, aching for the home soil from the Australia of the brochures he has sent for and receives, much to the consternation of his mother and his girlfriend, at the beginning of the film. This latter option would have been a way of demonstrating, if Blythe had been so inclined, that the ‘atavistic thread’, as he puts it in the book, that binds the ‘native’ village man to the land cannot be severed, and that there are consequences to attempting to do so. This thread, as Blythe perceives it, is both the native village man’s ‘advantage and his fetter, allowing him certain instincts, knowledge and emotions which can only be inherited through unbroken contact with the life of the earth itself.’ But this imagined last scene does not close out the film, and its disavowal of rural nostalgia is not thus compromised. If this conformed to Blythe’s original synopsis, it suggests a reevaluation of the romanticism that Newby and others perceived in the book is called for.

With Craig Taylor’s 2006 book Return to Akenfield, and the University of East Anglia’s Akenfield Now project, which will see school pupils conducting, and making films of, oral history interviews with today’s residents, the ‘voice of Akenfield’ that Blythe articulated and Hall drew forth on film nearly five decades ago is being recorded again. In recent years I have returned to Suffolk on family summer holidays, and have made pilgrimages to Charsfield so as to hear a little of that voice myself. Comparing Blythe’s enumeration of the ‘evidence of the good life’ in the late 1960s, apart from the loss of the ‘three shops with door bells’, much of that evidence is still there: ‘a tall old church on the hillside, a pub selling the local brew, a pretty stream,…a school with jars of tadpoles in the window’. There is bowling and pilates in the village hall. I even passed a sign for the upcoming flower show. But, like so many villages, apart from the chatter of children issuing from the open school windows, during the day the village was quiet, and the fields of ripening barley deserted.

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