Blue Remembered Hills Review
It's a summer day in 1943 in the Forest of Dean, and seven year old Willy (Colin Welland) splashes through mud and cavorts around the woods in his big shorts, pretending to be a fighter plane. Shortly he is joined by another lad, Peter (Michael Elphick), who descends from a tree in the manner of a parachutist falling to earth. He is going to be a parachutist when he grows up, and Willy is going to be a commando. But soon the two boys get involved in a fight over an apple, and Peter, being the stronger and a bit of a bully, easily wins.
Meanwhile in the barn Angela (Helen Mirren) is playing a game of mummies and daddies with Donald (Colin Jeavons), with Audrey (Janine Duvitski) taking the part of a nurse. After a while the girls taunt Donald, calling him by his hated nickname 'Donald Duck' and making quacking noises. Donald is clearly troubled. Later on he pines for his father, who is a prisoner of war in Japan, and within the group Donald is regarded as the misfit.
Willy and Peter are joined by John (Robin Ellis) and Raymond (John Bird), and the four catch a squirrel and resolutely trample it to death; but afterwards they have pangs of guilt and attempt to justify the act as Willy descends into tears. Later, after the girls have joined the main group, they hear a siren, indicating a prisoner of war has escaped from the nearby camp. Speculating about what might happen if 'the Italian' should catch up with them, the children scare themselves to the point where they're too panicked to move. Back at the barn, a solitary Donald is playing with matches. The others decide to seek him out and give him a fright.
The accuracy of the observation of childhood behaviour is completely engrossing. The foreshortened perspectives, the sudden swings from laughter to tears and back, and the continual lapses into horseplay are all beautifully captured. Never for a second do we doubt we are watching 'children', even though they are played by adults. In fact the device is a tour de force of deconstruction: by bringing the gravitas of adult acting to bear on the portrayal of childhood, it at once lays bare the artificiality of acting, whilst simultaneously expanding the world of childhood, projecting it onto a deeper and grander screen where all the detail and nuances are writ large, making it seem hyper-real, not unreal.
As a whole the film gels wonderfully. Consisting almost entirely of Forest of Dean exteriors, it has a magical, Arcadian quality, blended in with the air of boys' comics from the 40's, replete with wartime heroes. Potter's sharp observation and dialogue are transmitted well by Brian Gibson's unfussy direction, which concentrates on getting the best out of the performers. The casting is near perfect, with each of the actors representing a child archetype that somehow fits their own personalities. Gradually we become so immersed in their world that we feel like children too, which is no doubt exactly the effect Potter intended.
In Stand Up, Nigel Barton the device of adults playing children is clearly a function of memory - the projection of one's current self into one's past - and in Blue Remembered Hills it is used similarly, though there is no external reference, we see only the seven children in their hermetic Forest world. As in Stand Up, autobiography is playing a strong role - the Forest is, of course, Potterland, and it's no coincidence that the children are contemporaries of their author.
In its depiction of a closed childhood world, Blue Remembered Hills has strong parallels with the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies. A marooned group of boys project their fears onto an outside agency - the Beast - but the real danger and destructiveness lies within. In Blue Remembered Hills the 'Beast' is the Italian prisoner of war, in whose name the play's tragic conclusion is brought about by the children themselves. The 'Beast' theme also has references in Potter's earlier play A Beast with Two Backs, where violence similarly erupts, and also in the Forest adultery sequence in The Singing Detective, where the 'Beast' is internalised as forbidden sexual desire. As in this sequence there is a Biblical parallel too, with the Forest representing the Garden of Eden, and the tragedy the Fall.
Despite its apparently simplistic structure Blue Remembered Hills is actually a deeply layered and highly artful piece of work. Everyone has had a childhood, and the play makes us think of our childhoods as paradigms of life as a whole. The evocative Housman poem from which the title derives - the last lines of which are read by Potter over the final shot - are the clincher, such is the power of nostalgia when elevated to these extents. And now, twenty-six years on, the play exerts a different kind of nostalgia - for seventies TV, for Play For Today, for that spirit of adventure and experiment, the happy airwaves where we once viewed and cannot come again…
The high quality transfer retains the moody feel of the 16mm film original, with no dirt or scratches, and only a minimal impression of grain. The soundtrack too is very crisp and clean. The real disappointment is the lack of any extras - no commentaries from the actors, producer or director; no Potter soundbites from the many BBC documentaries where he spoke. It seems that after the reasonable extras package on The Singing Detective DVD, things have gone downhill, and as with the Nigel Barton disc we can expect only barebones releases of Potter's future works. Also at 71 minutes Blue Remembered Hills is a short work to be occupying a disc on its own. Perhaps it could have been released along with another single play of that era, such as Double Dare, to create something of the value found in The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven packages.
For a general overview see: Dennis Potter on DVD