Tawny Pipit Review
Bernard Miles is one the most recognisable of British character actors, whether it be for his performance as Joe Gargery in David Lean’s Great Expectations, as Tom Thumb’s ‘father’ in George Pal’s musical of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, as Long John Silver in the 1950s BBC adaptation of Treasure Island, or many others besides. Such is this presence in front of the camera it is often forgotten that he also made two features on which he served as writer, director and producer, as well as giving himself a significant role. The first was Tawny Pipit, made in 1944, a charming little comedy-drama that also provided elements of wartime propaganda. The second was 1950’s Chance of a Lifetime, a sadly underrated comedy of manners centring around the trade union and co-operative movements in which a group of workers take over their factory. The latter even earned a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film, but is mostly forgotten nowadays although it does receive the occasional television showing. Tawny Pipit similarly crops up on TV from time to time and is now enjoying its DVD debut thanks to Odeon Entertainment and their ‘Best of British’ range of releases. (Chance of a Lifetime appeared in ITV’s Kenneth More Collection, issued in 2007 and still available.) Although arguably the lesser of Miles’ two directorial efforts it nonetheless proves itself to be perfectly entertaining and rather distinctively British.
This particular flavour no doubt results from a number of elements: the village setting; the collection of eccentrics populating the rural landscape as played by a variety of vaguely familiar faces; the score by Noel Mewton-Wood (admittedly Australian-born although he spent much of his life in London as a close friend to Benjamin Britten; Tawny Pipit and Chance of a Lifetime would be his only works for the cinema); and, most prominently, the propagandist elements. This latter aspect is one in which Miles had plenty of experience. He had appeared in a handful of flag-waving features such as In Which We Serve and The First of the Few and was also the face of the Boulting brothers’ early wartime short The Dawn Guard and Donald Taylor’s similar themed Home Guard. Both of these were made in 1941 and were swiftly followed by Sea Cadets to which Miles also provided the screenplay; soon afterwards he would also be credited with providing the idea behind Will Hay’s propaganda vehicle The Goose Steps Out. In other words Miles was undoubtedly familiar with the techniques of introducing both underlying and overt messages into his films.
Yet on the surface of things Tawny Pipit seems fairly removed from such concerns. Its premise is centred around the appearance of two rare birds, the pipit of the title, in a field in the fictional village of Lipsbury Lea. They happen to be nesting and so the entire population pull together to ensure that their safety remains in place. It is only once things get moving that the more propagandist elements come into play. The birds, of Eastern European origin, are compared to those “good foreigners” in a speech by the village parson and find themselves paralleling the goodwill visit by a female Russian sniper. Meanwhile, those who are attempting to steal the eggs - outsiders, naturally - compare themselves to “fifth columnists” and end up having a run-in with the Home Guard. Similarly, other key players and tinier roles are occupied by a pilot who participated in the Battle of Britain, land girls, and so on. Indeed, as Tawny Pipit progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that the film is taking place in very much a wartime setting even if the narrative could easily be transposed to a more benign era.
Having been released in 1944, Tawny Pipit finds itself in the unfortunate position of drawing inescapable comparisons with another rural wartime drama from the same year, namely Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale. That particular film remains a personal favourite of mine - and many others - and is arguably one of the peaks of British cinema, whether it be from that year, decade or indeed without any recourse to a specific time period. It remains a fascinating work, best summed up as rich and strange, and full of resonances. In comparison, Tawny Pipit cannot help but feel a little insignificant, but then it replaces Powell and Pressburger’s unique and distinctive flavours with a warm glow. This is, after all, a comedy and so whilst it is not in the business of delivering belly laughs - the humour is far more gentle and integrated into the narrative than that - it does produce a smile. As with so many British films of this era (like the recently reviewed Owd Bob, which has also just gained a release through Odeon, made six years earlier) Tawny Pipit provides one of those half loving-half mocking portraits of a community, revels in their eccentricities and ultimately affirms that everything will be okay. No doubt this is why it also served as particularly deserving example of propagandist filmmaking: the final image of our pilot swooping over the packed village church, with everyone united in song, is entirely reassuring.
Released as part of their ‘Best of British’ range, Tawny Pipit maintains Odeon Entertainment’s standard approach of a single dual-layered disc, encoded for all regions, containing the feature and a handful of cross-promotional trailers whilst brief booklet notes are also present. Unfortunately the presentation here isn’t one of their best. The print used is at times a little scratched and demonstrates instances of damage, although this figures most heavily during the opening credits so do be assured that things do improve as the film goes on. As for the transfer it appears that the whites have been a little boosted which messes somewhat with the contrast levels and also prompts some loss in detail and instances of edge enhancement. The soundtrack fares better and is generally pleasing. There are the occasional rough patches, though in these cases such flaws may be inherent in the original materials. As is typical of Odeon discs, there are no subtitles, English or otherwise.