A Day in the Life Review
The trailer for 'A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain by John Krish' can be found at the bottom of this review.
Having last week discussed, at great length, the BFI’s Shadows of Progress releases (the four-disc boxed-set and the much needed book examining the post-war British documentary movement and its key filmmakers; the review can be found here.), this week I am turning my attention to another of the BFI’s Boom Britain highlights. Throughout November and December the BFI Southbank has and will be screening various programmes devoted to particular themes and directors prominent during this post-war period. There’s the chance to sample three differing takes of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for example, or a rare glimpse at some of Lindsay Anderson’s early non-Free Cinema documentary work. However, one particular programme stands out for two reasons. Firstly, because it is also embarking on a national tour once it finishes its run at the National Film Theatre in November. Secondly, because it finally allows one of the UK’s most underrated directors some of the prominence he deserves.
The filmmaker in question is John Krish, a man whose career behind the camera has been erratic, idiosyncratic, sometimes contradictory, but always fascinating. Erratic insofar as his filmography takes in everything from a ‘restricted’ Army training film on the brainwashing of prisoners-of-war in Korea (Captured, 1959) to commercials for Kleenex and Lemsip in the seventies. Idiosyncratic inasmuch as many of his commissions, especially as a freelancer, display a remarkable talent for imaginative interpretation, whether it be killing off school kids at a sports day on active railway lines (The Finishing Line, 1977) or giving a pickpocket the football commentary treatment (Snatch of the Day, 1974). Contradictory owing to the fact that amongst his credits we find one of the best-loved of all the British Transport Films (1953’s The Elephant Will Never Forget, arguably competing only with John Schlesinger’s Terminus for the title) and what is generally considered to be the most seen film in history, albeit primarily outside of the usual commercial channels, in the shape of 1979’s Jesus - and yet for all the recognition these titles have earned, such recognition has yet to extend to Krish himself. The fascinating element should hopefully be obvious just from the films, and type of films, mentioned in this paragraph alone, although a quick search for interview material with Krish online should back up this claim further; he really does have a way with words, and many a tale to tell. In fact, the BFI have just uploaded some of his recent Q&A at the BFI Southbank (from November 8th) and you can watch it simply by clicking on the following link.
Given that Krish’s career has been so wayward and encompasses so much it can be difficult to get to grips with. The definitive account appears in the Shadows of Progress book and Patrick Russell’s dedicated chapter, but here is an attempt at a potted biography in the space of a single paragraph. Inspired by a viewing the GPO Film Unit’s classic Night Mail, Krish effectively blagged his way into the Crown Film Unit (as the GPO had become following the outbreak of World War II) and found himself in the role of assistant editor. During this time he worked with Humphrey Jennings on Listen to Britain and Harry Watt (director of Night Mail) on Target for Tonight amongst others. After being called up for military service in 1942 he later worked in a similar capacity for the Army Film and Photographic Unit on Carol Reed and Garson Kanin’s Oscar-winning The True Glory. Post-war saw work with Richard Massingham and a move to the newly formed British Transport Films for a quartet of films as director, the last of which resulted in him being fired (more of which later). Going freelance, Krish went on to work on quota quickies, a few Mining Reviews for the National Coal Board, shorts for some incredibly diverse sponsors (the Milk Marketing Board, the Armed Forces, Chloride Batteries) and 1959’s The Salvage Gang for the Children’s Film Foundation. During time he also hooked up with producer Leon Clore for what are arguably his most personal and compassionate works (unsurprisingly it is from these titles that A Day in the Life cherry picks three of its selections). A break into feature films followed, beginning with the low-budget science-fiction Unearthly Stranger (selected in Steve Chibnall and Brian MacFarlane’s The British ‘B’ Film book as one of fifteen outstanding ‘B’ features from the UK), but slowly drying out as Krish was forced to deal with studio pressure and interference, struggles with leading actors and other instances of on- and off-set politics. Television also came calling resulting in jobs on the likes of The Avengers (for which he also directed the distinctive credit sequence) and The Saint, as well as Anatomy of the Film, a six-part series which Krish also hosted. The seventies would see a reinvention as, in his own words, “Dr. Death”, a name earned owing to the many Public Information Films on road safety and the like (not to mention The Finishing Line) which, more often than not, would involve killing off a fictional child or two. Television commercials also featured quite prominently during this decade (as well as Kleenex and Lemsip there were also commissions from Guinness, Dettol, Nescafe, the Woolwich and the Observer), plus the director-for-hire role on Jesus (shared with Peter Sykes). Krish eventually retired from filmmaking in the early eighties following two more features for the Children’s Film Foundation.
Happily the availability of Krish’s work has increased over the past few years, primarily owing to the BFI’s various documentary boxed-sets and volumes. As director he now has, by my count, thirteen of his shorts on disc (as are his episodes for The Avengers and The Saint), whilst a number of early credits from when he was working his way up (primarily the Crown Film Unit ones) have similarly been issued. No doubt a scour of YouTube would also throw up some of his seventies commercials if you look hard enough, or indeed know exactly what you are looking for, plus the Jesus film is available to view online (in a mind-boggling array of languages) at the Jesus Project’s website. But of course, this scattered presence online and on disc means that Krish still hasn’t received due prominence. In my reviews of those discs that have featured his works - the many and varied British Transport Films and Central Office of Information collections - I have always tried to ensure a mention of the relevant titles and their respective qualities, yet it is abundantly clear that something bigger and more concentrated is required. And this is exactly where the Boom Britain season comes in. Now we have Shadows of Progress with its dedicated chapter in the book and four films included on the discs, with the aim of approaching the post-war documentary movement from an auterist as well as an historical perspective. More importantly we have A Day in the Life going about its nationwide tour - four films, each of the highest standard, to promote and rehabilitate the standing of one of the UK’s most underrated filmmakers.
The approach of A Day in the Life is chronological, beginning with Krish’s first masterpiece, The Elephant Will Never Forget (10 mins), and working its way through three key works from the sixties: They Took Us to the Sea (1961, 26 mins), Our School (1962, 28 mins) and I Think They Call Him John (1964, 28 mins). The sheer wealth of riches amongst Krish’s filmography no doubt made it a task to come up with this particular quartet, especially as it doesn’t claim to be in any way definitive or truly representative of his career as a whole. However, each of the films could be labelled as personal, and therefore representative of Krish in that sense of the word, whilst each also contains elements that point up aspects which would figure elsewhere throughout his career. It is also noteworthy that Krish served as writer and director on all four titles. On the one hand this enhances the auterist credentials, on the other it potentially sidesteps any concerns that the films’ respective sponsors (not applicable in the case of I Think They Call Him John, which was independently produced) somehow compromise the final results. Indeed, that imaginative interpretation mentioned earlier is key here. Time and again throughout his career Krish would use his given remit for individual films to come up with something distinctive and original. Handily, there is no need to reel off a bunch of examples here as the first two films from A Day in the Life do just that…
The Elephant Will Never Forget was never actually meant to be. Krish was asked by the head of British Transport Films, Edgar Anstey, to simply record some footage of the chairman of London Transport giving a speech and shaking the hand of the driver of the last London tram, an event that would mark the conclusion of the capital’s abandonment of the tramways. Sensing that this was a key event Krish stole some film stock and set about creating a fully-formed film as opposed to merely providing some material for the archive. The fact that he had so blatantly broken the rules resulted in Krish being sacked from the BTF, ironically after having made one of their most well-known and best-loved titles in the process. Indeed, The Elephant Will Never Forget is an excellent film (and a great opener for A Day in the Life), but also a subversive one. Its underhand production methods already mark it out as such, yet there is also its place in the BTF catalogue as a whole to consider. (As a side note, subversion could be a watchword for much of Krish’s career: Captured - which Patrick Russell compares to the ‘B’ movies of Don Siegel and Sam Fuller in the Shadows of Progress book - was categorised ‘restricted’ by the Army owing to its gritty realistic nature; the various child-involving deaths in his PIFs seem almost unimaginable today and, of course, shocked a generation when they screened at schools or on television - consider, as a point of comparison, the number of complaints received as a result of the recent NSPCC and Barnado’s ad campaigns.)
The Elephant Will Never Forget is an odd British Transport Film inasmuch as its overall mood and tone are far removed from the Unit’s standard practices. Whereas many of their films were promotional items, intended to encourage the masses onto train journeys and ferry trips or to advertise exciting new developments, Krish opted to lament the past. His is a film that looks back and not forwards, at once celebratory and decidedly sad. Following an elderly couple as they take their last ever London tram ride, the sense of an end to an era is hard to ignore. Age takes on a heightened significance - the use of archive footage from yesteryear suggestive of the couple’s earlier times on the trams during their youth - and the nostalgic air pours through. Meanwhile, the use of ‘Riding on Top of the Car’ as soundtrack can only help to increase this mood: it makes that tram ride look like the most wonderful thing ever (the juxtaposition of sound and image no doubt learnt to some degree during Krish’s work on Jennings’ Listen to Britain), but of course it’s all over. The strongest image is that of disused trams falling into ruin and becoming scrap as Brewster Mason’s voice-over (written by Krish himself) describes them as “standing like mourners at their own funeral”.
As with The Elephant Will Never Forget, They Took Us to the Sea began with the need to make a film without an idea as to what that film should be. Krish was asked by the NSPCC to produce “a money raiser to be shown to children in good schools, from nice families, who would give their pocket money to [the charity’s] junior section” (as Krish puts it in the documentary accompanying Shadows of Progress, also describing it as “the impossible brief”). The only condition laid down by the NSPCC was that child cruelty could not be shown, making the task all the harder. It was only when he asked what happens to the money they receive and got an answer to that question - “we take them to the sea” - that Krish knew what film he had to make. The result was akin to his earlier British Transport Film This Year - London (1951), in other words a day trip captured in just under thirty minutes, the journeys there and back on the train with that day’s activities in-between.
The key difference, of course, is that the focus here is children, not the employees of a boot factory from the Midlands who made up This Year - London’s subjects. Moreover, the overall point of They Took Us to the Sea is not an advertisement to travel but a plea to get the general public to part with their money. As such it is designed to register an emotional response, a target that it undoubtedly achieves. Krish allows the children their own voice-overs and, for the most part, simply observes. He took four cameramen with him on the trip, all of whom had solid backgrounds in documentary or working with the Children’s Film Foundation, and simply trusted them to record what they could. The resultant footage is terrific, full of moments seemingly snatched out of thin air - a smile here, a particular glance there - that can’t help but endear you to these kids. As an added touch he intersperses the footage of them enjoying fish and chips or taking a donkey ride with cuts back to the streets of their native Birmingham. Whilst this particular day may offer all sorts of fun and entertainment, it won’t be long until they’re back throwing bricks amongst the rubble of demolished buildings. The overall effect is as bittersweet as that of The Elephant Will Never Forget, albeit to completely different ends.
Our School, made the following year, retained one of They Took Us to the Sea’s photographers, Larry Pizer (on the cusp of moving into features for the diverse likes of Anthony Simmons, Karel Reisz, Brian De Palma and James Ivory), and maintained the focus on observation. Sponsored by the National Union of Teachers, this is a film that goes about its business very quietly. Bookended by opening intertitles and a brief voice-over at its close, Our School chooses to simply watch as its cameras record a day in the life of a Secondary Modern school. (Krish’s earlier film for the NUT, 1959’s I Want To Go To School, had taken a similar approach to a primary school.) Thus we are witness to a maths lesson, a spot of cookery and a trip to a local factory and we get to see the interaction between pupils and, in some cases, their charismatic teachers, one of whom had some of his best footage removed at the behest of the NUT owing to the fact that he wasn’t wearing his jacket!
If this suggests that Our School is quite loose, then I suppose that is mostly true. Though very sharply edited (note some of the quickfire exchanges between teacher and pupil) we are left to draw our own conclusions and take in what we will. And certainly there is a wonderfully candid quality to the assembled footage. At times I was reminded of the earliest instalments in Michael Apted’s Up series, except Krish doesn’t need any interviews for us to get inside these kids’ heads; the manner in which he and Pizer have captured their reactions and responses, their interactions and their gestures, prove just as telling as had he sat them down in front of the camera for a chat. Indeed, so fascinating is his footage that I could have easily watched another hour’s worth or more. A great time capsule and a great piece of cinema.
However, I Think They Call Him John is perhaps the most striking of all of the films included as part of A Day in the Life and one that stakes a perfectly reasonable claim to being Krish’s most personal. In this instance their was no sponsor to consider - the only documentary, to the best of my knowledge, that he made under such circumstances - and as such Krish was able to do things exactly as he intended. The fact that its techniques and methods are in no way overtly different from those found in many of his other works easily validates the claim that Krish was oftentimes able to transcend sponsor’s requests and remits to produce personal and distinctive works (as this quartet’s other inclusions ably demonstrates). But what is important here is the fact that he wanted to make I Think They Call Him John; there was no commission, simply Krish’s own wishes and needs.
The subject is John Ronson, a retired miner and childless widower of nine years. Filmed over two weekends, Krish captures him as he goes about daily routines in his tiny flat. A voice-over (written by Krish himself after rejecting one from John Betjeman for being too patronising) interjects sparingly, but for the most part we are left with the quiet. Ronson cooks and eats a modest meal in solitude and silence, he writes a letter, he has a nap. Nothing exceptional happens and that, of course, is the point. The portrait we have here is one of loneliness. Interestingly, when I Think They Call Him John was featured on the Shadows of Progress boxed-set, this loneliness was one that you couldn’t help but associate with the social developments documented elsewhere on that collection’s shorts - in other words, Ronson was a victim of the modern age, the new towns and new housing models removing those such as himself from society; all he has now is his flat and the occasional mail. However, when watched as part of A Day in the Life, and on the big screen no less, this loneliness is simply loneliness. Even the title hints at his neglect. It’s a stark, and moving, portrait.
As a final note there is one credit that stands out amongst those on I Think They Call Him John: Kevin Brownlow’s presence as editor. Whilst his feature debut It Happened Here was going through its lengthy production period (work started in 1956 and would continue through to 1963) Brownlow worked in documentary, primarily as an editor, as a means of continuing its production. He had collaborated previously with Krish on the script for Band Wagon (a 1958 short for the Ford Motor Company) and would pay homage to him with his 1962 film Nine, Dalmuir West, a film about the last trams in Glasgow which openly aped the methods of The Elephant Will Never Forget. It’s an interesting bit of crossover as it demonstrates just how respected Krish was by those within the industry. But of course, industry recognition is not the same as public recognition and this is why A Day in the Life is so welcome. Please do refer to the list of cinema screenings below and book tickets at your nearest venue, then pick up Shadows of Progress, both book and DVD set, and maybe even refer to the ‘further viewing’ section I added to my review of the latter to discover where else you can track down Krish’s films on disc. He really is a superb director who warrants every last bit of attention these various projects are providing.
A Day in the Life will be screening at the following cinemas on these dates:
From 12th November
From 10th December
National Media Museum, Bradford
Number 8, Pershore
Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury
The trailer for A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-War Britain by John Krish: