David Gladwell is not a name you'll instantly recognise from the annals of British film and television. Hopefully this is going to be rectified with the release of Requiem for a Village (1975), one of only two features he made during his long career as a British film maker. Start digging and you'll soon discover that Gladwell's reputation spans much of the British documentary movement of the 1950s and 1960s, either as a director or as an editor.

He studied painting at Gloucester Art College, began experimenting with film, and by 1958 had made two short films, A Summer Discord (1955) and Miss Thompson Goes Shopping (1958) with funding from the BFI. Both films are included in the supplements to this disc and demonstrate his fascination with the plasticity of the medium, a striking blend of jump cuts, slow motion, non-diegetic sound, unorthodox framing, use of close-ups and mixing black and white with colour footage. The success of these films secured Gladwell further support from the BFI and led to the fractured time experiments of An Untitled Film (1964). This haunting film synthesised Gladwell's obsession with time, where the components of a brief event are broken down into a slow motion catalogue of gestures, actions, looks and emotions. He also worked at British Transport Films in the 1960s, editing a number of short features, and began a productive partnership with Derrick Knight and Partners, a documentary film production company, that saw him direct and edit a number of films, including The Great Steam Fair (1964), also included in this set, and a promotional film for the new town of Harlow, Faces of Harlow (1964) commissioned by the Harlow Development Corporation.

Later in the 1960s, he worked as an editor on major feature films such as Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968) and O, Lucky Man! (1973), the Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie (1970) and worked as an editor on John Berger's acclaimed BBC series, Ways of Seeing (1972). After writing, directing, producing and editing Requiem for a Village, he continued working on a number of documentary films for the BBC and Channel 4 but he only wrote and directed one other feature film, an adaptation of Doris Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) starring Julie Christie. It's themes, the ability to see or visit the past from the standpoint of a present on the brink of chaos and destructive change, resonate with Gladwell's own ideas in Requiem.

"... a side of British life that has since almost entirely died out."
To contextualise Requiem for a Village, I'd like to take my cue from Rob Young's notes that accompany this release. Young, the author of the superb Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, quite rightly places Gladwell's film in contemporary relationship with Peter Hall's Akenfield (1974). Hall's film, set in a Suffolk village, and based on Ronald Blythe's book of the same name, used the residents of Charsfield (Gladwell's village setting of Witnesham was only a short distance away) to re-enact the stories of their own lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents. Hall's crew worked with them at weekends, filming for nearly a year, chronicling the community and landscapes in the different seasons. Likewise, Requiem employs non-actors for its own exploration of generational traditions and it too reflects The Guardian's summary of Akenfield's appeal as a film that "cuts to the heart of a side of British life that has since almost entirely died out."

Requiem for a Village is itself a poetic meditation on how the modern world's rapid acceleration buries the past and with it the traditions, skills and knowledge that were at the heart of British life and its relationship to the landscape and countryside. An elegiac exploration of the living past, Requiem's themes can also be found in David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (Play for Today, 1974) with its revival within the present day of Mercia's pagan king, the battle between machine progress and ancient wisdom as seen in the BBC's superb telefantasy series The Changes (1975), in the aesthetics of series such as Wessex Tales, a series of Thomas Hardy's short stories adapted by the BBC in 1973, and Granada's pastoral drama Country Matters (1972-1973) based on the stories of H.E. Bates.

These and many more films and dramas of the period reflect a longing for a return to a rural life that was rapidly diminishing, to re-engage with skills that were dying out. As Dominic Sandbrook reveals in State of Emergency, the countryside was particularly hard hit in the name of progress during the 1970s and the "demands for cheap food and instant profit." Farmers either tore up the hedgerows and woods to satisfy the need to grow food for the likes of Marks and Spencers, Birds Eye and Findus or entire green belts were bulldozed for the inexorable march of the New Towns and to provide new housing. Villages were deserted and the landscape was violated.

Gladwell's film clearly engages with the sacrifice of ancient villages to the development and building of new homes and estates and, as Young points out in his notes, "the profound and lingering melancholia for the passing of ways of life, of memories, of entire swathes of social history and, with them, an uninterrupted connection to the past." It is ironic that Gladwell's film gets a release in the same year that Cameron's government has been forced to do a U-Turn on its selling off of vast areas of forest and woodland to private developers then allowed to clear ancient trees to make way for holiday resorts, golf courses and adventure playgrounds.

Requiem for a Village opens with a series of shots of a typical new housing estate. The soundtrack is dominated by crying babies and Terry Wogan on the radio. It is the sound of the suburbs as an old man collects his bicycle from his garden shed and sets off to work. This scene is intercut with static shots of the anonymous road, the uniform houses. In direct contrast to the estate we then see thatched cottages, a woodland in the haze of summer sun, a sun kissed graveyard where there is a close up of a gravestone, layered in moss and where we can discern a word most appropriate to the film: remembrance.

Gladwell then observes a young woman preparing to go riding and two men deep in conversation in the grounds of an oak timbered manor house. We overhear the older man say "absolutely heartbroken at having to leave here" and "unbelievable that this should be all gone." More shots of tree lined lanes and golden fields are offered in response. The old man crosses a busy main road. The hurtling, roaring cars and lorries represent the impingement of the modern world upon a vista of quiet fields and trees, of ancient cottages, wild flowers and a landscape where the past is either just below or hovering on the surface of life. A huge digger thunders through the undergrowth, churning up the ancient fields of wild flowers. In its wake is bare earth and Gladwell quickly associates its scarring of the landscape with a shot of the flat, grey tarmac of the estate, underlining the final purpose of the digger.

The old man cycles down the country lanes. Here, David Fanshawe's extraordinary soundtrack comes to the fore. Fanshawe, a well-travelled ethnomusicologist, was also a man interested in preserving and documenting the rapidly fading indigenous musical and oral traditions of peoples all over the world. Here, his strength as a composer of choral works is showcased and he provides a melancholic liturgy of vocals, organ and brass to accompany Gladwell's exquisite imagery.
"we all come from dust and we go back to dust" 
A cow wallows in mud, brushing flies from itself in slow motion, a man feeding hens is surrounded by the birds leaping up in partial flight. Close harmony choral singing, saluting the past in its poetic sadness, tells us, "God will give you to me again. With joy and gladness for ever. The Lord gaveth and the Lord hath taken away." The old man is in the graveyard, talking to those at rest, recalling their lives. Back at the manor house the two men are still in conversation, the older one discussing ancient British lineage and noting the churchyard is full of his ancestors who were born, lived and died in the village. The old man in the graveyard is cutting the verges, recalling in voice over those whose history he can recall.

Gladwell then reveals that the younger man at the manor house is one of a committee, meeting in the village hall, responding to the proposals to presumably destroy the woodland and ancient village to build new estates. At the meeting, the local vicar speaks of "generations" and how far back those the villagers can look back to their long dead ancestors. In the graveyard, the old man pauses. The past, constantly referred to thus far in the film, merges with the present and in a supernaturally charged sequence, the dead rise from their graves. Past lives recommence, long dead family members greet each other. The old man follows them into the church. He pauses at the door and as he opens it, he himself is transported into the past and begins to live in their time. And yet, there is dislocation as, immediately after what appears to be the start of a wedding ceremony, we are back in the churchyard and the old man is cutting the verges and being greeted by the vicar. We have been briefly allowed to look into this man's memories.

Gladwell continues to jump between the present and the past. He evocatively intercuts sequences of hay bailing and the preparation of the procession's carriage with the ceremony, underlying this marriage as part fertility rite, part religious tradition, part celebration. "Cherished memories" reads one gravestone as Gladwell starts a sequence in the blacksmith's forge, showing old and young men in conversation as metal is fired and hammered. There is a sense of 'the old way' of life, of pre-Christian traditions, being passed on as we see a horse's injured hoof cured with the insertion of a bone, confirmed to us in a bizarre sequence where a frog is tied to a branch and left to presumably die and rot, with the bones of its body ritualistically thrown into the river.

After the film returns to the forge and the banter between the men, Gladwell cuts back to a present day town centre, pointedly focusing on the broken signage of a civic building 'The Centre' and suggesting that the centre of village life, the traditional village hall where all in the community would meet, is itself a broken concept. Concrete anonymity gives way to man and beast in harmony, to an emphasis on traditional skills, as the blacksmith shoes a horse. It's an image of the circle, smoking from heat, that he will repeat later in a similar sequence where a wooden wheel is attached to its forged metal rim. Gladwell contrasts the unappealing, empty, deserted housing estates and town centre with fecund nature, barns full of hay, a crowded pub full of the living-dead wedding party, full of cheer and laughter. Again, this suggests Gladwell's own recurring themes of the cycles of life and death, of birth, renewal and resurrection and it's exemplified by the father's speech at the reception, the response to a child's enquiry of where people come from and where they go, "we all come from dust and we go back to dust."
... an historical, social, and cultural order battered by violent forces operating under the name of modernity
The bride and groom sneak away from the reception and Gladwell observes in slow motion the nervous preparations for what is presumably the first night they will spend together. Time leaps forward, in what appears to be the husband's vision of the future, as their first child is born. Gladwell seems to link this birth with the adult woman who wakes up in the present day and observes the old man leaving the house to go and cut the verges. On his way, a motorcycle gang disrupts his journey, almost running him off the road, a symbol of the eager young riding on the coattails of progress, rejecting the past.

The old man stops off in the field where the digger, pictured as huge and threatening, has been flattening the woodland. Here, the intercutting of a sequence depicting the ploughing of a field with horses suggests that man is more in harmony with nature than he is with his machines. There is a temporal slippage between the past and present, with the field used to grow food now the site of development. Gladwell fluidly matches a shot of the ploughman as he tends his horse to one of the old man as he approaches the huge digger and hurls a clod of earth at it. It is the only instance in the film of the old man's direct protest.

The climax, as the old man finishes cutting the verges and recounts memories of village life, has already been signaled to us. As he converses with the dead, we once again see back into the past, to a stern teacher reprimanding her class for their poor handwriting skills, to a wheelwright preparing the wood for a new wheel. The whole sequence of the wheelwright making a wheel, the knowledge of its making perhaps the one of the most important leaps in evolution that ancient man ever made, is typical of Gladwell's fascination with old traditions and skills. This craft is again contrasted with huge diggers crisscrossing the fields and with a young couple, seen previously at the manor house, walking the wood and estimating how much will be lost in the development.

There's a beautiful sequence, that wouldn't look out of place in Akenfield, of the whole community at work in the fields, scything corn and bailing hay and resting for a picnic. Once more the undercurrent of fertility, the conflation of sex, regeneration and nature, is introduced by the old man's observation of the young bikers we've seen previously engaging in horseplay in the churchyard that evoke (his) memories of observing his own parents having sex and the young men and women of the village doing the same at the picnic in the field. Images of coupling and cornfields give way to present day deforestation and barren land. You get a sense that Gladwell is deliberately playing with time, suggesting the old man is seeing not just the past but a brief glimpse into the future.

The bikers have another role to play, one that reunites the old man more permanently with his memories. As the soundtrack repeats the song "God will give you to me again. With joy and gladness for ever. The Lord gaveth and the Lord hath taken away" the old man is knocked down by the bikers, tearing through the quiet village, and is killed.

But Gladwell resurrects him in an extraordinary sequence that again sees the entire village erupt from their graves and as the present day villagers accusingly face the gang of bikers and equally are transported into the past. Briefly, the present, the past and the future are all momentarily caught together in time and space. We see the old man reunited with his long dead wife, confirming that he and she are the couple we've seen married at the wedding in the vision of the village's past as seen through his eyes. The past is alive suggests Gladwell, simply below the surface and awaiting our memories to recreate it, but he also implies that the future belongs to the diggers and the bikers roaring through the empty streets of a housing estate.

Requiem for a Village is a vivid blend of art film, documentary and ethnographic enquiry into the British way of life. It brings together Gladwell's experimentalism with editing and use of time, seen most vividly in An Untitled Film, with his observational interest in the minutiae of life and the precious memories within it that is present in, for example, Miss Thompson Goes Shopping and a deep love for the British landscape. It's a unique contemplation on memory, tradition and a vanished realm of pre-industrial life in Britain, touching on Morris and Ruskin's social philosophy that influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement, which sought to relate the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and design and proposed that a healthy society depended on skilled and creative workers. It's melancholia is also perhaps in parallel with Eliot's The Waste Land and its depiction of the breakdown of an historical, social, and cultural order battered by violent forces operating under the name of modernity.

About the transfer
Judging by the quality of the image here, I would assume this was shot on 16mm rather than 35mm. In that case then the graininess and softness of the image is commensurate with the stock and film gauge of the original materials and Gladwell's overall shooting style and methods for the film. It's clean and blemish free and the colour is rendered particularly well but don't expect pin sharp detail. However, there are some well realised sequences where even the 16mm original yields good detail, particularly the harvest scene. Fanshawe's music dominates the soundtrack which is otherwise a mix of evocative sound effects and half-heard conversation all well reproduced in mono.

Special features
A Summer Discord
(David Gladwell, 1955, 17 mins, silent): A young girl is scolded by her mother and Gladwell's idosyncratic style, where faces and bodies are only partially depicted and framed, explores the psychological ramifications.
Miss Thompson Goes Shopping (David Gladwell, 1958, 23 mins): An elderly lady prepares to go ino town on a shopping trip. Gladwell provides a study of isolation and memory in contrast with the bustle of a high street where the decision to buy a pair of slippers offers a moment of freedom for a lonely woman.
The Great Steam Fair (David Gladwell, Derrick Knight, 1964, 18 mins): Shot in Techniscope and colour this is a wonderfully evocative film that manages to capture the essence of the travelling fair that was such an element of local cultural life in Britain in the 1950s to the 1970s and still continues to this day. Wonderfully shot and capturing the baroque textures, carvings and artworks of the fairground rides and gondolas, depicting sideshows such as flea circuses and the huge steam engines and organs. A lovely technicolour slice of nostalgia.
An Untitled Film (David Gladwell, 1964, 9 mins): Atmospherically shot in black and white, Gladwell's fascination with time, creation and destruction is the principle behind a tour de force of editing as a single incident is stretched and manipulated.
36-page booklet A welcome exploration of the themes of his films and illustrated with Gladwell’s paintings, with essays by Elizabeth Sussex; Rob Young, author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (2010), and Patrick Russell and William Fowler from the BFI National Archive. David Gladwell himself also contributes an essay.

Requiem for a Village
UK / 1975
Released 18 July 2011 / Dual Blu-ray and DVD edition / BFIB1096 / BFI Flipside no. 018 / Cert 18 / colour / 68 mins / English (optional hard-of-hearing subtitles) / original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / Disc 1: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps/ PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit) / Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / PCM mono audio (48k/16-bit) (Extras Dolby Digital 320kbps)

Bookmark and Share

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2023 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.