Review: Their Finest 

This post contains some spoilers for Their Finest (2017)

First of all – I’ve finally finished my dissertation – an exploration of the motivations for writing and publishing a personal narrative of the First World War. It was such fun to write (mostly) and covered narratives from Douglas Haig to Flora Sandes, alongside Robert Graves and Cecil Lewis. However, I am super happy that it’s finished so I can now focus on revision and get back to blogging a little bit more regularly. I wondered briefly how I’m going to stretch out the lifespan of this blog beyond the centenary, as I imagine that interest will probably wane, alas, but that’s a question for another day. As a reward to myself for finally finishing my dissertation, I took my nana out today to go and see the film Their Finest and thought a quick review of the film would be a nice comeback to my blog (it is WWII era, but sssh!)

The film is adapted from a novel by Lisa Evans entitled Their Finest Hour and a Half, and stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, amongst other famous faces. It tells the story of the creation of a full length propaganda film created by the Ministry of Information about two sisters who take a fishing boat to Dunkirk. Gemma Arterton is Catrin, the only female writer in a team otherwise consisting of two men who regard women’s dialogue as ‘slop.’ The film within a film aspect clearly highlights the differences between the order of a film set and the chaos on the streets of London.  There are moments where it is almost a love letter to the cinema of the Second World War, gently self referential but never excluding the audience – rather inviting them inwards to the same world it occupies. It tells of the enrapturing power of film at a time when there were incredibly few other escapes available. 

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin – she’s not one of those female characters who marches in and completely overturns the status quo in an entirely unbelievable manner – she is eminently believable which makes all the difference. Claflin is equally arresting as her colleague, Tom Buckley, with whom she spars and jokes as they work together to produce a film that will lift the hearts of the public and yet still remain true. Their scenes together are full of both pathos and comedy with only one or two straying into the realm of cheese. A scene wherein they argue beneath a ‘bombers moon’ errs rather on the side of cliche, but in such a lovely film that otherwise manages successfully to paint the blitz without too much saccharine, the odd moment is forgivable – especially when it comes to emotions.

One scene which stood out was one where Catrin is caught away from a shelter as the bombs begin to fall – she huddles beside a shop window for cover until the planes pass. On rising to her feet, amidst the smoke, she sees the shillouettes of bodies and her natural reaction is horror, upset, mounting distress even. On noticing they are mannequins, her upset changes to laughter but then sharply again to horror as she comes face to face with the body of a young woman who she followed out of the tube station moments earlier. Catrin bends at the waist and retches, silhouetted in an archway against the cold light of evening. A comic moment turned abruptly to the real horror which confronted people on a daily basis – not brushed over or ignored, but presented to the audience without rose tinted glasses. There are other, similar moments that carefully place the actual effects of the war to the forefront – when Tom has died, Catrin is not suddenly paralysed by grief, but nor does she jump straight back into her work – the film gives her space to react and to showcase that reaction – mourning, tears and all.

Bill Nighy is magnificent as Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor who’s best roles appear to be behind him, cajoled into a role with the MoI by his agent. His moments of arrogance are comic, but there is weight behind his frustration when he remarks that the war has taken the cream off the top – leaving everyone with only rancid curds. Though he storms from a restaurant in this scene, it is clear he is remarking on more than the dilapidated food rations available.

It’s a gorgeous film, a colour palette of greys, blues and creams gives it a muted look without ever being washed out or dull – a palette often used in many films set in the Second World War – The Deep Blue Sea and Atonement are two which come to mind. It does work well however, contrasted with the brighter moments when the crew are filming at the seaside.

There are funny moments (in the cinema where I was, laughter was audible on many occasions), touching moments and an ending that I didn’t expect but one which fits better I think, than a traditional happy ending. Overall, for me, it was a perfectly lovely way to spend an hour and a half. I can’t comment on historical accuracy per se, as I know little about the day to day workings of the Ministry of Information, but I certainly recommend, if only for the wonderful performances and the sight of a Second World War film, mostly free of schmaltz.

Both Sides of the Wire

I expected there to be a lot more programmes on during the immediate Somme period but, unless I’ve just missed the majority of them, there haven’t been as many as I expected. Perhaps a good thing that there has not been a deluge – I’m not really sure. I feel like the commemorations have sort of finished up being the big three moments – 1914, 1916 and then 1918. It will be interesting to see what 2017 brings, but that is another thing entirely!

This programme, Both Sides of the Wire (BBC Two, Mondays) states that it will tell the story of the Somme from both the British and the German perspective. I’m not sure how many episodes this series is scheduled to run, but this first one looked at July 1st, 1916.

I thought the introduction to this show was really good – clear and informative and not sensationalised in the way that I find some shows tend to get. For many who already know about the Somme, there was not much new to be found in this segment. Many of the details throughout were good, including the use of statistics and primary sources (I love a good primary source, especially when its quoted!). I also liked the use of actual footage of the soldiers waiting for the command on the 1st July – poignant and striking – but not overused. It covered quite a bit of ground and I liked the way it was separated into the different areas of the front with a focus on a certain battalion, rather than trying to cover it all in one fell swoop in not a lot of detail.

One of the niggles I had with it was that I felt the programme was a little more skewed towards the Allied experience of the Somme. I don’t know how much of this was just down to me, and if there was actually an even split between the two, or if the programme did focus a bit more on the Allied side of things – but that was just the feeling that I came away with. Furthermore, I would have liked a bit more on the Allied treatment of captured Germans – the programme did touch on this briefly, but did not linger.

Overall, it was a fair enough programme, in my opinion. I learnt some new stiff, which is always good, and I’ll most likely tune into the second episode next Monday, but probably on iPlayer.

(now BBC, just give me a programme on the Eastern Front, eh?)

Other Fronts, Other Spaces

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June has been a quiet month for blogging, mostly because I’ve been busy, so I thought I’d best get a post in! My internship has formally finished, but I’ve still been returning to Leeds Museums to help out with the Somme commemorations! This post is a review of a study day which I attended just before my placement came to an end.

Towards the end of my placement year with Leeds Museums and Galleries, I attended a study day at the Wellcome Trust in London entitled Other Fronts, Other Spaces: First World War Nursing. Nursing is not an aspect of the First World War that I find myself focusing on. Though I have seen some exhibitions and read some memoirs, I would not consider myself to know any more than the average on the topic, but the day remedied that and certainly had my interest when it came to certain papers.

There were three panels and two separate talks about different projects related to nursing and I could natter on all day about every single paper, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just be making note of the papers that I personally enjoyed the most.

Prof. Alison Fell’s paper, Crossing Borders: National variations in images of First World War nurses was a talk which I thoroughly enjoyed – looking at the differing images of nurses used in propaganda and recruitment materials. It was especially interesting noting how many depictions fit a certain number of archetypes.

Sue Hawkins paper, The Indian Princess and the Lady Racer: WWI Stories from the VAD Archive was fascinating and definitely inspired me to look more into the stories of the nurses and others who worked alongside them. It was also interesting to note the different demographics of nurses and the jobs that they had (such as x-ray and lab assistants, something which had never previously crossed my mind). The work to digitise the Red Cross archive was wonderful to hear about. It’s fantastic that so many of these resources are now online and so easily accessible.

Finally, Alice Kelly’s piece, Commemorative Gestures: Nurses Writing Death in the Great War was a paper which looked at the idea of the war as the turning point in the attitude of the people towards death. Something which struck me particularly was the reference to the Victorian’s view of death and dying – that there was a way to ‘die well’ and to die well was to die quietly – it became idealised in a sense. Mourning was ostentatious and literature was a consolidation of death. The war however, was – as Alice Kelly termed it – an “unexpected assault on the Victorian idea of death.” In the 1912 Red Cross manual for nurses, they were primarily concerned with the logistics of death, but they were sadly not formally prepared for the scale of mass death which they would encounter. There was a renegotiation of death and dying throughout the First World War, public forms of remembrance came to the forefront and there was a desire to personalise the anonymous death, something that I, personally, see so keenly in the work of the CWGC.

Other Fronts, Other Spaces really was a wonderful study day and gave me much food to thought. Many thanks to all those who gave papers at the day, and to Leeds Museums for letting me tag along!

 

truth and memory: british art of the first world war

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Today, I visited the exhibition Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at York Art Gallery – this is a small review. Not all paintings and works are mentioned, as there were a lot and I could not fit them all in.

The first room of the downstairs gallery is laid out exactly as Gallery III was in 1919 at the Royal Academy of Art. The exhibition, The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, in 1919 contained 925 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of art in various styles, though in York there are significantly less pieces. Gallery III contained the grandest official commissions from the war and the overall idea behind the original exhibit was to have an artistic memorial to the war. It contained work by younger artists – they had been the generation to bear the burden of war; their work would be the most truthful and most affecting.
The York exhibition runs through three linked rooms, each split into sections with their own titles. When walking in, I was struck by the scale of the works which were on display – the small busts of various figures were dwarfed by the paintings on each wall – the canvases huge and striking, even in a large space.

There are paintings from medics, such as Stanley Spencer who worked in Salonika, and later on in the exhibition – there is also work from women. The first piece I saw was Henry Lamb’s Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised By A Turkish Bombardment. The huge canvas captures the disorganisation of troops when confronted with the attack – the strain in two soldier’s faces visible in the lower corner while the rest of them are left reeling, crouched in the stones. The tents, arranged in solemn rows seem innocuous amongst the chaos, unmoved.
There is also George Clausen’s Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal. His is a romantic evocation of the production of weapons – an avoidance of the dirty and dangerous reality of such work. His men are granted nobility in the ethereal light which is simultaneously the dawning of a new era. The workers are graceful in their movements almost, yet many are faceless – the machine is the centrepiece. Certainly not a truthful rendition of the actuality of working in a factory at the time.

A few busts by various artists are dotted about the room, seemingly at random. Georges Clemenceau is posted near the door – his features pensive and worried. Sergeant DF Hunter, VC is at the back of the room, his gaze frank and unapologetic. Hunter’s bust was intended as a memorial to all Scottish VC awardees. Hunter is portrayed without rank or insignia, rendering him an everyman. The only mention of a woman in this first room is a bust of Dr. Elsie Inglis by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. They seemed to be vaguely placed throughout the space, almost an afterthought.

The next section is more of a ‘themed’ part – entitled Perspectives of Battle. This is more landscape based and it is interesting to see how each different artists captured the land before them, how they communicated the destruction that had occurred. Orpen’s piece, Thiepval, is striking for its use of white – that on first glance is snow and the second one realises that there are two entangled skeletons of German soldiers. There are other examples of Orpen’s work throughout the gallery, some showcasing a nightmare world with an absence of pity, a lone crucifix standing as a reproof to God. He shows the harsh reality  of war and its effect on the landscape in his work, not shying away from portraying remains. There are not just paintings of the French front however. Sidney Carline’s The Trail of War, 1919 looks at the destruction of a Turkish aerodrome – the wrecked, skeletal remains of aircraft are left like slain animals, firmly bound to the land, an antithesis to flight.

I am not overly one for landscapes, so there were few which drew my attention in this section and made me pause. The first was Paul Nash’s Wire. The tangled mess is nightmarish, yet striking in its intensity, the barbed wire more like some sort of weed, snaking its way across the landscape, choking everything in its path. The second was Nevison’s Paths of Glory. In person, the wire glints in the light, almost like spun gold – the danger of it unclear. What is most interesting about this piece is that it was originally banned from display due to its depiction of two dead British soldiers. Nevison was originally lauded for his representation of “a more intense reality” and I must say I did find myself drawn to it, lingering somewhat. Another of Nevison’s works which was banned from display was his Group of Soldiers – this time due to his depiction, not of any horror or trauma, but instead because the men he depicted were not aesthetically pleasing. His subjects, the everymen, the ordinary soldiers, were deemed to be too “ugly” to be put on display. Instead, I thought his piece to be simple – yet affecting. The soldier’s features are rounded and drawn from life.

The penultimate section was one entitled Sacrifice, Redemption and many of the paintings within are ones of grief and loss. Orpen’s To The Unknown Soldier in France was one which drew my eye, and then my interest. The painting is the final of three which Orpen was commissioned to produce to record the Peace Conference of 1919. Totalling £3000 it was one of the most costly commissions of the war. His depiction of the Unknown Soldier is endlessly grandiose until one reaches the coffin in the lower half of the painting, central and illuminated by a shaft of light from a far window. It is lonely within the space it occupies, the colours of the flag are garish. What is most interesting however, is that in the original painting, Orpen added two emaciated, semi-nude soldiers who guarded the coffin and two cherubs above: “after all the negotiations..the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged, unemployed soldier and the Dead.” It caused controversy when it was first displayed and the IWM would only accept the painting when the four figures were painted out. I do wonder what the original would have been like – all the more affecting in its contrast, one expects.

Within this section are also three portraits by Orpen of members of the RFC. The portraits are informal, the figures command the gaze of the viewer – and yet they are melancholy once one realises that one of the three men died several days after his portrait was painted and a second was wounded.

The final section is entitled the Forgotten Front – a title which I feel could have been rethought.The contents of this part encompass industry and the wider homefront – certainly in my view not a forgotten front. It does feel somewhat like an afterthought, but this is the only section in the gallery which contains work by women war artists and works which feature women. I was beginning to despair somewhat as I took in the rest of the exhibition! There is also only one painting in this section which contains POC – Indian soldiers recovering at Brighton Pavillion.
Anna Airy’s Women Working in a Gas Retort House is a far more realistic depiction of industry than Clausen’s romantic view. There is iron here, black and imposing, the fire bright orange and red, threatening and powerful all at once. Commissioned to produced four paintings depicting munitions production, Airy captures the machines and their workforce unapologetically; the women are on the factory floor and she does not shy away from this, skilfully depicting the change in society that has occurred – women occupying a men’s space.

Richard Jack’s Return to the Front is another staggering canvas – occupying one wall alone. The mass of faces and bodies bring the scale of the human cost sharply back into focus – each face is different. One wonders at the relationships – mothers and sons perhaps, sweethearts are visible. There is one lone nun amongst the crowd and in a lower corner in the foreground, a young man sits in his uniform from a Scottish regiment. He is gazing at something not seen by the viewer, lost in his own thoughts, his expression hard to place. There is no dread there, not on any of their faces, but there is on his perhaps a hint of worry, an attempt at self conviction.

The last work I want to comment on is Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916  by J Hodgson Lobley. It is another immense piece, depicting Londoners watching the arrival of the wounded from the Somme. It is not a tender piece, but instead tackles a great mass of people. They stand at the roadside, peering at the ambulances. They hang out of windows, they sit upon signs and gaze at the convoy as it passes. One man reaches up into the cab of an ambulance and a wounded soldier looks back. The crowd are faceless, and yet amongst it all – there is a woman with her head in her hands – the grief clear.

Overall, I liked the exhibition – its mix of styles and depictions, not shying away from what had once been banned from display. Much of it was new work which I had not seen before, giving a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes and a rendition of another new experience. I came away from it newly appreciative. However, it would have been nicer to see a more equal balance of work split between male and female painters (though I’m not sure this would have been possible). It would also have been interesting to see more work from artists on fronts other than the Western Front.

War Horse

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As the National Theatre’s production of War Horse has left its London home for the final time, I thought that now would be a pertinent moment to write something about it.

I was lucky enough to see the play live when I turned eighteen and it’s something that I’ll never forget. There are so many moments that have lingered in my mind and that I still find myself thinking about – especially the point in the play when the foal Joey becomes the adult Joey. It’s a mastery of puppetry, technology and drama – full to the brim with feeling; soaring joy, amazement, wonder. It’s certainly the first time I have ever audibly gasped aloud and clutched at the armrests of my seat in reaction to a piece of drama.

These are the things which have stayed with me in the three years since I saw the play. First, the artistry that comes from the puppets. They’re so lifelike, it’s easy to forget about the men behind them. There are small nuances that make it all the more real – a flicker of an ear, a slight movement of the head, a gentle whickering sound. Second, the laughter that comes and lightens some of the moments, even when a little unexpected. The play is not misery after misery, far from it; but the balance is there, between laughter and the quieter moments that rest a little heavier on the audience – something which is welcome, I think.

When I saw the play, I found myself overwhelmed by it, my heart in my mouth and tears falling freely as the narrative unfolded on the stage, but it was such a release of emotion that it was cathartic – something I needed to do.

A relative saw the film a few weeks ago and said, “It’s so much more important, isn’t it? Once you’ve been to France..” and perhaps it does add something else to the piece, another sort of knowledge, a different perspective and a different focus. The book too was something completely new as far as WWI narratives go – told through the eyes of an animal. A different voice, a new experience – but it remains still fresh now, despite the wealth of stories that have been brought to the forefront.

In my eyes however, the play stands tall of its own accord – a wonderfully moving piece of drama that still leaves you with hope at the fall of the curtain.

those who witness such destruction

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may never witness the like again

 Having poetry read aloud gives it another layer, one which rests on the speakers voice. The way in which they utter the words, the moments at which they pause, the tone they settle and the feeling with which they imbue the words. It all adds something that is not always there when reading alone to oneself.

Hearing Jim Carter read some of my most favourite poetry on the Show of Hands album, opened them up further to me. Sitting and letting the words wash over me or walking across the fields and moors in the rain with the lines of The Silent One, overlaid on a quietly whistling track of Tipperary, the song fading at the same time as the poem – it gave the poem something new, and gave me something new too; a feeling of atmosphere, stronger than just the words of Gurney himself.

The album itself consists of two discs – the first one of spoken word poems. It begins with Wilfred Owen’s Anthem and ends with The Fallen by Laurence Binyon; therefore it is not chronological in nature. Many of the poems are ones which would be familiar to a great deal of people but there are also ones that I had never read or seen before such as Yvan Goll’s Requiem for the Dead of Europe. The lack of chronology means that there is no overarching narrative particularly, and I do wonder what the impetus was for ordering the tracks. The second disc is a collection of songs by the band themselves, though some have been written by others. A few of the songs, such as The Gamekeeper have appeared on previous albums, but are now given a new arrangement.

The middle of the first disc finds the band putting Bombed Last Night [x] alongside The General by Sassoon. It feels unspeakably right – darkest humour against the righteous anger and indignation of the poet. It is almost chilling in a way as the voices of the men who are singing slowly fade out and away, after the poem itself has already finished, leaving one with a distinctly uncomfortable, almost eerie feeling. There are other, more familiar songs which have been attached to poems, such as I Vow to Thee my Country, alongside Jessie Pope’s The Call. The poem ends in a gently questioning manner, yet the song rises above it – soaring and then fading gradually – like optimism itself slowly losing conviction. One wonders what it would have felt like to be surrounded by such propaganda, nudging and cajoling and pushing that it was the right thing to do, to sign up.

There are other poems that are left well alone, with just voice and no music – Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, the textured voice of Carter bringing new panic and strain to those immortal words “Gas, GAS!” and then a gently exasperated tone to The Soldier Addresses His Body, one which fits so well – a chummy conversation occurring that I would never have given to Rickword’s piece. Similarly, Brooke’s The Soldier is reminiscent I think, of a son speaking to his mother, seeking to reassure her – a more human and gentle look at a poem that I simply saw previously as a particularly blind kind of patriotism harking from Edwardian England.

The songs on the second part of this recording are not ones that I have ever heard, but I believe some may be more familiar to those who have listened to Show of Hands before. The Padre, from the view of an army chaplain is the voice of a man who watches the soldiers who first come to him, unknowing of what they will face, and he remains with them until the very end when he is the one to give them a last ‘grain of comfort.’ He sees them as all the same, as his ‘flock’, whether they believe in God or not – a true leveller and an interesting look into what might have been on a chaplain’s mind. The beginning of the song suggests that he was once a parish chaplain – thrust now into this land where he watches those around him train, fight and die, whilst he remains.

The Lads in their Hundreds by A.E. Houseman has also been turned into a song, sung by Imelda Staunton, different in tone to the spoken poem of earlier in the track listing. There is a jolly nature to it, that if one did not pay attention to the words, might delude one into considering it to be a bright piece. There are other songs here which are popular songs from the period such as the ever present Long Way to Tipperary. The song is first heard alongside Sassoon’s Concert Party: Busseboom, but is presented here without words, and is instead an interesting combination of beatbox and harmonica. Whilst reading reviews before I purchased the album, I was slightly repelled by this – confused as to how on earth it would work, wary that it would seem gauche. In listening to it however, it does work, in an odd sort of way. The beginning, with a lone harmonica, brings to mind someone quietly eking out the song on a battered mouth organ in a dugout, an image with startling power. It gives way however, to the sounds of beatboxing. It is not the sound which I associate with it, instead it is almost akin to the fading fall of bombs, the explosions the final sound of the track.

There are few major rearrangements and reinterpretations of tracks such as this, the majority of songs from the period sounding more or less akin to what I imagine they would have sounded like. Despite this, I do like this album – though I have a soft spot for older music, the tunes from the 1940s and 50s, and the second part of this album is somewhat similar. I would recommend it more for the poetry readings than the songs themselves on merit alone. It is an interesting artistic response to the centenary and one which I continually find myself coming back to.

Centenary: Words and Music of the Great War can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.

 

(on a mostly unrelated note, I have now had this blog for two years! A huge thank you to everyone who has stayed with it – and me – from the beginning, and to those who have come across it more recently, RT’d links on twitter or shared them on Facebook. It is so very much appreciated!)