Topophilia (literally meaning ‘love of place’) is a project about the film We of the West Riding (1945) from the British Council Film Collection (BCFC). It is inevitable that I should choose to engage with this film in particular from the BCFC because of my own upbringing in the West Riding of Yorkshire (now more simply West Yorkshire). I was born (in Dewsbury) just a few miles from Halifax, whose townsfolk are featured in the film. I have a very strong (pleasurable, but unsettling) feeling of Yorkshire identity and therefore feel culturally intimate with the places and people associated with the county if at the same time uncomfortable with the ‘greater Yorkshire’ world-view and its associated baggage. When the film was made in 1945, my parents would have been 15 years old and working in a woolen mill like the one depicted in the film, so there is a forceful personal connection there for me.
The Topophilia Project
The Topophilia project examines We of the West Riding by providing information about the film and particularly situates it in the life of Phyllis Bentley, a novelist from Halifax who wrote the script for the film. As well as information and some commentary about the film, I have also produced some creative work from the film such as Animated GIFs, cinemagraphs and short videos using the ‘seizure’ or ‘stutter’ technique of manipulating the frames of films by moving backwards and forwards between sets of frames in a patterned sequence as used by the German experimental film-maker Martin Arnold (see for example his film Alone (1998)). The purpose of this work is to present parts of the film in new ways so that new meanings might be created about how the film creates a sense of place and a love of place. As detailed below, the film does this in mainly two ways: by the construction of a fictional ‘typical family’ (the Sykes, ‘We’) made up of members of a real family (the Coldwells) and actors from a local amateur dramatic society (the Halifax Thespians), and through the narration about the history and geography of the ‘West Riding’.
About We of the West Riding
We of the West Riding is a short documentary produced by Greenpark Productions for the British Council in 1945 and directed by Ken Annakin. Greenpark Productions was a London-based company who in the 1940s specialised in making documentary films for government organisations such as the Ministry of Information and the British Council, for whom they made a number of films such as A Farmer’s Boy (1945) and three other films also directed by Ken Annakin – London 1942 (1943), Make Fruitful the Land (1945) and English Criminal Justice (1946).
Most of the people involved on the production-side of the film were not from the West Riding of Yorkshire – only the narrator (Philip Robinson) and scriptwriter (Phyllis Bentley) were from there, but Annakin (born in 1914) was from Beverley, the county town of the East Riding of Yorkshire. The producer, Ralph Keene, was born in Mysore, India, Peter Hennessy, the cinematographer was from Devon, composer Leighton Lucas was from London, and the editor, Julian Wintle, was born in Liverpool, where Ken Annakin was injured in a bombing raid during the Second World War while working as an RAF mechanic (Vallance, 2009). He was moved to the RAF Film Unit, and, like so many directors (such as Lewis Gilbert) who went on subsequently to work in the British feature film industry, he learned his profession in documentary film. Annakin would go on to direct films such as Swiss Family Robinson (1960) for Disney and blockbusters such as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1964), Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969).
The narrator, Philip Robinson, is not credited in We of the West Riding (perhaps because of the desire to maintain the illusion that it is not an actor who is speaking, but the actual young man shown in the film who is telling the story about his family) and the BCFC webpage wrongly attributes the narration to Norman Shelley, but Phyllis Bentley confirms it was Robinson in her autobiography “O Dreams, O Destinations” (1962, p.237). Robinson, at one time an actor from Huddersfield (Verguson, 2014, p.64), created one of the first popular audience participation radio quiz shows, Have a Go! in 1946 while working as a Programme Assistant with the North Regional BBC based in Leeds (Walmsley, 2015), which he helped to launch (Verguson, 2014, p.65). Have a Go! was presented by Wilfred Pickles, who like Bentley herself, was from Halifax and involved in the Halifax Thespians.
Phyllis Bentley is not well-known today, but she was a major regional novelist who strongly identified with her native West Riding. Her family were involved in the textile business in Halifax and her most popular works, the Inheritance trilogy (Inheritance (1932), The Rise of Henry Morcar (1946) and A Man of His Time (1966)) fictionalise the history of the West Riding textiles industry over a period of hundreds of years.
Bentley records that both she and Philip Robinson were ‘moved strongly’ by We of the West Riding. Bentley remembers that she was particularly affected by ‘the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in a small moorland chapel, and the end of the film, where these familiar and well-loved strains are heard as background music to a crowd scene of men and women pouring out from a Halifax mill at the close of a working day’ (Bentley, 1962, p.237). In a letter to a close friend, Bentley wrote that ‘the film is really fine…my dear chiropodist wept over it, because as she said: “This is us, this is!”’. In the same letter she declares that ‘I love being in Yorkshire…Yorkshire is Life, even in the rain…My material is here and I belong to the West Riding’ (Bentley, 1962, pp.237-8)
Is this Bentley making an appearance in We of the West Riding in the scene among the Halifax Thespians as they rehearse a performance of Jane Eyre (around 17 minutes 30 into the film)? Bentley makes no reference to being in the film in her autobiography, but I see a resemblance such as in the shape of the frame of the glasses.
Bentley’s writing is powerfully wrapped around her strong identification with Halifax and the West Riding. Her birthplace and its surroundings and the lives lived there in the past and the present is often her source material for her storytelling. The film for which she wrote the narration appears to have had a powerful effect on her at a particular crossroads in her life. In her autobiography she presents herself as a daydreamer who was often unhappy about her life in spite of her success as a writer, and when We of the West Riding was released, she was typically ‘up and down’. For three years during the war she had lived in London while working as a writer for the Ministry of Information and when the war ended she decided to return home – compulsively giving up her London freedom to go home to live with her elderly mother. Philip Robinson, equally moved by the film, presumably when it premiered at Bradford’s New Victoria Theatre in 1946, also decided to leave London to return to Yorkshire. Now at ‘home’, Bentley churned out her successful novel The Rise of Henry Morcar in 1946, but her ‘personal life went in chains’ (Bentley, 1962, p.238). She didn’t like the election of a Labour Government in July 1945 (she was a Liberal by inclination), her 87 year-old mother was declining in health, petrol was severely rationed, her best friend died in 1948, and then her mother died in her arms in 1949.
As a documentary, the real people who appeared in We of the West Riding were local people who worked in the woolen mills. The film attempts to be truthful to the actuality it depicts – the life of a ‘typical Yorkshire family’, but it is not entirely factual. It is noted on the BCFC webpage for the film that the Sykes family who appear in the film was mostly played by members of a real Halifax family – the Coldwells . In an effort to be honest to the actual Coldwell family, five of the eight Coldwell children who were away at war at the time of filming were played by actors from the local amateur dramatics group the Halifax Thespians (a society whose president at the time was Phyllis Bentley).
Albert and Ethel Coldwell and three of their children, Ivy, Eva and Kenneth (see above) appear as part of the ‘Sykes family’ in the film. Albert had always wanted to keep pigeons, and while acting as Mr Sykes he got his wish – in one scene he is shown releasing the birds from Halifax railway station, and after the filming he was able to keep them (Halifax Courier, 2011). In 2011, the film was shown at the National Media Museum in Bradford in the presence of Ken Annakin’s widow, Pauline, who donated a print of the film to the museum (Halifax Courier, 2011).
Through a filter of local interest and nostalgia, We of the West Riding might now be seen as ‘a fascinating historical document of work and play during a lost era’ (Halifax Courier, 2011). It is one of many short films made by the British Council to promote ‘the best of Britishness’ around the world as a particular moment of national strain (the Second World War) that focus on places – regions, cities and towns, countries, areas defined by rivers and mountains, their typicality as villages (Lavenham) or ‘market towns’ (Newark). For people of the West Riding such as Bentley and Robinson, and Bentley’s chiropodist, it seems to have been a moving experience to see ‘us’ on screen – the ‘we’ of the West Riding, an example of topophilia – the love of place.
We of the West Riding can be divided broadly into two equal parts. To demonstrate this, I have edited the original film to create two new films. The first part is called Sykes of the West Riding (11:48) because it consists of those sections of the film that focus on the fictionalised family selected to represent a typical working-class family of a West Riding town. These narrative sequences are the most subjective parts of the film in which the narrator speaks in the first person about himself and his family after the brief opening introduction in the next five minutes of the film. There is then a break around seven minutes in when the narration shifts to a more objective description of the countryside and history of the West Riding. Almost 15 minutes in, the narration switches back to focus on the family again, before switching briefly between the particular family and the people of the West Riding more generally. The second film created from the original is the rest of the film not included in the first one and it is called We of the West, Riding (10:40) (a comma is inserted as a play on words of riding as in bicycle, which we see near the start of the film, and riding as in the part of the county of Yorkshire).
Sykes of the West Riding
We of the West, Riding
It has to be said that the narration in We of the West Riding is a bit strange. The narrator, Philip Robinson is a mature man telling the story as if he is the young man that we first see in the film riding on the back of a tandem. Robinson has a slight northern accent – an educated and ‘correct’ accent that only slips on words on the long ‘o’s in the word ‘moors’, but clearly he doesn’t speak as broadly as his ‘father’ who we hear speaking briefly in the background. The narrator tells us about his family, their names and what they do, but we never find out what his own name is – he is the ‘narrator with no name’. So the nameless narrator is older and more posh than the person whose life he narrates. The choice of this narrator deprives the young man playing a member of the Sykes family an authentic voice and a name.
It is also slightly skewed in terms of the way that time is presented. The past appears to be in the same space as the present. ‘That’s where I was born’ the narrator tells us as the camera shows us a row of terraced houses near the mill. The presentation of the life of Sykes as a young man begins when he is a boy. We see the narrator as a young boy playing in the street and visiting his family at the mill. ‘When I was a lad the West Riding seemed a very grim and drab place to me then’, he says, and continues, as we see him as a young man in the present on his tandem, ‘But now I’ve grown up I’ve learned different’. There is therefore a flash forward to the present (in which five of his siblings are serving in forces) which is more typical of the fictional rather than documentary film. The narration does not feel very authentic. It is not convincing that the young Sykes that we see in the film is the same person who is speaking to us on the soundtrack about his life and the place where he lives. He also starts talking more generally and poetically about the moors and the West Riding environment ‘Where the curlews dip and call’ which does not seem in keeping with the person he is supposed to be in real life. This lack of authenticity is also an effect of not having real people playing themselves. The mix of amateur actors and real people ‘playing themselves’ but with a different name, is an odd brew.
We and the West Riding
There are two distinct but intertwined themes in the film. There is the ‘WE’ and the ‘West Riding’ (‘WR’). The ‘WE’ is the typical family (the Sykes) and their individual and collective attributes. They are house-proud with their cleanliness, hard-working and patriotic with their duty (joining the services), loyal with their long years of work service, productive providing ‘cloth for the world’, – happy and industrious in their passions (pigeon-racing, football, music and singing). As the narrator remarks, they are ‘sturdy, independent, eager to make the most of life’. As people, they create a distinctive culture in the ‘WR’ environment – the wild moors, the Brontë sisters, hard country with lovely valleys, rivers, sheep, and ancient skills (dry-stone walling, besom-making). Stubborn and independent people made by the land and making of the land as skilled and willing workers. Bentley writes an idyllic scene of fearless people creating new opportunities in a hard but lovely setting, family folded into water and stone. Love of placeness.
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