Though it does not say so, Michael Powell’s 700-page autobiography is merely the first volume of a work which Powell rather surprisingly tells us is ‘what my mother would have wished and what I was born for’. Surprising not for the reference to his mother, since he always speaks of her with the greatest affection and respect, but for the seeming dedication to letters in a man who never ceases to proclaim his lifelong devotion to images. He reads an article in Picturegoer in 1920 about a day in the life of a film crew shooting in London: ‘What fascinated me was the attitude: the planned yet flexible operation, led by the director, to seize the moment, to take advantage of something pictorial or surprising, to snatch your scene out of the streets, to turn the light of common day into something beautiful and entertaining. This was for me! I never had the slightest doubt that I was meant to direct films from that day to this.’
He was 15. He made his first film ten years later, and this volume concludes with The Red Shoes (1948). Although the book is a hymn to movies, we should perhaps not dismiss too abruptly Powell’s claims for the act of writing it. They are pitched with characteristic fervour and self-confidence:
There are a few other men who know from their own experience as much about the film business as I do, but, as far as I know, most of them can’t, or won’t, put it down. It needs to be written ... I didn’t intend to write another ‘film-book’. There have been a lot of good ones published since the war, but I hope to do better than that. It will, I hope, be the story of a young man of the 20th century and his Muse, his dazzling, dancing, fascinating mistress. I owe it to my cock-teasing mistress to get it all down.
Much that is attractive about Powell, and a good deal of what makes his compatriots occasionally shy away from him, is evident in these two extracts. Enthusiasm is often judged bad form by the English, and Powell’s view of enthusiasm would no doubt accord with the etymological original: possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic ecstasy. Neither this, nor the boundless self-confidence which it appears to have given him, have been fashionable attitudes in England in his lifetime. He had not, until the Eighties, been granted the status of master in the country of his birth, the eventual acknowledgment springing, not from a change of attitude in the British, but from an irresistible concession to the work’s technical virtuosity and its passion. Few will now deny that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I know where I’m going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (all written with and co-produced by Emeric Pressburger between 1943 and 1948) form a uniquely striking, idiosyncratic and, above all, English contribution to the British cinema.
More modest claims should be made for the book. It is rambling, repetitive, gossipy, written as if by someone rummaging through the pockets of his memory: vague and assertive in one breath, stunningly detailed and yet ingenuous in another. Talking about a visit to New York in 1945, Powell will come up with paragraphs on Tennessee Williams, silent movies, his wife’s pregnancy, American buyers’ attitudes to British war movies, the possibility of his buying United Artists with Emeric, the demise of the silents, meeting Salvador Dali, then suddenly:
Do I digress? Well I digress. Art has its historian in every century. From Benvenuto Cellini to Kenneth Clark, we learn the most from their personal memories, experiences, opinions. Do I claim to sit with the Masters? Yes, I do.
His conflation of the historian’s mastery of ideas with an artist’s mastery of his craft is typical. But it would be a poor spirit who could mark the book down on rational analysis and ignore its proper virtues. If we can’t altogether accept the claims of his literary Muse, who allows him some felicities – Robert Flaherty was ‘like an Irish Bishop who had turned gangster’ – but more often lets him flounder (‘She was a neat chick’, of a Czech actress of the Thirties), we can at least salute the book’s utter transparency and lack of guile about both Powell’s aims and his achievements. So we find it difficult to react with our customary sour reserve when he announces that The Spy in Black, The lion has wings, Contraband and The Thief of Baghdad ‘made me in six months the most impressive figure in British films’, especially since he goes on to say he had no notion of it at the time. He just ‘followed his star’.
The star from time to time becomes ‘my daemon’ or ‘my destiny’ and may be presumed to change places with his Muse or his Mistress. But these fanciful romanticisms barely mask the real power behind Powell’s throne: an unshakable confidence in his own abilities, born of application, observation, dedication and natural gifts. His mother told the story of watching him as a boy trying to lift too heavy a weight and muttering, in the words of Theseus: ‘If my heart comes out of my body it shall come up.’ Powell’s self-assessments are disarmingly plentiful and that may be counted one of the strengths of the book. Of his brother, about to die of peritonitis at 15: ‘I am selfish and impulsive; he was considerate and careful.’ Of his first, three-week-long marriage: ‘In 1927 I was slim, arrogant, intelligent, foolish, shy, cocksure, dreamy and irritating to any sensible woman ... Today I am no longer slim.’ Of Leslie Howard, one of the few colleagues he is negative about: ‘We were both quick, febrile, impatient and rude.’
The self-awareness is engagingly accurate, and his generosity to collaborators heart-warming. In this respect his gusto knows no bounds, especially in the service of his great love, the cinema. Among revered names figure actors and actresses, editors, designers, cinematographers and producers: the obscure rate equally with the famous. There is neither snobbery nor fake egalitarianism in his praise. But the most revered, as expected, is that most unexpected of partners, Emeric Pressburger. Here was a modest, shy, droll Hungarian-Jewish writer chased across Europe by Hitler, finding a soulmate in this bouncy, arrogant, extrovert photographer who confessed himself ‘as English as a Cox’s Orange Pippin’. What elements in Powell did Pressburger temper or complement, and vice versa? The 17 pictures they made together have a flavour distinctively their own, ineradicably English, yet like no other English or even British film ever made. Powell makes no attempt himself to analyse what that flavour was, but the book affords hints.
There is a love of England that goes beyond mere patriotism in Powell. Although the climax of A Canterbury Tale celebrates the cathedral and the pilgrim’s way, the passion to which the protagonists are witness or prey is nearer a pagan mysticism than anything one might associate with the Church of England. Elements of that search for – or worship of – the genius loci are easy to see in The Edge of the World and I know where I’m going even when the locations are not exclusively English. Powell’s generous gusto bundles up in a broadly Celtic/Anglo-Saxon embrace what are for him marginally English peoples like the Scots, Welsh and Irish, all of them lost in a cloudy twilight at the edge of the ocean, proud of being islands, of not being Europe. As a Man of Kent, Powell regrets the passing of the old windmills, ‘high on the ridges like a fleet of galleons, glorious, but doomed’. He regrets too the modern loaf. ‘Bread is a sacred thing and a mill is a temple.’ A lot of this chivalric mysticism can be pretty queasy: ‘And then I start musing how salt water ennobles the passions of the men who fight on its surface. Our earth, torn and blood-soaked, does not do that. Perhaps it is because our sea is the mother of us all.’
Though this mystic vagueness fires the patriotism of the war movies, there is a strain of quizzical and paradoxical common sense in them which proved controversial at the time and is now what makes them seem so durable. Colonel Blimp, as incarnated by Roger Livesey, is a reactionary but admirable old buffer, the living proof that yesterday’s heterodoxy is today’s orthodoxy. The ideological cosiness which lurks at the domestic heart of A Matter of Life and Death is spiked with wit and irreverence and displaced by surreal leaps of logic, time and space. Examples are countless, but in all this surely lies the hand of Pressburger, genially ruffling the medieval certainties of Powell’s conservatism, inserting into his homage to the lares and penates a steelier spine, a down-to-earth appreciation of the qualities they were defending. For Pressburger, one feels, Powell’s rhapsody on Korda’s Denham – ‘the power and beauty and mystery of a great studio with a great tradition’ – would have cut no ice. What he might have agreed with is Powell’s description of I know where I’m going: ‘It was necessary to bring onto the screen a whole new world, full of people with their own standards and judgments, dependent upon one another, feudal, democratic and totally devoid of materialism.’ It sounds rather like that boy’s-eye view of the film unit in Picturegoer. As a political prescription, it may have its naiveties, but it was a view of society as local, mutually supportive autonomies in the pursuit of something beyond mere survival that Powell and Pressburger sought to apply to Britain. Powell acknowledges Pressburger’s way of tempering his view of life as a battlefield. ‘Michael, kindness rules the world. Not money.’
For the rest, the book takes us exhaustively but entertainingly through the battlefield: from early years with Rex Ingram at the Victorine Studios in Nice, stills photography, quota quickies as a director in London, the unwelcome coming of sound, the breakthrough engagement with Korda and the meeting with Pressburger. He has a bewildering recall of facts and names which makes the randomness of the index all the more regrettable. For film-makers and buffs the detail about design, photography and colour is especially useful as a reminder that not all of British cinema is photographed literary texts.
Charles Barr’s introductory essay to his useful collection has Powell and Pressburger very much in mind – indeed, a still from Powell’s Peeping Tom decorates the cover. This was the film that finally set the critical seal on poor Powell’s fate. Some had seen the rot set in years before. Barr quotes Richard Winnington’s review of A Matter of Life and Death: ‘It is even further away from the essential realism and the true business of the British movie than their two recent films I know where I’m going and A Canterbury Tale.’ Another significant reaction was Caroline Lejeune’s to the Rattigan/Asquith The Way to the Stars in the Observer in 1945: ‘These people are real people, and like real people they do not make much of their private emotions.’ To a film-maker such as Powell, who made a virtue of putting his private emotions on the screen, and with every indulgence in fantasy and the surreal, these must have been dismaying words. It is Barr’s contention that if the concept of the ‘British cinema’ could be, as Julian Petley puts it, ‘wrested from the grasp of the still tenacious realist aesthetic’, then a quite different monster might emerge from beneath the waves: one in which Powell and Pressburger, for example, might not appear as aberrant demons or geniuses, according to taste, but as mainstream talents in the history of a vigorous popular cinema; one in which the vaunted British documentary and the stiff-upper-lip Ealing line that grew from it would assume a minor, even aberrant role.
In this scenario there would be less confusion of social and moral worthiness with aesthetic value. Petley picks on an amusing piece of advice from Grierson to Hitchcock in 1930: ‘Will Hitchcock, for a change, take counsel of Arnold Bennett and give us a film of the Potteries or of Manchester or of Middlesbrough – with the personals in their proper place and the life of a community instead of a benighted lady at stake?’ What a wealth of opprobrium that miserable appellation ‘personals’ has for Grierson. This collection of essays argues persuasively that the public and the popular British cinema, from Gainsborough melodrama to Hammer horror, had more regard for the benighted personals than for community stoicism and good works. But the latter was the orthodoxy that prevailed in respectable cultural circles: the cinema had to overcome what the historian Rachael Low perceives as an ‘inelastic social and intellectual pattern’ in which the cinema was a poor relation of the arts ‘and not a very respectable one’.
The war was to prove the ally of those who found it easier to define an aesthetic from unity, communal effort and the suppression of emotion. Several essays trace the realist/narrative line through from the Thirties to the Seventies, and watch it emerging on television. It has taken decades for critical comment to begin to break down the distinction between ‘realism’ and ‘escapism’, used freely as terms of approval and abuse (often in relation to Britain and Hollywood respectively). John Caughie contributes a sharp set of notes on broadcasting and the cinema, among other things tracing the influence of Scottish Presbyterianism on Grierson and Reith. Barr, in another essay in the same vein, points out how radio was seen as socially cohesive in the Forties, whereas in the Fifties television was viewed by the same establishment commentators as socially disruptive – an attitude eagerly seized on by the cinema, fearful of the competition from the new medium. Most of the book’s best passages underline Orwell’s dictum, quoted by Petley, that ‘the genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned upon by the authorities.’ It is good to be reminded, in the present climate, of the fact that the Censors turned down a screen treatment of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole in 1936. In 1931 the list of forbidden screen subjects included, according to Sylvia Harvey, ‘relations between capital and labour ... inciting of workers to armed conflict ... industrial violence and unrest; conflicts between the armed forces of a state and the populace ... scenes showing soldiers or police firing on defenceless population ... objectionably misleading themes purporting to illustrate parts of the British Empire or British possessions as lawless or iniquitous.’
Harvey goes on to point out that such classic documentaries as Industrial Britain and Song of Ceylon, though they might exemplify Grierson’s project of ‘showing the ardour and bravery of common labour’, contain no hint of capital or of the effects of capitalist ownership. When Emeric Pressburger was writing A Canterbury Tale, conceivably the most profoundly and self-consciously patriotic English film ever made, he was forbidden by the Chief Constable of Kent to visit Powell on location. Kent was out of bounds to enemy aliens. Powell is light on the battle he had to get Colonel Blimp past Churchill and the censors at the Home Office. But in 1960, when Peeping Tom, the story of a photographer who murdered his female subjects with the sharp end of a tripod, was deemed to be morally contemptible, he was ‘hounded out of Wardour Street and Pinewood Studios’ by an apparently shocked industry and public; and eventually left England. Barr’s book provides plenty of answers to the mystery of how it took half a century for the prophet to be honoured and why much of the world used to agree with Truffaut that there was ‘a certain incompatibility between the terms “cinema” and “Britain” ’.