The opening shots span decades: from hand-cranked cameras to one assisted by a helicopter. Their focus is the sea, its tides and its swells providing the sole constant across a century of cinema as sourced from the BFI’s National Archive. Over the next 75 minutes From the Sea to the Land Beyond will chart British life between 1901 and 1999 through documentary records of its coastline and it will do so without voice-over commentary or explanatory intertitles. Just a succession of staggeringly beautiful images and the equally intoxicating accompaniment of British Sea Power.
From the Sea to the Land Beyond was initially conceived of as a one-off. The intention was to have a special screening on opening night of the 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest (which would be simulcast on thespace.org) and that would be that. Except, even in its earliest stages, the film quickly developed a momentum of its own. The British Film Institute came on board almost immediately, thus allowing access to the many riches in the National Archive. The Doc/Fest screening at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre played to a sell-out crowd and a standing ovation, thus prompting further showings with live British Sea Power accompaniment. And when the film came to be screened on BBC4 in November of last year, the effect was really quite remarkable. Professional television critics, random Twitter folk and Amazon reviewers all united (and unanimous) in their praise.
The popularity isn’t hard to fathom – From the Sea to the Land Beyond connects with its audience from the opening frames. Some of its earliest images derive from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection, Edwardian actualities which had lain undiscovered in a Blackburn toy shop until 1994. As they found their way into the BFI National Archive, so too they became subjects of a major BBC television series because here was something really special. Whereas primitive cinema is often perceived as ill-paced and poorly focused flickering images plagued with a whole catalogue of old age, here were moving pictures both pin-sharp and pristine. The past come alive, in other words – and they’ve lost none of their impact within From the Sea to the Land Beyond’s heady brew. Indeed, the sight of turn-of-the-last-century holidaymakers in Blackpool or Morecombe staring right through the lens (as they do in the film’s first few minutes) is as beguiling as ever.
Such moments dominate. Margaret Morris and her troupe of dancers perform barefoot along Devonshire sands in 1921. The Pudsey Sisters abseil down a Bridlington cliff-face in 1925 in order to collect eggs. Vessels of all sizes and descriptions are launched, first in black and white, then in colour. Speaking of which, strawberry jam proves itself to be all the more enticing when captured by 1950s Kodachrome stock. And then there is one of the most marvellous crane shots in the history of cinema as taken from Hilary Harris’ Seawards the Great Ships: slowly climbing past welders and riveters before taking to the air to survey the enormity of the work at hand. No wonder this film won an Oscar in 1961. It’s also one of two titles, incidentally, not to have been sourced from the National Archive (the Scottish Screen Archive deserve the thanks here), but there’s no denying that From the Sea to the Land Beyond is a wonderful advertisement for the BFI. If the BBC’s Mitchell & Kenyon series could highlight one particular corner of the collection to an impressive audience average of 4 million viewers per week, then this new film offers up a more wide-ranging endorsement: newsreels, travelogues, propaganda pictures, filmmakers as diverse as Peter Greenaway and those who made up the British Transport Films Unit.
Needless to say, the task of condensing a century’s worth of imagery into just 75 minutes must surely have been an enormous one. And yet the end results, with as much credit due to editor Alex Fry as it is to director Penny Woolcock, possess such a lightness of touch it may as well have been the easiest job in the world. Interestingly, this was Woolcock’s first commission as a filmmaker; her usual practice has been to pursue her own projects, though that hasn’t stopped her becoming one of this country’s most prolific directors over the past three decades. During that time she’s associated herself most heavily with community filmmaking, reimagining Macbeth on Birmingham’s Ladywood estate (with professional actors sharing the screen with local residents), for example, or, most recently, attempting to broker a peace between rival gangs in One Mile Away. It’s a strand that’s been present in her work since earliest days on campaigning videotapes in the eighties (for more information, I’ve written about Woolcock’s extensive filmography here) and it’s a strand that’s discernible in From the Sea to the Land Beyond too. Indeed, what she has recognised and homed in on from all those hours of footage are the faces and the sense of togetherness. And so, whilst we have Blackpool through the ages and Brighton Pier and all manner of beachside promenades, it is the people we respond to.
This strong connection with everyday folk, especially when combined with the loosely chronological arrangement, allows From the Sea to the Land Beyond to get caught up in the sweep of social history. World Wars come and go. The roles of women across the century shift drastically. Shipyards dominate and then crumble. And if the overall message is left-leaning, then that’s as much owing to the original filmmakers as it is to Woolcock. Many of the men and women behind the documentary sources were as devoted in their social commitment as they were in crafting great cinema: John Grierson (and his sister Marion), the entirety of the GPO Film Unit, and the various branches that would feed into all kinds of industrial film, particularly the BTF and the Central Office of Information (COI), whose output finds plenty of presence here. (We can also draw connections with Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony thanks to Humphrey Jennings. He was a key member of the GPO team as well as the author of Pandæmonium, the major inspiration for Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. They share with Woolcock a keen interest in industry and popular culture and the shaping of this country through its people.)
Just as important is the presence of British Sea Power. Fittingly from Brighton, the six-piece were brought into From the Sea to the Land Beyond before even Woolcock and their contribution seems utterly inseparable from the end results. Astonishingly, parts of the score pre-existed with earlier incarnations and variations having previously appeared on albums and EPs. Yet who will be able to listen to Bear (released in 2010 as part of the Zeus EP) again without seeing Marjorie Hillick dance atop a skeleton of girders or recalling the experimental colour photography of Claude Friese-Greene? One feels almost empty without the other, much like Koyaanisqatsi without the music of Philip Glass or Bill Morrison’s Decasia shorn of its Michael Gordon accompaniment. At the time of writing British Sea Power are yet to issue a separate soundtrack CD and you can fully understand why. If fans want to experience this latest composition then they’re going to have to experience it fully – which is, after all, the way it should be.
From the Sea to the Land Beyond arrives on UK DVD courtesy of the British Film Institute. The region-free disc is encoded in PAL format and comes with a weighty collection of additional features. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as per the original archive footage, and understandably wavers when it comes to picture quality. With an entire century of material to encompass we take in all manner of formats and styles, some of which look wonderful whilst others are almost deterministically ugly. As Woolcock herself notes in the booklet, “And then came video: cheaper, flatter, sharper, and made up of pixels.” Given the range of footage we are also only getting the film in standard definition as this is how much of it would have been made available to Woolcock and Fry; not even the possibility of the a Blu-ray here.
The score, meanwhile, is perfect. The DD2.0 mix more than copes with the music of British Sea Power plus the occasional washes of the sea or snippets of old documentary voice-overs which ease in and out of the mix. Given the lack of any true dialogue or commentary there is no need for optional hard-of-hearing subtitles, although we do find a subtitle track which identifies each snippet of film and its filming location wherever possible.
Two new featurettes head up the special features, one of which shows British Sea Power in rehearsal (5 mins), the other offering up a well-rounded account of From the Sea to the Land Beyond’s making (25 mins). The latter interviews Woolcock, producers Heather Croall and Mark Atkin, plus members of the band. It’s a pleasingly no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point affair which takes us from the project’s initial conception through to its first performance at the Crucible Theatre.
For those whose appetites have been whet by the wealth of archive material, the disc also includes five full-length examples as follows: SS Saxonia in Liverpool (1901, d. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon), Cunard Mail Steamer Lucania Leaving for America (1901, d. Mitchell & Kenyon), Beside the Seaside (1935, d. Marion Grierson), Worker’s Week-end (1943, d. Ralph Elton) and Caller Herrin’ (1947, d. Alan Harper). As an added bonus, none of these titles have previously appeared on any of the BFI’s documentary volumes, though some have been made available online. Woolcock also returns to provide optional introductions for each of the films.
Finally, the booklet and it’s another typically impressive BFI effort. Fully illustrated, its 24 pages contain reflections from Woolcock, a piece by Roy Wilkinson on British Sea Power, a guide to the film clips used in From the Sea to the Land Beyond, essays for each of the short films, plus full credits for everything to feature on the disc.
A century of cinema, a century of the seaside.