Tag Archives: Films

55. Whatever Happened to Mr Mothergill? J.B. Priestley’s Lost City of Bradford

In 1958, J.B. Priestley revisited his home city, Bradford, to make Lost City, a documentary for the BBC.

Telegram from Richard Cawston to Mavis Dean congratulating her on Lost City PRI19_9

Telegram from Richard Cawston to Mavis Dean congratulating her on Lost City (archive ref PRI19/9)

Here we see details from a telegram sent by the producer, Richard Cawston, to Mavis Dean, a local journalist and musician who accompanies Priestley in the film as he revisits his old haunts.

Arriving at Forster Square railway station, Priestley tells journalists gathered to speak to this returning celebrity, “You might say that, to me, it’s a lost city and perhaps I’ve come here to find it.”  We see his teenage home in Saltburn Place, where he wrote the juvenilia, and the Swan Arcade, where he worked as a clerk in a wool office.  We encounter the bandstand in Lister Park, theatre and music-hall, plus a  glimpse of modern teenagers dancing at St George’s Hall.

Priestley’s memories, like his novels and plays of pre-War Bradford, are full of colour, vivid characters and exuberant life: but the black and white film makes the city appear grim and sunless.  The Arcade is a place of shadows, where Priestley’s footsteps echo.  There is an underlying sense of sadness.  The title of this piece comes from a scene in which Priestley in his hotel room tries to telephone various people he knew in Bradford: not surprisingly, they have all died or been “poorly for months”.  There is a deeper loss: as Priestley tells Mavis Dean, “Half the young men who were boys when I was a boy in this town were killed in one morning in 1916”: the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

To Priestley the lost city was the Bradford of his boyhood and youth.  He could never recapture this: the friends he grew up with who were part of this world were gone.  He had moved away and everything had changed.  As highlighted in the Objects, Priestley’s memories of lost Bradford, and feelings about nostalgia and the workings of time underlie most of his greatest writing: An Inspector Calls, Bright Day, Margin Released et al.

J.B. Priestley, late 1950s (archive ref PRI 21/11/8)

J.B. Priestley, late 1950s (archive ref PRI 21/11/8)

However, the film caused confusion and controversy in Bradford.  The title and the way the city was portrayed caused offence: people became defensive, arguing he had no right to criticise because he had moved away.   This is part of a long story of resentment and misunderstanding between Priestley and some Bradfordians, which explains why it took so long for the city to honour his achievements (he was made a Freeman of the City in 1973): the story is told in  Peter Holdsworth’s The Rebel Tyke (1994).

The city Priestley visited would also soon be lost.  Sweeping new plans for the city centre were afoot which would destroy much of the surviving fabric, most regrettably the Swan Arcade.

Postscript May 2015.  When I wrote this piece, the film could be seen online via a BBC webpage.  The articles on the page are still of interest, but unfortunately the film and photo links on the page are broken.  Lost City can be seen via the Media Museum and Yorkshire Film Archive, but I can’t currently find it available to view online.  I will post details if it becomes available in future.  Sorry about that!

39. Figure in the Landscape: Jacquetta Hawkes and Barbara Hepworth

In 1953, Jacquetta Hawkes wrote the words for Figures in a Landscape, a short documentary film about the sculptor Barbara Hepworth.  The film was directed and photographed by Dudley Shaw Ashton for the British Film Institute; Cecil Day-Lewis spoke Jacquetta’s words.  Jacquetta’s Archive in Special Collections includes a file (HAW 4/8) of correspondence and drafts of the script, showing how it developed.

Detail of annotated typescript draft of Figures script by Jacquetta Hawkes (HAW 4/8/6)

Detail of annotated typescript draft of Figures script by Jacquetta Hawkes (HAW 4/8/6)

Figures was intended to be experimental, introducing modern sculpture by showing the influences on the artist.  Hepworth was born in Wakefield but now lived in St Ives in Cornwall.  The film explores the relationship between her work and the landscape she now made her home.  It depicts her sculptures against the sea and rock that inspired her.  Hepworth is shown at work in her beautiful studio-garden, overlooked by the clock tower and surrounded by colourful semi-tropical plants.

The script reads like a poem, distilling the ideas of A Land (Object 5) about stones and time and civilisation.   First Jacquetta introduces Cornwall, “a horn of rock” and talks about the shaping of its rocks over a “million million years” by wind and sea.  Then man’s relationship with the land and the stones is uncovered, pagans using “stones for dancing and stones for dying”, followed by the building of chapels, mining, boating.  Finally we meet Barbara Hepworth, who arrives from the “cool grey north” and captures this land in new ways, “the carver cuts deeper with her seeing eye”.

The film is an intriguing piece, dominated by Priaulx Rainier’s distinctive score.  It gives a fascinating picture of Cornwall in the early 1950s and above all of Hepworth at work, strong and capable as  she engages with the stone and wood of Jacquetta’s poem.  Fortunately, the BFI make the film readily available to the public.  An extract can be seen on Youtube (embedded above), and the entire film via the BFI mediatheques.