POOR COW

27:05:17

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As Summer reluctantly hoves into view the nights get lighter and the weather warmer, a 9pm Film Night becomes harder to sustain, as movie watching is surely a pursuit that lends itself to darkness and the sense of cosiness you get when it’s pitch dark outside and an icy wind is scouring the streets. It was with a bright sun streaming through the blinds that Chris C and I settled down with a customary mug of tea each to watch Poor Cow (1967), Ken Loach‘s first foray into cinematic territory after starting his career in television.

As we’re taking our first sip of Yorkshire Tea (the best there is) Ken thrusts us headlong into a graphic birthing scene. Carol White, playing the ironically named Joy, is having a baby, presumably courtesy of her petty crook husband Tom (John Bindon). Unfortunately Tom can’t be there because he’s a 60’s thug and he has other things to do like casing joints or looking for a thinner tie or something.

Tom is abusive and treats the child as an inconvenience. Joy deserves better and she’s promised a comfortable life when his gang’s next big job comes off. Of course it doesn’t come off, and after a scuffle in a street full of shoppers a policeman holds Tom’s face against a rain drenched pavement. He’s sent to prison, giving Joy the chance to set up with Dave (Terence Stamp), a petty crook. Hang on, haven’t we been here before?

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Stamp is charismatic, good looking and kind to Joy and little Johnny. In a weird break from the London flip-side of the swinging 60s, in which most of the drama takes place, the family go on a camping holiday to the Welsh countryside. Joy and Dave make love under a waterfall. At this point in the real world it’s just getting dark outside and we’re into a can of beer each.

Dave eventually also ends up in the slammer and it’s revealed what an unpleasant criminal he actually is, unless you consider locking an old lady in a bathroom while you slap her about a bit and rob her house quite reasonable. To pay the rent and feed Johnny and herself, Joy is encouraged by a female mate to pose in a baby doll negligee for a photography club of drooling middle aged men, some of whom it transpires don’t even bother putting film in their cameras. Loach spends quite a long time on this particular scene. Just saying.

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At the seaside and in London pubs, like Hogarth’s prints Loach’s camera catches members of the non-acting public and lays their characters bare. A grimace, a gap toothed smile or a nonchalant shrug is enough, and just enough to expose a kernel of truth. There is a real skill in the creation of a collective human milieu in which to root the story of this woman and her tribulations. All to a Donovan soundtrack too.

Loach is undoubtedly an expert at filming drama with a documentary eye. The scenes of backstreet London, washing hanging limply between tenements and children playing in gutters, achieve a real beauty because of their brazenness and considered framing. There is no affectation, it seems real and unfiltered. Unfortunately Goddardesque intertitles pop up every now and again, often poorly spelled, an unforgiveable lack of attention to detail. A common device in French cinema, they seem needlessly pretentious in this very English film and add nothing to the rhythm and forward flow.

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The original novel was by Nell Dunn. Loach had previously adapted one of her other works, Up The Junction for television. Such was Terence Stamp’s fame at the time that he reputedly turned up on set in a Rolls Royce. Joy’s first husband Tom was played by dodgy actor and real life gangster John Bindon.  Famous for provoking fights and being an associate of the Krays he was acquitted of the murder of Johnny Darke in a Fulham pub in 1978, but it effectively ended his acting career and he died of AIDS in 1993.

Carol White carries the entire film with a sympathetic and wholly believable portrayal of a woman whose bad choices never carry her forward, but leave her treading water in a world of damp rooms and unreliable men. She temporarily loses Johnny at the end, but on finding him again on a derelict demolition site her true colours shine through. The constant spur to carry on is her own flesh and blood in the form of this child and his future.

White’s real life was plagued by tragedy and bad choices too. She had problems with alcohol, drugs, shoplifting and suicide attempts. She died in Florida in 1991. A television film of her life called The Battersea Bardot was shown in 1994.

And now it’s dark.

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BLACK JACK

Film Night is currently taking an Easter break, but here is Chris Corner’s vivid account of the making of Ken Loach’s Black Jack in Whitby, originally published on his own blog.

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It was August, towards the end of the summer holidays of 1978 and I was at my nana’s – a tall house half way up Blackburn’s Yard on the old East Side of Whitby. My seagull’s perch (an attic window) gave a view of all the steps leading downhill between the pantiled terraced cottages. A short, narrow tunnel-like passageway through the buildings led to Church Street. I’d look out across the town and harbour, watching the boats but on that cloudy day there was something interesting happening below in the yard itself.

A thin man with sandy hair and big glasses was peering intently through a hand-held lens. He was standing with a small group of people behind a camera attached to a sturdy tripod in a patch of weeds outside a whitewashed cottage across the yard. They stood there for quite some time. I didn’t know who the man was but remember being in no doubt that he was in charge of whatever they were doing – he was the one who was directing things and things were being directed. I later discovered it was Ken Loach.

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He was filming an adaptation of Leon Garfield‘s novel, Black Jack. This particular scene involved three different shots. The sequence began after the giant Frenchman, Black Jack, had risen from his coffin and made his escape – taking young Tolly with him. They ran down the steps below my nana’s and onto a raised area that overlooks the lower part of the yard. Black Jack paused and saw some washing hanging out to dry. More steps were negotiated, Black Jack snatched the old rags before hurrying off towards Church Street via the passageway. The scene only lasts seconds in the finished film but seemed to take the best part of an afternoon to shoot. It was shot in daylight but the action was made to look like it took place at twilight.

A lot of filming was also done in the nearby old coaching inn, The White Horse and Griffin. This building was in a semi-derelict state, as were many in Blackburn’s Yard at the time. It was being used as a fisherman’s store, full of nets, buoys and crab pots. It is now a hotel and restaurant. The White Horse and Griffin had escaped the attentions of renovators in the 1950s and 60s and retained many of its 18th century features. The inn was used as the interior of the ‘madhouse’ as well as for some street scenes.

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The crew went to great lengths to make the yards appear as they might have done in the 18th century. However, a lot of their work hardly made it into the final film. Most buildings in this part of Whitby date from exactly the right time period for the story. They were made dirty with pots of special filmmaker’s grime. They painted it on everything, doors, windows, walls. Even the Yorkshire flag stone paving was coated with what looked like compost. The interior of the White Horse didn’t need much fake muck. Carpenters hid anything anachronistic by removing it or boxing it in – they constructed substantial-looking timber frames, beams and angular buttresses. There were swinging shop and pub signs, baskets and old barrels.

Black Jack, Loach’s first costume drama, is one of my favourite films. Ken Loach seems to make things real by doing very little. Although, after watching him working that late summer afternoon on one short scene – it was obvious he was doing a lot. Chris Menges‘ evocative, grainy photography is excellent. Grass and trees are summer green, interiors are realistic, dark and dusty away from the occasional pools of natural light. Birds sing loudly thanks to sound recorder, Andrew Boulton. His floor boards creak under ancient footsteps, the walls echo, sounds fade in and out organically. The actors don’t overact. In fact, some barely act at all and this adds to the poignancy. There’s a soul and warmth that permeates the whole film. It’s enhanced by memories of seeing part of its creation in the late summer of 1978.

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Black Jack won the Critics’ Award at Cannes in 1979. Ken Loach directed Kes in 1969 and won the 2006 Palme d’Or with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I, Daniel Blake (2016) has just won Loach a second Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Chris Corner’s blog