[8 April 2011]
Any discussion about well-respected British film documentarians is likely to include predictable mentions of such high-profile luminaries as Nick Broomfield and the pioneering John Grierson, but it is equally unlikely to include a mention of John Krish, the reliable and prolific director responsible for A Day in the Life, a collection of lovely, measured and accessible public information and charity short films produced in the UK in the ‘50s and early-‘60s.
Krish, now 87 and long-retired, worked across several genres (he also directed feature films and mainstream television shows such as The Avengers), and it is perhaps his commendable career diversity that diluted any potential he had to become a truly celebrated figure in British documentary filmmaking. However, on the evidence presented here, had Krish dedicated himself primarily to non-fiction, I believe his name would have become far more widely known.
Still, never mind that Krish wasn’t exclusively a documentary filmmaker, because his non-fiction legacy is clearly the work of a very talented director in total command of the medium. These films, focussing on various aspects of British life, are without exception gentle and poetic. Additionally, Krish has an impressive and enviable ability to let a documentary’s narrative evolve naturally, and he also displays a knack for allowing his subjects to blossom on film with a charming lack of self-consciousness (this is particularly evident in those of his films that feature children). An innovator too, Krish pioneered the use of dramatic actors and pre-written scripts and voiceovers in his documentary work – much to the chagrin of his contemporaries—and it gives some of his output an invigorating feeling of cinematic hybridism.
The first film in the collection is The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), which focuses on the phasing out of the trams around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Krish ingeniously plays on the notion of the tram as a noble beast facing extinction (hence the film’s double-meaning title), using phrases such as ‘dying’, ‘charred skeletons’ and ‘picked clean’ to describe the final throes of each vehicle. Krish has also made no secret of his left-wing politics, and he places emphasis on both the workers who will lose their livelihoods, and the lower-income commuters who will lose out, as the trams’ withdrawal no doubt impacts both local travel and community cohesion.
The second film, and the most charming, is They Took Us to the Sea (1961), a film made for the NSPCC. Krish, given a proposal to ‘make a film about child cruelty without showing any cruelty’, films a day out to the seaside for a group of underprivileged children from Birmingham. It is here that Krish comes into his own as a tremendous observer, and indeed he spent quite some time letting the children get used to the camera before shooting one frame of film. It’s only during the last shot, in which a small child sits alone amongst the (still) war-damaged urban buildings of Birmingham (as a child’s voiceover says “Perhaps he can come with us next year”) that Krish allows us to dwell on the wider problem of child neglect (“This group of children have been lucky; what about the others who need help?”, Krish appears to be asking).
The third film, Our School (1962), is a general and fairly humorous look at a comprehensive school. The most interesting aspect of this film is the amusing and outdated teaching methods. In one sequence, a group of teenagers are taught about the need to speak properly and concisely. When questioned about this by a teacher, one boy says with complete seriousness “You can speak slovenly with your friends, and correctly when you’re out somewhere… important”.
The fourth film is I Think They Call Him John (1964), a very moving account of an elderly, widowed gentleman living alone in a small flat in London. It is this film that best represents Krish’s melding of the tools of traditional narrative cinema, and the subject matter of non-fiction filmmaking. Krish completely eschews the use of spontaneous ‘from-the-hip’ camera work, instead choosing a variety of static—and beautifully-framed and lit—wide, medium and close-up shots, with conventional editing keeping things tight and ordered. The final result is like a portrait book with movement.
This is not to say that the film appears contrived or staged in any way at all, however; quite the opposite. The film is an interesting combination of an ornately constructed kitchen sink drama and a documentary (“film is a contrivance”, claims Krish). The palpable realism associated with using real people is never too far, though. Amidst the carefully constructed visuals, and despite that fact that Krish gave John direction, the old man still occasionally glances straight into the camera, reminding us that we are looking at a real life and real peoples’ stories.
After watching the main films in this collection, it’s apparent that Krish’s visual style is deceptively simple. There is often a very controlled, subtle reliance on the techniques of conventional narrative cinema, yet his subjects, and indeed his storytelling, are so engrossing that we become drawn in and question neither the verisimilitude, nor Krish’s flirting with the techniques of mainstream filmmaking.
Surprisingly, the films presented here received a short cinematic release in 2010, and that they were met with great acclaim is perhaps testament to their beautiful construction, their inherent nostalgia, and their emotional human resonance, which is still valid, of course, all these years later.
There are two extra films, both about teaching: the first is I Want to Go to School (1959), a charming examination of a British primary school, and the way the teachers engage the children, and the second is the slightly preachy but nevertheless entertaining film Mr. Marsh Comes to School (1961) - the most theatrical of all the films on this DVD – which is about the importance of careers advice for school leavers. There is also an enlightening interview with Krish himself, and it’s good to see he remains very sharp and compassionate.
This disc is dual-format, containing both DVD and Blu-ray versions, and the picture quality of each film, including those on the extras, is superb. The care and detail shown in presenting this collection confirms that there are few organisations as committed as the BFI to preserving the cinematic cultural heritage of the UK. Although each film is at least 45-years-old, the image of every one is absolutely pin-sharp, and gives them all a beautifully evocative sense of period.