The Road to Ruins: Art, Desire and the Crystal Palace
Despite its obscurity within the canon of British cinema, watching The Pleasure Garden (1953) for the first time is a minor revelation. Recently released on DVD by the BFI, this 36-minute film playfully toys with avant-gardism—unsurprising considering director James Broughton’s pedigree – and has a poetic narrative rich with metaphors and symbolism. An artistically ambitious project, it was deservedly recognised at the Cannes film festival in 1954, where it was awarded the Prix du Film de Fantaisie Poétique.
Broughton, a San Franciscan Renaissance poet, playwright and filmmaker, worked almost exclusively in 16mm during his 40-year film career, and conceived The Pleasure Garden as a “mid-summer afternoon daydream”. The film certainly has a whimsical, dreamlike quality, and filmed amongst the ruins and beautiful gardens and terraces of the Crystal Palace in London, it is essentially a series of vignettes, during which various eccentric and overlapping characters strive to connect, often intimately, with someone or something, each expressing their desires, fears and frustrations through action, song and narration.
Under Broughton’s imaginative direction, certain characters are highly symbolic. The two key figures in the film are Col. Pall K. Gargoyle (John Le Mesurier), and his nemesis, Mrs. Albion (Hattie Jacques). Gargoyle, a sort of park keeper, is a censorious figure who attempts to thwart, with governmental efficiency, any fun, physical contact, displays of flesh, or artistic expression that occur in the grounds. Gargoyle is also a philistine; when a frustrated artist (the British film director Lindsay Anderson) slams the modern sculpture he is working on to the ground, Gargoyle puts a ‘No Littering Please’ sign next to the wreckage.
If Gargoyle symbolises a society stunted by repression, inhibition and artistic bankruptcy, then he is the antithesis of Albion, a kind, wand-waving Cupid type who dances and frolics around the park, encouraging the visitors to sate their desires, express their artistry, and indulge in overt displays of affection and love. Against this backdrop, and watched dispassionately by the graceful statuary that inhabit the Palace’s grounds like celestial chess pieces, the other characters are allowed to drift in and out of the narrative, frequently being either helped or hindered by the dichotomous Gargoyle and Albion.
Among them is a young lady, curious about her body, who is transfixed by the curvaceous form of a classical statue she wishes to imitate (until Gargoyle orders her to do her buttons up); another, a cheerful, gregarious American, attempts to find a lover but is stopped when Gargoyle cuffs his wandering hands and locks him in cage; a middle-aged man rifle-hunts for a mate, while a suitable woman perches herself in a nearby tree, hoping to be blasted by his Cupid’s ammo (Albion later helps him take aim); another pretty young woman, trussed up to the neck in formal black clothing and controlled by her puritanical Aunt Minerva, is helped by Albion to throw off the binds of inhibition and start enjoying the fruits of life (Albion freezes Minerva in time, enabling the niece to escape).
Amidst all this light-hearted surrealism, there are some serious moments. A beautiful young war widow, Miss Greaves (geddit?), wanders through the park alone and sings, in voiceover, a plaintive lament to her dead sailor husband (“my lover true, in navy blue, he lies at the bottom of the sea, without me”). When Greaves eventually drowns herself in the park’s lake, Broughton appears to be suggesting that clinging to the emotional tragedies of the recent war is not healthy, and the need to move on is paramount. The emphasis on progress, liberty and optimism is prevalent throughout the film.
The Pleasure Garden draws to a close as Albion and Gargoyle push-and-pull for supremacy, and this battle is articulated literally at the film’s climax, during which Gargoyle and his repressive black-clad minions, who plan to turn the lovely park into a graveyard, have a tug-of-war with Albion’s coterie of artists, athletes and lovers.
At a polar opposite to the easygoing hedonistic frivolity of The Pleasure Garden, the accompanying film that represents the sole extra on the disc (and actually exceeds the running time of the main feature) is an entirely different proposition altogether.
The Phoenix Tower (1957), which is not related to the The Pleasure Garden in any artistic context, is a prim and very rare 39-minute documentary that charts the complicated planning and construction of the Crystal Palace television transmission tower, erected in 1956 within the same derelict area that served as the location for The Pleasure Garden. In this respect, it’s a fascinating historical document.
The Phoenix Tower is meticulously detailed, focusing as it does on the complicated technical and architectural theory behind such a large building project. However, it manages to eschew jargon, and keeps things simple, informative and interesting. The film becomes visually spectacular when terrific and hair-raising footage of the actual construction begins, and for vertigo sufferers, the frequent scenes of unsecured workmen climbing around on thin girders 750 feet above London will no doubt make a few heads swoon (Harold Lloyd has nothing on these guys), while wide helicopter shots of the finished tower - which still stands and broadcasts signals to this day - neatly conclude the film and give some indication of the scale of the metal monolith.
Essentially a promotional film (it was used as a test transmission broadcast for several years), The Phoenix Tower’s primary function is to show enterprise, innovation and industriousness, and this it achieves. It’s perhaps of no surprise that the narration is provided by the legendary voiceover stalwart Bob Danvers-Walker, whose precise and mannered diction graced myriad public information films, radio broadcasts and Pathé newsreels, often conveying, with authority, the impression that ‘everything is under control’, and here is certainly no exception.
In addition to The Phoenix Tower, other supporting material with the DVD includes a booklet containing information on both films, and a concise history of the Crystal Palace both before and after the fire that destroyed it.
The picture and sound quality of The Pleasure Garden are commensurate with the film’s age, but Walter Lassally’s nicely composed black and white cinematography is still rendered bright and crisp, and the grain is minimal for a 16mm production. The quality of The Phoenix Tower is not as good (the BFI had to use a third generation video copy for this DVD), but in the circumstances I’d argue that the crackling soundtrack and the scratched, grainy picture, while not intrinsic to the aesthetic charm of this obscure ‘50s production, are not too detrimental, either.
Overall, The Pleasure Garden is a very engaging curiosity, and while dated in some respects, it should nevertheless be applauded for its inquisitive, progressive and cheeky exploration of love, sexuality and art (it’s also great to see the beloved British comedy actors Le Mesurier and Jacques in early, unusual roles).
Produced at a time when Britain had yet to unshackle itself from the drab, grey austerity of the war years, the film to some extent pre-empts the personal freedoms and liberation of the ‘60s, a decade in which the cultural and sexual revolutions heralded an exciting new age of social technicolour.