Reviews

Austerity, Education, Charity and Changing Times in 'A Day in the Life'

This collection gives us four wonderful portraits of post-war Britain, seen through director John Krish's compassionate lens.


A Day in the Life

Director: John Krish
Cast: Reginald Marsh, John Cartner Ronson
Distributor: BFI (UK)
Studio: Various
UK Release date: 2011-03-28

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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