Thanks Ken, without you I would never have met David

On Christmas Eve morning I woke up with a nasty rash around the left hand side of my torso which hadn’t been there when I went to sleep. On close inspection the rash followed a line from my navel all the way round my waist and lower back finishing on the base of my spine. I had absolutely no idea what this was or why I had it, but it hurt and my skin around it and across my chest and back had become incredibly sensitive to touch. To anyone who has experienced this condition personally, or known someone who has, they will know from the symptoms I have decribed that my next few weeks were going to be debilitating and unreasonably painful. I had developed shingles. 

For the last three weeks I have lived on the sofa when I’ve not been in bed; experimented with assorted legal opioids in the pursuit of a pain free existence, followed quickly by further experimentation with anything that would help to induce a bowel movement - I have no desire to be indelicate but as anyone will tell you who has taken codeine, or similar opioid based pain killers for any length of time that as certain as night follows day the short term relief that the opioids bring is followed by hours of agony of a different kind, scale and level of personal humiliation - I’ll leave it there …

Too tired to read, in too much pain to do anything useful or distracting standing up I resorted to binging on BBC iPlayer. It took two weeks of rewatching every Scandinavian crime series I could find; finally watching all three series, and all the Christmas Specials, of Gavin and Stacey and discovering that all three of the How to Train Your Dragon films were finally available to watch for free before I began to get bored with the unreality of it all and started searching the iPlayer archive for something that didn’t make me feel that I had just lost an hour that I would never get back - bit like eating overly sweet food. At art college I had been introduced to the Documentary Film Movement: a group of British filmmakers, led by John Grierson, who were influential in British film culture in the 1930s and 1940s. The founding principles of the movement were based on Grierson belief that  documentary films could be used to educate citizens in an understanding of democratic society. Many of the films made by Grierson, Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt explored the lives of very ordinary people. What made many of these films remarkable was how the sensitivity of the film makers enabled the stories of mundane lives to take on a richness, depth and significance that could so easily have been lost through the lens of a patriarchal camera man. These little, mostly black and white, films described the reality of lives lived between two world wars; how political decisions made in Westminster could with the stroke of a pen erode or destroy ways of life that had been lived for generations. They reveal a world that we have never known, with gentleness, acute observation, humour and art.

Before 1936, the movement  had been part of a single public sector organisation, but by the late 1930s filmmakers were exploring other possibilities for developing documentary film; and by 1937, the movement had evolved into four different production units: GPO, Shell (headed by Anstey), Strand (headed by Rotha) and Realist (led by Wright).
 In 1940, the GPO Film Unit was transferred to the Ministry of Information and renamed the Crown Film Unit. The British government along with industry had finally woken up to the usefulness of the documentary film in the promotion of political and commercial interests. Grierson’s founding principals were being reshaped by the interests of the establishment and the documentary film was fast becoming just another entertainment. The BBC, bless it, picked up the mantle of commissioning editor and producer for experimental documentary film making  and through programmes such as Monitor, and through its editor Hugh Wheldon, created a platform for young artists and film makers to experiment. One of Wheldon’s early talents was Ken Russell and buried in the A to Z list of documentary films on iPlayer is ‘A House in Bayswater’ made by Russell in 1959. 

The problem with TV remotes and lists of instant programmes is that it encourages you (Okay its just me then?) to be lazy and just hit the button before reading the description, which is how I discovered Russell’s film and how I managed to watch the entire thing without knowing that Russell had made it; although after 20 minutes I was beginning to wonder if Ken was behind the camera. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone I would like to point out that what starts out as a seemingly normal black and white documentary: a portrait of a five-storey Edwardian house in Bayswater, London, and of the people who live there, by the 25 minute marker things are beginning to slide dramatically into Russell’s version of reality. What saves it I think is the camera work and the people, all of whom are as they are portrayed, including a very young David Hurn. I didn’t know his work although his name seemed familiar so I looked him up and discovered that David Hurn has been an outstanding documentary photographer and is a member of Magnum. Link here: David Hurn/Magnum What inspired me to write all of this was a quotation of David’s on his Magnum page and one that I would like to share because I think it exemplifies a truth that is so easily forgotten in the pursuit of artistic and personal expression and is particularly significant to anyone who makes photographs: “Life, as it unfolds in front of the camera, is full of so much complexity, wonder, and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are”.

David Hurn is still working and lives in Wales.

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