Coventry postcard no. 6

24th June 2021

John Wyver writes: First broadcast just over a fortnight ago, Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain has now taken its place on BBC iPlayer where (for licence fee payers in the UK) it will remain available for a year. The response to it has been wonderful, and I’m working towards a summary of some of that, with links, on the Coventry conversation page.

I also want here and in subsequent posts to return to discussing the archive material in the film and other aspects of our approach to the production. There’s so much that I’m keen to explicate and explore, but it’s going to take some time to work that through into posts here. If this seems of interest, I hope you’ll stick with us.

Let’s concentrate here on the film’s fifth chapter, ‘Adorning with Art’, and in particular on one of the main archive sources, An Act of Faith. This part is the most substantial section, and the one that editor Todd Macdonald, designer Ian Cross and I worked on first. It was quickly clear that we had such riches that the film overall needed a longer running time than the 60 minutes at which it was originally commissioned. In discussions with BBC commissioning editor Mark Bell we settled on a 75-minute duration, which is relatively rare for a television documentary, but which continues to feel like a pleasing length.

Along with new shooting in and around the Cathedral, ‘Adorning with Art’ incorporates archive material from two 1962 broadcasts. The BBC film An Act of Faith was shown in the week before the Service of Consecration in May, as was Out of Burning, a programme recorded as an outside broadcast by ATV for the ITV network.

Other sources (to which I’ll return in future notes, as I will to Out of Burning) are the documentary made by the builders John Laing, the Barnard Reyner film and its associated rushes, a 1958 documentary made by Dudley Shaw-Ashton for the BFI Experimental Film Fund and the British Council, and a strikingly-shot British Pathé newsreel item about artist John Hutton, which for comparison I have embedded below.

An Act of Faith

A distant pan across an unspoiled rural landscape, the opening of An Act of Faith is set within what Patrick Wright has identified as ‘Deep England’. Ideas of Englishness are central to the whole film, as are notions of tradition and the influence of the past. ‘Coventry lies in the very heart of England,’ runs the first line of the post-titles commentary, before running through an outline history of a city claimed to have been in the Middle Ages ‘the fourth richest… in England’. Later, the film tells us that, ‘The stone was quarried at Hollington in Staffordshire, where Englishmen have quarried stone for a thousand years.’

An Act of Faith started as a programme idea seven years before its broadcast. On 1 April 1955 producer Robin Whitworth submitted a ‘preliminary plan’ for a film about the mew Cathedral. ‘Conversations with the architect, Basil Spence,’ Whitworth wrote, ‘have convinced me that this is a project which we should pursue.’ He recognised that it would take at least five years to come to completion, and he was clear that, ‘Emphasis should be laid on the extent to which [the rebuilding] is an affirmation of spiritual faith in a mechanistic age.’

In a fascinating 1996 Independent obituary of Robin Whitworth [free registration required] his former boss Leonard Miall recounts that Whitworth’s father persuaded BBC Director-General John Reith to give his son a job. After , after Eton and New College, Oxford, Whitworth joined the BBC in 1932 as a trainee studio manager in Val Gielgud’s Features & Drama Department.

Before and after the war he was a radio Features producer based in Birmingham, before in 1953 taking on the role of Organiser of the newly formed Television Documentary department working with its new head, the fabled filmmaker Paul Rotha. Rotha lasted only two years in the job and just about the time that Whitworth suggested the Coventry Cathedral film, he joined the Television Talks department under Miall. In his obituary, Miall pays tribute to Whitworth’s achievement in guiding the documentary to the screen, but then adds, ‘The rest of Whitworth’s BBC career was useful rather than creative.’

In his initial memo Whitworth notes,

Early decision should be made as to whether the film should be made in colour. This would greatly increase the cost, but Mr Greatorex is of the opinion that colour TV is likely to be sufficiently on the map by 1960 [which was when it was envisaged the new Cathedral would open] for this question to require serious consideration before shooting begins.

As things turned out, the first quarter of An Act of Faith was shot on black and white stock, while the remainder was filmed in colour. The Cathedral didn’t open until 1962, and colour transmissions only began on 1 July 1967, when An Act of Faith was repeated in the first week.

Robin Whitworth was not a filmmaker, and it was envisaged from the start that he would need to work with a director. The obvious choice was John Read, who had been making film documentaries about British artists since 1951 when his Henry Moore was shown to mark both Moore’s Tate Gallery retrospective and the opening of the Festival of Britain.

The son of the critic and cultural panjandrum Herbert Read, John had also made profiles of Graham Sutherland and John Piper, both of whom contributed to the Cathedral, but by the late 1950s he had also made a number of location-shot films including The Wallace Collection (1955) and The English Country Church (1956). Many of his films negotiate the tension between past and present, tradition and modernity that is also at the heart of Spence’s vision of the new Cathedral.

As the opening credits also record, An Act of Faith was ‘Photographed by Arthur Englander’ and the film editor was James Colina. Colina’s CV is an unremarkable list of productions and film inserts for dramas made between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, although he contributes a finely graduated pacing to An Act of Faith that we were determined to keep as we used substantial excerpts from the film.

At the centre of the previous chapter, ‘Taking Shape’, is a sequence showing the quarrying and working of the stone, and during the edit it was tempting to telescope this by modestly shortening many of the shots. The film would have moved forward more briskly, and I am convinced that absolutely no-one would have noticed. But in line with our respect for the integrity of the archive we elected not to do this. We were of course helped in this by colour images which hold the screen quite wonderfully, in part because of the technical processes they capture and also because of their simple beauty.

Images and interiors

By the point that An Act of Faith starts to explore the production of the new Cathedral’s artworks, it has shifted into colour, and it’s here that the artistry and achievement of cinematographer Arthur Englander comes to the fore. (On later productions, he took the credit A. A. Englander, and he was known by colleagues as ‘Tubby’.) Having worked in the British film industry before the war and on documentaries in the late 1940s, Englander joined the BBC in 1952. He would go on to shoot major series including Civilisation (1969) and America (1973) with Alistair Cooke.

As Englander recounts in his richly informative 1976 book Filming for Television (co-written with Paul Petzold) on Civilisation and on the preceding documentary The Royal Palaces of Britain (1966) he developed innovative techniques to film interiors in colour at relatively low light levels. This often involved under-cranking camera speed so that more light entered the lens during a shot.

I think before noticing the credit card above I had assumed that Englander must have used a similar technique for the interiors for An Act of Faith. But that would appear not to have been the case, or at least not for the wide shots, and it seems that many of the colour interiors in the film are in fact stills. Not all by any means, since there are shots with movement through space, as the one past the font. But these feature or traverse comparatively small areas which Englander would have been able to light, whereas he could not have hoped to have sufficient illumination to capture a shot such as the one below.

From the credit card we learn that an image such as this photographed by A.F. Kersting, who is another interesting contributor to An Act of Faith. According to his 2008 Times obituary, Anthony Kersting was ‘the most prolific and widely travelled architectural photographer of his generation’. His images of England’s buildings graced numerous books in the post-war years, including major studies by John Summerson and Nikolaus Pevsner as well as numerous titles published by Batsford. But he also travelled extensively in the Middle East and Nepal

As Olivia Cuthbert details in a recent Wired article, ‘The prints (and secrets) of photographer Anthony Kersting are being digitized’, which includes some remarkable images, Kersting’s archive of more than 40,000 prints is now held in the Conway Library, part of the Courtauld, and is being digitized in readiness for publication on an open access basis. Further down this particular rabbit-hole you can also find some interesting blog posts on the Courtauld site, including Building Independence – The Kenyan Parliament by Ben Britton about Kersting’s photographs of the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi.

‘Hundreds of colours and textures’

Back to An Act of Faith, and to one of my favourite sequences from John Read’s film which we lifted straight into the documentary. Recounting the story of the nave windows, the narration explains that, ‘In these Coventry windows the English art of stained glass was born again. Medieval skills were revived and new techniques invented to make the hundreds of colours and textures.’ Englishness is again a defining idea, along with the interplay of the old and new. Celebrating this work, and also its own colour cinematography An Act of Faith then features four full-frame shots of pure colour (shown here with Ian Cross’s graphic backgrounds), accompanied just by their name…

…cool green…

…gold ruby…

…plain blue…

…streaky amber.

This short abstract sequence accompanied by the incantation of the names has a haunting power that is, as far as I am aware, all-but unique in early television documentaries.

Fragments, frames and the font

The sequence in this chapter which showcases the engravings of John Hutton is among those that feature a concentrated use split screens and accompanying graphics. As with comparable, albeit simpler elements in our earlier documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, this language simply allows us to feature more of the archive than if we were working with conventional sequential editing. ‘Spatial montage’ of this kind (the term was coined by theorist Lev Manovich) also seems especially appropriate for images of process and creation. But we also intended its use to parallel however loosely the overall narrative of the film about a new creation being brought forth from fragments, slivers and slices of the past.

And for comparsion, here’s the British Pathé newsreel story from which is the source of some of the shots in our split-screen sequence.

The slightly later sequence focussed on the font demonstrates the strengths of combining elements from a range of source materials, in this case (below) An Act of Faith, our own digital filming and Out of Burning. It’s clear that Englander’s very fine shot was achieved with lamps which highlight the stone itself but do little to illuminate the background of the Baptistry Window by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens.

Compare this with the monochrome videotape shot from Out of Burning, which clearly also required a lot of artificial light (look at the shadow on the stone of the window) but because of the different lens and different medium has an entirely distinct quality. Between the two is an image filmed in February by our DoP Todd Macdonald.

Kenneth Clark’s casual critique of the font is one of the moments from the documentary that many people have commented on. In dismissing its disappointing lack of form he tells the story of how the font is made from a boulder found on a hillside near Bethlehem and how it was transported from there as the personal gift of the builder John Laing.

Thrillingly, my friend and colleague Helen Wheatley, who collaborated as consultant on the documentary, sent me the vintage postcard below, which arrived just too late to incorporate in a split-screen framing. This copy, which was posted with a 3d stamp on 3 May 1961, carries a message on the back…

Coventry. Sunday.

We all had a ride over here today to see how they are progressing with the Cathedral. Very slow – not very much to see yet even tho’ it is nearly 3 years since we were all there last. Hope you are all well.

Thank you, Helen – for this precious present, and for all of your invaluable contributions to the film.

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