David Gladwell may be more well known as Lindsay Anderson’s editor on such cinematic masterpieces as If…. (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973) but his own directorial endeavours are equally worthy of discussion and analysis, especially in their relation to both his editorial work and his own creative trajectories. Whether it is the, very English, visual language of his first four short films or the creative use of slow-motion photography, there is a clear plotted line from these shorts towards his first of two feature films, Requiem for a Village (1975).
It is interesting to note that, even though his skills as an editor often overshadow his directorial work, these short films were made before his skills solely as an editor were taken up (on the 1963 short film, A Time to Heal by Derrick Knight). Like his most famous feature, Gladwell’s early shorts focus on creating short, almost impressionistic postcards of life in rural England. These villages and fields often hint at being the cusp of industrialisation, especially in his debut short, A Summer Discord (1955).
A Summer Discord follows the day of a young girl who lives in a house on the edge of a pastoral vista. The girl has an argument with her mother for letting her pet budgie out and escapes the chattering, angry mouth and chastising to run and roam the empty wastelands around where she lives. The wastelands aren’t all meadows and fields. The hint of potential development comes from the more barren plots of land being inhabited by other children who she briefly plays with. There’s no doubt that this was to be built on though it is never implicitly stated. Instead, Gladwell uses metaphor by contrasting the budgie in its steel cage to the birds flying outside. The pressure from the mother forces the girl to escape but the budgie has a very simple and natural urge, further brought on by the presence of a cat.
Three years later Gladwell would make the time-induced clash between rural and urban even more distinct in 1958’s Miss Thompson Goes Shopping. A perfectly normal shopping trip from an isolated cottage to a small town is rendered with ominous airs making perfectly clear that the differences between urban and rural are questioned. Miss Thompson’s cottage is extremely eerie, heightened further by the music. She is clearly on her own which is implied in the title and also by the presence of another cat, though this is a far more solitary appearance than a playful one of A Summer Discord.
As she leaves the house, she seems perturbed by something, almost looking back through the fourth wall and down the hallway as if convinced she’s seen something almost supernatural. It becomes more clear later that she is looking for her past, lost in a memory perhaps or in the clutches of nostalgia. Her trip to the town for shopping is chaotic, drawing very deliberate contrasts to the tranquil, haunted nature of the cottage. The sound of cars and adverts is played in the mix of the film at an extremely loud level but is then cut off when Miss Thompson enters a shop or the butchers. The loneliness of the cottage now seems like a paradise when compared to the calamitous town (though the town itself looks wonderfully tame, especially by today’s standards) and her journey back into the pureness of the countryside allows her to briefly rediscover her youth as she skips down a country path.
His next short would be his first made after editing other director’s films and the change in tone and pace is very obvious. An Untitled Film (for the BFI) (1964) plays almost as a warm-up for the main act of Requiem for a Village. It is shot entirely in slow-motion and shows a number of rural farming practices from the killing of chickens to the moving of horses and sweeping of compost. This isn’t merely documentation (that is Gladwell’s move for the final film of this article) but a disturbing, beautiful look at movement and texture. These actions may not sound haunting or ethereal but, once put with the madness of its electronic soundtrack (by Ernest Berk), even a young boy’s stare from a leafy tree becomes terrifying. The constant presence of a cat makes its return providing only a light relief, being also accompanied by the twisting nature of the avant-garde score. In this film, Gladwell defines both his cinematic style and the editing style of others including Lindsay Anderson. The slow-motion of the raking and the wind rustling the trees has obvious parallels to If…’s famous slow-motion shots (including the literal shot of Peter Jeffery’s headmaster in the film’s finale).
In the final short to be discussed, Gladwell (along with collaborator Derrick Knight) uses a Grierson-like approach to his own interests, documenting the traditional country fairground in The Great Steam Fair (1964). It seems fitting for Gladwell to finally cave to documentary film. The fantastical elements of his own shorts blended a sense of the real with the more fictional elements of his “characters” so this is a move only to be expected. This is his first full work in colour (His debut feature mixed both black & white and colour, again mirroring the aesthetics of If….) and he makes full use of the bright colours available to him on the steam powered rides and attractions.
The very existence of this short documentary is what is most interesting. Gladwell’s narration is clearly yearning for the past and worrying about the future. His documentary is almost a literal documentation, born simply from a worry that what is being filmed might disappear in the future and desperately needs to be captured for posterity. This idea brings Gladwell’s first quadrology of films round to a full circle. Though he would continue to make short films after this and before his feature debut, these four films sum up the director’s ideals, worries and beliefs alarmingly well for gentle short films. They work as component parts that would eventually come together for the magnificent Requiem for a Village; the ultimate in yearning for tradition in the face of aggressive modernity.