When it’s on: Friday, 14 April (11.05 am)
Channel: London Live
Over the years A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the Powell and Pressburger film I’ve returned to most often. It’s like a guilty secret, an enigmatic little entry from their catalogue that has wormed its way into my affections against more celebrated works like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Thief of Bagdad… Not to mention A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!, Ill Met by Moonlight, and oh you know. All those titles mentioned are fine films, in some instances bloody wonderful slices of cinema magic, and rightly they are revered. And yet there’s something about the unassuming wistfulness of A Canterbury Tale that has made it essential. I think possibly it’s something to do with entering middle age, a time when it becomes permissible to stop looking forward all the time, to reminisce fondly, sometimes about things that never even happened, and engage with the film’s sense of nostalgic whimsy. Or maybe it’s simply top drawer movie making, the brief to make a propaganda piece and instead turning out something altogether more esoteric, a story that explores the links between the present and an eternal past, a love letter to England, albeit one that barely existed at the time it was made. Either way, talking about A Canterbury Tale and what makes it great isn’t easy. I know how it makes me feel, however, and I’ll try and get that across…
It opens with a scene of medieval pilgrims making their way across the countryside towards Canterbury Cathedral. One member of the party lets loose his falcon. He watches it fly, high into the sky, where it suddenly turns into a Spitfire, and when we next see the Falconer he’s become an air raid warden. We’re in wartime England, joining three young people as their train enters the little Kentish village of Chillingbourne. There’s English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), also a Londoner who’s taking work as a Land Girl, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), and Bob Johnson (John Sweet), a GI who mishears the station announcer and alights, thinking he’s in Canterbury and off to his posting. Alison falls foul of the ‘glueman’, an impish local troublemaker who pours glue into the hair of English girls who are caught fraternising with American soldiers while their sweethearts are away fighting the good fight. The unlikely trio team up and resolve to discover who the glueman is.
What’s set up as a crime mystery of sorts then takes several swerves to the left. Our three heroes start making friends in the village, from a group of kids who stage war games in the woods through to local workers who find common ground with Bob because carpentry techniques in Kent turn out to be the same as in Oregon. The local JP is Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who lives in a house filled with antiquities and takes an active interest in uncovering artifacts from the days of the Pilgrim Road. The trio’s suspicion that the glueman is none other than Colpeper himself becomes mired in the reasons for the criminal’s existence, an ignoble effort to preserve Englishness at a time when the country is invaded by friendly soldiers.
And in the end that’s really what A Canterbury Tale is. In terms of plotting, it isn’t about very much and no less a figure than its director, Michael Powell, had concerns about Emeric Pressburger’s script, which he thought was too loose and freewheeling. But that isn’t the point. The film concerns itself primarily with an England that is close to being lost, not from a foreign threat but rather the necessary advance of technology and industry. As Britain modernised rapidly in order to be able to stay in the war, the green and pleasant land eulogised by Shakespeare was being compromised, Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ cut down the middle by a railtrack. Everyone knew this had to happen yet it came at a price. A Canterbury Tale takes place in a rural setting that in reality had all but gone. Chillingbourne, its main setting, was a fictional and wholly romanticised village, various places filling in to provide its pastoral idyll.
Then there are its semi-mystical elements. The Pilgrim Road is mythologised as a place on the hillside that still has links to its past. Alison walks up there one day and hears – or thinks she hears – the distant sounds of hooves, of laughter, and a lute playing. The moment might be a fantasy but the message is clear enough – the route to Canterbury still retains its power. People went there to receive penance and occasionally a miracle, and sometimes it still pulls through for the right people. Sure enough, the trio end up there too, walking the streets (much of it filmed in the real Canterbury, prominently the Westgate that formed the medieval city’s entrance, though the cathedral interiors were shot in a cleverly designed studio due to the real cathedral’s stained glasses having been removed during the war) and finding their own miracles. These range in emotional power and I won’t spoil them here, though the denouement for Price’s Gibbs touched me most. Though it’s never stated, the film suggests that soldiers enter Canterbury because it’s a waypoint before they embark for the frontline. Many of them won’t return. The cathedral thus bestows its beneficence on those who deserve it. Or at least that’s how I choose to see it.
A Canterbury Tale can put people off. It’s unashamedly twee and romantic; like Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico it takes place in a version of England that suits the film rather than reflects reality. I see it as a love letter, one to an undying sense of place no matter what time it happens in, because it endures and so do the people, and to my mind there’s nothing wrong with that.
A Canterbury Tale: *****