SOURCE: bfi Monthly Film Bulletin Vol 50 No 592, May 1983, p.144.


The Irish are coming...

In March, Ascendancy, a modestly budgeted BFI feature, was joint winner of the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Shortly before this, EDWARD BENNETT, the director, and NIGEL GEARING, his co‑writer, neither of whom anticipated a major prize ("It was rather as if I had finally joined the grown‑ups", Bennett said of their film's acceptance in the competition), spoke in London about the background to the film. Bennett, whose first ostensibly commercial feature this was, had previously made Hogarth (1976), The Life Story of Baal (1978), and Four Questions About Art (1979). Before attending the Royal College of Art, he and Gearing had been fellow students of English at Cambridge. Nigel Gearing's play Snap, about the film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, was toured in 1981 by the Foco Novo company and later played at the New End Theatre, Hampstead.

Beginnings: (EB) I conceived the notion of making a film about the last decisive mutation of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the setting up of the semi‑independent state in 1921. This seemed to me more worthwhile than something on the genesis of the problem. In 1980, the BFI Production Board wished to make a fiction film about Northern Ireland (they had already made Ireland Behind the Wire), but my first proposal, a contemporary story about a soldier, was turned down. The BFI's Radio On was a strong influence: it gave me confidence that a film of this sort could be made and made with high production values and a commercial future. In 1981, I received money for the historical film. The outline of the story came to me in about five minutes. What took a year's work was making it function, and that was where Nigel came in, he gave it a dramatic shape. (NG) The character of Connie (Julie Covington) is something of a blank page. She awakes to the reality around her. In a different way, this was also central to our approach. We did a lot of research and the script grew from this. (EB) One of the things which spurred me to research the subject (and in addition to Irish history we also read a lot about the First World War) was a feeling that I should have been reading, paying close attention to the newspapers in the 70s: I had been preoccupied by other matters when there was a conflagration on my doorstep. One thing which struck me reading The Guardian and The Times from the early 70s was, oddly, how similar the experience was to reading newspapers from the First World War. When I first went to Northern Ireland in 1980, I had all these dates in my head ‑ because I had approached it rather as if I was revising for an exam. I'd point out landmarks: "That was where the truce was broken in 1972 ..." And people would say: "Was it 1972? Well, you're the historian, you should know".

Period: (EB) I was determined to get the period right and I was equally determined not to make a costume drama; and in this I was given exceptional help by the art director Jamie Leonard and the costume designer Gabey Odee. We went to considerable lengths to get these matters right. The butler's shirt, for example, was cut very generously... an invisible point, you might say, but it made a difference. I'll never forget watching Polanski's Macbeth and noticing the zip fasteners. Imagine Death in Venice without Piero Tosi's costumes... a completely different film. Remember the women in that film wearing their hats to breakfast: exactly not what you would expect and yet it leant a crucial quality to the decorum of the scenery. Our budget was initially £133,000 (it subsequently doubled) and we could not afford to be irresponsible. Would that we could, like Tosi, have had the fabric for our costumes specially printed in Milan! The Protestant mansion was in fact just outside London: the notion was that it was down the Malone Road in Belfast, where the houses start getting further and further apart. I think the house looks right, it has the right kind of provincial vernacular. They tried to make it look quite grand, but the levels aren't really right: done by a builder, not an architect.

Conflict: (EB) One thing that worried me about the moment when Connie goes out into the town, the apocalyptic moment, was that it might suddenly become bathetic, like the end of Marnie. You know, if that's all it is, why bother to make the film? One wanted a moment that had the chaos of real violence, without very much meaning. But of course it would have real meaning because it would be a tremendous shock. (NG) I believe we were both influenced in this sequence by the book The Face of Battle, by the messiness of battle and by the fact that the fine line between defeat and victory is something which is drawn afterwards. (EB) I was thinking in that sequence of Pierre at Borodino, Fabrizio at Waterloo. The idea that if you've got people who know what they're doing, the one person who doesn't, who is wandering through - like Pierre ‑ is somehow immune, can somehow penetrate to the heart of the matter. Connie ends up in this situation. We watched the Thames TV series The Troubles, and the image of a family pushing their belongings down a street in a pram is based on a piece of film from that: a dispossessed family from Cork ‑ a huge Catholic family ‑ absolutely heartbreaking. At the rear is an older relative holding the hand of a little girl. Everybody is miserable except the little girl, she's walking along in such a jaunty way. A summing‑up image. But what's much more moving, in my opinion, and we tried to get this into the film, are the details which don't lie completely in your expectation. In War and Peace, one of the prisoners being shot by the French in Moscow adjusts his knots to make himself more comfortable. In Les Carabiniers, remember the man who takes off his glasses before being shot? One believes in those moments because of those details.

Unionism: (EB) I must say that I have always found Unionism oddly repellent. That quality of racist chauvinism in the English working class which comes from earning high wages at a particular time. This is still very much with us. In Ascendancy, this is exemplified by the men in the shipyard, the real labour aristocrats. who weren't going to become involved with Southerners who couldn't sign their names. There were the exceptions of Connolly and Larkin, of course. But why is it that the English working class are willing to follow men like Edward Carson? (NG) There are some conscious echoes in the film: the beetle‑browed Protestant speechmaker is, of course, Carson. And we wanted to make him a substantial figure, not someone to be dismissed: a great speaker, the man who demolished Oscar Wilde. (EB) Behind the rhetoric of "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right", however, there is always the shadow of the pogrom. This is not a film which says Catholics are better people, for having suffered. The film is also not from an insider's point of view. We are inside a Protestant household, but I'm outside.

Values: (EB) I always wanted to make a fiction film with high production values, so in that respect the BFI Production Department didn't have to push me very hard. This desire is linked to my belief that films such as Song of the Shirt are in a dead end. They speak only to people who already agree. There is a certain kind of moral worthiness to such films which prevents their makers from feeling they have to be entertaining or open. No one is going to quarrel with such films, unless they quarrel with them totally. Within five minutes you know where you are, and I didn't find that interesting. I'm not interested in singing marching songs, or having the workers march nobly into the sunset. I would like to lead an audience into positions they would normally reject.

John Pym

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