A Book Review by Tony Williams.
According to an old saying about not judging a book by its cover, the same can apply both to the image on the cover as well as the subtitle. This latest study by David Huckvale, A Green and Pagan Land: Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television (McFarland, 2018), the author of ten books written exclusively for a press generally termed “direct-to-library” but which also publishes some innovative works, certainly falls into that category. Although promising an extensive look into relevant areas of British film and television, the archaeological literary and cultural references overwhelm any intensive and extensive study of visual associations that the evocative image of the burning Wicker Man suggests on the book’s cover. Although the last two chapters do engage in a detailed exploration of particular examples from film and television, they are more content-derived to provide links between reference material and media production rather than for any significant critical and insightful examination in their own right.
In fact, the book should really be re-titled A Green and Pagan Land: Agrarian and Mythic Elements Later Used in Media Productions, for this is the real focus of the work belonging as it does to a reference collection that once fitted smoothly into McFarland’s previous exclusive unambitious concentration on the library audience. Interesting though these references might be for the casual reader, they can easily be found in Google, Wikipedia, and any other basic internet or print source that provides a useful foundation for any author to engage in more critical and imaginative explorations derived from the source material itself. In other words, the book contains little, if any, original insights that would justify its purchase either by the general reader or college and public libraries.
The country is often regarded as a conservative and dangerous realm as those of us who once had the misfortune to live there know of its threatening Texas Chainsaw Massacre associations (for me, specifically, outside the confines of a declining campus town). If the title of a long-forgotten Dudley Moore 1968 film Thirty is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia (1967), signified male insecurities of ageing, then one wonders why Huckvale did not quote that well-known exchange at the opening of Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” between Holmes and Watson concerning the countryside? While the good doctor in typical Nigel Bruce fashion speaks enthusiastically about country values – “Are they not fresh and beautiful?” – the more knowledgeable and cocaine fancier friend replies that the country is more dangerous than the city.
The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish… But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk, who know nothing of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness, which may go on, year in, year out, and none the wiser.
Beginning an introduction “Into the Woods” that anticipates the book being more about being lost in a profuse wood rather than focusing on the specific qualities of certain individual trees belonging to that group, Huckvale outlines his intention to “explore the British literature of pagan fantasy that foreshadowed so many celebrated British films” (1). The sentence really sums up the scope of most of the entire book since it is heavy on source material and scanty in terms of noting key aspects of cinematic description that readers would expect from a book belonging to a film series.
It is full of prolific background material as well as unverified assertions, as the following passage reveals:
Woodland paths were closed and roads were blocked far in excess of the actual threat posed by the problem; and the memory of witch hunts still haunt British life in the shape of DJ and TV presenter, Jimmy Saville, whose breathtaking sexual crimes, immense fame and social prestige many have suggested were the result of actual magical processes: Saville as a modern day Aleister Crowley.” (22)
Although I think this sentence could have a more specific application, I’m citing it as an example of the allusive and often unverifiable references that characterize the text. Reeling in the manner of Hawks’s The Thing from Another World’s Scotty – “The mind boggles!” – I’m not only amazed to find the reference here (could “Jim’ll fix it!” be a revenant of the Great God Pan mentioned in detail throughout the text?) implausibly applied (111) to the alien figures in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) without any detailed discussion of the differences between Old Nick and Pan. It also shows the type of superficial assertion and lack of any firm critical analysis that questions the validity of an approach taken by any supposed expert, whether academic or not. Also what type of “social prestige” did Crowley actually have? Despite the citations and quotations, no specific analysis appears since references also occur in the same assertive and superficial manner as the rest of this text.
His references to “the country pub…teapots and gardens, village greens, cricket matches and warm beer” (19) seem strangely evocative of one of John Major’s speeches on British values in the 90s. There are naturally some detailed references to The Wicker Man (1973), Hammer’s The Witches (1966), the chilling BBC TV play Robin Redbreast (1970) throughout the text but they are mostly content descriptive and lack any form of necessary visual and sound analysis, Birkin’s solitary naked sojourn in the countryside in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) being the most notorious example (72, 73). Yes, Lawrence is quoted, but is the detailed quote from E.F. Benson’s Raven’s Brood (1993) plausible enough for us to see Birkin wishing to unite with The Green Man (73)? These are just a few of the many instances that reveal the author’s tendency to make cursory references without building up either a strong critical case for their applicability or note the specific qualities of both film and television that either visually parallel or transform such references into something else.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a contributing Editor to Film international. He is currently teaching a new class on Fantasy in Literature and Film that will conclude with a screening of the BBC TV version of Quatermass and the Pit.