20 November 2013: “Our land a treasury for all”

Film director Kevin Brownlow spoke about his film on Winstanley and the Diggers. Hausmans Bookshop hosted this terrific evening on Wednesday, flagged up by Jean and David (who was Kevin’s editor at UKA Press for several of his books).

Kevin Brownlow made only 2 feature films, both controversial, as well as many documentaries, including the six-part ITV series ‘Hollywood’, and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2010 for his services to cinema as a film restorer and film historian.  ‘It Happened Here’ was a vision of a conquered England, ruled by the Nazis. A controversial scene involving genuine British Nazis was cut when it went on general release, but is restored in the BFI version issued on DVD and Blu-ray in  2010. An uproar was caused in England when it was first released because it depicted collaboration between the English and the Germans, and the same executions of collaborators after liberation that had occurred in France and Holland. It was was also condemned in both England and the USA because it was interpreted by some as pro-Nazi. Kevin believes that misunderstandings about the film’s message blighted his career for many decades.

His other film, made with a grant from the BFI in 1975, is about Gerrard Winstanley, who started the Diggers in the aftermath of the English Civil War in the mid 17th century.  His films are now highly rated and stored in the National Film Archive, but were not popular at the time, and he has never become famous like Ken Loach, although dealing with left-wing themes and using some of the same improvisatory techniques.

The Diggers were a group of  poor and dispossessed, many of them ex-soldiers in Cromwell’s Army, who had no means of survival except through charity. Winstanley, acting on his principles –’the world is a common treasury for all’ – set up a rural commune on St George’s Hill near Cobham in Surrey.  They built traditional wattle-and-daub houses and planted crops on common land normally used by local villagers to graze their cattle, although leaving plenty of room for this to continue.  This frightened the landowning classes whose rights to the ownership of (any) land Winstanley denied, and by manipulation of the courts, clergy and army they managed to stir up conflict with local villagers who destroyed the commune while the soldiers of Cromwell’s New Model Army looked on.

Kevin talked about the making of the film in detail, and showed extracts.  He used many of Winstanley’s own words as they are particularly poetic and moving.  He chose some of the cast from people with suitable faces travelling on the tube, and used authentic implements and costumes and actual armour and weapons from the Civil War loaned by The Tower of London museum. His battle scene had only 5 main actors but the Sealed Knot Society turned out for the filming of the introductory scene. He also had professional advisors on both 17th century spoken English and the architecture of the period  (Marina Lewycka of ‘Tractors’ fame and her husband). Andrew Mollo, his co-director on both feature films, is a professional advisor to the film industry on period authenticity. He is recognised as the industry’s biggest stickler for absolute period accuracy in costume and set design.  The particularly suitable church where the Diggers are imprisoned could only be filmed so that the upright gravestones did not show, as at that time all gravestones were laid flat.  The actual St Georges Hill is now a gated community of the super-rich with its own golf course, where house prices start at 12 million pounds, and its best known resident is Cliff Richard. John Lennon was a one-time resident, which Kevin suggested might cast doubt on the genuineness of the sentiments expressed in his song ‘Imagine’. An attempt was made in 1999, the 350th anniversary of the founding of the commune, to erect a small sign on the hill commemorating Winstanley, but permission was refused and the deputation asked to leave. Winstanley’s only statue is in Gorky Park, erected by the Russian Communist Party.

And so it went on – so many problems successfully solved – and at the last minute snow arrived for the closing shots. From the extracts we saw, a cinematically interesting and  moving film resulted.  The Diggers were a very early human rights/anti-property/pacifist group, committed to leading by example and avoiding physical conflict, Winstanley being a devout convert to Quakerism. They appeared in history way earlier  than the more famous French Revolutionaries.

The BBC has never shown the film, but it did have limited national release and won many awards at film festivals all over the world. It has now been rescued and restored and is in the National Film Archive as well as being available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The book is Winstanley; Warts and All by Kevin Brownlow (UKA Press, 2009, £10.99)



About Humphrey Southall

Director, Great Britain Historical GIS; Reader in Geography, University of Portsmouth
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