Saturday, September 26, 2020

Derailed by A Canterbury Tale

Though I increasingly name it as my favourite film, I used to worry whenever I watched A Canterbury Tale. It felt such a fragile thing - a rare essay in English mysticism - and I worried that the magic would not work this time.

But it always did and five years ago I learnt that its magic is not fragile at all. This is not a film to take lightly.


Filmed in 1943 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale tells the story of three modern-day visitors to the city. They are played by Dennis Price, Sheila Sim and John Sweet, who meet when they get off the train at the fictional Chillingbourne station.

Price plays Peter Gibbs, an Army sergeant who is a classical organist by training but has been making money by playing in cinemas. Sim is Alison Smith, a land girl and former shopworker mourning a fiancé missing in action and presumed dead.

Perhaps both actors are a little too genteel for their parts, but this is infinitely preferable to the way the working-class characters were commonly treated in British films – see Kathleen Harrison in The Winslow Boy for the very worst example. And Price, with his coolness and cynicism, seems a thoroughly modern figure.

John Sweet, the third member of the trio, was billed as Sergeant John Sweet US Army and that is just what he was - a soldier posted to Britain and working on Eisenhower's staff, not a professional actor.

Confused by the black out and lack of signs and mishearing the announcement, his character gets out at the station before Canterbury by mistake, setting the plot of the film in motion.


These days caring responsibilities make it hard to get away. My trip to Canterbury in 2015 was the last proper holiday I have had.

I was full of thoughts of the film as I travelled down to Kent, and when I arrived I found my bed and breakfast, a sort of overflow from one of the city’s major hotels, stood bang opposite the Marlowe Theatre. Opened in 2011, it occupies the site of The Friars Cinema where the premiere of A Canterbury Tale was held in May 1944. (John Sweet had to miss the occasion. The film's action takes place while the country is waiting for D-Day and he was busy preparing for the real thing.)

And on my first day I visited The Chaucer Bookshop and asked about Paul Tritton’s book on the film. I had heard it was hard to find and expensive when you did, but they had two copies of the first edition at a reasonable price. (It's a book any lover of the film will want, and I gather the second edition is even more comprehensive.)

So I planned the week’s outings: a day for the cathedral, trips to Whitstable and Reculver, another day for other sights in Canterbury and then Dungeness on my last full day. And, in the middle of it all, I would go to see friends in Hastings.

That Sunday, waiting on Ashford station on the way back from Hastings, I sent a tweet.


As the three travellers leave Chillingbourne station, Sheila Sim has glue poured on her hair by a mystery assailant. The three learn that this is not the first such attack and join forces to unmask 'the glue man'.

It’s less of a mystery to the film’s audience, who are given a big clue to his identity that the characters do not see. Besides, this is not what the film is really about, though there is great fun to be had from the way the three recruit the local urchins to help them in their investigation.

Closer to its heart is Eric Portman’s portrayal of Thomas Colpeper, gentleman farmer, magistrate and passionate local historian. The part had been written for Roger Livesey, but he disliked the ‘glue man’ element of the film and declined to take part.

Livesey would have brought more warmth to Colpeper, but Portman is mesmerising and it is his public lecture that you remember most from the film.

Yet in what is essentially a film about the war and why we are fighting it, this scene is shot in a way that makes us remember Portman’s turn as a fugitive Nazi in 49th Parallel. It makes his aristocratic Puck of a character, who still lives with his mother, all the more unnerving.


Shortly after I sent my tweet the Canterbury train pulled in and I caught it. We sped through the late evening and then it became clear something was wrong.

My carriage began to judder and it was obvious that the one in front had become derailed.  

Eventually we came to a halt and then sat out in the dark fields waiting for something to happen. Then flashing blue lights became visible in the distance and I have never been so glad to see them.

While we waited I tweeted a photograph of the coach in front of mine and was fending off media requests for the next couple of days.

One by one we climbed down from the trains and made our way down a slippery embankment and across wet fields to the road where vehicles were waiting to take us to Godmersham village hall. (Godmersham is near Chilham, one of the models for the film's Chillingbourne.)

As I said in a light-hearted blog post that was quoted a little too fully by Kent Online:

I chose the cage at the back as it was the only chance I will get to ride in one unless someone talks

There, late on a Sunday night, tea and cakes were provided for us all. It was just the sort of occasion where Mr Colpeper would look in to ensure all was well. I think I saw his mother serving tea.


What A Canterbury Tale is really about is not the hunt for the glue man, nor the powerful role of women in war, nor the beauty and resilience of that city. It is about the blessings received by the three latter-day pilgrims

Denis Price plays the cathedral organ for a congregation of soldiers and rediscovers his vocation as a serious musician. John Sweet receives a stack of letters from the girl he thought had dumped in. Sheila Sim learns that her fiancé is alive and that his father, reconciled to their marriage, is waiting for her at a Canterbury hotel.

Eric Portman receives no such blessing, unless it is the knowledge that he has closed himself of from the world too much and that Sheila Sim or someone like her would be the woman for him.


Photo credit: Network Rail

And me? I have always been fascinated by trains and found the experience exhilarating. It was only the next day that I began to think about how lucky I had been. 

My train had struck some cows that had wandered on to the line and been derailed as a result. At Polmont in 1984, 13 people died in just such an accident.

And the driver, whom I talked to on the ride to Godmersham village hall in our cage, told me he had thought we were going down the embankment.

In the event we hit the low parapet of an underbridge and were diverted back towards the tracks and safety.

So my blessing may have been that I was still alive to warn you not to take A Canterbury Tale lightly.

This post was written for Terence Towles Canote's Rule, Britannia Blogathon.

Later. It's nothing to do with the film, but I could have mentioned that my friends' young son was quite insistent that I should spend the night with them in Hastings and not travel back to Canterbury. But then his mother is Irish, so he may have The Sight.


Caftan Woman said...

Never will I take the ethereal nature of magic for fragility, and may all pilgrims know their blessings when they see them.

Silver Screenings said...

This sounds like a thoughtful and wonderful movie. I'll be watching it the first chance I get.

Thanks for sharing your memories of visiting Canterbury, although it is unfortunate about the train – and the cows. I was in Canterbury some years ago, and your post brought back lovely memories. Thanks!

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you both for your comments. It's a wonderful film, but in recommending it I always feel I am revealing something very personal about myself. I loved Canterbury too and it is moving to see shots of it in wartime.

brandnewguy said...

That's quite an adventure you had! I too love the film and this part of Colpeper's lecture is extraordinary and beautiful:
"Well, there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road, and as you walk, think of them and of the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers. The same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing, as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me."

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks! I originally had that quote in the post, but then I found the video.

Anonymous said...

A very late comment! I really enjoy reading your blog especially all the local history relating to Market Harborough, as I am a local history enthusiast myself. A Canterbury Tale is also one of my favourite films along with A Matter of Life and Death.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks Anon. - that's very kind.