Grace Dent on TV: After the X Factor, I found a strange, beautiful film that made all those pop crises just fade away
From the Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain's Coast on Film, BBC4
I chanced upon the very beautiful, mesmerising From the Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain's Coast on Film, last Sunday evening during the regular five-minute channel flicking free-for-all post-ITV1's The X Factor; a show I'm resolutely not watching this year, while still watching, ironically.
Last Sunday, the nation, playing out on Twitter, was in a state of boggle-eyed plutonium grade umbrage over the voting off of Ella Henderson who has been cited many times as a global superstar-in-waiting. In fact, Ella is a moderately talented, highly affable 16-year-old who can clank her way through "Believe" by Cher with most of the notes in the right ballpark. If I'd been on a 10-night P&O cruise around northern Europe and Ella had appeared on a slightly raised area in the cabaret theatre, just after I'd had my photo taken being starstruck with the ship's captain, and she had belted out "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion, I'd probably agree Ellie had "a pleasant voice".
Yet due to the non-unique way we enjoy light entertainment in Britain, Ella's dismissal from The X Factor had whipped the nation up into a frenzy about injustice. At that moment, over on Sky News, running concurrently, Israel and Gaza were in the throes of horror, but us human beings don't really liked to be reminded of the complexity of dozens of dead children when we can be furious on behalf of one very loved, healthy child getting the chance to go home.
Tradition says that the X Factor saga will proceed in this manner becoming ever more heart-tampering, tear-purging, painful and joyous until the moment the titles roll on the 9 December climax when suddenly, it's done. Over. The scales fall from the nation's eyes, we humans realise we don't care about these contestants at all. If anything, we feel grubby, manipulated and used, In fact, we would step over Christopher Maloney or Union J in our front drives without checking for vital signs. I pondered all of this as I watched From the Sea to the Land Beyond, an hour-long narration of archive clips of us everyday British islanders and our relationship with the coastline. A world pre-X Factor, pre-text votes, pre-rolling news, pre-the quest for fame, pre-judging panels and an exciting chance to win a VIP pool cabana with Olly Murs.
Not strictly a documentary, in fact, From the Sea to the Land Beyond was billed as "a meditation", which might sound pretentious, but after 10 minutes of staring at the camera lavishing on fishwives outside cottages sewing nets or boho fillies dancing on the beach or surreal May Day parades in foliage-covered carriages, gentlemen swimming in top hats, a multitude of happy and weary faces from yesteryear, it was impossible not be pondersome. This put me in mind of Godfrey Reggio's 1982 head-bending classic Koyaanisqatsi but focusing on British coastal splendour, how we were, how we still are all gloriously cosseted with a British Sea Power score. Without a jot of narration or captioning, it's left for the viewer to simply watch the footage and root around in the dark, often neglected, corners of one's brain to make sense of what's going on. Why is that little girl dancing on cast-iron girders 100 feet up? This must be the Thirties, surely? Why is no one stopping her? Who is that girl in the cart being whisked through the streets? A carnival queen? And why all this public dancing? When did we stop dancing in the streets on holidays? Is this May Day, Easter or a happy time we once celebrated then forgot about or cancelled. At times, feelings of loss washed over me like waves on Silloth beach, where I spent many long Sundays in the Seventies on "nice runs-out in the car" with my gran and granddad. A glass bottle of Barr's Cream Soda and a reclaimed ice-cream box full of egg and salad cream on Sunblest bread in the back of a Maxi car listening to tales of stuff that went on in Silloth in bygone times. Blimey, I was bored. I was missing the start of the charts on Radio 1.
Now it's 2012, it's Sunday night and I'm delivered archive footage of my gran's peer group, out on the razz, best hats and frocks on to entrance the boys, promenading in pairs linking arms, crowds gathering to watch pier-side entertainers or local show-offs, pretty girls kissing handsome lads who will later be taken by war. The footage is continuously confusing and for me the only person who can offer a full and frank is my grandparents, yet they have long since gone. The cream soda supply has dried up, the car has been scrapped, their house was sold and modernised, my sandwiches now come from Pret. I sit with my soda watching seagulls and ship builders and lifeboat displays as British Sea Power soothe and sadden me in turn. This documentary offered only questions and no answers, a chance to think, and perhaps only one clear message. Our time here is limited. Get out more and enjoy the sea breeze. The past is a different country. We ate ice-creams differently there.
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