Monday 14 March 2022

On demand: "Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War"

To answer your first question: Harry Birrell was an amateur cameraman from Paisley who, upon his death in 1993, left behind a treasure trove of 400 cine films (each preceded by a "Harry Birrell Presents" logo) shot over the course of the 20th century. Depending on your outlook, Birrell was a member of either the Golden or a deeply unlucky generation: born in March 1918, in the final months of a War that claimed his father's life, he came of age in a world gearing up for a scarcely less costly sequel. His short films, newly anthologised over the 90 minutes of Matt Pinder's 
Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War, illustrate this transition perfectly. After some late Thirties postcards of young men and women frolicking by the Serpentine, painted in those glorious now-faded pastels of early colour film stock, the Birrell oeuvre moved onto stock scenes of the soldiering life: training in the snow of Dunbar and Hamilton, exercises in the countryside, a brief respite on the Isle of Arran, and then - as the conflict kicked off in earnest - images from far beyond the Highlands and islands. It quickly becomes apparent that Birrell was exactly the kind of romantic and visionary who comes into their own upon taking delivery of a camera: his back catalogue is awash with delirious sunsets and landscapes that position their photographer as a fighting sibling to Robert Flaherty or the Murnau of Tabu. (He declared Gone with the Wind, which he caught while on leave, "marvellous": think of the sunsets in that film of love and war, and you can see exactly why it spoke to him so.) Pinder, recognising just what's been handed to him here, affords Birrell the last of the opening credits and the first of the closing credits as director of photography.

The question is how this 21st century production goes about framing its raw material. We hear sporadically from Birrell's granddaughter Carina (a producer here), still picking over the circumstances of her own existence. Mostly, though, Films of Love and War unfolds in montage, with Birrell's images narrated by Richard Madden, reading from the filmmaker's diaries and letters home. What's striking about these is their plainness of expression: it's Birrell speaking directly to his emotions at any given point. The images, meanwhile, are speaking eloquently for themselves, and generating their own historical momentum. They'd do for any wartime melodrama Harry and his beloved Anne might have snuck away to see at the pictures: to see that, you need take only one look at the blues of the Indian Ocean soldier boy crossed to get to his eventual posting alongside the Gurkhas in Burma. The arterial scarlet spraying from the necks of those animals sacrificed during a welcoming ceremony would be as vivid, were Pinder not wise enough to tone down these images for a contemporary audience. As Carina wonders over images of corpses encountered on the battlefield: did Harry have a hand in these deaths? With the act of discovery comes the possibility of discovering something you might not like. (It was a simpler time, but also a less filtered time.) Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the Birrell films mesh into a captivating self-portrait of a young man testing himself and his limits, and making the camera a confidant in this process: shutter open, eyes wide. One quibble: this is 20th century footage subjected to 21st century editing rhythms, and you may find yourself - as I did - wanting certain images to linger a little more than they do, for whole reels to play out at their own pace. Even from these selected highlights, though, you gain a valuable understanding of a generation of working-class Brits who only got to travel because of the War - and of one man in particular, marvelling at the new frontiers opening up before him, the beauty and horror of it all. Harry Birrell really did sign up and see the world.

Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War is now streaming via the BBC iPlayer. 

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