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Review: A Man Between Three Rivers

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 7th February 2010

Anglia TV's knight logo Anglia Television was, and still is in name, the regional ITV company for the East of England, founded in 1959 and famous for making programmes such as Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, cheesy-but-popular "quiz of the week" Sale of the Century, and Survival, a highly respected nature documentary strand which often gave the BBC a run for its money. These were all produced in Norwich and all preceded by the famous Anglia Knight, a symbol it used right from its first broadcast until 1988, when it switched to this equally terrific identity.

Anglia particularly specialised in making regional programmes, and between its launch in 1959 until its takeover by Granada in 1999 used its allocated IBA regional timeslot to broadcast quality documentaries about the region which it served. This was largely as the result of one man; Dick Joice, a farmer's son who happened to meet the manager of Anglia Television, Lord Townsend as a result of taking over his father's tenancy. Townsend, realizing that farming was an important aspect of the region, wanted to feature a weekly agricultural programme, and chose Joice to present and produce the programme Farming Diary, and later About Anglia.

Anglia TV's studios in Norwich As a result of the infancy of television at the time, films or other equipment would often break during transmission, and Dick Joice would have to step 'in vision' to fill any gaps while the VT engineers fixed the problem. To help fill the time, he would bring along to the studio unusual or interesting objects to talk about, usually from agriculture or industry, to keep the audience entertained while the problem was sorted. These became popular and were the genesis of Bygones, a documentary series which ran from 1967 until the late 1980s and which documented regional traditions, history and crafts which were fast becoming extinct, featuring the real men and women for whom the particular topic was a way of life.

Of particular note are several extended episodes such as The Harvest, in which Joice assembled a group of octogenarian farmers to recreate an authentic Victorian harvest, Horsemen, which filmed men in their eighties and nineties who had worked with farm horses all their lives, and who discuss the various hierarchies and lore of their industry, and Gone For a Burton, which documented, through the recollections of two elderly Suffolk men the seasonal 'migration' of Anglian agricultural workers to work in the Burton upon Trent brewing industry, and whose musings range from the ribald to the astonishingly poignant, for example when one shows a photograph of himself proudly posed amongst a group of his co-workers, only to casually remark that they all died in the First War.

Due to the documentary makers' respect towards these people, and the earthy honesty of the people featured, many now long-lost ways of life, as well as authentic regional dialects have been preserved on film, and the importance of these as a social document is such that the films are held by the East Anglian Film Archive. They are very much a part of the narrative documentary movement, a method pioneered by Charles Parker's Radio Ballads of the 1950s, which gave voices to real people in real locations, telling real stories about themselves and their lives, rather than the falsehood of paid actors reading lines in a documentary which has already been preconceived by its makers' agenda.

With this in mind, I would like to discuss a 1975 Bygones special called A Man Between Three Rivers, which follows a year in the life of Ernie James, an old man from Welney, Cambridgeshire who can be considered the last true Fenman; a man who made his living off a square mile of land and water on the Ouse Washes by traditional Fen customs - catching eels, hunting wildfowl and growing willow. By the nature of the editing and images, the film transcends this simple premise to become a visual paean to a lost world. Even in 1975 it must have seemed nostalgic, but after 35 years the effect has magnified considerably.

It was written and co-produced by Geoffrey Weaver, the same producer responsible for Gone For a Burton, and directed by Ron Downing. One suspects that some of its nature photography may have been handled by the Survival team. The film is narrated by Alan Dobie, whose commentary is extensive, but not intrusive, and often quite poetic-sounding, in-keeping with the nature of the programme. The now rather grainy-looking 16mm colour film also gives the impression that it is something special.

The film opens with evocative images of James wading through a flooded river against a gloomy sunset:
"The cold, flooded washes at Welney are now perhaps the only really wild places left in the Fens. These bleak flat wastes, lying between three cuts in the River Ouse have a certain empty appeal, but this attraction would soon pale if we had to live here. Yet a square mile of these washes and flooded meadows has had to provide for one man a living and a way of life. And Ernie James of Welney would choose to be nowhere else..."
Ernie James is the last 'punt gunner', a man who lives by the seasons with his wife and dog in a small cottage next to the Old Bedford river in the heart of the Fens. The film follows his year, showing him at work, his methods of catching wildlife and managing the rivers and dykes in his stretch of land, as well as his role in the life of his village. As the commentary points out, while it is easy to view him sentimentally as a quaint folk figure from the past, his lack of dependency on 20th Century economic systems can give him an almost "mythical" status, as the final embodiment of a folk tradition spanning centuries. His authentic Fen accent, with all the unusual intonations that have since been lost, adds to the feeling that this is an important historical record.

Ernie James hunting eels We join him in late Winter, showing the construction of eel cages from willow, which he informs us are preferable to modern steel cages, as eels suck willow, making them easier to catch. Winter is the most profitable season, when the Fen Washes flood, bringing with it a plethora of wildfowl for him to catch. The film demonstrates his ingenious methods of trapping several birds, such as the lapwing, which he catches using a cunningly disguised net on an artificially dried island. (He has to let it go, as the bird is now a protected species.)

Most impressive is a scene in which he demonstrates his skills as a 'punt gunner', lying perfectly flat in a punt with a huge single-shot gun. Paddles in hands, he slowly creeps towards a flock of ducks looking somewhat like a crocodile. He gleefully informs us that he once killed 48 birds using a single shot with this method. Later, while breaking the ice on his stretch of water during a heavy frost, he recollects how he was a champion ice skater in his youth.

Visually, the film features a slow natural progression of images, with emphasis on the water and sky of the landscape which James inhabits. This is punctuated by images of the wildlife of the area, especially the birds, the unspoken comparison being drawn that Ernie James is somehow part of that cycle as much as any other predator.

By comparison to the serious tone of most of the documentary, a scene at the local pub, the Lamb and Flag, is presented in a mildly comic manner, with elements such as a shot of the small twists on the ends of the landlord's moustache, or a conversation between Ernie and his friend Herbie Wayman about the colour of moles:
"There can be few pubs left now where conversation can revolve around moles, rather than football or the winner of yesterday's race. And it's precisely because Ernie can find at the pub company and conversation with people like himself who know his world and talk his language on the strange ways of the mole that he values his visit to the Lamb and Flag."
However, the narrator is always quick to remind us that James is not a folksy figure using antiquated methods, but that the methods he employs to catch his living are tried and tested methods handed down through generations of Fenmen.

The soundtrack chosen for the film is also particularly relevant, featuring E.J. Moeran's Symphony in G Minor composed between 1924 and 1937. This was a highly appropriate choice, and one that cannot have been made without a great deal of forethought. Moeran was born in Bacton, Norfolk, and spent much of his youth collecting folk songs from the people of the Eastern coastline, amongst them "The Shooting of His Dear", a Norfolk folksong which, according to Geoffrey Self, is frequently referenced in the symphony through the lines "Jimmy was a fowler", which of course is what Ernie James is. The bleakness of the second movement, a depiction of the landscape of the Eastern Counties and the levity of the avian-inspired third movement couple perfectly with the imagery of the documentary, and give the film a timeless quality. It was also especially redolent for me, as this is one of my favourite pieces of music.

The inclusion of other excerpts from Peter Warlock's Serenade for Orchestra, perhaps the most beautiful of British string miniatures, over a description of a summer scene were particularly evocative. At one point, James even sings a short folk song while accompanying himself on the violin, a bit of folk-song collection from the documentary makers that Moeran surely would have approved of.

Indeed, the whole 40 minute film comes together as a wonderfully fulfilling, and at times moving portrait of a man who is aware that he is the last of his generation. The programme itself feels like a wholly serious piece of filmmaking, a true documentary, and the requirement of filming during each season of the year represents an impressive commitment on the part of the producers. What makes this all the more impressive is that this was only intended for broadcast in East Anglia.

And that's the point - while this programme might not be particularly interesting for somebody living in, say, Macclesfield, it is acutely so for anybody living in the East of England. It is an example of how important regional television can be, and the heights to which it can aspire. Ernie James died aged 99 in 2005, but ironically, it was the regional TV documentary producer whose days were numbered, making this film as much a tribute to them as it is to him.

RW


A Man Between Three Rivers

Channel: Anglia Television (ITV)
TX Dates: 9th October 1975
Duration: 38 mins, (not inc. commercials)
Details: SD: Mono, 16mm colour 4:3
Writers: Geoffrey Weaver
Director: Ron Downing
Producers: Geoffrey Weaver, Dick Joice (exec)
Overall: 9/10





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