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Glastonbury: The Untold Story - Film Review
21-06-2010, 02:08 PM
Post: #1
Glastonbury: The Untold Story - Film Review
Glastonbury: The Untold Story
Documentary film by 4reelFilms, written and presented by Dr. Tim Hopkinson-Ball, produced by Liz Leyshon for Strode Theatre, 1hr 30 mins., 2010. Shown at Strode Theatre, Street, 8-11 May, 2010.


It would be difficult in mid-Somerset to remain unaware of the new documentary film Glastonbury: the Untold Story. The writer and presenter is the cover of Strode Theatre’s April-July programme, the film has been widely trailed in the local press, and large promotional postcards of the film poster, with his portrait set against a silhouette of the Tor, have been widely distributed to fish and chip shops, village post offices and the like. If this were merely a publicly funded exercise in self-promotion by an ambitious local author then it would scarcely merit a review. It may be seen, however, as a milestone in the evolution of Glastonbury’s self-awareness in succession to the St. Dunstan’s Millennium celebrations of 1988, the revival of Rutland Boughton’s Immortal Hour in 1996, and Dr. Ball’s own re-discovery and revival of Alice Buckton’s 1923 historical film in 2004, parts of which are included in the present film.

More than one reviewer of Dr. Ball’s 2007 biography of F. Bligh Bond noted a dismissive attitude towards contemporary Glastonbury, in particular to the Festival. His new movie may be, in part, an answer to such critics. After the book’s appearance, he took part in a TV documentary on Bond presented by national treasure Tony Robinson - ‘Baldric’. It is alleged that, off-camera, Baldric, noted for his down to earth style, was uncomplimentary about Glastonbury and its New Age manifestations. Dr. Ball has perhaps felt he could do better. He has also since moved to Glastonbury, and may perhaps be finding himself drawn ever deeper into its spell. The Bond book appeared under the somewhat over-inflated title of The Rediscovery of Glastonbury and a similar exaggeration is seen in the title of the present film, which turns out to be a much-told story focusing on the now-familiar figures of Bond himself, Buckton, and Boughton.

The opening sequences introduce us to the writer’s image of himself as a very clever chap indeed with a proper doctorate and everything. He then sets out in what appears to be a laboured recreation of Baldric’s style. These rather toe-curling preliminaries over, the film happily settles down; the presenter slips into a manner more reminiscent of Ian Hislop, with which he clearly feels more at home. We meet Michael Eavis and are given a positive, if still slightly patronising, view of the famous Festival (which the Doctor admits he has never been to), endorsed by an enthusiastic member of the town council. We then plunge into the past. We meet, among others, composer Rutland Boughton’s grandson, and ground-breaking local historical writers Geoffrey Ashe and Patrick Benham. We see some of the Doctor’s collection of Bond’s cabalistic manuscripts, previously shown at an exhibition at Glastonbury Abbey. He makes skilful use of connections made in researching his Bond book. We are allowed to view Glastonbury’s Masonic temple, a site definitely closed to most tourist itineraries. We also meet a current member of the secretive Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, of which Bond was a sometime member. There are some surprising omissions, however, and obvious links which are not made. The name of Dr. Wynn Wescott is seen on a Masonic document which flashes onscreen, but it is not made very clear that the Soc. Ros. was the ‘mothership’ of the renowned magical order of the Golden Dawn, which included women as well as men, and that Wescott, its founder, had been a Somerset medical man who led a ‘Rosicrucian Pilgrimage’ to Glastonbury in 1909. We meet the present Abbot of Downside, but little is made of Downside as in part a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic attempt to recreate pre-Reformation Glastonbury Abbey, and we are not told of the succession of monks there, Cardinal Gasquet, biographer of Glastonbury’s last abbot, Dom Ethelred Horne, who succeeded Bond as excavator at Glastonbury, and Dom Aelred Watkin (died 1997), who edited Glastonbury’s medieval documents in the mid-twentieth century, who made such an important contribution to Glastonbury studies. More than once we see archive film of Alice Buckton, in ceremonies at the Chalice Well, ringing a small bell with a striker. We are not told that she believed this to have belonged to St. Brigit, an Irish saint who doubled as a pagan goddess, who allegedly visited Glastonbury and is much beloved by the Goddess’s devotees here, one of whose leaders we meet later on. We see the Doctor and Michael Eavis at the Pilton tithe barn, but we are not told that Mr. Eavis made the expensive renovation of this important medieval building after a disastrous fire one of his special projects, a vivid example of the Festival’s contribution to mid-Somerset’s wider heritage.

In contrast, some of the material which actually is included to pad out an hour’s-worth of documentary to feature-film length can only occasion puzzlement. Did the Dickensian figure of (the former) Mayor Gloak actually have much to contribute (except, perhaps, to the project’s fund-raising)? We are not told why we should be particularly interested in the amiable but unexceptional views of a little-known lady novelist (Barbara Erskine) on Glastonbury as a centre for spiritual refreshment. What are her books actually about, the rest of us might like to know? An over-long sequence on a spiral stair tells us no more than that church towers may be high, and the presenter short of breath. Most televisual documentaries on Glastonbury (and there have been several) contain an attempt at rationalist historical critique of the Glastonbury mythos. The lack of one here is clearly deliberate and, in the present context, legitimate. We are looking at beliefs people have actually held, and hold, not judging their correctness or otherwise. More questionable is the omission of any acknowledgement of a darker side to New Age Glastonbury itself. Words like decapitation and heroin are nowhere to be heard. Nor is any hint of the at times acute social tensions between incomers and travellers with anarchic, and sometimes criminal, lifestyles, and what sees itself as a long-suffering indigenous population, which have been such a marked feature of Avalon’s past quarter-century. This lack of contrast, balance, and realism lends at times a rather saccharine flavour.

There is much here, none the less, to interest and delight. Cinema is an accessible and sociable medium, and many who might not sit down to read historical biography will doubtless learn much which, if not actually new, is new to them, and take the opportunity for discussion and reminiscence with their friends and neighbours. It is good, too, to see Strode Theatre taking an active roll in the development of cultural life in the region. Cause for optimism may also be found in the efforts of composer Charles Hazlewood, featured here, to develop the classical side of the Glastonbury area’s musical heritage. And who would not wish to see more of the splendid nonagenarian lady Joy Whitcombe, whose childhood memories of life at Alice Buckton’s Chalice Well in the distant Avalonian dream-time which followed the Great War remain so vivid and immediate? We seem transported, too, to a more tranquil age with vignettes of steam trains of the old Somerset and Dorset railway. Older viewers may be reminded of those short, sunny, Technicolor films which used to precede the main feature at the cinemas of the 1950s and earlier 1960s, with titles like Welcome to Mummerset, and jolly and enthusiastic voice-overs in patrician tones. Such nostalgia was, perhaps, a part of the effect that was intended here.


Paul Ashdown, MMX.
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