The Story of Arcadia

Bridport storyteller Martin Maudsley tells us why he is hosting a screening of the film Arcadia in his home town

For the last few years I’ve been working with environmental arts charity Common Ground as their storyteller-in-residence. Based in west Dorset, for the last 35 years they’ve championed local distinctiveness and helped diverse communities to celebrate season and place across the UK. Their projects – ranging from sculpture commissions, to parish maps, to establishing Apple Day as a national institution – have both upheld tradition and pioneered innovative ways to mark the intersections between nature and culture. The 2017 film Arcadia is co-produced by Common Ground with support of the British Film Institute and BBC. This month, alongside Common Ground’s Adrian Cooper, I’m hosting Arcadia for a special screening and discussion at Bridport Arts Centre.

As a professional storyteller I’m aware that I’m part of a traditional art-form – a link in the chain that stretches back as far as fire and cave paintings. Some of the tales I tell, passed on by word of mouth, are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. But that’s only half the story. Old tales retold by a new storyteller to a contemporary audience are fresh and dynamic – they come alive in the moment of their telling. The word traditional (rather than implying old-fashioned or conventional) refers to a method of transmission. ‘Tradition’ literally means: to give-across, to hand-over, to pass-on. It’s inherently generous in spirit so that in taking from the past, and acknowledging its source, the material is then free take on a new life in the hands of the next generation.

Arcadia is entirely made up for film archive, mainly from the BFI National Archive, that spans over a hundred years of life and landscape in Britain. The breadth of material and range of seasons and settings is mind-boggling, a feast of moving images that is both visceral and sophisticated. The pain-staking care and attention of the film, directed by Paul Wright, reveals how tradition and the past can become a way of expressing something about today. The selection of scenes and archive images are vividly brought to life on the screen with an energy and effervescence that, like a good story well told, brings you to the edge of your seat.

In Greek mythology ‘Arcadia’ was the dwelling place of Pan, the god of nature. Conventionally, the word refers to a notional place of unspoiled wilderness and rural harmony. The title is seemingly a provocative take interpretation on Arcadia, where inter-war footage of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ and scenes of traditional farming are jarringly juxtaposed with those of forced migration from the land, industrialisation of agriculture and urban deprivation. Intentionally, the film provides no clear-cut conclusions, and demands no predetermined responses. Yet, within its use of traditional images, a voice that speaks clearly to the here and now. There’s an aching echo in the film, which left me with thoughts around what happens when we break with tradition, disconnect from the seasons, alienate ourselves from the land and insulate ourselves against others.

Strangely, as someone who tells stories, I found the glaring absence of a single, overriding narrative thread part of the allure and appeal of the film. It allows space for creating our own connections, picking out our own particular threads within the vast visual tapestry. That’s not to say there are no stories within the film. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. In Arcadia the moving pictures conjure a thousand untold tales: whispered stories from the past and half-glimpsed visions of the future that continue to play out their plots long after the film has finished.

The film is richly interwoven throughout with an original musical score by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp). The music is expressive and exhilarating, allowing the emotions of the visual images to resonate fully and freely. At times, as they film slips swiftly between bucolic and brutal, the rhythm of the soundtrack feels like our own heartbeats are somehow made audible and amplified from the screen.

Arcadia is increasingly and gloriously dark, in the way that many traditional tales also unflinchingly delve into the shadowy side of humanity and the cruel, capricious forces of nature (often symbolised as supernatural beings). Those who, like me, revel in the twisted plots, macabre imagery and lack of happy endings within the genre of folk horror (for which the BFI is a itself a treasure trove) will find much to feed their imaginations. This special screening in Bridport is perfectly timed for late autumn, with All Hallows and scent of Bonfire Night in the air. It is a time of year when traditionally we still do relish cultural expressions of gory stories, horrible happenings and gratifyingly gruesome come-uppances. It’s a time too when ancestral memories resurface and unquiet ghosts, like those in this film, are allowed to speak.

There is extensive footage within the film of folk traditions that once held together the fabric of the countryside; those that have thrived, survived and withered, or might, in time, take root again. At one point in the film a voice from an archive clip whispers “It’s all about connecting to the land… and each other”. Neither whimsical nor beyond reproach, the peculiar, and the peculiarly British, representation of our folklore, festivals and customs are revealed rather as necessary and needed; a practical, participative expression of magic mystery born from the desperation and potential deprivation of making a living from the land.

Since moving to west Dorset five years ago my work as a storyteller has naturally and necessarily gravitated to stories connected with landscape and nature. Putting down my own roots in Bridport has facilitated a growing awareness of the other cultural and agricultural roots that already thread through the soil. Arcadia begins and ends with a few seconds of time-lapse footage showing plant roots growing. Pale and jerky they take on an eerie, ghostly quality. Once more, the traditional footage is transformed into something fresh and alive: the roots are revealed as living connections between life and land, people and place.

Arcadia will be screened at the Arts Centre on Monday 5 November, 7.30pm

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