This compilation of short films about the English and their relationship to the countryside begins in the archives: seven films dating from the 1930s to 1980s, glimpses of how we lived then. All were filmed on what have become national trails: the long distance walks that came into being after the second world war in response to fears of developers concreting over every square foot of green and pleasant land.
In the first, from 1956, members of a youth fellowship yomp across the South Downs. The scene is like the start of an Ian McEwan novel: young men in stiff wool suits lark about; girls dressed primly like their mothers smile shyly. All look as if they’re gagging for 1963 and the arrival of the you-know-what Philip Larkin wrote about. There’s also a walk along the Pilgrims Way and a terrific ITV film from 1988 that ends in a Norfolk pub where the local residents call the sturdy landlady “mother”.
In only one of the archive films do you see a person of colour, which sets up the conversation for at least one of the three new artists’ films in the second half. They’ve clearly been commissioned to give a kick up the backside to the postcard image of sleepy white rural England. Artist Dan Guthrie from Stroud directs a film called black strangers, inspired by an entry in old parish records from 1719 – the burial of a “black stranger” also called Daniel. In his tender, emotional film Guthrie walks through the countryside talking aloud to 18th-century Daniel. Did he experience the same feelings of being judged and excluded in the countryside. Did he get the same microaggressions: the looks and “not from round here” comments?
The archive and artists’ films are an interesting if slightly eccentric pairing, though. You can’t help but wonder what audiences in the market for scenes of a bucolic bygone life make of Arjuna Neuman’s Syncopated Green, with its techno soundtrack to countryside paintings at the National Gallery?