I HAVE a theory about why we are still so fascinated by the Victorians.
This theory is the result of, ooh, at least ten seconds' thought and watching Penny Woolcock's lovely, sad, sweet film From The The Sea To The Land Beyond. It's a very simple theory. The reason we're so obsessed with the Victorians is – tah dah – that they were the earliest people we've seen in photographs and on film.
Right at the beginning of Woolcock's film – which is made up found footage she's gleaned mostly from old government information films – we see all these Victorians on the front in Blackpool back in 1900 or so gazing at the camera. They've probably never seen a camera before, but they react the way people always react in front of a camera. They smile. They stare. They gurn. Watching it we can see ourselves. The Georgians were us too, of course, but we haven't got any photographic evidence.
Woolcock's patchwork film - some of it made by great talents, some not, but all edited to a British Sea Power soundtrack – says something about us; about who we are and who we've been. It travels from the Scottish islands to Brighton, from Bass Rock to Blackpool, through war and peace, industry and emptiness. It's history in flickering black and white, deep, saturated mid-century colour and washed-out modern video footage.
About 40 minutes in there is, I reckon, one of the greatest shots in cinema history, when the camera climbs and climbs and climbs up the side of a ship being built, finally reaches the deck and then keeps climbing before tracking round to show us the wide screen picture.
What are we looking at? At all our ghosts. And the changing, changeless sea.
From From The The Sea To The Land Beyond is out on DVD on Monday from the BFI.
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