In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
I watched the first series (programmes 1-6) many years ago when it was broadcast on BBC television and then caught up with the rest of the others (programmes 7- 14) on DVD. It made me realise how little I knew about Civil Rights struggle in the USA. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were well known to this British school boy but this documentary series showed that the movement was wider, deeper and full of more pain and suffering.
Julian Bond narrates the series. I came to love and respect his voice as he calmly detailed the battles fought for dignity by African-Americans throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I had no idea that he, himself, played a major part in the campaigns for equality.
The first series covered the period 1954- 1965. This was a period of great change but also great resistance by majority populations that felt threatened by any improvement to the living conditions of black people. The second series took the story on to 1985 and covered key issues and events such as Muhammad Ali’s fight for recognition, the Black Panther movement and the election of Harold Washington as the Mayor of Chicago.
Like all documentary series that make use of talking heads this has the poignancy of hearing from the people involved but what places this particular series in the highest echelons of the form is the use of ‘ordinary’ people who were involved.
Since November 8th, I have felt somewhat conflicted about the USA. As a British person I am aware that it isn’t my country but it is a country that has always fascinated me and its history in particular has inspired me. On November 9th I wanted to turn my back on it and all its works. Yet, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ reminds me that there are Americans who serve to inspire.
I was fortunate to see the great actor Richard Johnson play Atticus Finch in the play version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when it came to Bath. Written by Christopher Sergel, the play worked best as a courtroom drama as this is the setting where the skill of Atticus Finch, as an attorney, is seen to its best advantage.
The scenes with Jem and Scout were less well realised but it would take very good casting to be able to live up to the book or the film. In any case, the drama is in the court. This is the place where the racism of the time and place was exposed yet stood intact. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and the arguments expressed, although elegant to the ears of the liberal listener, could not overturn years of tradition entrenched by fear.
Interestingly, my memories of the play centre completely on Johnson as Atticus. I have little memory of the other actors or scenes which were dramatically expressed in book and film.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary film, released in 1998, is about the making of the movie version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It includes interviews with most of the major figures involved in getting the project off the ground. Harper Lee, herself, is missing from the film but the actors, producers, director and screenwriter all appear, giving their accounts of what it was like being involved in, what became, a film classic.
As with all major successes, it is difficult to remember that when being made success was not guaranteed. Added to that, there would be lovers of the book who would resent any treatment of the novel that fell short of their expectations.
The narration was a bit grating after a while, in my opinion. The portentous style got on my nerves about ten minutes in but the candid interviews made up for this. The most revealing anecdotes showed that, despite the subject matter, this was a Hollywood film and personal rivalries abounded.
Small town America was also examined; both the positive community aspects and the negative attitudes to race were examined.
The documentary is best watched by someone who has already read the book and seen the film. It works best as a companion piece.
Now here was a dilemma: to read or not to read the discovered book by Harper Lee. I was happier when I knew it was an earlier draft of what was to become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The idea of a sequel was not one I welcomed.
I read and heard a lot of the coverage when the book was published last year, most of it about Atticus and his views on race and how this showed a completely different person to the one I knew and loved from the famous book. I was also sad to learn that Jem had died an untimely death. Since I saw the story more through his eyes than Scout’s, this was, to me, an omission I felt all the way through.
However, I was more impressed than I thought I would be. I was waiting for the moments when Jean Louise, as Scout now commonly calls herself, comes face to face with Atticus’s views on race and was impressed by her reaction. I would say her response was the one I wanted from her and I followed her through the next stage of the book completely on her side. When other members of the family intervened to make the peace I was less impressed with her response and, ultimately, with the message of the book.
It is an argument that has continued through the ages: do you accommodate people whose views you find offensive or do you cut yourself off from them. Obviously, when the people you wish to disassociate from are your family members it becomes harder but the essential argument remains the same. By looking at the simmering tensions in the 50s South through the relationship of father and daughter, Harper Lee has attempted to show how one person might react.
Recent events in the UK (no- platforming, universities as safe spaces) have led me to reassess my own views on what to do when you meet distasteful views; free speech must be protected. Yet, I am also reminded of the people who spent years campaigning against apartheid by refusing to engage with the regime. In the end I decided Jean Louise should have packed her bags, I wanted her to and wished her well on her journey away from her hometown. The ending is not the one I wanted.
Fortunately, in this book we have the flashbacks to the childhood times and adventures that were identified by Harper Lee’s editor as the true source of wisdom in her writing. By making her rewrite this book we had the classic.
The film version of Harper Lee’s novel was released in 1962. I studied the book in 1976. I had no idea there was a film and back in the 70s, unless it was shown on television, there would have been no way to see it. It was long gone from the cinemas and only a helpful co-incidence of scheduling would have enabled me to watch rather than read it.
I am pleased I grew up in a time before on line streaming, DVDs, or even video cassettes since there was no way to consume ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ other than to read it. Having done so, for my English Literature O Level, I gained a book that has remained in my hinterland ever since.
When I discovered that a film had been made of the book I loved, I was reluctant to watch it. By this stage I had passed through university and the age of the video cassette made it possible to watch at any time. I held off. The chances of a film director replacing my vision with his own were too great a risk. Instead, I kept my own version of the story alive and only ended up watching the film when asked to do so with a friend. It seemed rude to decline and odd to say that I didn’t want my book memory affected.
Gregory Peck was not my Atticus Finch but he was amazing in this role and the film earned its place as a classic in my hinterland. I can see why Peck won the Academy Award. The film was directed by Robert Mulligan with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Mary Badham as Scout and Philip Alford as Jem were very close to the children in my head from reading the book. It is now hard to picture anyone else when rereading the novel.
Many films have to distil the book to tell the story, or concentrate on some parts at the expense of others but this film did not fall short of its tall order.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There are very few books that I would claim changed me but this is one of them. The novel by Harper Lee was also one of the few books of the many that my secondary school made me read that I actually enjoyed. Everything was stacked against it: it was the 70s; the book was set in the American South, a country I had never visited; it had themes of race relations that I had never considered before. Yet, the set book for my English Literature O Level affected me so much that it changed my life.
The story is well known but to my sixteen year old self the idea of injustice stretched as far as thinking things in my own life were not fair. After studying this book my eyes were opened to a wider world of injustice. Not only that but the United States, which had been the place of our teenage dreams, was shown to be a country of more dimensions than I had previously known.
Jem was my favourite character and in the movie I made in my head as I read it, I was Jem. Even though I had a younger brother and not a sister and even though my father was nothing like the wise and thoughtful Atticus, I wanted to be Jem.
Although the book has been famous for years I had not come across it before it was placed before me by a teacher. I remember well The New Windmill Series edition by Heinemann. My parents did not know of it either. It reminds me of the essential role schools and teachers play in opening eyes and minds in young people. It is no surprise that, when Education Secretary, Conservative Michael Gove was so dismissive of the idea of the book’s place as a set text. His opposition only confirms for me the importance of the novel for today’s teenagers.
I had to give back my copy of the book at the end of the year, once the exams had been taken so the copy I have today is the one I bought when at university, a nondescript cover on a Pan edition which I only bought so as to own a copy and have it on my bookshelf. It is there still.
Although I loved studying English Literature, most set texts had the life squeezed out of them through tedious deconstruction. This book survived it all. Interestingly, although I can remember exam questions for the other works I studied, I cannot remember the questions about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It really did transcend its set book status.
It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?