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Photoplay Productions

ISBN 978-1-905796-24-3

Price £9.99

220 Pages

Released April 2010

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WINSTANLEY: Review by Gerald Isaaman, Camden New Journal

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‘We could certainly do with a new Winstanley to help today’

Gerald Isaaman meets Kevin Brownlow to discuss the digital revival of his film about the 17th-century revolutionary,
Gerrard Winstanley

Winstanley: Warts and All. By Kevin Brownlow
. UKA Press,

KEVIN Brownlow admits, disarmingly, that he had never heard of Gerrard Winstanley when he first came across him decades ago. Most people haven’t, even today.

Yet Winstanley was one of the inspiring heroes to emerge from the ravages of the Civil War, a singular, truly green man who helped to turn the world – and recorded history – upside down.
His basic utopian belief, influenced by the ideas of John Lilburne and the Levellers, was that all land belonged to the community under what he claimed to be “The New Law of Righteousness”, a pamphlet he wrote in 1648.
Only “selfish imaginations”, he protested, set one man or more to rule over others. His challenge to the essence of power earned Cromwell’s frightening rebuke: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people to pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”
And so it was that his revolutionary commune of Diggers who, faced with grinding poverty and national unrest, took over wasteground at St George’s Hill, Surrey, and were forced to run for their lives after two years of persecution because they “sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans”.
Winstanley’s brave social experiment – The Law of Freedom, he called it, before becoming a Quaker – was copied elsewhere across the country but, inevitably, met the same fate when Charles II regained the throne lost by his decapitated father.
“We could certainly do with a Winstanley with a new vision for today,” says Brownlow, now 71, a softly spoken, self-effacing film historian of renown, who has spent most of his life in Hampstead.
“The Labour Party is no longer the Labour Party. Nor is the Conservative Party. You can hardly tell the difference. We are in a real mess. And I don’t know where we’re heading.”
But at least the uninitiated can now discover for themselves the marvels of Winstanley, thanks to the timely revival of the unique film made by Brownlow and his colleague, Andrew Mollo. The film was shot on a tiny budget with a volunteer cast, and was first shown in 1975. This digital resuscitation is the work of the British Film Institute.
And there is also the publication of Brownlow’s poignant book, Winstanley: Warts and All, which lay on the shelf for 34 years.
It is a remarkable dual event that has come out of the blue for Brownlow.
You need to see the new DVD – the BBC refused to show the original film – before reading the book about the attempts of two creative and passionate film-makers to become masters of cinematic art. The film was based on a novel by David Caute and made for a mere £24,000 over a period of the four seasons after the turmoil of failing to find sufficient funding.
Yet it was done with a love and a perfection for detail and costume that is outstanding, with amateur actor Miles Halliwell triumphant in the title role.
“But everyone shall put their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all,” cried out Winstanley.
“When a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be the common Treasury for every man.”
In a world collapsing under greed, with the well of idealism running dry, the film is an epic of political poetry we need to inspire the way ahead. Yet Brownlow, who now runs Photoplay Productions, based in Primrose Hill, remains convinced the film, as with an earlier one, It Happened Here, are far from perfect.
“No artist is ever satisfied,” insists. “We did the best we could at the time.”
Indeed, neither film made it at the box office, and while Winstanley is hailed as a masterpiece in France, the anxieties of making it diverted Brownlow from his true path.
“I wanted to be a professional director, making films with a social context here or in Hollywood,” he confesses.
“If I hadn’t made those first two features outside the industry, and taken a more normal route, I might have achieved that ambition.”
And he adds contemplatively: “Money is essential in making films. If you get enough of it, it gives you time to make them properly – and time ensures quality. That’s why cheap pictures are usually so awful and why Hollywood spends hundreds of millions to achieve the standards of epics like Titanic.”
But you cannot but admire Winstanley, made on a shoestring budget in all weathers and with just one professional actor in the cast – Jerome Willis, playing General Fairfax. It remains a diverting classic, in a class of its own, and this is why it deserves its new life for a new audience – in new and worrying times.
As The Diggers once sang: “You poor take courage, you rich take care/This Earth was made a Common Treasury for everyone to share/All things in common, all people one.”

• Winstanley: Warts and All. By Kevin Brownlow. UKA Press, £10.99
• Winstanley DVD. BFI, £19.56


Camden New Journal

17th September 2009

Page 2

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Published on: 2009-09-20 (1537 reads)

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