Neatly timed to coincide with the BFI’s release of the film on DVD comes Kevin Brownlow’s account of the making of Winstanley, his second and (to date) last collaboration with producer Andrew Mollo. Written in 1976, soon after the film’s cinematic release, but never published until now, it’s a rueful but highly readable account of the film-makers’ gallant battle with the elements, a starveling budget, temperamental livestock (both human and animal), disastrously inept labs, blinkered distributors and “the bureaucratic machinery of the BFI”.
Readers of his earlier book How It Happened Here (in which he chronicled the making of It Happened Here, his 1965 film about England under Nazi occupation) will recognise Brownlow’s characteristic mix of self-deprecatory humour and exasperation. “If there’s one thing I am good at, it’s worrying,” he observes, and the eight-month shoot on a windswept hilltop in Surrey (give or take one or two interior locations) gave him plenty of scope to exercise his prime talent. Not that he and Mollo ever set out to make things easy for themselves. In telling the story of the Diggers - the band of gentle proto-communists who in 1649, just after the Civil War, declared the earth common to all and started to cultivate a patch of land in Surrey – they aimed for total period authenticity of speech, costumes, buildings, plants, animals and artefacts, and even ensured that birdsong heard on the soundtrack was from the correct birds at the appropriate times of day and season.
The making of Winstanley, like the events it chronicles, was an idealistic and in many ways naive enterprise, foredoomed to failure. The film received a derisory release and, except in France, was largely dismissed by reviewers.But the film – again like the Diggers’ achievement – has started to attain a significance out of all proportion to its impact at the time. This book should go a long way towards furthering that process.