Circus at Clopton Hall is a film about three children who live on
an old abandoned farm in East Anglia; in this world of empty barns
and overgrown cart-tracks where the sound of the wind in the corn
and grasses is broken only by jets overhead, they create their own world
of the circus. Their friends some from the village and join them in
acts of skill and daring: clowns and acrobats with made-up faces,
grotesquely inspired clothes and attitudes, contrasting with the world
they live in, and yet very much of it, because of their joy in fantasy
and make-believe. This filmic shaping of an actual event is achieved
partly through the commentary and music. In the commentary the
eldest girl, now grown up, remembers her childhood and with a mature
child's eye, understands that time. The musical themes again interpret
and counterpoint her realisation.
Ask any artist why he writes, paints, composes, acts, dances or
plays an instrument and he will reply "Because through this medium
which I love and sometimes hate, I can master what I have to say. 9 '
There is an element of compulsion, like climbing Everest because it's
ANNIE MYGIND and DENIS LOWSON made the film Circus at
Clopton Hall which was shown twice in the programmes of experimental
films at the National Film Theatre last May. The BBC made an offer
for it, but it is now being blown up to 35mm. and will be distributed by
there, but more than Everest : the artist's material is life, human relations
in society as it is and as it might be, understanding of the forces that
shape us, transcending them with a vision of inner reality as against
Now we had a theme on our very doorstep. Clopton Hall was once
typical of the Suffolk scene: a small farmhouse surrounded by barns,
stables and granaries, the land around farmed with horses, the occupants
centred on themselves and self-sufficient. The character of the land-
scape (mixed farming, gently wooded) and the pattern of living remained
unchanged until mechanisation replaced horses, made larger farms
possible, extended the fields and with modern machinery scraped every
penny out of the soil. Agriculture became fully industrialised, and now
depended on large capital accumulation for further progress, and with
the ruthlessness inherent in such a situation, trees were blasted, ditches
filled, and products of the chemical industry upset the balance of
nature. Clopton was the shell of the old order: its land was merged
with an expanding farm, but the old yellow house still remained, sur-
rounded by high black barns, stables and outhouses. Now the old
equipment rusts away, the waggons rot, the obsolete ploughs and culti-
vators lie deep in nettles, tall weeds and cowparsley invade the granaries,
but the silence is piercingly torn by the Vulcan and Vampire jet planes
that shriek across the sky, now and then, unexpectedly.
This was the setting of the children's games : a strange microcosm
of nostalgic beauty and ruthless destruction. But given the chance,
children are makers. The piggeries and harness-rooms become fort-
resses, palaces, magic caves. Nettles and weeds and the stalking cat
became impenetrable jungles full of wild animals, the pond an ocean
to be conquered. An improvised trapeze became ... a circus, and that
game in particular grew and developed. All the resources of the old
house were drawn upon, a battered top-hat, ostrich plumes, an old gramo-
phone horn became an elephant's trunk. With such materials and later
with their friends from the village school, clowning, daring and grotesque
'acts' that so vividly reflected their reaction to the world around them,
became a constant theme in their games. And thus the Circus was born.
This was a visual theme all right, but painting (our medium) couldn't
wholly contain those elements that were most poignant and telling: it
was more than a moment of time in perspective, it was a whole moving
sequence — a developing theme like music, with antithesis and counter-
point and resolution. So by a bit of luck and a little previous exper-
ience with a camera, the theme determined the medium. The luck was
meeting Lindsay Anderson. His reaction was immediate: "For Christ's
sake, man, artists are needed in films; if this moves you, make something
of it. Don't be afraid because you lack experience — just shoot what-
ever you damn well like yourselves; don't give a bugger for continuity:
above all don't let the professionals intimidate you." Then help sprang
up on all sides, like the lush weeds around Clopton; a Bolex (Walter
Lassally's); reduced rate stock from the British Film Institute, John
Fletcher as a cameraman, and with a capital of £40 (insurance money
on a lost heirloom) we started.
May 1957. Prepared a treatment which stated the theme : the landscape,
children on the farm, birth of circus, climactic circus sequence, end at
dusk, children trailing up to house. Darkened landscape. No concept
June 1957, Selection of setups., much drawing, puzzling out elementary
continuity, i.e. child going left-right in one shot must continue that way
next shot if seen from same angle. Prepared shooting script — and
July 1957. John Fletcher and his wife arrive for 10 days shooting,
mainly opening shots of landscape, children alone on farm and village
children arriving. We realised the nail-biting patience needed in the
English summer — the high North Sea clouds scudding across the sun
sent stomachs into knots. Handling the children's flow of enthusiasm,
which might evaporate just as the sun showed a steady course. Time
allowed only brief contact with the circus sequence itself — enough to
realise that it would be much, much more difficult to capture than we
first thought. Total footage shot: 1,000 ft.
Rushes viewed in London. Comment from Karel Reisz: "The
best 16mm rushes I've seen." (Good for John Fletcher). Murmur
from group during projection, "They will pan, these beginners." Reisz
again says, "You people should stop being painters and become film
makers." But how to interpret that?
All money spent. Advised to send just one reel of rushes with
treatment and still photographs to the British Film Institute Experi-
mental Committee, in the hope that they would help us to finish.
Sept. 1957, B.F.I.E.C. met and refused help.
Christmas 1957. Alex-Jacobs viewed the material on a moviescop,
became tremendously enthusiastic — long discussions on how to present
it again to the Committee. Should have been edited in the first place.
Decided to do that.
February 1958. Committee met, and made a grant of £70 to finish
March 1958. Long search for a new cameraman (Fletcher being in India
by now). Finally met John Armstrong who was prepared to put in
twelve days shooting.
Easter 1958. Late spring — not a leaf on the trees. Decided to concen-
trate on Circus sequence taking care to avoid any background that would
reveal the bare branches. Shot act upon act upon act. Children highly
co-operative and prepared to repeat 2-3 times — flattery played its part.
More definite division of labour between us — one with the children
cooking up new ideas, one with cameraman. Moments of rebellion
on children's part gave excellent material. Results showed that acts
consciously devised were worthless — lacked their own spontaneous
spark. But we got the Circus in the can.
June and July 1958. The wettest, stormiest and most thundery summer.
Louis Wolfers, our third cameraman came up weekend after weekend
and no shooting possible. Started cutting the circus material and fell
into the trap of becoming literal in assembly. Lindsay Anderson
advised us to look at Zero de Conduite, which we projected four or five
times (without sound) and this dispersed all fears. Constant destruction
of our own material gradually revealed the joys of editing — and achieved
the state where shots wove in and out of the moviscop like magic, and
the response of movement to movement showed the essence of film : it
is visual music.
August 1958. Request from British Film Institute for material to show
Committee at one day's notice — at the point where we had just peeled
the whole thing apart for the fourth time. Assembled prize shots in
rough sequence, working through the night. Informed three days later
that they could support us no further.
Sept. 1958. One fine weekend got the rest in the can — audience re-
actions, end shots, a few reconstructions of circus acts to amplify the
Oct.-Nov. 1958. Fully concentrating on editing — it could now take
shape as a whole. Seen by Jimmy Burns Singer the writer and poet,
who asked to write the commentary. Then he fell ill and disappeared
from England for several months. Secretary of the B.F.I, promised
support when plans for sound were made.
December 1958. Wrote to Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh hoping he
might advise on music — special interest of Suffolk scene and children's
creative effort. Our highly- beloved secondhand projector broke down,
but he had seen enough to say he liked it and had ideas of using his
own childhood compositions. Arranged further meeting with hired
January 1959. Britten too fell ill — commitments, including our tenta-
tive one, cut.
February to September 1959. Moved to London and searched for the
commentary writer and composer. Many meetings with no results.
Finally Philip O'Connor and Roy Teed appeared. Here a curious
intuition was at work: one felt with them both that they understood
what we had said visually, would be able to interpret, amplify and guide
with their own media: it was now or never. Words and music by now
on paper. No response to letters from B.F.L
November 1959. Rehearsed commentary with an actress friend. When
ready to record. Bob Allen, the sound technician was called abroad.
March 1960. Finances very shaky, so far all the work had been done
on a very thin shoestring. Unexpected legacy from an aunt put things
on a firmer basis — inner conviction that this film might get a wider
viewing could now be indulged — and we went the whole hog on sound.
First-rate musicians and professional studio for the music recording.
September I960. Laid the tracks in professional cutting room with help
from friendly professionals. No great difficulties as it had all been
planned to the half -second with a stopwatch. Mounting tension— it is
not possible to see and hear the thing as a whole till the moment it is
being recorded on to one final track in the 'dubbing' session, after which
it cannot be changed anyway. Was our concept of the three interacting
elements— visual, words and music going to come off? Immediate
reaction was one of enormous relief.
October 1960. The whole lot to the laboratories for negative cutting
and production of the final print. Many headaches— inaccurately cut
negative, scratches, bad printing. But they were solved in the end
November 1960. Party to celebrate, inviting all those who had made
the him possible, many probably thinking they would never see an end
result. A good party : they liked the film.
* * *
Now what after all this is our evaluation of our concept and its final
result? Two apparently contradictory discoveries were made. First
that in spite of necessary changes in the making, the original idea
remained constant. But secondly, we discovered the reality of the idea
in the film medium itself, during the actual making— perhaps mostly
in the cutting. The relation of child to environment, of child to child
the rhythm and pace of ideas that resolve conflict. We made mistakes
and are ourselves highly critical of some aspects of the film Never
mind! For we were not concerned to record a series of events, however
colourful, with a camera, to explain it with words, give it body with
music. No, one must do more than that. And next time, do it better »
"What am 1? Who am I? What do I
feel and how do I look? Am I as
right as the girl in the book? Once
you get the right perspective you can
be sure of the right directive: I mean
if you're upside down there's only
one thing right and that's the . . .