Procol Harum

the Pale

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Separation at the British Film Institute

Ian Hockley at the London screening, Bastille Day 2009

The elusive movie Separation appeared on a London Cinema Screen last night after more than forty years in obscurity with a special screening at the British Film Institute. Formerly known as the National Film Theatre, for overseas readers, the BFI is part of our main London arts complex on the South Bank of the Thames, comprising the Royal Festival Hall (scene of a well-remembered Procol Harum concert in 1973), built for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, all built in 1967 in the utilitarian style of the times.

Separation is of course known to Procol Harum aficionados because of the enigmatic credit alongside Salad Days (are here Again) on the back of the eponymous debut album (“from the film …”), and the track Separation on Matthew Fisher’s debut album Journey’s End in 1973, finally played live, very effectively, in Procol Harum set lists in 2002. For years many of us had wondered what the film was like; little information was available about it and rumour had it that there was only one print left in existence. Nobody seemed to have seen it and no one seemed to know much about it.

I went in with a completely open mind and deliberately avoided doing any homework or buying the BFI DVD of the movie (left), concurrently released with the screening; I had heard of the director, Jack Bond, and seemed to vaguely remember him being associated with The South Bank Show, Independent Television’s flagship arts programme. Initial impressions on one viewing are as follows.

The film was shot in London and deals with the marital and mental breakdown of a middle-aged woman. Narrative is non-linear: much of what goes on appears to be flashback or prospective fantasy with her husband and lovers, and the style of film making is distinctly experimental, with much use of jump cuts, facial close ups and use of a hand held camera to create at times a vertiginous experience for the viewer. It is not an easy watch for a general audience, and quite disturbing in parts, but I think the impressionistic style would repay repeated viewings in the DVD age. The film is shot mainly in black and white; the slightly grainy picture suggests a 16 mm source, with a few colour sequences. The Director in conjunction with the BFI has done an excellent job in cleaning the film up into a blemish free and clear print. Shot on location in London I guess in the autumn (?) of 1967 (a car in one shot has a visible tax disc expiring in March 1968 and the leaves on the trees seem to be on the turn), the London visible is an interesting mix of the swinging sixties coupled with rather sad, nostalgic imagery of post-war housing and suburban streets. Nice to see a real life Tardis in the background of one long shot, in the park. It is clearly a personal view and Jack Bond confirmed in the post – film talk that many of the locations were familiar and pertinent to his own life and childhood.

Some of the imagery in the film is to die for; sequences that remain in the memory are the stunning opening, filmed upwards from a moving car using a split – screen filter of a London block of flats, shortly followed by a beautiful long shot though fountains. A highly memorable bike ride through woods has dazzling use of light and shade, to such effect I would swear the film went into a sepia tint at that point. There is an effective pillow fight in a swimming pool and a plethora of small and beautiful moments along the way such as the amusing sequence of the younger blue-eyed lover climbing amongst chimney pots and the little parachute with the key attached to it that falls from the window. Similarly when the key goes into the lock the music there is a subtle musical quotation from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. And the use of the black and white medium is so subtle the viewer knows he has blue eyes. Likewise, I am not sure if I have ever seen mundane objects such as nail-clippers, daffodils, golf balls and apples shot in close up with such a suggestive air of menace. There are several colour sequences at key points in the narrative and it makes you wish that the entire film had been shot in colour as it is beautifully utilised. I presume black and white was used as a budgetary constraint and maybe contributed to the film's not making many inroads on initial release into the colourful psychedelic world of 1960s Britain.

Generally, the film reminded me of the sixties television work of another national treasure, Ken Russell, particularly his film on Claude Debussy. The second half of the film, darker in tone, reminded me of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Camells’s Performance and some of Derek Jarman’s more abstract works. Similarly, the way the London streets are shot and the use of jump cuts and for much of the time a white noise soundtrack is reminiscent of Godard’s A Bout de soufflé. Bond has been labelled “the British Godard” and interestingly, he confirmed in the question-and-answers session after the film that he had started his career, like Russell, at the BBC, under the aegis of the great Huw Wheldon, for many years editor of BBC televisions Monitor series of films on artists. Perhaps Separation might have met with greater success on initial release in the sixties as a television film; television was still monochrome in Britain in 1967 and would have been accepted unquestioningly, and the experimental nature of the film might have been an easier viewing experience in the informality of context of the home. 

There are two Procol Harum related pieces of music on the soundtrack; the opening shots of the film are accompanied by a Victorian musical box (they have always seemed sinister to my ears, conjuring up images of Dickensian ghost stories) and the familiar Matthew Fisher-composed theme music comes in during a shot as a car drives up a circular ramp, composers' credits at the precise moment. This is clearly a different version to that on Journey’s End and the composer was in the house to confirm to the audience that it had been recorded for the film at Twickenham Film Studios. Despite the age of the soundtrack it seems fuller in tone than the studio version, with a richer bass end. At several points it appears again, sometimes in the familiar version for Hammond Organ and sometimes reorchestrated by the film's other composer, Stanley Myers, particularly memorably on harpsichord. Salad Days features twice, once during a driving sequence, and once during one of the film's colour sections. Suffice to say after seeing the second sequence I will never hear the song with quite the same ears again. Jack Bond remarked afterwards that Matthew Fisher stored his Hammond Organ at his house for a while in 1960s -- it has more space -- and he used to come and practise at such volumes that the walls shook!

Jack Bond proved to be a very amiable guest at the event; he introduced the film briefly at the beginning and spoke at length afterwards on the cinema stage. Very sharp, lucid and with a handsome head of silver hair, he amused and engaged with the audience and answered questions for over thirty minutes. Some strong words were directed at the present day BBC (“they squander resources and produce nothing”) and were equally critical of London Weekend Television, whose studios were just metres from where we were sitting, at their sacking of Melvyn Bragg and the axing of ITV’s flagship arts programme The South Bank Show after 31 years. Mr Bond was at pains to mention the importance of Jane Arden in his work; they formed a partnership for many years and she starred in, and wrote the screenplay for Separation and they collaborated on several other projects together. There is an informative article on her here.

Afterwards a small contingent of Palers met at the drinks reception in the foyer; I asked Jack Bond how Procol Harum came to be involved in the project. His answer was that “it was all down to Denny Cordell”. The film was completed or virtually completed and he had spoken to Cordell, who had said that “he had interesting stuff and some things that might be appropriate”. So that answers the question: Procol Harum and Matthew Fisher came into the frame during post-production.

All in all, a nice offbeat prelude to Procol Harum’s return to live performance in a few days' time, and one that will certainly make me want to see the film again on DVD and explore some more of Jack Bond’s work. He is apparently still planning films and judging by his spryness of mind and body doubtless still has years of creativity ahead of him.

Read a 1968 review of the film here

More about Separation | Order it from Amazon by clicking this link

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