Arthur’s Hallowed Ground

December 14, 2012

arthurshallowedExecutive producer David Puttnam’s “First Love” television series is one of the best-regarded projects on British telly, even as Puttnam’s theatrical films—Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, etc.—have rejuvenated a shaky British film industry.

Some of the TV tales, notably Kipperbang and Experience Preferred…But Not Essential, already have been imported stateside.

Now the best of the rest have been gathered for a five-week series at the Crest theater. All of the films, according to the theme of the show, are about an early and deep attraction of the heart—although, as the first entry displays, the attraction isn’t necessarily a little boy falling for a little girl.

Arthur’s Hallowed Ground is about the love of a man for—a cricket field? Yes. As Arthur (Jimmy Jewel) marks his 45th year working as the groundsman for a cricket club, his eminence as the leading fieldkeeper in England is unquestioned. Colleagues consider his field the prettiest patch of turf in Britain.

But the directors of the cricket club are grumbling. Arthur rules his field completely. He won’t take direction, he won’t take advice, and he blanches at the suggestion that his meticulous work may actually be hampering the team’s play. There isn’t any evidence he cares at all for cricket, as a matter of fact; his beautiful field is the important thing.

Against the objections of Arthur, the board hires an assistant, a teenage black kid named Henry (Vas Blackwood). Arthur does his best to bring the kid in, but he doesn’t want him to touch anything, move anything, or clean anything—and he’d die before he let Henry step onto the sacred patch of turf he keeps most scrupulously tidy (roughly comparable to the pitcher-catcher battery in baseball, I think).

Eventually Henry learns Arthur’s tricks of the trade—how to ignore management requests, how to tend the ground and mix the fertilizer, and how to avoid the dreaded phone in his workshop. (When Henry asks why Arthur doesn’t answer the phone, Arthur sagely tells him, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.”)

The script, by Peter Gibbs, is slight but sweet; it’s the marvelous characterization of Arthur that puts it over. Puttnam has chosen just the right director to bring out Arthur’s best qualities: cinematographer Freddie Young, making his debut as director (80 years old when the film was made).

Young, an Oscar-winning photographer, is famous for his impeccable, sweeping vistas—particularly in collaboration with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). As a craftsman, he’s just like the fussy Arthur, and he obviously empathizes strongly with the detail-oriented groundskeeper.

However, despite his renown as a photographer of epics, Young keeps this story intimate, and he gets a wonderful sense of the green field, where much or the film takes place. From the early, golden-hued flashback of young Arthur being captivated by the verdant square, Young keeps the love story understandable, if eccentric.

The next “First Love” films to roll across the lawn at the Crest are: Sharma and Beyond, April 25 to May 1; Forever Young, May 2 to May 8; Those Glory, Glory Days, May 9 to May 15; and Winter Flight, May 16 to May 22. Most of them are the work of writers and directors from whom relatively little has been heard. If Puttnam’s track record is any indication, they’ll be more prominent in the future. This is a good chance to catch them cutting their teeth.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1986

This is a minor film, but I have thought of it often. I have especially had many opportunities to reflect on Arthur’s response to the phone call, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.” That line of dialogue has kept me company during my lifelong aversion to ringing telephones. Reading this over makes me wonder, does Young hold the record for oldest directorial debut?