“Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. I never go where the cock never crows, and of all the felt ‘ats I ever felt, I never ‘ad a felt ‘at felt like this felt ‘at felt.”
Such magical words. The beautiful individuality of the English countryside circa the start of history’s greatest decade, captured forever on grainy, scratchy celluloid. Yes, you got that right- I said scratchy- as the existing transfer of this legendary, much-loved cult film, available only on DVD from its rights owner through a steam engine enthusiasts’ magazine, has managed to provide the viewer with clarity AND (unlike many of the discs available on the market) keep the ramshackle feel of a true relic intact. Personally, I couldn’t view it any other way.
Mr Page- for ‘tis he that delivers the above quote, emerging Pan-like from a clump of trees- and his four adult children are, to a whole generation of us, legends: a family of five English eccentrics who, though living less than 50 miles from London, and still bearing traces of Cockney in their spoken yokel burr, managed to evade the rat race completely and live off the grid in a way we can only dream of in the 21st century. If Two In Clover and The Good Life were the humorous, cosy Sunday night telly version of self-sufficiency, then The Moon And The Sledgehammer, which was ironically shown on television so often that it was mistaken for a TV docudrama, is the hundred percent real deal. Thus it is simultaneously charming and disquieting, happy and sad, inspirational and foreboding, frightening yet happy-making. Like life itself .
The Pages, for those who don’t know, had lived -at time of filming- their entire life in a house they owned, in secluded woodland they owned, somewhere on the Surrey-Sussex borders betwixt Horley, Horsham, Lingfield and Grinstead (apparently untroubled by the passing of planes), shooting and growing their own food, making their own clothes, and literally “living off the land”. Well, we are led to assume they’d lived their life there, but we can’t be certain- Mr Page, who could be any age between 55 and 75 (it’s difficult to tell, as time really has, in the words of the old Northern Soul fave, passed him right on by) talks at great length about “that London”, cities in general and his disdain for them, leading us to possibly glean that he may well have once tried living in urbanis among the tails and no-tails, and if we assume that in the early 70s he was 60 years old, then he could well have fought in WWII. If, on the other hand, he was in his seventies, that would have made his birthdate sometime around 1897, therefore presenting us with the possibility he was a Great War veteran.
Either way, he has definitely seen more of the outside world than his offspring, who seem as if they’ve spent their entire lives on their rambling acres, interspersed of course with brief visits to nearby towns and villages to scratch an income from odd jobs and repairs.
Mrs Page, we are told on the sleeve of the disc, died ‘long ago’ before the film was made, although there is no such declaration made in the film itself, which means first-time viewers would presumably have had to work this out for themselves. Whether she had experienced the outside world prior to meeting and marrying her husband, or whether generations of Pages have lived like this, is unclear: some interpret this as a fault in Trevelyan’s film, but simultaneously, others see it as furthering the enigma. The ‘children’ (two boys, two girls) are aged between 35 and 45, and approach life with a unique mixture of weariness and innocence, each having their own peculiar obsession which gets them through the day- although, in their hourless, clockless world, they either have no idea what time of day it is or tell the time by some means of imparted ancient wisdom. One or the other.
The younger son, Jim, and the younger daughter, Kath, seem to get on with each other the best, sharing a warm friendship which even extends to giving each other roses and playfully singing to each other- in a moment of unabashed fraternal sweetness which some may ascribe a sinister meaning to (more on that later) but I find one of the most lovable and joyous moments of the film. The playful Kath also has high regard for her older sister Nancy- even though it’s never made clear whether this is reciprocated to quite the same extent- and the two do show great moments of bonding, although their primary pleasures do seem to derive largely from solitary pursuits. These activities- the latter endlessly sewing and crocheting, the former playing a rotten piano that sits, infested with bugs, in the family’s huge garden- form a large part of the legend and mystique of the movie, and create some of its most enduring images. Kath also does strange twirly things with laundry, and looks the more attractive of the two, although both openly flirt with both camera and cameraman. Again, it is never specified whether or not either of them have ever had a boyfriend- although Kath did marry later in life and allegedly still lives near Haywards Heath with her husband today.
Pete, the older son, is something of a mystery: you never know whether he secretly knows more than he lets on, or whether he really is as deluded as he make out. Whichever the truth, he possesses one undoubted skill which provides the film with its centrepiece: the renovation of traction and steam engines. It is this for which most people remember the production, and it is the continued readership of steam magazines such as Old Glory that have kept its memory alive. As iconic as Tarot’s feathery hairdo in Ace Of Wands, the broken lightbulb from Callan, the antique shop from From Beyond The Grave or Robin Askwith’s denim suit, the sight of Pete Page tinkering with his huge red steamroller- and later manoeuvring it up Horsham high street assisted by a squad of old bill- is one of the essential images of both 70s film AND television. Yet Pete, who actually looks not unlike Hugh Grant crossed with Neil Tennant, seems at times afraid of the machine which takes up most of his time and would go on to define his later life. “No, you’ll never get me on that” he reiterates over and over again to camera. “No way, i’m not ‘avin’ it.”, walking back into shot several times to make the point as crystal as possible.
Reiteration and repetition form a regular part of the Page speech pattern, as they tend to among people raised in rural environs. Not that I’m suggesting the family are thick: undeniably, they lack certain knowledge one might have thought commonplace at the time, such as the fact that man had walked on the moon a year previously (leading to an interesting discourse by the elderly patriarch on how large a ladder would be needed to reach it) and have some strange opinions on animals, leading to the infamous exchange in which it is stated that Dad “likes a kangaroo because they can stand up and walk about, and pick a cup off a table and drink out of it” and that they’re more adaptable than a monkey, who would “snatch your parts from you” (ouch) and “put you miles behind” when you attempt to take a magneto to pieces (no mention of Titanium Man), but these bursts of unprompted opinion suggest, as does the sheer poetry with which the moon and the sledgehammer of the title are discussed, that underneath the oo-arr image (rendering Mr Page’s comments about “bloody pikey gippos” amusingly ironic to the outsider) lurks a dormant wisdom that urban man may have forgotten. What’s most amazing, though, is the sheer prescience of much of their homespun philosophy, particularly with regard to the price of fuel, the fall of manual labour at the hands of machine, and the ruination of man himself, summed up in one beautifully succinct sentence: “They done it.” In this respect, and at a time when worldwide concern over the price of energy and the alleged suppression of free power runs rife, I couldn’t agree more. Maybe steam should come back in. At least you can make your own without having to go to war over it….
What’s unclear, and therefore a slight failing in the film, is its viewpoint- resulting in a crossing of the line between ambiguity and impartiality. Is Trevelyan trying to “expose” hidden, primitive lifestyles for exploitative entertainment ala the early works of Jacobetti and Prosperi (still big news in cinemas back then), offering a voyeuristic glance at a delusional life in decline like the Maysles’ Brothers’ legendary Grey Gardens (to which it has often been compared, mainly on an aesthetic level) would soon do, or simply showing us an alternative way of life which he sees as beautiful, idyllic and something to aspire to? The fact that the director is now an organic farmer with a particular interest in steam power would suggest the latter, yet again, there’s no confirmation onscreen. Other than asking Pete “who did these things to the world?” when talking of urban city-dwellers who are frightened and looking for direction in life, there is practically no narration or actual interviewing, with the subjects more or less left to convey everything themselves. This unfortunately leaves so many questions unanswered, such as- sorry, but I have to mention it- those concerning possibility of inbreeding among the clan. I mean, if they lived cut off from society (and time) itself for that long, and presumably have had little interaction with partners of either sex as a result, it has to be a possibility. Then again, if it were the case, would we really want to know?
No mention is made in the feature length though still short running-time (65 minutes) as to how the evidently urbane Trevelyan first heard of the Pages, how he first broached the subject of filing them (as presumably, they would have held the strongest mistrust for ‘new fangled technologies’, even though I wouldn’t bet against the chances of finding a camera obscura or a wax cylinder set in their shed), or their lineage, and while this may be part of the appeal for some, I still would have liked to have known more. We actually know more now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, about what has become of them since, although I’ll wager neither Kath nor Nancy (now resident in a care home) have a Facebook page!! One has to congratulate the rights owners for bringing the film out in the first place, and there have been screenings involving Q & A sessions with the director, leading to several revealing interviews, but unfortunately those of us who weren’t living in or near London at the time are still in the dark. Plus ca change.
Sure, animal rights lovers may protest at the Nugentesque sight of the aged larrikin laughing with glee as he polishes off yet another rabbit or woodpigeon for the pot, but can take solace in the fact that later on, his pet peacock (seriously, he has one) nibbles his fingers to death- not that he seems in the slightest bit bothered. The fact of the matter is, though, I don’t want to think of the Pages as sinister, particularly as part of the appeal of the film is their ongoing innocence and a naivety quite refreshing when faced with the harsh realities of today’s cynical world. Even when, in another legendary scene, the old man crawls on all fours across his back yard towards what appears to be a huge bucket of rainwater, wearing a WWII gas mask with its dangly attachment trailing before him like some sort of elongated proboscis, and proceeds to drink from it (for reasons which still remain unclear), prompting my friend to make comments about David Hess and Gunnar Hansen, I would still choose to believe this is lovable idiosyncrasy and that had I lived in what commuters refer to as “Zone Bumpkin” back then, I would have been quite happy to visit the family, hang out with them, and imbibe some of their practical know-how. Under no circumstances would I want to think of them as people to fear.
Yet there are several moments which cause one to if not shudder then blanch slightly, most of them involving Mr Page himself- which in a way is ironic, as he is very much the film’s central character, evidenced by the chirpy, poetic humour alluded to earlier with which he commences proceedings. In addition, the film displays quite clearly that, whilst no arguments of the kind entertained by Mrs Onassis and her daughter are seen, all is definitely not well in Paradise. The elder statesman has very few kind words for his older son, claiming that he’s “no good” and fritters too much time away on his engines: likewise, relations between Nancy and her jovial patriarch have become strained (again, if you read something sinister into this, I wouldn’t blame you, but wouldn’t necessarily encourage it either) to the point where she almost seems tearful, calling him lazy, scornful of her efforts and ungrateful of her love, though not to his face, and saying she’s fed up fetching and carrying for him.
Presumably, now his wife has gone, he sees her reflected in his eldest daughter and turns to her to perform her duties- although hopefully not all of them- and as a result the same arguments he would have had with her tend to flare up. It would seem, though, that healthy family badinage isn’t the beginning and end of it: there are times when Nancy confesses she would very much like to escape, depart, even to a small local town like Heathfield or Uckfield, and live like normal people, fleeing what she sees as the confines of her imposed lifestyle. The truth is, at less than 35 miles from Central London, the Pages simply aren’t removed enough from society to ignore its temptations, and the facade of any family, or even commune living under these conditions is bound to crack as a result. The phrase “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm now that they’ve seen Craw-ley” springs to mind…
The brothers fight too, albeit not physically. Of the two, Jim is the more reflective, musing on creationism vs science (though he probably doesn’t see it in those terms) and pointing out that the cleverest scientific brain couldn’t make the world and its manifold elements up if it wanted to. He has a point, and while I’m in no way a religious man myself, I can’t help but look at this family, who do little or no harm to anyone from the outside world, as proof of the randomness of human existence. Not only have their composite elements grown quite naturally, through what seems like a process of total organic development, but they also seem quite defiantly in control of them, perhaps even more than they know.
If there is any sympathy to be felt, it is for the daughters, both of whom (particularly Kath) bear traces of good looks and may have gone on in some parallel dimension to make good wives and/or girlfriends, although I have it on authority that one of them did. One can’t imagine such a scenario without recalling Stuart Whitman’s exchange with the beautiful Humgoo (Lesley Dunlop) in Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club: “I never been to city before, will you take me to ride on train and wear pretty clothes…Mama was from outside.” Yet under no circumstances would I want to give the impression that the Page home is a prison, even if Nancy sometimes sees it that way. If anything, I went into this latest viewing (after sifting through many half-remembered childhood memories and distant Proustian echoes) with the utmost respect for the family and cane out of it with even more, even if it’s questionable whether they retain any for each other. And of course, there’s always just the slightest chance that the five of them are actually laughing at us, with our “mains gas and our city ways”, and playing things up slightly for the camera: this is the risk one faces with any mondo or cinema verite based production. Accordingly, it doesn’t look like any amount of intrusion could fluster or faze Mr Page, something else which may hint at his greater vestige of experience.
The exact location of the family home has been, at the request of the surviving members and their families, kept a secret, although I’m sure if you talk to the right people in North Sussex they’d point you in the right direction. Whether the house still stands or not I am uncertain, but if so, it’s a triumph of man over “the man” that it remains, presumably passed down from descendant to descendant: one gathers, though, that after the demise of its father figure sometime in the 80s, the family fragmented, which could reinforce the assumption that he was the only thing holding it together to begin with. The cynical interpretation would be that once he’d gone the others all realised there was nothing to keep them there, and pegged it: however, I still say that underneath every unkind exchange onscreen there lies evidence of a deep fraternal love and respect, an almost “you and me against the world” attitude, and the kinship between Kath and Jim is too obvious to deny.
Possessing a serenity that removes them from both savages and supposedly ‘learned’ people, the Pages are that most curious of anomalies: a family well-known to two generations of cult TV lovers and art cinemagoers, yet who probably had little or interest in any art form themselves, save for the clothes Nancy sews and spins (which, although shabby from years of wear, retain, like their wearers a moderate element of smartness, conveying once more a subconscious desire for sophistication and respect). What still fascinates us about them 40 years on? Part of the enduring appeal is undoubtedly the mystery and enigma (although rural Sussex people and steam enthusiasts may see things differently) not to mention the sheer unbelievability, even in 1970, of their existence: it’s much harder to imagine such a lifestyle flourishing now, although, ironically, in Nanny State 2010, there is more information freely available on “off-grid” living and naturalpathic lifestyles than there would have been when such things were briefly in vogue thanks to the hippy movement. The rest one can put down to sheer voyeuristic curiosity, but who knows, if they allowed me to cheat by having a PC and some discs (powered Tom Good-stylee by large buckets of poo in the cellar), I might have a go at it myself- felt ‘at ‘an ‘all…
Whatever your viewpoint of its subject matter and protagonists, The Moon And The Sledgehammer is a fantastic, exemplary, inspirational piece of British filmmaking, and I personally sincerely hope that Trevelyan finds enough respite from his bucolic pursuits to one day grace us with something else of similar import. The DVD may be expensive, but if you order the special edition, it comes with enough bumph and inlay information (AND a hand-written card available on request) to justify the cost. Whatever the cost, though, see it. Once the Pages have touched your world, you’re never quite the same again.