Bright and Beautiful
Caroline McKenzie on My Childhood
“Grim,” “bleak,” “unrelenting.” This sort of derisive terminology is almost always employed in discussion of the Bill Douglas Trilogy (My Childhood , My Ain Folk , and My Way Home ), even when the Trilogy is being cited as a high point of British cinematic tradition. The films depict the director’s upbringing in abject poverty in a Scottish mining town, with a main character named Jamie as Douglas’s alter ego. My Childhood shows Jamie and his cousin as they care for their maternal “Grannie” at the end of World War II; My Ain Folk follows Jamie’s life after Grannie dies and he is taken into his estranged father’s abusive home; My Way Home reveals the final chapter of Jamie’s childhood as he runs away from his family and joins the British army in Egypt. Though the plot of the entire trilogy seems straightforward, the films themselves are complex; if brutally realistic in their depiction of childhood anguish, the three works proceed as if a dream or memory, jumping elliptically between scenes. The films were shot in color but developed in a smudgy, old-fashioned black-and-white, and while the characters’ speech is loud and clearly Scottish, Douglas’s filmmaking evokes the methods of silent cinema, and, particularly, Soviet montage. Exposition is arrived at through dialectical editing rather than through dialogue; the viewer is left to decipher relations, motivations, and meaning from the juxtaposition of characters and images. As such, the films require multiple viewings in order to comprehend the consequence and order of events, and further to discover the moments of humor, pathos, and poetry, amidst what at first glance seems like a relentless procession of miserablism. The films are thus rewarding to the viewer who recognizes empathy in Douglas’s imagery, but can be confounding to those who find the abundance of upsetting events and hysterical voices unapproachable—this perhaps explains why the films are so highly revered by some, but are rarely screened or discussed.
But Douglas provides his audience a primer for how to approach the cacophony of voices that dominate the trilogy in the way he uses a small song in the opening scene of his first film. In keeping with the sparse visuals of the works, all three films lack nondiegetic music, and what music they do employ is used sparingly. For the most part, the films rely heavily on a sound design limited to dialogue and simple foley work. However, the first narrative scene of the My Childhood ushers in the trilogy with buoyant song. In it, an old woman shrouded in black stands outside a school while the film cuts to the interior and finds a classroom of schoolchildren singing a hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”:
All things bright and beautiful
All creatures big and small
All things wise and wonderful
Our lord God made them all
The sync on the scene is loose. Children’s mouths move, and though we can make the assumption that they are the ones singing, picture and sound never align. A porter enters the classroom, puts down his mop and bucket, then approaches the teacher and whispers something (inaudible to the viewer). The teacher moves towards a tall boy and speaks to him—their dialogue cannot be heard even though they are held in close-up. The boy exits the classroom and joins the old woman who is still waiting outside. He walks with her out of the school gates while the singing continues inside. The film cuts to a helicopter shot over the Scottish countryside, passing high above empty dirt roadways, empty grass pastures. The children’s singing momentarily swells to an extraordinarily loud volume, then quickly fades. Cut to the boy and the old woman climbing the stairs of a rundown home.
Throughout the three films, although the use of ambient sound is subjective and minimal, the soundscape usually retains some naturalism—the singing of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is a notable exception. Douglas brings all the more attention to it with the use of the jarring helicopter shot. Here the singing is divorced from singers, and the fall and rise in the audio over the Scottish landscape has no narrative motivation at all.
The music in this scene is also highly ironic, with children singing about “all things bright and beautiful” when nothing in the mise-en-scène embodies either of these qualities. My Ain Folk begins with a similarly brief moment of irony in which a snippet of Lassie fills the screen in Technicolor delight, making explicit that Douglas’s view of Scotland is a far cry from Hollywood’s romanticized version. But throughout the rest of the trilogy, outright irony is usually subjugated in favor of observance. By presenting these elements of irony and disembodied audio through the song in My Childhood's first scene, Douglas thus uses sound to create a primer for how viewers should approach the rest of the three films.
The first point Douglas appears to be making here, one which governs any understanding of the rest of the three films in the trilogy, is that what characters say is often false, incorrect, or misleading. Indeed, they rarely state facts: more often words and songs seem intended to manipulate and confuse. Throughout the trilogy, Jamie (Stephen Archibald)—the stand-in for Douglas’s younger self—only befriends characters with whom direct communication is limited, if not impossible. He becomes deeply attached to Helmut, a German POW working in the fields at the opening of My Childhood; his paternal Grandfather, a sickly old man who “no longer has the strength” to speak up for Jamie in My Ain Folk; and Robert, a young Englishman who cannot understand Jamie’s thick Scottish brogue in My Way Home. The characters who are most vilified are those who speak too much, including an asylum nurse who speaks for Jamie’s bed-ridden mother in My Childhood; Jamie’s paternal grandmother, who vacillates between calling Jamie a “young prince” and a “bastard” in My Ain Folk; and Jamie’s father, who takes Jamie back from the children’s home under false pretenses in My Way Home.
And language in the trilogy fundamentally misrepresents even sincere human emotions. When Jamie cries after Helmut is taken away by the army in My Childhood, Jamie’s cousin Tommy (Hughie Restorick) asks, “Is it because of your da?” Since Helmut serves as a father figure to Jamie, in his actual words, Tommy is correct. But Tommy is literally asking if Jamie’s tears are because he has recently discovered that his biological father lives down the street. Similarly, when the singing in the first scene swells over images of the drab countryside below, the point is briskly made that words often misrepresent truths in the trilogy, and that the dialogue and action of the characters are often contradictory.
Besides the literal irony of the lyrics, though, the hymn singing seems to underscore an irreverence toward state doctrine on Douglas’s behalf. Though Douglas films are often seen apart from the social realism of British New Wave films from the Fifties and Sixties, the ironic use of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” strongly harks back to the distrust of the state and the frustrations with Britain’s social hierarchy that were hallmarks for Britain’s New Wave filmmakers. The ritualized use of Anglican hymns and national songs pops up across films from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1964) to If . . . (1968). “Jerusalem”—England’s most popular patriotic song, based on a poem by William Blake—in particular proves a cultural touchstone for this movement, as, in the modern interpretation, Blake’s lyrics read that England’s men and women “will not cease from Mental Fight” until heaven is built in England, in place of the “dark Satanic mills” and other trappings of the industrial age. The British New Wave’s sobering depictions of men headed for “the pits,” though, suggests that this mental fight ceased before the dream became reality. In these films, as in Douglas’s works, these Anglican traditionals that serve as unofficial national anthems are presented with distrust, as embodiments of a state that has failed its citizens.
Too often, Douglas’s films are seen as merely personal reveries, but Douglas’s prominent placement of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” at the beginning of the trilogy suggests his films should be read as political texts, similar to the New Wave films. Indeed, Douglas makes explicit that society fails Jamie and Tommy on personal, economic, and state levels, in the cycles of poverty inherent in their families, the lack of economic opportunities in their communities, and the inability of the state to provide them with safe homes in which to grow up (both boys are essentially wards of the state by the end of My Childhood). The hymns that they are made to sing in state-funded schools promise a false reality: the second instance of such songs in the film has children singing,
Happy light is flowing
Bountiful and free.
Life is dark without Thee
Death with Thee is bright.
These lines flow over a cut to a shot of the men in the mine shafts, wandering in pitch darkness, suggesting that either God has abandoned the industrial north or that all those hymns are a load of bollocks. The seemingly perpetual nature of the poverty that befalls the characters throughout the work is not merely a personal tragedy but a societal failure: when Jamie tells his father in My Way Home that he wants to be “an artist,” he is dismissed with the phrase, “This is your place in life”—a stock phrase of British social realism. When Jamie does finally escape from his oppressive hometown to join the military, Douglas further emphasizes the political implications of Jamie’s escape when revealing that the first book Jamie reads is by Maxim Gorky (whose own autobiographical trilogy commences with a work called “My Childhood”).
Understanding the trilogy as a sociopolitical work in the New Wave vein opens up the films to new readings—the works don’t merely rehash Douglas’s troubles but comprise a personal perspective on the state of a nation from an individual who eventually “escaped.” (The fact that we are watching “his” films should remind the viewer that being an “artist” maybe was Jamie’s place in life after all.) With the use of the sound a simple children’s choir, Douglas gives the viewer a framework through which to comprehend and approach his entire autobiographical triptych: as a sociopolitical statement as much as a personal memoir, as a work in which what can be seen clearly should be privileged over what is said. Douglas calls our attention to this as forcefully as possible in the film’s first moments, raising the volume as high as it might ever get, even if only for a moment.