fri 07/08/2020

DVD/Blu-ray: They Came to a City | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: They Came to a City

DVD/Blu-ray: They Came to a City

A Priestley experience - stagey but fascinating wartime social fantasy

They came to a city: should they stay, or should they go?

Ealing Studios veteran Basil Dearden may have directed it, but 1944’s They Came to a City is mostly a JB Priestley film, an engaging blend of the mundane and the metaphysical. The work’s stage origins are clear; apart from the newly-written prologue and epilogue, this is predominantly a solemn, talky affair, shot mostly on a studio lot. Though we begin with an exterior shot of a sergeant and a WAAF sat on a hillside overlooking an industrial town, discussing what post-war British society might look like. Priestley himself strolls past and asks for a match, before joining in with the couple’s conversation with a “let’s imagine” scenario...

In which nine characters, plucked from disparate backgrounds, find themselves on the threshold of an unseen city. They’re not drawn with much subtlety, though this doesn’t make watching them any less entertaining. Proceeding separately through a shadowy landscape, they reach art director Michael Relph’s marvellously angular set (pictured below), its clean lines in contrast to the grubby realities of wartime Britain. “Good heavens – this surely isn’t Walthamstow!” mutters the crusty old buffer who’s been abducted from his golf club.They Came to a CityPriestley soon lets us know why we’re here: an ominous, glowing door opens, allowing access down a flight of steps to the nearby city. The conceit is that the metropolis appears differently to each visitor – wisely, Dearden decided against trying to represent it visually – though there’s no doubt that it’s an egalitarian utopia, a place where businessman Cudworth’s brand of capitalism is seen as a crime.

Our visitors are offered the chance to stay or return. The blunt political message is hammered home, though who wouldn’t want to live in a place where, in sailor Joe’s words, “Everybody has a reasonable chance but no one has an unreasonable advantage?” John Clements’ Joe and Googie Withers’ waitress Alice stand to thrive. Should they relocate, or return and tell the world what they’ve seen? This is hokey stuff, but it’s entertaining and frequently funny: you’re staggered that such a nakedly polemic film could have been produced at all. They Came to a City was a flop, sadly, so this immaculate restoration demands to be snapped up. It looks and sounds marvellous, the curdled extracts from Scriabin’s Divine Poem fitting the images well.

The extras on this BFI dual-format release make for essential viewing. A 1937 short We Live in Two Worlds includes some loopy footage of Swiss folk customs, interwoven with Priestley’s passionate, very contemporary appeals for cross-border openness and international cooperation. A City Reborn, from 1945, has a script by Dylan Thomas, an optimistic semi-documentary about the planned rebuilding of bombed-out Coventry. Two jolly Halas and Batchelor animated shorts about planned new towns and the new NHS are unbearably poignant viewed in 2018 – not least in showing how much we’ve messed things up since then.

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