fri 19/07/2024

A Life on the Farm review - a fabulous eccentric gets neatly packaged | reviews, news & interviews

A Life on the Farm review - a fabulous eccentric gets neatly packaged

A Life on the Farm review - a fabulous eccentric gets neatly packaged

Put in context, the Spike Milligan of farming footage

Charles Carson at the farm gateStill from 'Life on the Farm' by Charles Carson

“There’s nowt so queer as folk”, they say, and Life on the Farm amply proves the point. A cassette slides into the slot; “play” is pressed and a middle-aged man appears on screen at the gate of Combe End Farm. “Follow me down”, he says to camera,”I’ve got something to show you.”

We’re in the realm of home movies and opinions differ on the “something” he wants us to see. “It’s like a horror movie,” says one viewer. “I can’t tell if this man’s a genius or a psychopath”, says Nick Prueher of Found Footage Festival which tours the world with VCR parties. “We’ve been collecting weird VHF tapes since 1991 and, by far, this is the weirdest one we’ve seen.”

The clips by Charles Carson that follow are surreal. There he is pulling a calf out of a cow’s birth canal and laying it beside the mother; then comes another – twins. Next he holds the placenta up to camera for our delight. There he is again beside his mother who is sitting by the fire – dead. In footage reminiscent of Psycho, he wheels her into the yard. “There we are; there’s Mrs Carson, she’s passed away. Having a lovely time on the farm”, he announces jauntily as if commentating on a cricket match. “The cow’s having a look at her” and, emanating from the cow’s mouth, a speech bubble reads “Thank you Millie, My Dear xxx”. On the soundtrack, meanwhile, a choir gives voice to the saccharin song Grandma We Love You. And you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

We’re in Huish Chamflower, an isolated village in Somerset where properties are so spread out that neighbours may be a 10 minute drive away so no one sees what goes on next door. Some people liked it that way, but wanting more interaction, Carson began recording events on the farm. And needing a response, he’d leave a three hour tape with neighbours and would expect them to give him feedback on what they’d seen.

one of Carson's photo montagesAmong the neighbours gifted a video were the grandparents of director, Oscar Harding. He recalls watching part of the tape as a child, then seeing the whole video 10 years later. Blown away by Carson’s originality, he resolved to make a documentary that pays homage to the Spike Milligan of farm footage.

He interviews Carson’s neighbours along with various worthies such as a psychiatrist, an undertaker and poet, the local vicar and the editors of Camcorder User Magazine. They analyse the odd ball footage, comment on the man and assess his creative achievements and legacy. All of this is interesting, but as a result, Carson’s output comes sliced and pre-packaged. We never get to see the whole of his madcap video and, shown the same clips over and over, are not given the chance to make up our own minds about the eccentric loner who was seemingly preoccupied by birth and death and even filmed cardboard skeletons driving tractors, sawing wood, riding cows and bidding us farewell at the farm gate.

Carson’s longing for an audience was partially fulfilled when, in 1994, he won the United Nations Family Affairs Photography Competition judged by Koo Stark. Embellished with speech bubbles and presented as a comic strip about farm life, his photographs were included in the Family Affairs exhibition at the Barbican.

Yet with only horses, sheep, cattle, chickens and cats for company, Carson’s mental health deteriorated until, suffering from dementia, he could sometimes be seen wandering around without any trousers. Subsequently, though, a tape he’d submitted in 1998 for the British Amateur Video Awards found it’s way onto YouTube and gleaned a huge following and, in the United States in 2019, that footage of the calf being born became so popular it was designated the Down Footage Festival clip of the year.

After his death, in 2008, the lonely film maker finally gained the audience he'd longed for.

“I can’t tell if this man’s a genius or a psychopath”


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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