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An essay by Benjamin Reynolds:

MSc Public Understanding of Environmental Change - UCL

Environmental Discourses and Popular Culture Module

Rural landscape and national identity in popular culture

'England is the country, and the country is England.' (Stanley Baldwin in Matless 1998: p.30)

The connection between the English rural landscape and English national identity is something that is easily taken for granted. The public is bombarded with a plethora of odes to 'olde England' through song, book, and calendar glorifying this green and pleasant land. As the 'reality' of this version of England becomes confined to the memory of the few, it is important to question whether this is notion of the nation is an 'imagined' community' (Daniels 1993). Lowenthal argues that 'the now hallowed visual cliché - the patchwork of meadow and pasture, the hedgerows and copses, the immaculate villages nestling among small tilled fields - is in fact quite recent'. He believes that, 'only after the pre-Raphaelites did the recognisably 'English' landscape become an idealised medieval vision, all fertile, secure, small-scale, seamed with associations' (Lowenthal 1991).

It is this cliché that has become engrained in popular culture. Inglis (1987) argues that this vision of England was enshrined by the Romantic movement from 1770 as a reaction to the Industrial revolution and subsequent urbanisation. Many people who are emblems of Englishness have become embedded in different parts of this countryside; 'Wordsworth graces the Lake District, Constable decorates Suffolk, and Hardy enhances Dorset' (Lowenthal 1991). Perhaps the ever-changing appearance of cities has meant that it is easier for the public to find these timeless notions of national identity present in the fields, lakes and moors of the countryside. One way or another, the representations of this England have become the most widespread because they are the most popular (Inglis 1987). Is it not unreasonable that a nation prefers to be represented by an image of what it dreams it was, rather than what it is in reality? It is doubtful whether any image can be a mirror of reality, as it is impossible to achieve the objectivity required (Rose 2001). But this does not justify the dominance of a limited number of populist representations of English landscape over those of minority viewpoints, popular representations which are perpetuated by the television and adverts that infiltrate our every waking moment.

These themes that run through the discourses of national identity and rural landscape can be better explored by looking at some examples of popular culture, namely the film A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944). It is useful to note here that this is not an adaptation of the Chaucer text, although the film does play upon the associations. The imagery in this film will be compared and contrasted to modern visual representations on the internet, namely the CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England) website. There are fundamental differences between these media, in that film approaches the discourse through a narrative, where as websites generally provide an interactive information service. I hope to discover how the discourses in hand differ between the media by focusing on the imagery used. With a gap of almost 60 years the politics and the publics associated with these two media are considerably different. I would argue however that the message intended in the way they represent these discourses has changed little, not only in these examples but in the wider realm of popular culture. In analysing the images they should be treated as 'text[s] that can be read', equal to literature, painting or maps, so to judge what makes each form stand apart (Aitken 1997: p.198). Gillian Rose's three stage methodology, provides an excellent framework in which different analysis techniques, such as content analysis and audience studies, can be placed. She has identified three sites at which meaning is given to the image: 'the site(s) of the production of the image, the site of the image itself, and the site where it is seen by various audiences' (2001: pp.30, 188-89). To each of these she applies three modalities; technological, compositional and social, all of which also influence the representations in the text.

Production of the texts
The different processes involved in creating these texts reflect on the meaning attributed to the discourses of landscape and national identity. Some of these processes are inherent in the very nature of the media used, others through the background context of the images' production. CPRE's current website is in no ways an example of cutting edge web technology. Saying that, it is hard to discover, as with many websites, when the current layout was first established aside from its regular updates. The site is not credited with an individual author or a program used to design it. The CPRE organisation was set up in 1926, and currently has 59,000 members and a branch in each county (CPRE website 2003). It could be argued that its' influence is minimal, particularly in comparison to other conservation groups such as the RSPB, who have almost 20 times as many members (Rawcliffe 1998). Its mandate is to 'promote the beauty, tranquility and diversity of rural England by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country' (CPRE website 2003). However, it doesn't even have the highest profile for raising awareness of rural issues with the growth of the Countryside Alliance in the last few years outstripping CPRE's influence. This lack of influence is reflected in the website which is fairly unexceptional, doing little more than maintain the conservative depiction of England supported by its membership group.

A Canterbury Tale was produced and set in the middle of the Second World War, and released in 1944. Powell and Pressburger were a well established team in cinema by then, and working under the influence and backing of the powerful Rank organisation they were unlikely to produce a film that did not cater for a mainstream audience (Richards & Aldgate 1983). This would have knock on affects on the production values of the film: who was chosen to act in it, and the way that imagery, narrative and music were combined to create a product. But more influential was the temporal context which had a huge impact on the types of films that were put into production at this time, influencing the content, style and message. In 1940 Lord Macmillan, then wartime Minister of Information (MOI), suggested three themes for propagandist feature films: what Britain was fighting for, how Britain was fighting and the need for sacrifice (Richards & Aldgate 1983). In some ways this film presents all these themes, but it focuses on what was being fought for. Arguably Powell and Pressburger were a perfect team for this: Emeric Pressburger, the writer of the story, had fled from the Nazis before the start of the war; and Michael Powell had spent his childhood in the rural splendour of Kent where they had chosen to set and film the feature. The combination of these factors meant that this idyllic landscape was presented as something worth preserving. Supposedly this was the England that was being fought for.

The technologies used to create A Canterbury Tale were vastly different from the website. The production of the website would invariably use but a few people, where as the film was the product of the writer, film crew, and the post-production team, to name but a few. The important difference though is the technology available to both these media in their different contexts, and their financial backing. For its time the film probably had a lot of money behind it, and so could use the best available equipment and people. The financial clout of the CPRE is probably a lot lower than this, and the website is unlikely to be their prime concern. I would argue that the main input at the production stage is from the intentions of the creators, and what slant they give to the discourses in hand. The fundamental differences in the production and technologies used do not in themselves impact upon the discourses, but they do affect the form of the image.

The nature of the texts
The images used in both media forms present the timeless idyllic rural landscape as the essential England. A Canterbury Tale explores the landscape around the fictional village of Chillingbourne on the outskirts of Canterbury. It paints an idyllic picture of a vibrant rural community with church, blacksmith, pub and farm.

Figure 1. The logo on
the CPRE website
Although it is just a single picture, the CPRE logo on the website uses similar imagery (see figure 1). Looking beyond the initial similarities in content, the style that the CPRE website uses is fairly basic. This standardisation is a common technique on websites, as by providing a fairly simple colour scheme the page will stand out more. It works within the conventions of website format as much as A Canterbury Tale does within film. The film is unusual for its time in that the narrative element of the story is deliberately downplayed to highlight the symbolism in the imagery (Christie 1984). Within the context of the internet, such highly detailed imagery would probably provide a less effective presentation of a discourse. So in no way can websites mimic reality in the same way that film or television does, instead they create a representation by using different techniques, in this case by overlaying the logo on a washed out background of a similar image. Despite these fundamental differences in technology, the differences in the form of the images do not affect the representations. They both involve intertextuality, referring to the same use of landscape in the construction of this halcyon image of England that has been permissive in society for hundreds of years (Aitken 1997;Rose 2001). As the title of the film suggests the link between the national icon Chaucer and the landscape he is associated with is used to strengthen its national sentiment. In both cases this link to Figure 1. The logo on the CPRE website nationalism is being drawn upon to support an idea: with A Canterbury Tale it was to support the war effort, with CPRE it is to protect the erosion of the rural lifestyle.

The presence of churches features strongly in the film and the webpage. When Land Army girl Alison Smith in A Canterbury Tale discovers that her lover is not dead after all she opens the windows to their old dirty caravan, letting the light in. This is accompanied by a shot of the Cathedral from her perspective. The image of the Cathedral standing firm amongst the bombed surroundings represents England's resilience against attack. With the CPRE logo, which incidentally acts as the homepage shortcut from other pages on the site, the church is at the centre of the picture, positioned on the horizon at the end of a winding road. Both these depictions link Christianity to Englishness, perhaps suggesting that to be English is to be Christian. This highlights why it might be worth readdressing the balance to allow more presence for all the other representations that are excluded by this view of England. Ingrid Pollard has photographed black figures in 'traditional' English Countryside questioning the complacent views of national identity and landscape (Daniels 1993). This conventional image will take on different, not necessarily negative, meanings to these groups, but is it right that what is continually presented as the aspirational and desired England is so exclusive?

Presentation of the texts
The position of the audience in relation to the text can be considered in two main ways: the viewers' reaction to the discourses; and the differences in the location and technology involved in presenting these texts. A Canterbury Tale could be viewed as maintaining the social hierarchy by perpetuating the superiority of the upper classes, especially in the context of what has been called a 'people's war'(Chapman 1998: 161). Many of the shots treat the squire, Colpeper, with reverence such as his establishing shot, where he is framed seated at the top of a flight of stairs like a judge. I would argue that this was not the England that was fought for by many in the Second World War, as soon after Clement Atlee was voted in on the guarantee of providing housing, employment and social security (Richards & Aldgate 1983). The press reaction to the film on its release was one of slight confusion, the prevalent view of the film being 'a confused and at times vaguely unpleasant story' (Winnington 1944). It is only with time that the film's deeper meanings have been more widely appreciated. The mixed views on the film bring into question how important the author's intentions are, if they are so often misinterpreted. Roland Barthes (1977) has termed this doubt over the usefulness of considering creative intentions the death of the author. The author should not be ignored completely as in many cases the audience is aware of their intentions, which will affect how the audience react. As such it still has creedence within some techniques such as Foucault's discourse analysis (Rose 2001).

The intended audiences for both of these media were probably quite similar, despite the time gap between their initial presentations. It is hard to tell who went to see A Canterbury Tale upon its release, but as a mainstream film, it would have probably attracted a fairly broad audience. The social make-up of the country was quite different at this time, almost wholly white and Christian, with a much larger working class. The CPRE website is probably intended for its members, and those who may be interested in preservation of the rural landscape, something that I would suggest is more the preserve of the white middle and upper classes at the moment. Both would have been viewed by others who were not sympathetic to the representations and subject matter. The difference is that in seeing the film, you probably would have been engaging with it for a much longer time. If you wanted to leave the CPRE website you could just click to go elsewhere instantaneously. So although the audiences and the representations that they see are similar, there are fundamental differences in the way the audience interacts with the different media. Film presents its discourse through 'one-to-many' communication, where as a website provides 'synchronous information where the receiver seeks out information from a provider' (Kitchin 1998: p.13). Although it is probably not applicable to the CPRE website, the Internet has allowed a blurring of boundaries between the producer and audience.

The locational and technological constraints on access are hugely important to both media. Figures released in 2000 show that 25% of households in the UK had internet access, and only 3% of those with a low income had access (Haklay 2001). An audience cannot access a film if it is not distributed evenly. The virtually worldwide monopoly of the large film production and distribution cartels in Hollywood means that we are continually presented with one perspective of reality, and other 'realities' find it hard to enter into this network (Stringer 2001). Access is linked to the environment where the audience views the different media. Since the Second World War, the invention of television and emergence of home video and DVD have taken the film out of the confines of the cinema. The location of the media will have an associated group of people, whether it is strangers in a cyber cafe or friends and family at home. The ability within these different environments to replay a scene as many times as you desire and to analyse a sequence frame by frame will have just as much influence as the people in that context on an individuals interpretations (Burgess 1987). The technology of a DVD creates a scenario similar to a website, where it is possible to interact, to find out more about the text, influencing how you view its representations. The difference with the website is that it can be updated, hacked into and changed, or corrupted and made unavailable if only temporarily. The effects that changing technologies have on different individuals and how they experience representations of landscape and identity, are so far reaching that it is difficult to do more than speculate. It is certain that the choice of the media which is used to present the discourses in hand has had a huge effect on the audience interpretation. Furthermore, it is the audiences' viewpoint that has the biggest impact on the meaning attributed to an image.

The analysis of the two texts at the different stages where meaning is given to the image has highlighted the similarities in how a particular discourse can be communicated. The way in which these two media works is understandably quite different, but the same differences would be evident if comparing other media forms, such as literature or maps. These differences only affect the way the audience use the media, and although the representations can take a very different form, I would argue that the underlying slant on the discourse is still the same. In this case it is the use of the English landscape to represent national identity perpetuating a view of England as a rural and traditional country. The associations also implicit in the imagery used exclude the views of other parts of society, particularly racial and religious minorities. The preservation of this view of England is not only problematic for issues of representational equality, but because it serves to turn England into a parody of itself. Lowenthal fittingly called the landscape a 'vast museumised ruin', with the uses bearing more on heritage and national identity than on the home and the workplace (1991: p. 217). This reinforces the need to question how the link between national identity and landscape is used and represented in the future.


Aitken, C. S. 1997, "Analysis of texts: armchair theory and couch - potato geography," in Methods in Human Geography, R. Flowerdew & D. Martin, eds., Longman, Harlow, pp. 197-292.

Barthes, R. 1977, Image, Music, Text Fontana, London.

Burgess, J. 1987, "Landscapes in the living-room: television and landscape research", Landscape Research, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 1-7.

Chapman, J. 1998, The British At War. Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939 - 1945 I.B. Tauris, London.

Christie, I. Alienation Effects. BFI Monthly Film Bulletin [October]. 1984. British Film Institute (BFI).
Ref Type: Magazine Article

CPRE website. 12-3-2003.
Ref Type: Electronic Citation

Daniels, S. 1993, Fields of Vision: landscape imagery and national identity in England and the United States Polity Press.

Haklay, M. 2001, "Public environmental information: understanding requirements and patterns of likely public use.", Area, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 17-28.

Inglis, F. 1987, "Landscape as Popular Culture", Landscape Research, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 20-24.

Kitchin, R. 1998, Cyberspace: The world in the wires John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Lowenthal, D. 1991, "British National Identity and The English Landscape", Rural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 205-230.

Matless, D. 1998, Landscape and Englishness Reaktion, London.

Rawcliffe, P. 1998, Environmental pressure groups in transition Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Richards, J. & Aldgate, A. 1983, British Cinema and Society 1930 - 1970 B. Blackwell, Oxford.

Rose, G. 2001, Visual Methodologies Sage, London.

Stringer, J. 2001, "Global Cities and the International Film Festival," in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, M. Shiel & T. Fitzmaurice, eds., Blackwells, Oxford, pp. 134-145.

Winnington, R. News Chronicle. 1944. 12-1-2003.
Ref Type: Electronic Citation

See also Visual representations of places, spaces and landscapes

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