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From The Bowels Of The Beeb

by 

Bethsheba Knobbs-Jenkinson

 

 

An excerpt from Chapter 3: The Early Mavericks

When the BBC commissioned independent filmmaker and Finchingfield resident Colin Partridge to record ‘ordinary people in their environs’ for a short series of documentaries in the late 1930s, they could not have foreseen the storm of controversy that would follow.

 

Down Your Street, the first in the series, was entertaining and engaging — and featured larger-than-life characters from London’s east end who all lived in Cyprus Street, Bethnal Green. It was a popular and critical success. 

 

Partridge was subsequently afforded more directorial control and a bigger budget for the rest of the series, but unbeknown to his broadcasting masters his private life was in turmoil.

 

It’s thought that he’d become embroiled with a shadowy quasi-religious organisation that encouraged him to squander his BBC budget on something he later described as ‘Ritual’.

Colin Partridge pre-Ritual

Consequently Up Your Alley focussed on his local area and in particular the schoolchildren of Finchingfield. Partridge’s state of mind was reflected in poor camera angles, blurred imagery and a slurred voice over, but the main reason for the episode not being broadcast was — as a BBC insider put it 'the kids were just too weird. If the people of Britain thought Finchingfield School was representative of rural education they’d have headed to the cities in droves.'

The boys of Finchingfield school in 1940. Silas and Arnold are seated at the front -- where Mr. Dervisher could keep an eye on them

Much of the content of this episode was lost to an unexplained fire and subsequent flooding of part of the BBC archive, but I’m led to believe it contained footage of children engaged in an activity they called ‘shed banging’ — running full pelt at shed walls wearing only pumpkins for head protection…and all this, actively encouraged by the local vicar.

Children were also allegedly filmed in the playground swaying and falling over as if intoxicated, only to jump up and shout 'Fermentation!' — before chorused chants of 'Skulk! Skulk! Skulk!' Explanation for these activities was neither sought nor given.

One reel survived the biblical onslaught. It shows children engaged in an activity described by the master — a Mr. Dervisher — as ‘potato craftsmanship’, which along with ‘compost topiary’ and 'static endurance’ formed part of a bizarre and eclectic syllabus.

 

'I remember clearly being amazed by three young children from Finchingfield' revealed my source. 'Silas, Arnold and Anthony. They took potato carving to another level. Not only were they intricately carved, they displayed a disturbing level of imagination — nightmarish sculptures with tormented titles such as The Day After Sedimentation and Inception…the Horror! Possibly more alarming was Anthony’s effort, which displayed an interest in female swimwear far in advance of his tender years, together with a clairvoyant vision of today’s bikini almost 10 years before a small atoll in the Pacific was blown to smithereens in the name of peace.' 

My source refused to be named, saying 'So much has gone on around this footage. I’ve said too much already. It’s cursed — and too many good men have already gone to the wall.' He was probably referring to the instant dismissal of then BBC Head of Commissioning Harmonia Percy-Fry, after news of the film’s extraordinary content had reached the great and the good. (Searching questions regarding the Finchingfield syllabus were subsequently asked of the Secretary of State for

Education in the House of Commons.)

 

However, some time later — and after several refreshments — my contact was more forthcoming.

 

'Most rural schools teach country dancing. It’s not only good exercise, it helps the kids interact with the opposite sex. But they did things a bit differently in Finchingfield. They called it sashaying — which seemed to involve a lot of staggering about and falling over. Then there was the sashay-doublé where the boys formed a kind of swaying human pyramid while the girls learnt to prepare a late supper.'

The sashay-doublé -- tricky to master

And what of the troubled Mr. Partridge? Fortune at first appeared to smile on him, as a mysterious benefactor pledged to make good the deficit on his expunged budget so that he could deliver four documentaries to the BBC as agreed.

 

Unfortunately, adversity continued to court the controversial filmmaker. Up Your Aisle was intended to be a sympathetic delve into church life in Lower Midwallop, Staffs…but he was chased out of the village by the local Women’s Guild after reports that their menfolk had been in his company till the early hours before returning home intoxicated and demanding they move to North Essex.

 

Partridge sought sanctuary amongst the small mining community of Grimeston Moor in South Yorkshire, intending to make Down Your Shaft as a tribute to the heroic efforts of the mineworkers and the stoic support of their wives and families. With filming well underway, Yorkshire hosted Essex at Headingley in the County Championship — and Partridge’s vociferous and impassioned support for the visitors, which included a withering appraisal of Norman Yardley’s manhood, did nothing to help his popularity with the steadfast men of Grimeston Moor.

 

His subsequent escape on a borrowed pit pony laden with camera equipment was agonisingly ponderous...but ultimately successful.

Returning to Finchingfield a broken man, Partridge vowed never to film again — and apart from a brief flirtation with the French new wave movement La Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s when he made the underground classic Un Film De Beige — he never did.

Fin

Still from the apocalyptic climax to Un Film De Beige -- by kind permission of the Partridge Family

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