BESIDE THE SEASIDE BESIDE THE SEA
The pull of the sea always had me.
It wanted me.
It was my grandparents Gladys and Albert that took me on my first trips to the seaside.
Caravanning or camping but always with a carload of bickering siblings.
Most summer holidays we would head for the South Coast, Seaton, Beer or Bexhill-on-Sea.
Knickerbockerglories, 99’s, deck chairs and the funny ha-ha of a Punch and Judy.
The De La Warr Pavilion.
The building had an effect on me.
And as a famous modernist landmark it stood out in stark contrast to the wooden beach huts, esplanades, bandstands and colonnades.
Old people shuffling around with cups of tea, Rod Hull and his Emu, Brass Bands, Toby Jugs and windceyette tights.
A paradox and anachronism.
But it belonged to my seaside memories and I wanted to do something with it.
As an artist, film-maker and traveller come inveterate confabulator I had hatched a plan in to circumnavigate the whole coastline of Britain, never venturing inland and sticking wherever possible to the coastal roads.
I wanted to immerse myself in the idiosyncrasies and iconographies that littered the shoreline of these islands and what better place to start.
My featurelengthhomeroadmovie and odyssey; Gallivant came about from a desire to document a trip along the beaches of England, Wales and Scotland with a Super 8 camera and a simple DAT recorder. There was to be no sound-sync and a minimal crew, just myself and a photographer. The idea was initially developed in 1994 for the Arts Council of Great Britain and Channel 4 under their Experimenta Longform scheme. The funders were looking for projects, which might attempt to ‘re invent the language of television’.
Ultimately despite having made some research trips North, South, East and West of this country that film was never made. However it resurfaced and was presented to the BFI with my grandmother Gladys and my daughter Eden attached. The idea of taking the two of them with me was in no small part determined by the fact that my grandmother had just lost her husband Albert and was overwhelmed by grief. We began to visit her more often than usual and I noticed a strong relationship growing between her and her grand daughter.
Eden has a very rare neurological disorder in the form of Joubert Syndrome, which proved intimidating and upsetting for Gladys when she was first born. She found it difficult to communicate with her and would often turn to ask ‘What’s she saying of?’ or worse still ‘It’s such a shame, it shouldn’t be allowed’. But the familial bonds that hold a grandmother and a great granddaughter together overrode the anxieties she felt about her disability and they grew closer.
I started filming a lot of these encounters on Hi8 video and as a minor revelation one Sunday afternoon realised that the two of them might be placed at the films’ very centre. They were to become its’ heart beat and motor.
This is what I proposed in collaboration with the Producer Ben Woolford at Tall Stories:
Gallivant. Simply, this film is a record of an actual trip to be made around the coast of Britain. But of course it’s not that simple: the convolutions of the coastline are matched by the eccentricities of the people and places encountered, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of the camera operator and the lure of the apparently irrelevant. We will be alert to the deep heritage of the land, while our ears will be opened to the zeitgeist, the bombardment of sounds from a multicultural society set against relics from the past, surviving through the oral tradition. Folklore, festivals, customs, traditions and mysteries, as well as places of outstanding natural beauty and sites of historical interest will serve to feed our voracious appetite and rampant curiosity. The filming (on super 8 and 35mm) will be over a period of some months. The full gamut of post-production edit techniques will be used to produce an intense, visceral and absorbing odyssey and multi-layered narrative.
The idea is to document the coast, through the eyes of real people (Gladys, Eden and Andrew), through meetings with genuine coastal residents (the interviewees), and through the places visited (coast towns and paths, ports, estuaries, and marshes). The film technique will allow the documentary nature of the project to be subverted by a strong editorial input from the film-maker. This will be achieved by the use of post-production techniques (transposition of voices, additional voice-over, sound effects etc) but also by cultivating the strangeness of the ‘real’ people encountered, so that the authenticity of interview statements may be called into question (are they genuine, set up, scripted or improvised around a theme?). Thus the viewer will have to confront their own assumptions about the way things are, rather than simply take on board the point of view of the film.
The film is therefore a snapshot of Britain today (1996), complete with its past, which is part of today, and like a snapshot it may contain apparently irrelevant or unstructured elements; the background figure who wanders into the frame of a family group on the beach, may not be deliberately included, but their puzzled stare into the lens may transform and enhance the overall result. (Film unlike factory processed Snappy Snaps has a post-production period that allows subsequent manipulation of both sound and image).
The social and political perspective offered by Gladys and others in the film will be included but not melded into a consistent point of view. In this sense the film aims to be pre-political, to offer an undigested (if well constructed) view that can be seen and interpreted in different ways. Its strength will lie in the vividness and humour of outlook, careful thematic development, and the power of the basic device of seeing things through the eyes of two such different family members as Gladys and Eden.
This will be an idiosyncratic view, a view (literally) from the margins which will welcome the marginal; and it will be an affectionate view, with little room for sneering and as much self-mockery as mockery. The picture that emerges will be as much about the three main characters as about the country itself; memory and hope, pleasure and fear, tradition and prediction - discovery, self-discovery and revelation.
Several structures run through the film. Ostensibly (and actually) it is a ‘gallivant’ around the coast of Britain. This will be signposted in the pre-title sequence in which a TV weatherman (50’s or 60’s television archive, and not the hi-tech nonlinear world of the nineties) will mark out the coastline with a pointer while a know-it-all voice-over academic will expound on the nature of the woad-covered island race and things historically British. Throughout the film, and to accentuate where we might be, we will return to this image of the Man and his Pointy Stick.
It was this ‘Master of Ceremonies’ with his pointy stickthat enabled me to weave into the fabric of the film the voices of timesgone, the voices of the hoi polloi and the voices of the heuty teuty. It was meant as an homage to the old black and white public information films that were projected into the classroom for me as a child and films that to this day act as a mnemonic and catalyst. They are at odds with a lot of the modern technologies and yet through their powerful pull towards the nostalgic they work as transporters and signifiers. They become a sonic or visual glue for some of the disparities of filming techniques and help to hold together the ‘gleaned’ or ‘bricollagic’ effects common throughout a lot of my work.
The film as flotsam and jetsam is also held together by Gladys and Eden and their evolving relationship. They are testament to my own home movie as timewellspent.
We travelled wide-eared, wide-eyed, far and wide
The littoral truths of this island were everywhere.
From the Piers and the Pubs to the Milkmen and the Morris Dancers, the Lollipop Ladies and the Lidos, the Pickled Eggs and the Paper Boys, from the Seaside Chalets to the Cairns and from the fibreglass Guide-dogs-for-the-blind and the concrete Garden Gnomes.
The coastline was awash with a very particular paraphernalia and the ebbing and flowing of the oceanic horizons worked its’ magic on the retina.
Respite for the city dwellers gaze.
A calm came over us and after almost four months we returned to the journeysbegin.
The De La Warr Pavilion.
Iain Sinclair (poet and film-maker), writing for Sight and Sound in 1997 when the film was first released had things to say about it:
What Kötting does, it’s so simple a notion, is to go the whole way, clockwise around Britain. To return to his point of departure. The journey takes about three months, out of summer and into autumn …. If that was all, it would still be a voyage well worth our attention. A mingling of personal vision with a highly evolved documentary impulse. A multiple-focus trek made within modest limits, cinema returned to its infancy. And without top heavy production clutter, without budgetary excess. (See the crew picnic on condensed milk.) this is a homage to that archetypal home-movie, the seaside excursion. The day out, remission from mundane routine. Time for putting together oldest youngest members of the family for that hell of British togetherness …. But Gallivant has something more – a notable cast, Kötting’s trump cards: Gladys Morris (85) and Eden Kötting (seven)…. and to gallivant according to the Random House Dictionary, “to wander about, seeking pleasure or diversion; to go about with members of the opposite sex.” And this is what - full throttle - Kötting does…. This new British cinema (born of the polytechnics and art schools) – promoting psychogeography, the journey, the quest, a close examination of random particulars – is a vitalising alternative to the once-lively, now largely inert, documentary programme- fillers of mainstream television. Hi-8 cameras, 8mm film blown up, creative soundtracks (‘cut-ups’ that owe something to William Burroughs, something to sampled rave-bunker noise) have liberated filmmakers in a way that harks back to the co-operatives of the Sixties, to the American underground of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and the chamber cinema of Robert Frank and early John Cassavetes…. Gallivant is blitzed with found texts, hints, signifiers. The yellow lettering of a Spastics charity shop, swastikas on walls, the madcap calligraphy of fairgrounds and piers. Eden, the child, strokes an empty belly, or signs her desires for home, with soft quick fingers. Gladys learns to ‘read’ her. Kötting mimes through the window of the camper van, before falling off and shattering his ankle. The various camera-eyes are hungry for guidance. The furry sound-stick is an unsatisfied predator. “Tell me a story, sing me a song.” When the anarchic crew arrive in South Wales at the old steel dock of Port Talbot, they find a notice in the mud, in front of all the apocalyptic industrial squalor; a message that seems precisely to define their case. DO NOT ANCHOR BETWEEN SIGNS. Keep moving, get out of town. The road’s end its beginning.
These edgelands still have a pull on me and a few years ago I moved to St Leonard’s-on-sea.
I’m always in the sea
and more recently
because of serendipity
I found myself swimming the English Channel with two of the bickering siblings for company.
We were supported by the crew of a small boat called the ‘Gallivant’ and the wisdom and strength of Iain Sinclair.
Eden, now twenty, sat at the water’s edge on Shakespeare’s Beach waiting for us to return ‘home’ and in a short film called Offshore she plays the part of ‘Mistress of Ceremonies’.
Alone waiting for the return to the place from which we began.
Time moving on and time changing in order that I pretend to remain the same.
PS; The De La Warr Pavilion has been reconfigured, revamped and rediscovered.
Its’ magnetic-pull recharged, the culturalists from all over come to bear witness to its newly painted splendour.
A bastion of Lottery donation.
And once inside they stand wide-eyed-bewildered by the new art inventions- pretensions interventions-presentations- installations and ongoing shenanigans.
A post post-modern make-over
Anachronistic no longer?
A DVD of the film ‘Gallivant’ along with 12 other short films is available through the BFI and Amazon.