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The Warp

Dick Jobson

Dick Jobson, country doctor and film maker, living just over the Welsh border in New Radnor, was becoming a friend of mine and I took to calling on him when I visited Eye.

He had his practice in a mountainous area, where people were scarce and outnumbered many times over by sheep. A windswept desolate place, a place of dank damp valleys and stark hills erupting into craggy outcrops of rock, hills and mountains that bore through much of the year their soft wet burden of white mist. The people who lived here then, as now, had a character half English, half Welsh.

Dick Jobson was to be doctor here for well over thirty years. His practice, one of the largest geographically and one of the smallest numerically in Britain, was too small to support more than one man so that he was tied here almost all the time. He could never go beyond the reach of emergency, and only twice went to London during those thirty years.

Dick also had many other interests. In his spare time he worked at the making of films. One of these told how he found a piece of driftwood on the beach and resolved to paint it. One was a surrealist film about cancer. Another was a plea that his wild and favourite hills should not be fenced in.

These films were later to become much respected, were shown at the National Film Theatre and on the Telly. One of them won for him a medal at the Cannes Festival.

I had looked Dr Jobson up in the phone book and I rang him and asked if I could come over to meet him.

Soon, as I drove West, houses and fields to the side of the road became scarcer, until both gave way to mountains. The road ran like a black ribbon towards the coast and Aberystwyth. Then the hills fell away, and I plunged down into the little ribbon of whitewashed houses by the road that was New Radnor.

Dr Jobson’s stone-built house was in the centre of the village, half hidden behind the war memorial and shrubberies. I’d just missed him, his wife Pauline told me, he had to go out to visit some patients.

I left the house and strolled down the road between the slate-roofed Welsh houses, chatting with people about their doctor and New Radnor. Beside us, beside the road, a stream was gurgling.

The Vicar; ‘Well, it’s a country village of, I should say, three hundred people. The chief occupations being farming, forestry and quarry work. It has a very, very long history. It’s recorded, for example, that there were people living in Downton, down the road, as far back as the Domesday Book. And then there are several prehistoric monuments in the parish, hill forts and stone circles. At one time, it was the capital of the County. The capital now is Presteigne, but New Radnor used to be, and had its own Member of Parliament. And there’s a tablet in the churchyard to one of these MPs, a man called Percival Lewis.’

I called on the squire of the village, Sir Andrew Duff-Gordon. ‘This place is, well, very rural. And hilly. Particularly hilly. Even where I live at Harpton, the dining-room table is 700 feet above sea level. And then each side you go up to the forest. It’s about 2,000 feet.’

Next, the postman, who told me; ‘I have a high opinion of this area. I like it very much. Very much indeed. It’s quite healthy, I think. What sort of places do I deliver letters to? Oh, quite outlandish places sometimes, you know, we’ve got quite a lot of places we’ve got to walk to. We take the van as far as we can and then walk the rest. Very nice in the summer-time, not so nice in the winter-time. We do fail sometimes if the snow, you know, the road is blocked up. And therefore we’ve got to take the mail back and try the next day.’

‘What about the doctor?’

‘Oh, he’s a good one.’

The postman’s wife; ‘Yes, doctor comes here every Friday and we look forward to seeing him. I’ve got great faith in Dr Jobson, I have. If I can only just see his face it puts me right for a week.’

I returned to Dr Jobson’s house. Through a door in the wall he hailed me, then asked me in, a picturesque robust figure, red-haired, tousle-headed. The house was dark, secret, Victorian, flanked by a low conservatory filled with potted plants. Pauline set to to prepare an evening meal and as she did so Dick said; ‘My patients are, I suppose, by present-day standards quite simple country people and very sweet people. I’ve some real friends amongst them. Others are very modern in their outlook. On the other hand, I have one old couple of which the woman, I think, could really claim to be a practising witch. I don’t think she does much more than charm warts professionally, but certainly she does muttering incantations to a tree in the wood. And when I wished to send her husband to hospital one time I was told that I should not because it was all in hand, she’d referred the matter to a higher power, and he was certainly going to get well. And I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the temptation of saying ‘When?’ And she gave me the date and the time of day. But I’m afraid she was wrong, you know. He didn’t. He had to go to hospital in the end. I don’t wish to give the impression that there’s a high percentage like that, but there are quite a few. And of course a lot of the antiquities still remain. There’s a wonderful old church near here with a spell on its wall to cure a woman of possession of evil spirits.’

I said, ‘This is the border country, isn’t it? Successive invasions of England have ended up being washed up against these hills and here been rebuffed, and maybe this has affected the people who live here?’

‘I think particularly on this side of New Radnor, where they’ve been born and bred on what used to be the Border Marshes, I think they’ve inherited a lot of the shyness and suspicion of the old border warfare. People here are very conscious of their County, and not really conscious of their Country. If you ask them about it, after a bit of thought they’ll say yes, definitely they’re Welsh. But they are firstly conscious of their County, and when a stranger comes they will ask him or her ‘What do you think of Radnor?’ And they’re very proud of it. The village is a great community, probably because it’s so isolated. We all know everybody else and there’s a great sense of The Doctor and The Parson and The Butcher and The Blacksmith, and it’s almost like a far flung outpost of the Empire, if you’ll excuse the term. There is a great feeling of cohesion, and I don’t know whether solidarity is the word I want, but something of that sort.

‘There are snags to life here. The first thing is that one is very much on one’s own. There isn’t a chemist’s shop. I dispense all the medicines I prescribe. Sometimes people treat me like a chemist rather than a doctor. They don’t want medical advice, they want me to post them a bottle of cough mixture or put of bottle of tonic on the bus, or give it to the postman to take over to them, or bring it myself.

‘Because I’m on my own, it’s hard to get away. The doctors in Kington try to help me but the fact is that I am alone here and I alone am responsible for the welfare of the district.

‘The other thing is getting about. It’s pleasant in summer when you’ve plenty of time, but when you’re pushed for time or when the weather is bad in winter it can be difficult. We do get very severe winters. I have had to walk great distances in snow, and it can be quite a struggle. I’ve even tried going to people on skis, but it isn’t much of a success down country lanes.

‘Having said all this, I must admit that I don’t feel isolated. I have very good friends here and very interesting friends. My interests are egocentric, self-provided, what-have-you. I build model locomotives, a lot of models. I try to paint pictures. I play the clarinet. I’m very fond of music, both listening and trying to perform. I collect films. I make films. As you have noticed we are surrounded by models and films of all sorts. I have some quite antique models I’m rather proud of, and some rather beautiful models that were made by my father when he was young. I do like my old German classics very much. I’m the lucky possessor of the Cabinet of Dr Calligari, the ’95 version. I’ve got a copy of a film I think very highly of, which is not at all well known, ‘The Tale of Croesus’. I was very fortunate to get hold of that. And I’ve got some very early films on 28 millimetre. Early English films. I’ve even got a very early Japanese film. Of course these are all sort of highbrow collector’s pieces, but they are of great interest too. Mind you, I ought perhaps to say that although I love seeing films and collecting them, I even manifest a sign of the real collector in that I look at them on a winder without showing them on a screen.

‘Despite this collector’s itch, I do like making films myself best. That is the real thrill. But it’s also the greatest effort. Making a fairly complicated film is really a tremendous thing. From an outside person’s point of view, I might almost seem to be obsessed. I myself just feel I’m very keen on it.’

Evening was falling now, the darkness creeping down the undulant flanks of the mountains. Old-fashioned films and pictures by Dick, a home-made tape-recorder, books on medicine, philosophy, surrealism, and potted plants stood, in profusion, around us. Dick was giving a film show that night. So it was that, later that evening, a group of people came to the house from out of the dusk. From a manor house a few miles away came Innes Ireland, the racing motorist, in a Ferrari. A violinist, and also the local squire and parson, came across the hills to cram into Dick’s front room and a few local farmers. At the back of the room the old-fashioned black projector gurked and hummed, and three loud-speakers, ranged one on top of the other in descending order of girth, ejaculated noises. The lights snapped off, the show began.

Dick showed us first an old flickering silent full-length German movie from his collection. I remember chorus-girls prancing through plaster caverns, a locomotive pounding over the Russian steppes.

This was followed by Dick’s own ‘Driftwood and Seashell’ with its strange haunting soundtrack, as a piece of driftwood, waving seaweed, a waving hand, a face that is half lost and then half seen, mountains, seas, a toy train that pounds through the night before the majestic entrance of a small porcelain castle.

Last on the bill was ‘Credimus’, Dick’s most recent film. A bowler-hatted man struts, umbrella waving, beside the ocean. Ever and anon as it froths over his shoes he skitters inland. We follow the bureaucrat’s haphazard progress away from the primitive ocean towards civilisation. He arrives at a town hall. From here on the film is a portrayal of human arrogance and humanity’s attempt to control and thus destroy the world.

Film making is usually thought of as a matter involving hundreds or thousands of people and thousands or millions of pounds and yet Dick Jobson’s films were early examples of an exciting type of film, the private film, the film made by one man in his own solitude and his own secrecy, out of his own heart, in his own back-room.

Dick told me; ‘Oh yes, one man can make a whole film alright. It should be said that a great many private films are made by clubs or societies so that there are quite a few people in them. But on the other hand, there are as many lone workers, like myself. I was brought into contact with the other amateurs largely through my success with my first film, ‘Driftwood and Seashell’. Before that all I’d done was sort of write an occasional letter to the papers on the subject. But after this I met quite a few people and made some very great friends among them.

In particular I ought to mention Kevin Brownlow, the director of the huge amateur film that’s really of professional proportions called ‘It Happened Here’, showing what would have happened if Germany had succeeded in invading and occupying England, and much of it was shot down in the Welsh Border country, round New Radnor. We’ve had some tremendous sessions. One of the first things I found for Kevin was a tumble-down farmhouse he could blow up. And he brought down about thirteen people and they were camping all over the house. And we had a wonderful weekend. He became very well-known in the village. He’s wonderful at handling people. And he shot some evacuation scenes in the village. The idea was that the local guerillas were to be gassed out and the Germans were evacuating the villagers preparatory to this. And Kevin managed to get almost the whole village acting for him. And we had a great fleet of pre-1939 lorries assembled, and we loaded these with children and mothers, dressed up as far as possible in 1939 fashions. And it was quite an extraordinary experience how the whole village became one over this film.

‘For my films I don’t use an awful lot of equipment really, less than many people would think. I’ve got a very old 16 millimetre camera with a fixed focus lens, and I make a lot of gadgets I use myself. I’m fortunate in having a projector which is synchronised so that I can get my sound-tracks accurately in synch. And for sound I use the radiogram amplifier. This works for both film and records, and is also of use when I’m trying to record sound films.

‘I bought my equipment secondhand locally, in not very good condition, and worked it up. Because I’m interested in mechanical things I can save quite a bit of money by getting old stuff and building it up myself.’

The following day, Dick initiated me into some of the tricks that he employed to facilitate the making of his ‘one man films’. One of these tricks was cutting in the camera. Whereas most film makers often take nine or ten versions of each shot and then stick the best of each together in the cutting room, Dick, in many of his films, cut in the camera, that is, he carefully rehearsed each shot that he wanted, then photographed it, then travelled sometimes for miles before recording the next shot. He even did this with his fades-in and fades-out, passing his hand or a special gadget he invented over the lens of the camera.

As well as being producer, scriptwriter, director, composer, cameraman, scene designer, electrician, scene shifter and editor, Dick often acted in his own films as well. In ‘Credimus’ for instance, he played the part of the bureaucrat caught in a world beyond his comprehension. But how as cameraman did he photograph himself as an actor? Dick constructed a delayed action control made of clockwork and meccano which started and stopped the camera. He would set the remote control going, nip round the front of the camera, act the scene, rush back, stop the machine again. Alternatively he would use his feet in shots in which they do not appear to operate a concealed pneumatic long distance squeegee which started and stopped the camera when he wanted it.

I mentioned that some of the shots in ‘Credimus’ were of mammoth shattered cities, of guns, warfare. How were these done?

‘Well, they are practically all done in miniature on a table top. I build up a table top stage set with a black cloth and cardboard flats painted in watercolour, and graduated sizes of pebbles can be very useful. I also use lump starch at times. I’d used this technique quite a lot already in still photography which gave me some practice. I also use an animation technique to get movement of various things. In ‘Credimus’ I have a sort of symbolic atomic bomb that turns into a mushroom, and that was done on top of an electric light bulb, mixing the two images and gradually changing things frame by frame to get the effect.

‘After the atom bomb goes off,’ Dick reminded me, ‘there’s a terrifying moment when a baby’s face crumbles. To do this I made a still photograph of one of the frames of a baby in the film, enlarged it and then put a blowlamp on the back of the print and filmed it so that you see the baby’s face shrivel and wilt in an unpleasant fashion.

‘As for my soundtracks, a lot of my strange noises are done with simple faking. Holding on to the record player turntable, for example, making it go a bit faster, or slower. I have an automatic device that does my percussion for me, it’s driven by an old meccano motor I had when I was a small boy. It works with gears and hammers. And I felt it was quite a good scheme to give a rhythmic percussion, and then I play a theme on the clarinet in time to it. In ‘Credimus’ there are screaming noises that are really a motif for war. I made them by playing a fairly high note on the clarinet and altering the speed of the tape recorder while I played it, stopping it and starting it. I did this three times and superimposed all the takes on top of each other. And also I altered the pitch of the clarinet between the playing by a semi-tone. I thought that every time I let it go it might get back to its normal speed and it would always be on the same note, it would sound bad. So I altered it by a semi-tone and if it did hold the basic note at least it would be a dischord. Well it’s a good soundtrack and powerful and at least it’s an original one.

‘The cost of these private or personal films varies. The cost of ‘Driftwood and Seashell’ wasn’t much more than the cost of the film it was shot on. I should say £15 would cover it, unless you include petrol used in travel and things like that. That was a film which lasted about 14 minutes. But as one goes on, tries to be more professional in one’s technique, so the costs mount. And the cost of my last effort, ‘Credimus’, has been quite terrific. And I think if I’d realised beforehand what it was going to be I should have hesitated to make this film either as long or as complicated as I did.

‘As well as films I am very interested in painting and also I have seen one or two of the more avant garde films, partly through hiring them. And there is a local film society I go to occasionally, and I was certainly very influenced by ‘Un Chien Andalou’, a Dali film, and feeling as I do about films and about pictures and painting, I try to put what I feel about painting into this other form of art that I love so much. I like to think that films are an art form and not just a means of entertainment.

‘I have tried to do entirely surrealist films but there’s something about my make-up that in my painting and films sooner or later some symbolism creeps in, and I’m back with some sort of reference to reality.

‘I like to think that as well as preaching I make the film visually attractive, and I like to think the soundtrack is attractive. But there is one thing to be said for preaching in films. If you feel a thing very sincerely you do wish to talk about it, and I think sincerity counts for a good deal.’

‘The main idea that I have behind so much of the things I’m doing, not only in films, is that man thinks rather too much of himself. This idea of loving one’s fellow men is all very well, but you shouldn’t deify your fellow men. I feel that man sort of makes himself rather into a god. And he regards the whole of creation as a sort of model gymnasium and a place for his welfare. He believes that all beauty is just to delight his eye. He’s naively surprised to find there’s beauty where he never sees it. And he thinks it’s a good thing to ‘develop’ the world. I’d like to see man more modest about it. Instead of being triumphant about taking over fresh parts of the world and boasting about it, I’d rather see him a little more apologetic, say “I’m sorry but we’ll have to spoil a bit more because there’s so many of us.” It would be a much better point of view, I feel. And I think this idea is behind a good deal of what I’ve done. It certainly is behind ‘Credimus’. Some day I hope to write a book which is, I suppose, a very much more sensible medium than the film for expressing these things.’

There had been bitter moments in Dick’s films, but as I drove back home over the hills my principal memory was not bitter, but was rather, as I think Dick would wish it to be, of that final heartfelt message at the end of ‘Credimus’, in which Dick’s voice is heard;

‘Perhaps this seems a very bitter film. But now that it is almost over the bitterness is at an end. You see I do sincerely believe that man’s greatness lies not in what he is, but what he has the power to become. Not in his intellectual domination, but in the comprehension on his spirit. I believe that in times of disaster he ceases to be the bantam cock, strutting on his dung-hill, and finds a true nobility of soul. That his moments of utter material defeat are frequently coincident with his greatest spiritual victories. There is nothing original in this idea. After all, it was epitomised nearly 2,000 years ago.’


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