Dennis Potter’s 1979 play has a twisting irony to its title: “blue remembered hills” is a phrase from an A E Housman poem, setting a mood of gentle nostalgia that’s ripe for puncturing.
He sets his scene during the second world war, another cultural moment (long before this one) when people were horribly, necessarily worried about children: about the way that world events were stripping childhood of its simplicity and innocence, and replacing it with something wilder, unguarded and unwatched. Potter’s story is best known as a BBC Play For Today film, where children act out sinister power games that reflect the stresses of their unseen parents in the wilderness of the Forest of Dean – their chatter about missing-in-action fathers interspersed with long interludes of raucous play.
It’s an inspired choice for a revival by Belgian collective De Roovers, especially for an outdoor setting. Like the BBC film, it takes place in a wilderness, yes, but instead of a pristine forest this is a strange hardscrabble patch of Thamesmead, once occupied by munitions factories, and now taken over by a chaotic mass of brambles and buddleia. A coach takes the audience from the station and through the high metal gates that separate it from the pristine, fast-gentrifying world of Woolwich with its brand new flats on brownfield sites.
I want to look and look and look with hungry eyes at this setting, where the thick grey clouds hang thickly over our heads and make everyone feel small, just drizzle-soaked dots in a huge landscape. When the actors file out onto the grass they stare right back at the audience through the misty air, with that unapologetic prepubescent gaze that’s unworried by causing discomfort or embarrassment.
Potter’s play captures the total ego-centricity of childhood, and his eye is totally unsoftened by any of the adult sentimentality that imagines that being a kid is easy, or necessarily happy. The boys spend their days hunting for glass bottles they can return to the shop for tiny sums of money. Donald, whose Dad is missing in action, is obsessed with matches that he carefully hides from the others as they tease him horribly about the torture his father might be suffering. He’s stammering and shy, hanging back as his friends chase and kill a wild squirrel, then recoil in horror at what they’ve done. The grown-up performers here give these moments total physical commitment, tumbling over each other or racing up and down the grassy hill with authentically limitless-feeling energy. It’s genuinely horrible to watch them hold down Angela and spit in her face, for challenging the boy-led mob rule. But that moment always would be: unthinking childish cruelty mapping too neatly onto adult misogyny. Other moments don’t land as conclusively.
The BBC film version had a punch because it was novel to see adults playing children then, and doubly so because the camera focused so closely on Helen Mirren squabbling over a baby in a pram, or bullyish Michael Elphick being tricked into believing his apple is poisoned. De Roovers’ production zooms out on the story. The performers become just parts of the landscape, dwarfed by it, their problems small: but that works against the gesture of the text, which is to show that what seem like childish problems are actually mammoth, painful, matters of life and death.
It’s kind of a boring thing to grumble about, but it’s also a conscious effort to follow the dialogue, as the wartime cockney dialogue combines with the performers’ Belgian accents to make an only-semi-penetrable language. Sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by the beauty of this slowly darkening stage picture: Bert Vermeulen’s artful lighting touches the edges of the grass and trees with golden light as dusk falls. And Eric Engels’ music and sound effects creates a sense of an otherworldly, violent place: the real planes that regularly roar over our heads, on their way to London City Airport, are accentuated with the exhilarating noises of WWII-era bombers, sending the kids diving into the bushes in terror.
Through some weird synchronicity I saw Blue Remembered Hills just after reading Noel Streatfield’s Saplings, a 1945 novel where the author of rose-tinted kids’ books like Ballet Shoes takes a darker approach to childhood, documenting the emotional trauma visited on a family of four upper-middle-class London children during the war. The children it focuses on are so much more carefully guarded and looked after than the feral urchins Potter writes about. But what both left me marvelling at is how much kids of all ages in the 40s were treated like little adults, allowed to walk about freely in a world of adult dangers. My dad rode his tricycle alone to school at the age of four, I wasn’t let out alone til I was 10, today, I almost never see kids under the age of 12 or so who are just wandering down the street, or playing in the outdoors in an undirected way. For most of 2020, the park play equipment was barred off with red and white security tape, the miniscule risk of germs lingering on cold metal apparently greater than the psychological damage of losing contact with the outdoors.
So although Blue Remembered Hills is all about stamping on nostalgia, it still gave me a pang of sadness for something we’ve lost: for a kind of departed freedom and wildness, however much cruelty and danger it came with.
Blue Remembered Hills was on at GDIF from 7th-11th September 2021. More info here.