It says something about the uncompromising creative nature of Dennis Potter that what is considered his most accessible work features not only seven adult actors playing children but also a startling and deeply disturbing ending that has haunted me since I first saw it as a young teenager and chilled me again watching it yesterday.
Set in the Potter's beloved Forest of Dean in the long summer holiday of 1943, Blue Remembered Hills depicts four boys whose imagination and play has been deeply affected by the ongoing war. Deep within their Eden like forest, they play war games, fantasise about being commandos, marines and parachutists, they joke and bicker and kill a squirrel. Meanwhile two girls are playing house in a nearby barn with a shy, somewhat outcast boy they taunt and tease, before moving on to join the four boys leaving the boy to remain by himself. Their games are interrupted by the sound of a nearby siren denoting an escaped Italian POW from the local camp and the play culminates with them all witnessing and being involved in a tragic accident. I'm not going to say any more because if you haven't seen it any further comment would spoil the plot and its ability to surprise. Just watch it.
Colin Welland as Willie
Michael Elphick as Peter
Helen Mirren as Angela
Janine Duvitski as Audrey
Colin Jeavons as Donald
Robin Ellis as John
John Bird as Raymond
The central conceit of casting adult actors in the roles of children isn't just a stunt to gain attention or appear to be fashionably and progressively arty; Potter's play primarily concerns itself with stripping away the cliched sentimental notions of childhood innocence. Indeed the title itself, taken from a Housman poem which Potter can be heard to quote over the film's last image, is meant to be sarcastic and ironic as the writer's firm belief was that childhood was not transparent with innocence or a state of grace. The adult actors (Colin Welland, Michael Elphick, Robin Ellis, Helen Mirren, Janine Duvitski, John Bird and Colin Jeavons - all brilliant) are cast to bring focus to the characters actions and their fidgety body language and magnify their behaviour and help the audience relate to it more. There's little innocence in scenes depicting lying, thieving and brutality as the status quo amongst juveniles for us to become nostalgic about and, as such, we see the play and our own childhood through less than rose tinted glasses. There's also the theological implications to consider, Potter tipping us the wink from the off with two of the boys squabbling over a cooking apple; this is their garden of Eden where sin will be committed.
Blue Remembered Hills remains a flawless production and, thanks to numerous theatrical stagings, has become Potter's most durable piece of work since its original transmission here in the BBC's Play For Today strand. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.