The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 5 – I Know Where I’m Going

This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.

I Know Where I’m Going is by no means a major film. It’s a love story, charming, quirky, natural, filmed on location in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull, and in the studios at Pinetree before being released in 1944, the follow-up to the controversial Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and much better received.
The film stars a young Wendy Hillier as Joan Webster and Archers’ favourite, Roger Livesey as Torquil MacNeil, with the rest of the cast including the beautiful Pamela Brown, old curmudgeon Finlay Currie and a bespectacled and very serious seven-year-old Petula Clark. It’s title comes from a popular Scottish folk song and, given the limited availability of Technicolour film, was filmed in black and white, using natural light wherever popular. Whilst it’s a genuine shame the film can’t show its lovely and dramatic landscape in colour, the lighting effects are still lovely to watch.
The title song is a simple love story: the singer knows where she is going for her heart is set upon her true love, the boy she is going to marry. Powell took the theme of the song in a different direction. His heroine is very sure where she’s going but the love she has is not for her fiancé but rather the luxurious life he’s going to give her. This was the easiest film to write for him, the entire screenplay coming together in seven days.
Given the age of these films, and the infrequency of their television appearances nowadays, I’m going to be outlining the story at greater length than is my usual practice. The Archers introduce Joan, via the medium of a now clunky voiceover, as a strong-willed and determined young woman from, literally, her baby footsteps. It’s an introduction that, if it were not so homey, and this were not the Archers, could put her on the wrong foot, as a mere gold-digger, but when she is incarnated as the brisk, charming Hillier, her vitality takes over and sweeps us along for just so long as is necessary to keep the audience in her quarter.
There’s a lot to learn. Joan meets a plump, fussy man, old enough to be her father, in a busy war-time club/bar/restaurant in Manchester. He’s her Bank Manager, and he is her father, and this is the first he’s heard that Joan is engaged. Indeed, she’s leaving Town on the midnight train, for Scotland, bound for the Isle of Kiloran, off the West Coast, where she is to marry.
Who is her intended? Consolidated Industries, or at least its Chairman, Sir Robert Bellinger, a man her father’s age.
Joan’s too brisk and efficient, and determined, for her father even to raise objections, let alone her answer them, which the Archers use deftly to keep the audience’s mind clear of doubts about her. How she met him – her employer – how she wooed him, the absence of naivete, all these things could be imagined into something discreditable if the audience is allowed to speculate, and this is going to be a love story in which we must see Joan as worthy of love.
We are kept distracted by Joan’s itinerary. It’s a step-by-step detailed journey, put together by Bellinger or rather his men, covering every step of the journey, with guides at every leg. It’s a metaphor for Joan’s life, both leading up to, and following her marriage. Controlled, foreseen, everything done for her. And it lasts all the way to the harbour where she is to be collected by boat from Kiloran. But a thick sea-fog has descended. Completion of her journey to the island is impossible, not that Joan accepts obstacles. She is a future rich man’s wife: a way will open for her. Where the other stranded travellers understand there is no going forward, Joan waits confidently. She unfolds once more her itinerary – and the wind, rising, blows it into the sea.
The blowing away of Joan’s itinerary is obviously symbolic. She has lost her course, literally and figuratively, and from here on she is struggling to complete her journey and fulfil the purpose that has sustained her since birth. But the only weapon she has with which to fight is money – not even her own – and she is facing forces that do not care about money: nature and fate.
Without her itinerary, Joan is trapped in the everyday, collective, natural world of the Scots. She is easily identifiable as being an outsider, but cut off from the world she assumes to be hers by right of ambition, she is exposed to a very different way of life and of thinking. This is symbolised in the personal love that becomes the centre of the film. Her rich, older, fiancé, is never seen, only directly encountered over a radio line, impersonal, unconcerned, devoid of passion, removed physically from mainland life and determined to avoid the native population.
In contrast, Joan is thrust into the company of Torquil. At first, she is relatively comfortable with him, although he is a stranger. They are companions in distress, both frustrated in their journey to Kiloran, and she is happy to take advantage of Torquil’s evident local familiarity, securing beds and food for them with his childhood friend Catriona (Brown).
He’s a temporary knight, in Naval Lieutenant’s uniform, introducing her to the world of which he assumes she will become part, but that’s far from what Joan intends at this stage. As a result of his brief tutelage, Joan wishes for an overnight wind to blow away the fog, but what she gets is a gale: it is too dangerous to attempt to cross and local boatman Ruaridh Mhor (Currie) refuses to do so. The storm will blow itself out in three days: only then will it be safe.
To this point, Torquil is a slightly inconsequential adventure, a hiccup on Joan’s natural progression to her wedding and his luxurious future.
But come the morning, and the revelation of the greater obstacle in Joan’s way, as they bid a (tactful) retreat to the hotel in Tobermory (Torquil is quietly solicitous of his lifelong friend Catriona’s limited funds), it all goes wrong. They get as far as Moy Castle, which June wants to enter. She’s heard about the curse, and something about her feeling out of place makes her want to assert her status as the Laird’s wife, superior to the local world as impervious to the curse attached to the Castle.
Unfortunately, her pretensions are immediately exploded as Torquil, reluctantly, introduces himself as McNeill of Kiloran, landlord of her rich fiancé, and the true Laird. Not just a White Knight but a real Knight.
And Joan’s nose is pushed even further out of joint when the pair catch the bus. Torquil is recognised, and joins in conversation with the locals. They are respectful of him, but democratic in their interactions. Torquil is of the country, of the land, as are they, and the talk turns to the rich man on Kiloran, and the strange way in which he acts, taking his provisions from far afield when there is as good and better locally sourced. Torquil’s concern for her feelings is rebuffed, with a huffily proclaimed support for Bellinger’s choices.
The two book into the Tobermory hotel and have lunch before venturing to the Post Office for a radio link to Kiloran. On the excuse of propriety, but in reality due to her humiliation, Joan insists on separate tables.
The radio link to Kiloran further demonstrates the gulf between Bellinger and the locals. It’s our only chance to directly assess him: rich, fruity voice, unconcerned about Joan’s delay except as a nuisance, secure in the belief that nothing bad can happen to him because of his money and status and, in the hearing of the locals, who are clearly beneath his notice, he sends Joan off to the Robinsons, another English couple, living locally, who he describes as ‘the only people worth knowing around here’. Joan has the grace to appear a little embarrassed at his unheeding rudeness, but the greater contrast is to Torquil who, as soon as Joan and Sir Robert have concluded their business, is immediately on to his factor, getting a report about the island and its game, with the evident love and passion of a true Laird.
The two separate. Joan goes on to Bellinger’s friends, where initially she meets their extremely serious seven year old daughter (Petula Clark in only her third film role). When the Robinsons appear, they are every bit as we imagine them, charming, enthusiastic but shallow, as exemplified by Mrs Robinson’s passionate concern for Bridge: Joan must go with them on their afternoon visit to Mrs Crozier at Ard-na-Croich, where they will spend the afternoon with cards in their hands.
Unfortunately, Joan has not taken into account that Torquil is sunk deeply into all aspects of this landscape: he too is a guest for afternoon tea, at which he waits on table in his jovial, bluff, unaffected manner.
But the tiny wedge that Bellinger’s rudeness created to divide Joan’s loyalties is due to be widened very quickly. Mrs Crozier’s servants request permission to take the evening off to attend the ceilidh that has been organised to honour her gamekeeper’s golden Wedding Anniversary. That permission is freely given, but among those attending that evening are Joan, escorted by Torquil.
How this comes about is left to our imagination, and I think it’s a slip by the Archers not to depict the actual events. Certainly, it’s easy to construct a scenario whereby Joan, getting a little tired of the Robinsons’ artificiality, expresses interest in the ceilidh itself, and that Torquil is the only other person interested in seeing it, Mrs Crozier excluding herself due to age, and offering himself as escort. But I would like to have known what was said about her going out alone with him, because she’s on remarkably good and friendly terms with him when they get there.
I don’t mean by that to imply any funny business: this is 1944 or thereabouts, and Joan is engaged, and what’s more Torquil is a perfect gentleman, but they are easy-going with each other, and on friendly terms, and when Joan climbs a ladder to see better into the barn where the dancing is taking place, she makes no objection to Torquil’s protective arms encircling her.
The ceilidh is quite the best scene in the film, for its ease, its naturalness, and the unaffected enjoyment it gives everyone involved.
Joan sees these ordinary, friendly people, and sees the wholeness of the lives they live and the simplicity of their pleasure. Of course, there is a personal worm: the ceilidh has been enlivened by the presence of three Glasgow pipers, hired to perform at a wedding on Kiloran and who, prevented by the ongoing gales from crossing, have lent themselves willingly to this far more humbler event. But Joan puts this behind her and stays to enjoy the fun.
Though Torquil has not put himself forward in any way, he’s still recognised as Kiloran, and the couple’s son, who has organised all this is celebration of his parents, asks him to present himself, a job Torquil undertakes with wonderful ease and respect. The son, himself in uniform, is played by John Laurie: younger but still raw-boned and gaunt of face, and seen here in glorious good humour, happy and proud, no matter how strange that seems.
The ceilidh is the hinge-point of the film. After this, Joan knows she is in danger, that her purpose is under deadly threat, and that it is imperative that she get to Kiloran and complete her chosen course. But though the winds are easing blowing themselves out, the crossing to Kiloran is still not safe. Ruaridh reviews the skies expertly and declares it will be safe on the morrow, but not today. Not for any money: Ruaridh knows his seas and his weather, and he is for the bus to Tobermory to see his dentist.
Joan’s desperate. In Torquil’s eyes, she’s being deliberately stupid, being every bit the rich man’s wife she intends to be, setting herself up above the authorities he instinctively defers to, the people who know. Ruaridh’s assistant Kenny, a fresh-faced lad of maybe 20, is saving up to marry Ruaridh’s daughter, Bridie. He needs £20, more money than he’d ever hope to have seen in all his life to date, to buy a share in the boat and establish himself as a man who can keep a wife.
So Joan offers him £20 to take her to Kiloran. And Kenny cannot resist.
Torquil washes his hands of her: Joan is clearly mad, clearly some form of idiot life, and he wants no further part in this. Bridie comes to plead with Joan not to do this, not to kill her Kenny. Joan appeals to her, woman to woman, but Bridie’s fear leads her into an unforgivable insult, openly saying that Joan wishes to kill Kenny because she cannot wait one night to be bedded.
The only person who sees straight is Catriona. Torquil expostulates to her over Joan’s stubbornness, only for Catriona to call him a fool for not seeing. Joan is not running to Bellinger, she is running away from him. To Torquil it’s a thunderbolt: he genuinely has not imagined that she has feelings for him that she is fighting, but once he sees, between that realisation and his own feelings for the stupid, stubborn woman, he has to be there to prevent disaster. Torquil joins Kenny on the boat.
Joan’s desperation to escape puts all three into direct danger, exactly as forecast. The winds rip the awning from the boat. A wave swamps the engine, cutting it out, leaving Torquil and Kenny frantically working to clean and replace every part. Joan’s suitcases, including her wedding dress, are swept into the sea, beyond recovery. With the boat drifting slowly but inevitably towards the whirlpool of Corryvrecken, the three work desperately, the men on the engine, Joan on baling out. At last, the engine work is done and, on the very brink of Corryvrecken, power is restored, and the trio escape.
Ruaridh and Bridie are waiting at the harbour when the boat limps home. Ruaridh is ready to exact vengeance on the foolish Kenny, but the latter faints before Ruaridh can strike him, and in the end only his spittle displays his contempt.
Catriona takes in Joan, ensures she is bathed, fed and put to bed.
In the morning, exactly as predicted, the storm has blown itself out. It is sunny, the sea is like a mill-pond and the boat is on its way from Kiloran. Joan can complete her journey. Torquil, however, has reached the end of his leave and has to return south, to his naval duty, without ever reaching the island.
On the way to his bus he carries Joan’s bags, until their ways part. Joan is perfectly composed, the epitome of a future Lady Bellinger. But just before they finally part, she asks a favour of Torquil: would he kiss her? Immediately she’s in his arms and he is kissing her passionately (for 1944: no tongues). But when he releases her, Joan takes up her bags and says goodbye.
Alone and now bereft, Torquil heads along the road until he reaches Moy Castle, where he stops. leaving his bags, he ascends the crumbling steps and starts to explore the derelict castle. As he goes from room to room, climbing higher, a voiceover reads out the history of the Castle and the Curse.
Long ago, the lady of the Laird of Kiloran betrayed him and ran away with the master of Moy Castle. Kiloran’s men attacked and took the castle, and McNeill of Kiloran punished the unfaithful lovers by chaining them together, on a stone island in a flooded dungeon, without food or drink. Whoever weakens first will drag their lover to their death. And thus was Kiloran cursed, that if he ever enter Moy Castle, he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.
Lost in his thoughts, on the Castle tower, Torquil hears pipe music. The three wedding-bound pipers appear around a bend in the road. Marching ten yards in their wake is Joan, looking joyful. Torquil hurls himself down the stairs, meeting her at the Castle entrance. She throws herself into his arms, recanting her huffy claims to prefer imported fish and swimming pools, that local catch and the ocean are much better.
The voiceover repeats, “And he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.”
The beauty of this love story lies in it being far more than just the seemingly inconsequential affairs of two human beings. The Archers don’t go in for such one-dimensional stuff. Joan’s choice is hardly between lovers but between worlds, between naturalness and artificiality, and she chooses the best of these, learning to see that life is something to be part of, and to be experienced along with others, who care and share together, locked into a place wherein they have roots that they cannot even dream of breaking, instead of insulating herself from the world, from disturbance and consequence, protected by shields of gold and silver and paper, and never being of anywhere.
Given this elemental aspect of the story, I think on balance that the film is enhanced by the necessity of black and white: it is rendered every so slightly ethereal, archetypal by the lack of naturalistic colour.
It also stands up for its effects, even after so many years. The scenes during the storm at sea, and with Corryvrecken, are clearly studio shot, but come over very well in the technology of the time, but it would take a very close study of one of the stars, at the expense of the story, to determine without knowing aforehand that Roger Livesey never left the studio.
Livesey was committed to a West End play, which makes his performance all the more creditable given that every night, after filming at Pinetree, he was off to London to act in a completely different production. Every night. But the careful selection, and mixing of shots fools all but the most vigilant of watchers into taking Torquil as being in Scotland. Mixing long shots with doubles (who learned to mimic Livesey’s distinctive bluff gait), and close-ups, places him on the scene.
And Livesey is, as he is at any time in an Archer production, quite simply superb. Despite being too old to be a Naval Lieutenant, he looks the part, he brings to the part passion, solidity and strength. Though he never reaches Kiloran, he is nevertheless at once and always in his rightful place, a man who knows who and what he is, who is neither ashamed nor arrogant, and who sees everyone around him as his equal. Livesey even manages to project the sense that Torquil can only be this rooted because of the democracy of everyone around him: he accepts their respect because it is rooted in equality. If he were an English Lord, one senses, deference would be a horrible embarrassment.
And Hillier, aided by the protection of the script until she has had the chance to impress herself upon the audience as a woman of greater sensibilities than those few she’s yet displayed, embodies Joan’s growing realisation that her chosen course is maybe not the best thing in the world. She clings to it because it has borne her for so long, but inside is a human being, a woman with the capacity to love. Scared though she is of a life she hasn’t foreseen, she grows into accepting that it is the only possible thing.
A lovely film, a gentle film, a film buoyed by its own love of place, of country, of Scotland. A well-deserved favourite.

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