Caught by the River

The Edges of England

Michael Smith | 16th May 2017

Michael Smith on his recent series of films, “Stranger on the Shore,” showing at the BFI on the 31st of May:

I grew up by the sea, and it never really left me. As the border between our small and increasingly claustrophobic frame of reference and the great unknown stretching off into the blue, there’s an indefinable romance about the English coast, an atmosphere that’s marginal in every sense.

I’d wanted to explore the various places in these films for ages – the Bladerunner dystopia of the Port of London across the soured estuarine marshlands of Essex, the raggy bohemia of Hastings and its strange witchy undertones, the gothic gloom of Whitby, the most romantic evocation of the old saying “it’s grim up North” – but these ideas were only separate fragments; then one day I realised they all had the thought “it’s weird by the coast” in common, and suddenly all my ducks lined up, and the ideas for this film cycle came in a quick flurry …

The sense that these edges somehow gathered and distilled all the strangeness of our rainy little kingdom guided the project. There must have been something in the air: just around the time we were finishing the films off, the country suddenly degenerated into Brexit Island, and the films took on a different framing, a richer meaning, a slant that made the strange charge of these English margins seem that bit more overripe.

Not that it was all fear and loathing. I spent a lot of time visiting the locations from London, and even though I spent my first research trip sleeping in a freezing cold caravan in December in the kind of flooded deserted field you might imagine alien abductions happen in, I fell for Hastings in the process. We moved down here a few months later, just as summer bloomed, newborn baby in tow, and the sense of freshness and excitement and finally being able to take a long deep breath again after running round ever decreasing circles in London found its way into the shoot. I love that about the Hastings film, and when I look beyond the St George crosses outside the ropier pubs and the immigrant-bashing headlines on the free copies of the SUN my local SPAR tries to force on me with every pint of milk, and I see that Big Blue Beyond looming at the bottom of the hill where the London Road finally runs out of tarmac and meets eternity, I still love that about this town.

Michael Smith and Maxy Bianco’s three short films about the weirdness of the English coast are on at the BFI Southbank on the 31st May, with a performance from Andrew Weatherall, Nina Walsh & Franck Alba, who made the soundtrack. Tickets and info here.