Not fleetingly, not a street scene bystander or a face in the crowd, but stood on a beach, trousers rolled up, an accordion strapped to his chest, belting out a shanty. For several minutes uninterrupted.
OK, you probably don’t know how it is, but this is what happened to me when I first saw Andrew Kötting’s superb 1998 movie Gallivant. I was so taken aback to see John on the screen that I must surely have frantically knuckle-rubbed my eyes with all the cartoon surprise I could muster. Let me get my capsule review of the film out of the way right now:
Actually I shouldn’t really be surprised that he neglected to mention it. This is the man who I learned very recently from a taxi driver – just a random taxi driver mind you – used to schmooze with the likes of Paul Simon in the 60s. If I’m honest I’d long ago packed John’s music and reputation away in a little taped up cardboard box, felt-tip-pen-marked ‘Warning: contains weapons grade folk music – keep out of reach of small animals and potential girlfriends’. Suffice to say I was so bowled over by his performance, and not a little impressed by his association with one of our finest filmmakers, that I wore it like a badge for a few weeks. I told so many friends and colleagues about it that I lost track of who I’d told, and once or twice the tale’s lap of honour was met with “I know, you told me already”. So I stopped telling people. Until now.
Sibling stardom aside I really love Gallivant and recommend that you see it. To ease you into a viewing here’s my real actual review:
The patchwork travelogue journey taken by Andrew Kötting in the making of the film is both transformative and celebratory. Beginning and ending at Bexhill-on-Sea, Kötting, his grandmother Gladys and his daughter Eden travel together around the entire 6000 mile coastline of mainland Britain. Throughout their journey they meet a host of likeable, genial and frequently eccentric inhabitants on the fringes of the land, and in the process get to know each other. The need for this belated acquaintance is heightened by the knowledge that both Gladys and Eden have limited life expectancy. Gladys is drawing to the end of her days and Eden has the neurological condition Joubert Syndrome. In filming his family members undertaking this journey Kötting managed to capture an unsentimentalised yet affirming and personal pilgrimage shot through with touching intimacy. Gallivant’s language is the family seaside holiday home movie made manifest; its visual aesthetic is all Super 8 sans synch speech, primary colour picture postcard cut-ups interspersed with black and white jump cuts, flits between video and film, tripod and hand-held, in what one commentator described as an ‘idiot cubism’.
It is the succession of idiosyncratic local people that Kötting encounters in the coastal towns and wilds that gives the film its warmth and democracy. In his featured essay on Kötting for Luxonline, Gareth Evans’ opinion of Gallivant in his profile of the director bears this out: ‘It has a wide ear and eye, both for folk, their ways and for signage, for the scale sweep and the sweet stall. It makes the personal a generous filter into the social. It understands the switchback exchange between the two. Deeply, it belongs.’
Amid the flickbook of found moments Kötting pauses to persuade some of the locals variously to remember the words to the song ‘John Peel’, display their bunions, show off their best gurning face and
Kötting deals in what Evans calls ‘the littoral truths of this island’; rather than use cosy, familiar icons of Nation-On-Sea as his currency of communication (save for occasional shots such as the beach huts at Bexhill that recall Betjeman) he chooses to look the Land in the face and speak as he finds. It would not be unreasonable to wonder why Kötting could not have simply opted for a more straightforward, logistical A to B journey. But this is an odyssey of understanding, a circuit of enlightenment. Only by completing his circumnavigation, by probing the nooks and crannies of the country’s beached margin, can Kötting capture the essence of his homeland and come to know his family and himself.