It did not happen at the BBC

How It Happened Here
June 30, 2006

This is Kevin Brownlow's "book of the film" It Happened Here (1964), which he produced, "refused to write" and directed with Andrew Mollo. It was first published nearly 40 years ago in what was then (and remains still) the best UK film book series, Cinema One, and was not, as the present publisher states, published by Doubleday but by Secker and Warburg. The most touching thing about Brownlow's book is its startling honesty. It is more a diary than a book.

The premise of the film is as simple as it is devastating: it is 1940, and the Third Reich has invaded and subdued the UK. The book describes in detail the tortuous eight-year progress of the young men to finish their film and then to have it shown in cinemas, which they finally did - in Piccadilly Circus no less. For those who are not interested in these minute details of their patient struggle, the book has a slight whiff of anoraks.

For those, however, who want to learn how to make a feature film, and a totally convincing one, on guts and practically no money, and to understand how they achieved their triumph, it is required reading. Whatever your position, I strongly recommend that you see the film first (the DVD has just been issued by Film First), and only then read the book. If you do not, you might think: how can a worthwhile film come out of this mixture of bad luck and amateurism? And you would miss out on a film that delivers a punch, stays with you and offers a corrective to the rather self-satisfied British complacency that it could not have happened here. That is probably what the French and the Dutch thought, too.

David Robinson, the film critic and film historian, in his sympathetic introduction, writes about the education the two film-makers received during the long gestation of their film. Learning on the job indeed! Brownlow was 18 and Mollo 16 when they started on their voyage through history and film making. Much had to be imagined of course but not really invented, because they knew what the Germans had done in Poland and in Russia. In their film, they show a brutal dullness in the British fascists, but the Germans behave as expected.

Brownlow emphasises how much he resented, and in the end refused, the task of writing a script: "I knew I was capable of making films, but I knew that a script was beyond me. A script required careful thought, deliberation, long hours of unrecognised work and, above all, discipline. If the script was a failure, I would receive no support for the film; I dared not show all my cards at once."

There are two British films that remind one of It Happened Here: The Silent Village (1943) by Humphrey Jennings and The War Game (1966) by Peter Watkins. Both Brownlow and Watkins fell out with parts of the Establishment, for different reasons. The Watkins film was finally transmitted by the BBC, its original producer, in 1999 - 30 years late. Brownlow's film, though announced in the Radio Times as a BBC programme in 1994, was pulled at the last minute and has not been shown so far.

Andi Engel, who was born in Germany during the Second World War, is a director of the film distributor Artificial Eye.

How It Happened Here: The Making of a Film

Author - Kevin Brownlow
Publisher - UKA Press
Pages - 213
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 904781 18 7

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