Reviews Short Documentary

The Itchen Comeback (2020) – 4 stars

Directors: Will Priddis & Brendan White

Running time:  10 mins

Following Joe Biden’s uncomfortably protracted victory over Donald Trump in the US presidential election, the focus of the outgoing Whitehouse administration after the ballot turned to the actual process of recording and counting of votes. Out of Donald Trump’s fear of being branded a ‘loser, a petty scramble to ‘find votes’ saw some unlikely heroes born over the last few months; these include the Republican election official in Georgia who publicly refused to bow to presidential and party pressure; and the Democrat administrator in Ohio who provided the quote of the election, when noting the votes counted, advised Trump to “put on some big boy pants.”

With the quotidian aspects of an election campaign having been under such intense public scrutiny at the turn of the year, it seems like the ideal time to examine a film revisiting the UK’s last general election. Will Priddis and Brendan White’s The Itchen Comeback documents the canvassing, setting up of stalls and monitoring of the count during the 2019 UK poll from one English constituency: Southampton Itchen.

The UK electoral system is fundamentally unrepresentative, and skewed in favour of the two established parties, Conservatives and Labour. However, apart from the occasional scandal over postal voting and gerrymandering of constituencies, the UK has never, in modern times experienced a Trumpian challenge to the actual election result. The Itchen Comeback provides reassuring footage of votes being counted in a genteel and orderly fashion. That said, the recent rise of the 5G-Causes-Covid conspiracy theory and the destruction of radio masts by True Believers in the UK do not give grounds for complacency for the future – just as a few years ago, it might have been a stretch to imagine Q-Annon-fuelled Trump supporters storming the US Capitol to try and invalidate the democratic process.

As the film is credited to both Priddis and White, I will refer to the creators. I am aware of Priddis’ previous work and especially admired The Abyss and People Who Pretend to be Crows in their Spare Time. Therefore, I half-expected a dark satirical take on the election but what the creators have given us is a pretty straightforward documentary film albeit with some subtle touches of strangeness. The film was made from inside the campaign of the Labour candidate; it features interviews with activists and the candidate, Simon Letts, and the credits thank the local Labour Party for their help. The creators’ sympathy with the Labour campaign comes across strongly.

The film opens in the Labour Party headquarters in a modern church building – all white walls with just a clock and a wooden cross as ornamentation: Time and Calvary. We are then given scenes of activists setting up stalls or out canvassing and several of the activists are interviewed. There is a poignant moment in an interview with one of the activists running the high street stall. The wind is blowing, playing havoc with the leaflets. One activist says they are “trying to source some elastic bands”. An absurd moment, beautifully caught, that does not augur well for the campaign: they are, after all, in the high street, where rubber bands are readily available for purchase.

The creators then have an interview with the candidate, a benign, if diffident teacher. I enjoyed the outlier question they pose – asking if the candidate felt it weird to see their name plastered on posters all over the city. Refreshingly, the candidate answers honestly and agrees that it feels “like an out of body experience.” The film moves on to a staple of the UK parliamentary campaign – the hustings in the local university’s students’ union. Anyone who has had to participate in these events would appreciate the excellent shots and editing in this sequence.

First, we have a long and languid shot, redolent with ennui, of two people’s feet, followed by a view of empty seats with just the occasional human presence. We then have footage of the Labour candidate, and their main opponent, the Conservative MP. The filmmakers are well served by the characters of the rival candidates. An avuncular teacher for Labour against a pugnacious Conservative – one Royston Smith, who seems to have been put together by a team of Viz cartoonists. In well-chosen and edited footage, the creators give us a short excerpt from the debate with the candidates’ views on higher education. Labour’s Simon speaks of investing in everybody throughout their lives whilst Rumbustious Royston wants to know who, if everybody goes to university, will fix the plumbing, or build houses? The 2019 election ideologies in a nutshell – perfect.

From the night-time of the hustings and its civil discourse, the creators cut to a dramatic single shot day-time image – a Conservative attack poster hanging from a lamp post. This depicts Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. There is a line drawing of Corbyn looking like a dishevelled paedophile accompanied by the headline: “WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR CHILDREN?” To capture the vilification in one shot makes for excellent cinema.

In this one image, the film manages to capture a key part of the campaign – the relentless vilification of the Labour leader by the right-wing media. The Conservatives then picked up from their media allies on some of Corbyn’s less appealing personality traits and ran with them. My own take on Corbyn had been that you would definitely want him in the room as your trade union rep if you were facing a disciplinary hearing at work, but if you saw him later in the evening queue at the supermarket checkout you would probably do a body swerve.

The creators give us a text timeline, and we see the final day of the campaign. We are given night-time footage following the Labour candidate in the last desperate hours before the polls close. The camera work captures the frenetic chase for votes, and the weirdness of the candidate chasing up alleys and side streets in the quest – almost like a thief in the night. The polls close and we move to a wonderful shot of Southampton City Hall where the count is taking place.

The building is Victorian era municipal grandeur with an Ionic colonnade – against the darkness of the night it is brilliant lit with white light to emphasize the power of the columns and height of the windows. A gift to the filmmakers which they make the most of. We move inside where the footage is shot mostly from an upper gallery with long shots of the two main candidates, tellers counting and sealed ballot boxes. The atmosphere is well conveyed, habitues of election counts will recognise it – a mixture of utter boredom but shot through with expectancy.

Finally, at five in the morning, the results are announced. Revisiting this particularly gut-wrenching juncture was always going to be a an unpleasant-if-necessary moment, but the creators brilliantly manage to sum this up visually with something unexpected here – cutting to footage from a car driving through the constituency. At first, as the election official reveals the minor candidates’ numbers, we seem to be heading towards a dawn sky but then the creators move to darker and darker night-time footage as we hear that the Conservative candidate has retained their seat with a vastly increased majority. This was a bold and innovative approach to take and it certainly pays off. The gloom of driving through the mind-numbing architectural horror of urban and suburban Britain, particularly in winter, makes a fitting backdrop for the dashed hopes of the Labour campaign.

Southampton is a port city on the south coast of England – with the ‘Itchen’ constituency named after the river which flows though the city, but that by no means reflects the kind of environment its constituents are subjected to in their daily lives. When naming constituencies, UK election officials tend to give even the most squalid urban areas pastoral, picturesque as a matter of good PR – much like building developers will call a vast expanse of concrete and asphalt ‘The Meadows’. With regards to the area on display here, I remember touring places similar to Southampton shortly after the EU referendum and thinking that if I lived there, I would not only have voted to leave the EU but would have wanted to be able to vote to leave the planet.

The film cuts back to the scene in the hall and we have close-ups of the Labour and Conservative candidates exchanging a few polite words – they have grown big boy pants. We then cut to a black screen with titles giving the results. This starkly underlines the finality of the numbers; the titles finish with a beautifully laconic statement: Simon Letts has gone back to teaching. The Labour campaign has failed, and UK (well, English) voters have handed a thumping majority to a populist charlatan.

One concern that I have about the creators’ approach is that a lot of the time available in what is a short film is spent on interviews with activists and footage of conversation between activists. However, nothing of even minor interest, except the rubber bands conundrum mentioned earlier, emerges – and we are left feeling like we have seen a particularly mundane episode of The Thick of It. An exemplary moment of this tonal dissonance is when the activists of the doomed campaign sing happy birthday to one of their colleagues – knowing what we know now, this takes on a kind of grim irony – like wishing a condemned man a pleasant day on his way to the gallows.

I am guessing that the creators’ intent was to show Ordinary People in a grassroots campaign as integral to the democratic process. Or, possibly, they owed a debt of gratitude to the activists for access and wanted to thank them by including them in the record of the campaign. Whatever the motivation, these scenes drag when set against the rest of the piece.

Priddis and White, nevertheless, have produced a powerful, innovative, well-worked documentary which by focusing on the particularity of one constituency campaign gives us a vivid insight into the overall atmospherics of the 2019 UK General Election.

There is some genuinely exciting filmmaking going on in Southampton at present and I hope that, despite the pandemic restrictions, Indy Film Library will get to see much more of their work in the future. Just one thing slightly baffled me about the present piece – the ‘Comeback’ in the title. Given that the Conservatives increased their majority, and never seemed unlikely not to do so in the polls, it surely cannot reference 2019. Perhaps it points to a possible future where the Union is broken, the UK economy has gone into irreversible decline post-Brexit/post-pandemic and where a failed Prime Minister has shuffled off to become a vote-winning contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. The next Itchen Comeback?

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