Feature Documentary Reviews

Zennor Spirit of Place (2023) – 4 stars

Director: Diana Taylor

Writer: Bob Osborne

Running time: 1hr

The epithet Spirit of Place tends to be used to lure an audience into taking an interest in a pastoral location – we do not often see it attached to the urban or suburban – a Bromley or a Bakersfield. And so, it goes with Diana Taylor’s feature documentary: Zennor Spirit of Place.

Zennor, the focus of the film, is a small coastal hamlet in Cornwall, the south-west corner of mainland Britain. The area plays a big part in the UK tourist industry; alongside the breathtaking natural beauty, the industry’s other major pitch is artistic tradition – this is a place where Artists come to make Art. Zennor is just a few miles down the coast from St Ives, home to a western outpost of the Tate Gallery. The gallery was built to lure hopefully free-spending tourists with intellectual stripes but also as a marker, a kind of secular temple to the great gods of 20th century bourgeois abstract expressionism.

From Taylor’s introductory drone footage, we see that Zennor ticks all the boxes for the picturesque: jagged granite cliffs towering above the waters of the Western Approaches, a vivid patchwork of ancient field systems, Neolithic passage tombs high on the hillsides. Whoopee – what’s not to like?

Taylor zooms in on a particular farmhouse. The subtitles tell us that the house was where the influential English novelist DH Lawrence and their German wife, Frieda, lived during the First World War. Taylor uses the story of the Lawrences’ stay in Zennor as an introduction to an exploration of a history of the village from the time of the Lawrences up to the present day.

Taylor and writer Bob Osborne [whose book of the same name apparently goes into even more detail] put in a hell of a shift in terms of research: they bring to life a remarkable range of people, mainly involved in the arts, who stayed in or visited Zennor. After the Lawrences we are given short and mostly sharp illustrations of the following, though this is not an exhaustive list. The composer Peter Warlock. The satanist and occultist Aleister Crowley: the Daily Mail’s The Most Evil Man in Britain. The novelist Virginia Woolf. Hitler’s oleaginous foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Some of those deities of British abstract expressionism: Heron, Lanyon, Frost, and Blow.

In the film’s early stages, the protagonists are almost exclusively tourists – the local inhabitants simply dumb beasts, a part of the bucolic backdrop. However, with late 20th century professionalisation and commodification of the arts, many of Taylor’s subjects in the latter stages of the film are artists who appear to actually live in Zennor. As we reach the present day, the filmmakers engage with a wider spectrum of arts practitioners and we meet, for example, dowsers, circus performers, and shamanists.

The filmmakers’ engagement with the contemporary subjects is in the form of talking heads, who make statements to camera. On occasion, they also resort to music. In one sequence, which kind of shows the dynastic nature of the arts in Britain, we are given Chris Jagger singing what turns out to be an idiosyncratic but rather charming song.

Taylor is an experienced filmmaker who has had a long career at the BBC, the UK’s state broadcaster. I am assuming that the director made the most of their contacts in the media to access the vast number of clips from broadcast television that are used in the film. For instance, the section on Ribbentrop, is illustrated by a Monty Python sketch which shows Ribbentrop played by Graham Chapman in an absurdist take on Nazi decision making. However, this is just my assumption as the version of Zennor submitted to IFL came without any credits – just a thank you to all involved. I found this a bit odd for a historical documentary – rather like reading an academic paper with no bibliography.

One of the interesting aspects of Taylor’s assemblage / collage technique is that we are given no single authorial voice – we have a multiplicity of authorities. In one scene, we have a clip of a somewhat self-satisfied music critic stating that Peter Warlock was the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century. Well…up to a point, your honour but maybe it is best we go with the flow and think of the critic as simply a piece of found art.

In a sense Taylor’s approach is liberating – without a driving line from a single narrator, we are decidedly asked to make our own judgements. Is the conceptual artist, who has coated ping-pong balls with the printed text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then placed them in (in their words) an erotically suggestive glass bottle, simply full of shit? Is it worth one’s while placing the dowser’s maxim, energy lines are different from ley lines, energy doesn’t flow in straight lines, into one’s toolbox for living?

Interwoven into the archive footage and the talking heads, Taylor tries out a couple of innovative techniques. One involves what appears to be home movie footage of Lawrence and Frieda first arriving at the farmhouse with their suitcases and then later when they are leaving. The scenes are tremendously atmospheric – the Lawrences are pretty down at heel wanderers walking up and from the house carrying just a pair of light suitcases. But hang on, the Lawrences were dirt poor at the time: would they really have been able to have had their arrival and departure filmed in 1916? Or, alternatively, was the sequence an excellent, convincing reconstruction of what an early 20th century home movie would look like? With the lack of credits, your reviewer was unable to work out what was going on – but leaving the viewer uncertain as to provenance might have been the filmmakers’ strategy here.

In the Aleister Crowley sketch, Taylor makes a homage to the UK seaside Punch and Judy puppetry shows and presumably attempts to deflate Crowley’s Great Satan pretensions. Crowley is the Mr Punch puppet and is about to be arrested by the Policeman puppet. The problem for me was that the scene went on for too long and was quite lame. The conceit we are given is that Crowley tries to escape arrest by bonding with the Policeman as a fellow Freemason. The passage failed to come off for me but possibly the allusions are specific to Zennor and concerns about police corruption and Freemasonry are a Thing in contemporary Cornwall.

For your reviewer, a strand missing from Taylor’s take on the history of the village is that there is little attempt to engage with how the influx of artists has affected the lives of other residents. Given that Cornwall has the lowest average wage of all of the English regions and that rural poverty, and a lack of affordable housing, appear to be real and pressing issues, I would have thought that some curiosity as to the socio-economic relationships within the village might have been in order.

There is one rather weird scene which actually features a villager from outside the charmed circle of the arts where we have a local discussing the possibility that DH Lawrence had a homosexual relationship with a farmer during his time in Zennor. The local is a woman and the scene comes dangerously close to caricature as we are led to assume that the female layperson’s only area of expertise is gossip. Throughout the movie, the talking heads are introduced with job description, the job is the person, subtitles, Artist, Sculptor, but, in this case, the caption reads: Artificial Inseminator. But, who knows, artificial insemination could be a new cutting-edge art form that passed me by.

Despite the above criticisms, Zennor is a riveting documentary that holds the attention – it represents a significant achievement on the part of Taylor and Osborne. I would think it will become a must watch for anyone with an interest in the life and work of Lawrence and it will, no doubt, become a significant video resource for the Cornish tourist industry.

One scene that Taylor unearthed from the vaults I will always cherish, and thank the director for, features Sarah Blow in her Zennor studio. Under a huge abstract expressionist canvas laden with so much paint its cost would keep a lesser artist in food and drink for quite a while, we can make out a pair of feet staggering under the weight. We realise the owner of the feet is grappling with the painting to get it the right way up. The beautiful thing is that we as viewers have no fucking idea what the right way up is, until the figure steadies themselves and the picture comes to rest and the answer is revealed – a wonderful piece of cinema.

And so… on to Bromley Spirit of Place.


  1. Intelligent review thank you! I’m Bob Osborne. The documentary drew from the research i conducted in writing the book Zennor Spirit of Place which explores in depth the aftermath of Lawrence’s chaotic stay in that ancient village during the Great War. I now occupy the farmhouse where all the magic and scandal took place. You can find more information on the book via the @rebelnottaken Instagram account.

    1. Thanks Bob, I have added the link you dropped about the book into the body of the article. Glad you enjoyed Tony’s review, and I will pass your words onto him.

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