Another Six English Towns – Simply Media DVD Review

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Another Six English Towns, originally broadcast in 1984, was the third and final series in which Alec Clifton-Taylor cast his expert eye over the architectural merits of a variety of English towns.  My review of the first two series can be found here.

The format remains unchanged.  Architectural historian Clifton-Taylor inspects the streets and notable buildings of each town, dispensing approbation or disfavour as he sees fit and quietly applauding those towns which have managed to preserve their status without recourse to the horrors of modern life (high rise buildings and pebbledash being two particular bête noires of his!).

We open in Cirencester, the capital of the Cotswolds, which finds Clifton-Taylor in an approving mood.  He’s particularly taken with the pleasing mixture of styles on display, commenting that “in the market place, the buildings burst forth into a chorus of painted stucco”.  The town’s mansion, Cirencester House, complete with a ten thousand acre park, also catches his eye.

Up next is the fishing town of Whitby, which nestles on the North East coast.  The ruins of Whitby Abbey are striking and whilst St Mary’s Church may look somewhat unprepossessing from the outside, inside it’s quite a different matter.  Clifton-Taylor regards it as “a thrill. Absolutely unforgettable. Not a work of art, but a most illuminating social document.”

Bury St Edmonds has an impressive collection of Georgian buildings, created with different varieties of coloured clay, although Clifton-Taylor is a little miffed that “they are so smothered with Virginia creeper that one can hardly see what colour they are!”  This town has rich pickings elsewhere though – the town hall (reconstructed by the notable eighteenth century architect Robert Adam) appeals, as does the Theatre Royal, designed by William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery.

Clifton-Taylor travels to Wiltshire for the fourth episode, his destination being Devizes.  He’s saddened that the twelfth century castle no longer remains (on the site is something he dubs as a pantomime recreation from the Victorian period) and reacts in horror when he sees that some of the eighteenth century timber houses have recently “been smothered with that most repellent material – pebbledash!”

He remains in a slightly caustic mood when he reaches Sandwich, sorrowfully reflecting that the original character of some of the 16th century brickwork has been submerged under fresh coats of paint.  But the Salutation, a house and garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944), is much more to his taste.  Clifton-Taylor has little hesitation in regarding him as “the greatest English architect of the last 100 years”

The series concludes with Durham.  He’s impressed with the Cathedral, especially the vaults, which have remained unchanged for eight and a half centuries.  Clifton-Taylor is also taken with a public convenience, built in 1841, concluding that “few loos, surely, can hold their heads so high!”.  An idiosyncratic, but delightful, moment.

A lovely snapshot of six English towns frozen in time some thirty years ago, Another Six English Towns will certainly appeal both to those who have already collected the first two series, as well as anyone who is familiar with the featured locations and wishes to compare then to now.

Shot on 16mm film, the picture quality is on a par with the earlier releases.  The prints are rather faded and dirty in places, but still perfectly watchable.

Alec Clifton-Taylor maintains the persona of a kindly headmaster, eager to give credit where it’s due, but also quite capable of expressing irritation and exasperation (albeit with his impeccable manners always intact).  An impressive series of travelogues, Another Six English Towns also educates and informs, as Clifton-Taylor is effortlessly able to show how different periods of architecture can live side by side in harmony (or not, as the case may be!)

Another Six English Towns is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of January 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Six English Towns/Six More English Towns – Simply Media DVD Review

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Originally broadcast on BBC2 during August and September 1978, Six English Towns saw Alec Clifton-Taylor cast his experienced eye over the following towns – Chichester, Richmond, Tewkesbury, Stamford, Totnes and Ludlow.

Clifton-Taylor (1907 – 1985) had been a respected, if fairly obscure, architectural historian, so it may have come as something of a surprise to him that fairly late in life he became a recognisable television figure.  It’s easy to see why this happened though – he had a pleasingly direct style and his ease in front of the camera meant that he was able to deliver both brickbats and bouquets in an authoritative, but accessible, way.  Put simply, Alec Clifton-Taylor had the air of a faintly distracted schoolmaster who dispensed learning lightly but with passion.

At the start of the first edition he sets out exactly what he’s aiming to do.  “These are not guidebook programmes. Our main concern will be with buildings and especially with houses. I’d like every programme to be an exercise in looking.  Looking at the changing styles and fashions.  And at the traditional building materials of England.”

One of Clifton-Taylor’s abiding interests was the way that towns prior to the industrial age used materials which were readily at hand.  He therefore had some criticism of the Victorian era, since the age of steam meant that materials could be transported around the country with an ease that simply hadn’t been possible before – therefore the characteristic look of towns began to fade a little.

When visiting Chichester he says that “the cathedral apart, brick and flint are what give Chichester its essential character, the right materials in the right place.” He’s therefore delighted to find examples of good brickwork – and this moment is one that gives pause for thought.  We may pass similar buildings each day without giving them a second glance, but one of Clifton-Taylor’s skills was to find interest in what may appear to be commonplace.  And after watching the series it’s made me appreciate the buildings in my area a little more – how different styles and eras may exist side by side, for example.

When watching the series now it’s impossible not to wonder how the towns look today.  Clifton-Taylor had forthright opinions on how modern buildings (especially high-rise ones) shouldn’t encroach on the old.  Sadly, I’m sure that some of the places he visited over the course of three series have lost some of the features which so pleased him.  When visiting Richmond, he was taken with the way that the old railway station had been sympathetically turned into a garden centre.  He comments that it’s “a shining example of what enterprise and imagination can do to save an excellent building no longer required for its original purpose.” It’s therefore pleasing to note that the building still exists today and – following the closure of the garden centre in 2001 – now serves the community as a heritage centre.

The remainder of the first series has plenty of interest. The House of the Nodding Gables in Tewkesbury, the impressive churches of Stamford and Totnes’ slate decorated houses are just a few examples. The final edition of the series, Ludlow, saw Clifton-Taylor visit his favourite town and there was plenty which appealed to him there.  Ludlow exemplifies his concept of a pattern of building – stone for the church, the bridges and the castle, wood for the medieval houses and brick for the houses of the Georgian period.  He’s less impressed with some of the Victorian additions though.

Six More English Towns followed three years later in 1981.  This time Clifton-Taylor visited Warwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Saffron Walden, Lewes, Bradford on Avon and Beverley.

The opening episode has some predictable highlights, such as Warwick Castle, but less well-known buildings – such as Lord Leycester Hospital – are of just as much interest.  He wasn’t at all enamoured with the modern council building though – a monstrosity in concrete which obscures views of the impressive-looking church.

Berwick-upon-Tweed finds Clifton-Taylor appreciating the character of the town even if there’s nothing of outstanding importance or interest, although some of the architectural flourishes don’t really meet with his approval.  “Even the carved lions on the gate piers seem perplexed”.  Elsewhere, he’s not impressed with the amount of traffic which flows through Saffron-Walden, declaring that most of it should be “firmly re-routed.”  The series closes with Clifton-Taylor’s visit to Beverley, North Humberside, of which the medieval Minster church is of special interest to him.

A third and final series, Another Six English Towns, would follow in 1984 and this will be issued on DVD in early 2017.

Six English Towns/Six More English Towns won’t be everybody’s cup of tea – a man wanders about looking at buildings – but if you’re interested in history, architecture or English towns then there’s plenty which should catch your attention.

Six English Towns was released on the 12th of September 2016 and Six More English Towns will be released on the 7th of November 2016.  Both have a RRP of £19.99.

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