‘Swaledale sheep are one of the most addictive substances known to man’ declares Tom Hutchinson near the beginning of this absorbing and handsome film. Tom is a sheep farmer, living with his wife Kay and three children in the remote northern Pennines at the top of Teesdale. For 80 minutes we share their lives through the seasons, this remarkable and yet very ordinary family.
Their passion is breeding the perfect Swaledale sheep (‘It’s a vocation, isn’t it?’), and we learn a lot about the beasts –the ideal colouring, head width, horn curvature, their apparent death wish, and, in a delightful monologue by Jack, son of the family, the intricacies of the breeding process ensuring that the wrong ewe (‘yow’) doesn’t get herself tupped by the wrong tup.
The landscape is magnificently captured, from monochrome winter with its almost abstract curves and shadows to shimmering summer, the soundtrack almost entirely natural: wind, birds, sheep, human voice. The sheep stand in their woolly rows eyeballing you with their mysterious angular pupils, nosey and ready to move like a weary group of extras awaiting their director’s instructions. Then there are the interiors, the cluttered, busy kitchen seen from outside the window, lovely contemplative images like turkeys hanging against a wall ready for Christmas, or the steamy-breathed early morning cowshed. But human life is never absent for long. Mother and children career down a snowy slope on their sledge, a quad bike zips along the contours of the land, experts and helpers arrive to check pregnancies and help with shearing, animals are fed, children laugh. It’s a fascinating mixture of old and new farming lore, where on one hand moss or cobwebs are applied to a trimmed horn to stop the bleeding (I recently saw this very use of cobwebs to stem bleeding by an elderly peasant in a 20s Georgian film) and a portable ultrasound machine reveals which sheep are having twins.
Here the school run is a plod up a muddy lane, where the news for the girls is not a trip to the cinema but that their own personal yows are both going to have twins. There’s a lot of parenting going on – the sheep sometimes need a bit of encouragement, but the humans are exemplary, and amidst everything else the film’s about a wonderfully secure, enviably balanced family life. The kids help muck out the cows, feed the pony, and watch and learn as their mother eviscerates one of their turkeys for Christmas or their father delivers a dead lamb. This is a grim sequence, unsparing of details as first Kay then Tom are elbow deep inside the sheep, while the camera quietly observes the tension and sheer physical slog of it. But there’s joy too, in shared activities, and the cheering thing is that the children really appreciate what they’ve got. All the pupils in the small village school are from farming stock, and most wish to be farmers themselves. Even those who may not, like the Hutchinson’s eldest, Esme, who’s ‘into art’, clearly cherish their landscape, as she talks articulately about the colours of the summer pasture, sitting in the sheep-nibbled grass to sketch the view across the valley.
What drove Magali Pettier, herself from a farming background in Brittany, to make this film was her curiosity about the status of tenant farmers, apparently something now unknown in France. How can people work so hard and be committed to land they don’t own? The Hutchinsons speak frankly but philosophically about their lack of financial security, with only a 15-year lease on the land, in this age when property possession is seemingly one of the few ways to secure any kind of comfortable secure future for retirement. But they’re so full of life, that seems a long way off. They’re not alone – all the white-painted cottages on their landscape are rented similarly from the Barnard Estate, but there’s some comfort in the fact that the Barnard family are good landlords, allowing their tenants freedom to do their best for their land, and Lord Barnard himself turns up as genial prize-giver at the show, where the family win yet more rosettes to hang on their kitchen wall.
I saw this film at a special premiere on a starry winter’s night in a community centre Middleton in Teesdale, in company with many participants in the film, the schoolchildren, some alarmingly grown, lolling to watch on the floor in front of the screen. For most of the audience this was day-to-day life as they knew it; for us townies who only walk the footpaths and take pictures of the scenery it’s something remarkable, unthinkable yet in many ways enviable, above all heroic.