The Ballad of Shirley Collins: review

Four years in the making, Tim Plester and Rob Curry’s documentary about Shirley Collins is here, slowly emerging across the UK at a variety of festivals and cinemas, rather than in one big nationwide release. This means you might have to do a bit of work to catch it (the best way is to keep an eye on the upcoming screenings, here). The good news is that it’s well worth doing so.

The film’s ‘ballad of’ title is an appropriate one. This isn’t a conventional biography. Nor is it a straightforward document of Collins’ return to singing, and the creation of Lodestar, her album of last year. It covers Collins’ life and comeback from dysphonia, of course, but it’s also full of the telling incidental detail, ellipses and structural meanderings you’d expect to find in a traditional song.

Ballad of Shirley Collins

Introductory text posits Collins as the ‘most important’ folk singer in the country. Whether or not you agree (and it’s not a competition, after all), she’s undoubtedly a fascinating documentary subject. Diehard folkies will know her story, but surely anyone would be intrigued by the pioneering singer and song collector who went on an American adventure, lost her voice to heartbreak and her sister to a sudden death, before making a triumphant comeback?

And Collins is an excellent interviewee: sharp, candid, willing to praise and criticise herself (and others), and unafraid to express emotion. It’s clear just how important folk songs and singing are to her. The film reflects her intense, warm relationships with the likes of pal David Tibet, and Plester and Curry seem to have been privileged with a similar high level of trust. Her admission – to an on-screen psychiatrist – that she felt angry at having the “wrong response” to being left by former husband Ashley Hutchings (not named) is personal and honest. “I should have got angry, but instead I got heartbroken,” she says, simply. Elsewhere, she worries out loud about letting her sister and singing partner, Dolly Collins, down. The exploration of their relationship yields a moving musical moment.

The film features contributions from admirers such as Stewart Lee, Elle Osborne and Sam Amidon, who expresses particular enthusiasm for Collins’ role as a song collector. Her 1959 trip to the US, alongside Alan Lomax, is recreated on beautifully textured 16mm film by a small group of actors (with Lotti Maddox as Shirley), an old Buick, and clever use of the Sussex countryside. Plester and Curry cleverly use the car to conclude a narrative arc – footage of Collins being chauffeured around plays like a countryside version of Nick Cave’s similar experience in Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 2014 film 20,000 Days on Earth.

Sussex is integral to the film, as it clearly is to Collins. Often as an accompaniment to her singing (which is, happily, given due prominence), we are shown superb footage of the Lewes Bonfire celebrations and the Jack in the Green Festival in Hastings, as well as other scenes from Sussex life – from beer production at the Harvey’s brewery to the county’s native wildlife. The camera also frequently seeks out hands – the importance of which Collins makes clear.

The Ballad of Shirley Collins is an insightful document of a fascinating subject. What makes it special is that it’s also possessed of the lyricism and thoughtfulness of Plester and Curry’s Way of the Morris (2010). Like that film, it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Full disclosure – I was one of the 800 or so crowdfunders for this film, and can speak to the thrill of seeing my name in the credits. But I didn’t have any editorial input, and I’d tell you if I thought it was rubbish. But it isn’t!

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