Martin Parr - ‘Babbacombe’ from ‘Think of England’
Broadcast - ‘Come On Let’s Go'
In our entry for 1999 we saw John Virtue suggest that colour should be seen as “an unnecessary distraction”. Such an opinion, one suspects, would not be shared by Martin Parr. Certainly there are few more celebrated artists in terms of those who have championed colour photography in the late 20th Century and, indeed, in the 21st. As such he is up there in my own little pantheon of greats alongside the likes of Eggleston and Gruyeart.
If Parr is certainly a photographer from the top drawer then perhaps his ‘Think of England’ collection (published in 2000) is his most widely recognised body of work. We often use it in school to explore themes of cultural identity and artistic intention within our GCSE photography course and it a remarkably useful learning tool. What is surprising (or perhaps not) is how astutely many teenagers pick up on some of Parr’s threads such as the humour, the irony and the genuine warmth and affection in the photographs. And this without prior knowledge or access to research.
Many of the photographs in ‘Think of England’ address notions of class within English society yet the way in which Parr does this often sits uneasily with traditional perspectives. For whilst Parr observes and documents, often with a wry eye and a raised eyebrow, he does not appear to take sides. Through his photographs he reminds us that such things are rarely if ever as black and white (as it were) as some might suggest. Rich, poor, privileged or poverty-struck; people are people with similar fears, loves and mishaps. We all of us who live here make up the rich tapestry of English society (and this body of work of course very much IS about England and not ‘Great Britain’) for better or for worse.
Naturally Parr uses the notion of stereotypes liberally, and gleefully, in ‘Think of England’. Again, he does not take sides. Again he does not make judgement about the value of such things. He places them before us and presents them with a knowing glint in his eye as if to say “I know this is cheesy and obvious, but doesn’t it make you smile?” And it does. It certainly does. Never more so than in this glorious shot of cream tea scones in Babbacombe.
Let me say right away that I have had a soft spot for Babbacombe ever since I read William Golding’s ‘The Pyramid’ and if you do not understand that reference then I can only suggest you read the novel. It is certainly my favourite of Golding’s novels and there is a neat spot of synchronicity at work here for of course one of the themes of ‘The Pyramid’ is class distinction and boundaries. And of course there was always something of a class issue behind Babbacombe’s most infamous moment in history; that of John “Babbacombe” Lee, convicted on flimsy evidence of the 1884 murder of Emma Keyse in Babbacombe Bay. Celebrated as “the man they couldn’t hang”, Lee survived three attempts at execution in Exeter prison before being released in 1907. Fairport Convention of course related the tale in song back in 1971.
These days Babbacombe is perhaps little more than a passed-by punctuation mark on the road into or out of Torquay, but it has a delightful little cliff funicular railway and of course one can always track down a cream tea. One would rather hope, however, that it would not be served in the same way as Parr’s was. For the connoisseur of cream teas would immediately identify that the scones in Parr’s photographs have been decorated in the Cornish manner, which is to say jam first and cream on top. The true Devononian manner is cream first, and I rather like to think that Martin Parr was conscious of this when taking his photograph. A subtle subversion of the stereotype. That glint in the eye again, wondering who will get the joke.
Even without knowing the distinctions between Cornish and Devonian cream tea customs however, the photograph rewards careful consideration. The artful angling of the plate’s design against that of the tablecloth; the sympathetic colour combination of green and blue; the starkness of the contrasting red smear of jam. Then there is the rather paltry amount of jam on the scone and the texture of the cream. Surely not clotted, it looks instead artificial, perhaps (heaven forbid) squirted from an aerosol. Which leads us inevitably back to notions of class and quality. For better or for worse.
There have been some notable losses in the world of music in recent years. Such is the fundamental nature of loss that none are sadder than any other, yet perhaps the most unexpected was the death in 2011 of Trish Keenan from the group Broadcast. Many of the musical losses we have mourned have inevitably felt like opportunities to remember and reflect on bodies of work, yet with with Keenan’s passing we also felt very keenly the loss of what might still have been created. Which is not to say that Broadcast had not already left us a staggeringly coherent and impressive catalogue of course.
One of my very favourite Broadcast records then was their ‘The Noise Made By People’ set from 2000. History will tell you it was their debut album and yet it does not feel at all like a debut album. Perhaps this is because their earlier singles had already been gathered onto the ‘Work, Non Work’ release and perhaps because in those singles they already sounded like a remarkably mature group. Never did they sound like a group searching for their sound.
Listened to again now ‘The Noise Made By People’ still sounds like a perfectly accomplished record. This is not meant as a pejorative statement. Rather it as way to saying that ‘The Noise Made By People’ sounds exactly as it ought: A record filled with a myriad of influences and references and that yet manages to craft these together to create something that sounds unique and cooly beguiling. It is never better than on ‘Come On Let’s Go’.
In a typically tangential piece for my old website Kevin Pearce once wrote about ‘The Noise Made By People’, mentioning the "Scepter Wand soul sound”. I am not sure I quite grasped what he meant at the time and yet listening to ‘Come On Let’s Go’ again in 2016 it makes perfect sense. Imagine the song as an instrumental and it becomes startlingly clear. And yet, naturally, Broadcast cloak this soul sound with other nods and references, transforming things into something that sounds simultaneously like a host of other groups and like no other group imaginable.
Much like Martin Parr, who famously has an astonishingly broad and detailed collection of photography books, Broadcast were a group excited by the history of their chosen art-form. And like Parr, who continues to both embraces and simultaneously ignore that stored knowledge and frame of reference, Broadcast were certainly a group of Pop pioneers. Keenan’s passing means we have been deprived of more deliciously diverting and educational entries into the canon of work, but we should certainly celebrate all that she and the group have left us. ‘Come On Let’s Go’ is as fine a place to start that celebration as any.