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Film: A Life on The Farm (12A) - Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Oct 23, 2023


If you enjoyed Clarkson’s Farm about Jeremy Clarkson’s agricultural adventures, you’ll love Carson’s farm.

Charles Carson (1927-2008) was an eccentric farmer who reared cattle at Coombe End Farm in Huish Champflower, a remote corner of Somerset.

So far, so unremarkable. But the odd thing about Carson was his obsessive recording of his life in quirky little videos. He would have been lost to history– except that he gave some of those videos to a neighbour.

That neighbour’s grandson, film director Oscar Harding, stumbled upon cinema gold when he went through his grandfather’s effects. The resulting documentary – on limited cinema release but available on Curzon Home Cinema – is a mini-classic.

Carson’s videos give an even more direct view of farming than Jeremy Clarkson – who has been praised for not sugar- coating the backbreaking, economically disastrous nature of British farming.

Unlike Clarkson, who is happy to rely on vets and his sidekick Kaleb Cooper, Carson does everything himself. He delivers a calf and holds the huge placenta up to the camera. He operates that camera himself – so you see him walking back to it to turn it off. Carson’s amateurishness, delivered with a bewitching West Country accent, is his charm.

And then the film takes a macabre turn. Carson films his dead cat, stiff with rigor mortis, with a poppy round its neck for Remembrance Sunday. He buries the cat, and gets his surviving cats to gather round the grave; very touching – until you see Carson spooning cat food onto the burial mound to attract them.

However sad the scene, Carson retains a jolly air. ‘That’s life on a farm,’ he declares as he says goodbye to the cat. When he introduces his mother, Millie Carson, in her 90s, he cheerily says, ‘She’s registered blind. She’s getting a lot better.’

She isn’t. Shortly afterwards, in 1994, his mother dies. We know this because Charles photographs her dead body, sitting in her wheelchair. He then wheels her out into a field to say goodbye to her beloved cows. A neighbour sees her in the field for three days and thinks she’s just taking in the country air.

The utterly bonkers scene is intensified by Carson’s adding, as a soundtrack, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma, the 1980 Christmas chart-topping single by the St Winifred’s School Choir.

Charles does the same with his father, Stan, who dies in 1987, aged 89. With the deceased Stan, Charles props him up for a photo holding a glass of whisky.

This would all be worryingly dark but for Charles’s overwhelming affection for

his parents – and his brother, Frank, whose funeral he turns into a film shoot, demanding that the pall-bearers do a second take. As Thomas Lynch, the American undertaker and writer, says, this sort of closeness to the dead was the norm until 150 years or so ago.

Once the director has set the scene at its most bizarre, he cleverly unpicks Charles Carson’s story.

Carson’s mother bought the family farm in 1943 and farmed it for years, while he led a conventional life. For 30 years, he taught agriculture at Kirkley Hall agricultural college in Northumberland. He married and had either one or two children. The film isn’t clear, and any surviving children don’t appear.

When his parents grew old, Charles came home. And then, it seems, some fracture developed in the family. It’s agonisingly tantalising that we’re never told why; the director perhaps doesn’t know or is too sensitive to say.

Charles remained married – and devoted – to his wife, Helen, but she was often absent from the farm and rarely appears in his films. She says of Charles, ‘His mother ruined my marriage.’ But when Helen dies, aged 57, in 1995, Charles is bereft – though of course he photographs himself at the funeral.

And he goes on filming his hopeless dramas, with cardboard skeletons driving tractors, cutting tree trunks and parading around fields, strapped to a cow.

Why did Charles Carson do this incessant filming? Yes, he’s an egomaniac – but a decent one. He delivered different director’s cuts of his films to his neighbours and wins a family photography TV competition, judged by Koo Stark. But otherwise, he seeks no fame.

The films, it seems, are to keep lonely misery – produced by a once close, now mysteriously broken family – at bay.

You long to know why. But even without knowing the answer, you’re gripped.