“The house in which he works is crammed from basement to top floor with every conceivable device for filming animals, vegetables and minerals”, wrote documentarist Grahame Tharp, who visited filmmaker Frank Percy Smith’s North London home for the January 1941 edition of Documentary News Letter.
He was clearly struck both by the ingenuity on display – “If Mr. Smith wants some gadget, he makes it in his workshop in the basement.” – and the suburban mundanity of the scene – “By the time you have reached the microscopic camera upstairs, you will realise with a start that it is a good half-hour since Mrs. Smith came over … to say that lunch had already been waiting twenty minutes.” But in those humdrum surroundings – Chase Road, now Fairlawn Close, Southgate – Smith conjured up miniature worlds. This was nature viewed through trickeries of time and magnification, to inform, educate and enthrall.
With 2016’s Minute Bodies: The Intimate World Of F Percy Smith, three years in the making, Tindersticks’ Stuart A Staples has created an hour-long montage from a selection of Smith’s archive of films (shot between 1911 and 1945), enhanced by the addition of a new score by the band, whose soundtrack output now almost equals that of their studio albums.
Accompanying a screening in the first half of tonight’s show, the score is performed live tonight by an expanded line-up of the band. Sans context, Smith’s footage is able to develop new meanings and rhythms, with Tindersticks’ haunting, woozily abstract score transforming the films into something at once uncanny and entirely natural.
It’s a score that ranges in intensity from the ethereal, otherworldly main Percy’s Theme – the swelling wine glass rim tones of collaborator Christine Ott’s Ondes Martenot replicated here by guitarist Neil Fraser – to the cacophonous drone of double bass, cello, guitar and saw that accompanies scenes of bees gathering pollen. There are touches of humour too, in the bass harmonica which buzzes like an engine as a frog skates across water, or the Jaws-y menacing rumble as cells are slowly engulfed by an advancing ooze.
Elsewhere, there’s loose, jazzy percussion from Earl Harvin and guest Thomas Belhom as micro-organisms burst and spread like tiny, monochromatic fireworks. And the sinister ‘The Strangler’, hypnotic and subtly electronic as over-friendly tendrils slyly coil around plant stems and tickle the surface of a rapidly-spinning alarm clock, perched on an upturned plant-pot, no doubt there to signpost Smith’s home-brewed time-lapse photography.
In the second half, there’s a set of songs taken from their back catalogue. After the instrumental – save for some wordless, high notes – first half, it’s comforting to hear Staples’ distinctive, quavering tones (a voice so distinctive that it’s surely only a matter of time before we see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon face off over hors d’oeuvres over who does the best rendition of No More Affairs).
Concentrating on some lesser-heard tracks from their first two self-titled albums, along with a few choices from Waiting For The Moon and The Hungry Saw, it’s a subdued affair, even by their own sombre standards, save for moments like Terry Edwards’ roaring sax at the end of Say Something Now, taken from Staples’ solo Lucky Dog Recordings 03–04.
Perhaps best of all, there’s the rambling, loungey monologue of My Sister, from 1995’s Tindersticks. It’s a life in miniature, condensed to eight sublime minutes; a blackly funny, bleary-eyed second cousin to Pulp’s Babies (“Do you remember my sister? … She moved in with a gym teacher when she was fifteen, all muscles he was/He lost his job when it all came out, and couldn’t get another one, not in that kind of small town”).
Bittersweet and beautiful, her story ends – as must we all – by returning to nature on the most intimate of terms: “We buried her when she was 32 … She said she didn’t want to be cremated/and wanted a cheap coffin so the worms could get to her quickly.”