Wessex on Screen: Shadowlands

Shadowlands is a 1985 BBC TV movie written by William Nicholson that was later adapted as a 1989 stage play, and then a 1993 cinema film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The stage play debuted at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, before transferring to the West End and Broadway.

All three versions tell the story of Oxford don CS Lewis, and his surprising relationship with American divorcee Joy Gresham after a lifetime of bachelorhood. It was based largely on Lewis's book A Grief Observed, which details his reaction to Gresham's subsequent death from cancer, and his struggle to reconcile his Christian faith with her suffering.

The stage version remains a perennial favourite of amateur dramatic groups to this day, perhaps due to the universality of its theme of bereavement. The film version has a 97% rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing.

Wessex On Screen: May Morning

May Morning, also known as Alba Pagana and Murder At Oxford, is a 1970 Italian giallo film set in Oxford University. Giallo is an Italian genre of crime fiction, often with strong erotic elements, taking its name from the yellow covers of the cheap paperback books where the genre originated.

Italian student Valerio Montelli (Allesio Orano) disrupts the rigid social structures at Oxford, being all foreign and that, especially when he falls for Flora (Jane Birkin), daughter of one of his professors. Things come to a head at the titular May Morning revels, leading to tragic consequences.

May Morning has attracted controversy due to the brutality of its climax, but it provides an interesting outsider's view of decadent Oxford society at the time of the post-Woodstock comedown from the swinging sixties. Despite being filmed entirely on location at Oxford, I can find no evidence that it was ever released in Britain. However, it is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Wessex on Screen: Press for Time

Press For Time is a 1966 comedy film starring Norman Wisdom, in which he plays a newspaper reporter who causes chaos in the Devon town of Teignmouth (lightly fictionalised as Tinmouth), as well as the main character's mother and grandfather. it was Wisdom's last film for the Rank Organisation.

The film was based on Angus McGill's humorous novel Yea Yea Yea, loosely inspired by his time as a reporter on the Shields Gazette. The cast also features Peter Jones, Stanley Unwin, David Lodge, Frances White and, in a small uncredited role, the film debut of Helen Mirren.

Press For Time (102 minutes, certificate U) is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

Review: Broadchurch Season 2

This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 16, Issue 1 (Spring 2015)

Broadchurch returned this year for a second series. The first was always going to be a tough act to follow. Critics soon dubbed its sequel ‘Boredchurch’, accusing lead writer Chris Chibnall of implausible plot turns and of repeatedly disregarding legal procedure in the interests of a good story. And yes, there was a lot of legal procedure. The second series picked up where the first left off, murder suspect Joe Miller unexpectedly pleading his innocence in a trial that proceeded to challenge much of what viewers believed to be the case against him.

David Tennant returned as the sickly Scots cop DI Alec Hardy, with Olivia Colman as his sidekick DS Ellie Miller. So too did the sparse, tension-building background music by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. Alec Hardy’s ex-wife appeared for the first time in series two, her name being Tess Henchard. As it had to be, if he’s the result of Chibnall’s juggling of Donald Farfrae and Alec d’Urberville.

Chibnall seems to have great fun naming his characters, as when his barristers are the white Knight for the prosecution and the black Bishop for the defence. Note too how many Broadchurch locals have traditional rural trades for surnames (Carter, Fisher, Miller, Wright). The Latimers take their name from latimmier, a keeper of records in Latin. Mark Latimer is a plumber, the only one of these trades named from a specifically Latin base. And the vicar – well, what else would a man of the cloth be than the Rev. Coates?

With the trial unfolding as the main theme, there was plenty else building around it, centred on ‘the Sandbrook case’, the unsolved murders tormenting Hardy from his earlier employment with the South Mercia force. This introduced a range of new characters and took Hardy and Miller up and down the M5 and across to Portsmouth in pursuit of the truth.

As before, much of the action was shot at Clevedon in Somerset and Bridport and West Bay in Dorset. To the list of locations last time, which also included Bristol, Portishead, Shepton Mallet, Weston-super-Mare and Yate, series two added Bracknell, Charmouth, Exeter, Lynton, Reading, Weymouth and other Wessex places. The University of Exeter’s Forum Building served as both the Wessex Police Headquarters and the Wessex Crown Court. Hardy (Thomas rather than Alec) would surely have been pleased at such a variety of places, spread right across Wessex and apart from studio scenes shot in Surrey and Yorkshire making few forays beyond it.

There will be a third series but, for those who just can’t wait, Erin Kelly, in collaboration with Chris Chibnall, has already penned a series of eight short stories based around themes from each of the recent episodes

Wessex On Screen: I See A Dark Stranger

I See A Dark Stranger, retitled The Adventuress in the US, was a spy thriller starring Deborah Kerr, made during World War 2, but not released until 1946.An epilogue was thus added, showing what happened to the main characters after the war. It is partially set in Devon, but the Devon scenes were actually shot in Somerset.

Kerr plays Bridie Quilty, a spirited Irishwoman who tries to join the IRA but is rejected, leading to her being recruited as a Nazi spy. It is likely that this was designed for propaganda purposes, to try to bring Ireland over to the Allied side by equating their neutrality with support for Germany.

The film was produced by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat for their company Individual Pictures, and directed by Launder. It was to have featured a cameo appearance by the characters Charters and Caldicott from the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (written by Launder and Gilliat), but the actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne asked for more screen time, and so the characters were replaced by a pair of suspiciously similar substitutes.

Kerr was awarded a Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle for her performances in both this film and Black Narcissus.