Wessex on Screen: Criminal

Criminal is a 2016 action film starring Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Costner and Gal Gadot. It tells the story of a convict (played by Costner) who is implanted with the memories of a dead CIA agent (Reynolds) in a bid to find a dangerous cyber-terrorist known as The Dutchman.

Its chief interest from a Wessex point of view is that it features a helicopter chase which was filmed at Blackbushe Airport, just outside Yateley in Hampshire. Blackbushe was opened in 1942 as an RAF base, where it became home to the Free French Squadron (Lorraine), and to the Fog Information and Dispersal Operation (FIDO), designed to enable airstrikes even in heavy fog.

After the war, it became a civil airfield, though US military aircraft continued to use it as a base. It is one of many smaller airports whose volume of air traffic diminished greatly as a result of Heathrow Airport's expansion in the 1960s, and it is now mainly used by private jets and flying clubs. Criminal offers a rare chance to see this forgotten piece of Wessex's aviation history on screen.

Wessex on Screen: Cross Currents

Cross Currents is a 1935 film about which little information is available beyond the briefest of plot synopses: a Devon vicar tries to clear his name after being accused of murdering his rival in love. As Hitchcockian as this sounds, Cross Currents is described as a comedy. It was set in Devon, but filmed in Cornwall.

The film, based on the novel Nine Days' Blunder by Gerald Elliott, was produced by Paramount British as a "quota quickie". The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 was designed to give a boost to the British film industry, and those of British dominions such as Canada, creating a studio system modelled on that of Hollywood at the time, with production, distribution and exhibition of films being handled by the same (British or imperial) companies. In practice, Hollywood studios simply set up British subsidiaries, churning out B-movies that were designed for no other purpose than to meet the quota for British films specified in the Act, released as supporting features for American films.

The Act was modified in 1938 to exclude Empire nations, and repealed in 1960. It was not generally considered a success, but did aid in the production of some bona fide classics, such as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940). Paramount British continued into the 1970s, its biggest success probably being The Italian Job (1969).

Wessex on Screen: Comrades

Comrades was a 1986 film written and directed by Bill Douglas telling the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Martyrs themselves will be the subject of a separate article in due course, so this post will concentrate purely on the film.

The film clocks in at nearly three hours, the first half of which takes place in Dorset, and the second in Australia after their unjust transportation for the "crime" of forming a trade union. Douglas was previously known for the autobiographical, social realist trilogy My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). Comrades was the result of a nine-year struggle to bring it to the screen.

Rather than a straight retelling of the story, Comrades uses an impressionistic approach, with the tale told by a magic lanternist played by Alex Norton, who also plays a dozen other roles scattered throughout the film. It was praised as a "poetic and painterly work" by Sheila Rowbotham in The Guardian, and won the BFI's Sutherland Trophy for 1986, as well as being nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival the following year.

Despite what the DVD cover used as the featured image (taken from Wikipedia) says, the film was never an 18 certificate. It was originally cut by three seconds in order to receive a PG rating, and re-released uncut on home video in 2009 with a 15 certificate.

Comrades is available to rent on the BFI Player.

Wessex on Screen: Inspector Morse

Inspector Endeavour Morse is the creation of Colin Dexter, the star of 13 novels, a short story collection and two successful TV series. He is now so associated with Oxford, where the stories are set, that a veritable cottage industry in Inspector Morse tours has now sprung up in the city.

Dexter originally conceived the character of Morse while on holiday in Wales in 1972. He spent the next 18 months writing the first novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, which was eventually published in 1975. The novel was adapted for BBC radio in 1985, and six more novels were published before ITV turned it into the highly successful TV series starring John Thaw.

The series spawned a spin-off, Lewis, starring Kevin Whately in the role of Morse's former sidekick; and a prequel series, Endeavour, starring Shaun Evans as the young Morse. The music by Barrington Pheloung was based on the Morse code for the name MORSE. Pheloung later stated that he had also provided clues in some episodes by spelling out the killer's name in Morse code.

All three series are now available to stream on the Britbox, the new streaming service from the BBC and ITV.

Wessex on Screen: Coming of Age

Coming of Age was a BBC Three sitcom about sixth form students set in Abingdon, though mostly filmed at the BBC Television Centre in That London. A pilot, with several of the leads played by different actors to those featured in the eventual series, was broadcast on 21st May 2007. The brainchild of Tim Dawson, who was 19 when he first started writing it, it was very much a freshman effort, filled with obvious gags and broad performances from its young leads. It was, however, immensely popular with its late-teenage target audience, pulling in over a million viewers per episode and running for three seasons from 2008.

Critics were less kind. Harry Venning pretty much summed up the critical consensus, writing :

I sat through Coming Of Age with the will to live seeping from my every pore, leaving me drenched in a puddle of despair. 

The Stage, 13 October 2008

Venning was presumably not a teenager when he wrote that, though. If the success of Coming of Age proves anything, it's that audiences respond to seeing themselves more or less accurately represented more than they analyse the polish of the finished product.