Revisiting the spirit of Akenfield

THE spirit of Akenfield was reborn this weekend when cast and crew of the classic film held a nostalgic reunion on the film locations used 30 years ago.

THE spirit of Akenfield was reborn this weekend when cast and crew of the classic film held a nostalgic reunion on the film locations used 30 years ago.

Memories flooded back as cast members renewed old friendships, laughed, joked and tried to remember what was filmed where in the much changed Suffolk landscape.

The film's director Sir Peter Hall and the cinematographer South African Ivan Strasberg had driven up from London to join in the celebrations.

Rex Pyke, the film's producer, author Ronald Blythe on whose best-selling book the film was based, and Akenfield star Peggy Cole had tracked down more than 20 people who took part in the movie.

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Everyone was invited back to the old Akenfield locations in and around Charsfield to take part in a documentary being filmed for the BBC.

The documentary Akenfield Revisited is to be screened before the film is re-broadcast on the film's 30th anniversary in November. It is believed that this is the film's first television transmission for 20 years. It will also be broadcast from a new print.

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Reg Pyke said that the camera negative had now been located and had been delivered, along with a host of deleted scenes and out-take material, to the East Anglian Film Archive in Norwich where it would stored under proper conditions.

It is hoped that funding from the Getty Foundation will help get the camera negative digitally copied so that when the film is transferred to DVD it will look even better than it did when it was first shown.

Peggy Cole, EADT columnist and Akenfield actress said: "It's lovely to see everyone again. I can't believe that 30 years has gone by. It's been a real detective story tracking all these people down. All the children in the film are all grown up and have got children of their own now.

"The sad thing is that 23 of the local people in the film are no longer with us. It's those things which remind you how long ago it all was."

The reunion started at Hoo Church where the funeral scene was shot during a week in the summer of 1973.

Agricultural contractor Garrow Shand, who played Peggy's son Tom, in the film said that he was 23 at the time and enjoyed the fact that apart from this funeral scene it was all weekend filming.

"None of my mates knew what I was doing at the time because all the filming took place at weekends - except this funeral scene which we did over the course of a week," he added.

He said that the arrival of the coffin had to be refilmed because it was empty and did not look heavy enough.

"They filled it with bricks and things, then drove it round the lanes to get it back to the church and there were these builders working on a house nearby and everytime the coffin came past they took their hats off until somebody shouted out to them, "Don't bother, he's not dead yet."

The other memorable event on set was that he met his wife, Helen, during shooting.

"She was an extra in the harvest scene and in the baptism in the chapel. She wore a lovely pink outfit with a big hat I seem to remember. Being 23, I remember getting very distracted by her during those scenes and I wasted no time in introducing myself."

It seems that acting is in the blood because Garrow and Helen's daughter Leah has just graduated from drama school and was on hand to get some career advice from Peter Hall who invited her to take part in some brief shots during the filming.

Peggy said she became involved with the film when Ronald Blythe brought Peter Hall to Charsfield. "I was Secretary of the Charsfield Flower Show. I knew Ronnie Blythe because he lived in the next village, but I didn't know Peter Hall. Ronnie brought him over to speak to me, we had a chat, and then I heard him tell Ronnie: 'She'll do.'"

Ronald Blythe reaclled: "Poor Peggy she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. I think in the beginning she thought she would be making the tea."

Instead Peggy played Dulcie Rouse, the matriarch of the family.

Sir Peter added: "I think she was my only leading lady who also provided bacon sandwiches for everyone's lunch."

Peggy says that when she told her family what was happening they were far from impressed.

"My son David had just passed his 11 plus to go to Woodbridge Grammar School. I told him that I was going to be in a film made by Peter Hall. He looked at me and said: 'Don't be silly mother, you have to be intelligent to be in films.' That's boys for you."

Ronald Blythe is very pleased that the film and the book, which has just been reprinted, have been given a new lease of life.

He said: "It's extraordinary that a book I wrote in 1967, which is a world away from us now, and a film made in 1973/74, can have such an amazing and very gratifying, hold over people's affections.

"I think what makes Akenfield so popular is that it captures the spirit of Suffolk. It's everyone's story. "It's not the story of one person, or one family or even one village - it's everyone's story and I think that it strikes a chord. Akenfield is about the Suffolk people, it's about growing up, about moving away, about staying at home, about the countryside - it's about the generations. It's about us as Suffolk people."

For Sir Peter, the weekend's visit triggered some nostalgic memories.

"It's amazing how the place has changed. I think we did the film at exactly the right time - although we didn't know it then - because it captured a world on the cusp of very great change. Farming and therefore the countryside has undergone some enormous changes in the last 30 years, and I think Akenfield came along at exactly the right time to record those changes."

Ronald Blythe, who was living at French's Folly in Debach at the time, agreed.

"When I wrote the book, I still had access to people who lived and fought in the First World War. I had people had worked on the land during the first half of the century. I had first-hand memories to work from. All that has gone now."

It was the immediacy and authenticity of Ronald Blythe's storytelling that first attracted Sir Peter to the book.

"I read a review of it and immediately went out and got a copy and as soon as I started reading it, I could hear my grandfather talking. It was our family's story and I knew I wanted to turn it into a film," he said.

But the problem was that Blythe's book Akenfield was pretty much unfilmable.

Ronald said: "Peter and I had a meeting which he said some very nice things about it but I wanted to know how he was going to do it because as I had written it, there was no way you could film it."

Peter said that he wanted to capture the essence of the book rather than making a visual copy.

"I knew I wanted to use local people - non-actors - I wanted to capture that spirit that Ronald had in his book."

He said in order to create believable, natural performances, no-one was told the whole story. Actors were assembled for a scene, told a brief outline of what was going to happen, and then asked to improvise while the camera recorded what happened.

"We could only shoot things in one take. You couldn't ask them to do it over again because then they started to act and it looked artificial. It was very stressful because you never knew what you were going to get and whether it would fit with what had gone before. Also because we only did it at weekends, it took about a year to shoot and I had a year returning to the National (Theatre) on a Monday feeling absolutely exhausted."

But he says that he feels immensely proud of the results. "I think it is an accurate representation of life in Suffolk during the early years of the last century. I think it chronicles an important time of change and because it uses real people, local people, I think that it captures the reality of the situation in way that actors wouldn't have done.

"I feel very proud of it and I am delighted that it is going to be restored and shown again because I had resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be lost forever. All my theatre work is like a soap bubble, it only exists for the time it is on stage and I had hoped that Akenfield would be of lasting interest and a small representative sample of my work which could be preserved and now it is, so yes, I am thrilled."

After lunch was served at the second location, The Old School House in Debach, now owned by Keith and Jill Gipp, who threw open their doors to the documentary makers and members of the cast.

Here the mischievous schoolboys of 1974 quaked once again before the uncompromising gaze of Miss Quantrill played by Barbara Ashfield. Back in the school room which had now been remodelled as a comfortable lounge and hall way were Shaun Wood, forever remembered as the boy who cried, Allan Wright, as young Tom and Neil Scopes.

For these lads who were aged between six and 12 when the film took place, this was the first time they had seen one another since the filming took place.

Shaun, who now works as a digger driver, said: "I had no idea what was going on. I was six at the time. I went to Charsfield School and these film people turned up with a bunch of costumes and I think I was the one that fitted into the smallest one.

"I remember we driven down to this school. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I remember this teacher was very strict and she started shouting at me and I just cried."

This is now regarded as one of the most memorable sequences in the film along with the moment when Allan Wright as young Tom, stands up to the ferocious Miss Quantrill and breaks her cane in two before walking out of school to earn his living on the land.

Allan laughs as he remembers the fact that he could break the cane. "We had to do this bit over and over again because the cane wouldn't snap in half. It was one of the whippy ones and it was just too bendy. It would not break. We obviously did it in the end but it took forever."

The film opens in the spring of 1974, the day of Old Tom's funeral. Apart from fighting in the First World War, Old Tom never left the village in which he was born. Seen through the eyes of his grandson, also called Tom, the film tells the story of that day, with frequent encounters between him and his grandfather.

Rex Pyke said he was mightily relieved that the years of planning and campaigning were at last bearing fruit.

"It's been a long hard struggle but thanks to the EADT who originally carried our plea for actors and is now helping with the restoration of the prints, it's all coming together. It's been great to see everyone again this weekend and it's lovely hear all the memories and get them down on video. The next step is to get this footage edited and to get the new print of the film ready for the transmission in November."

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