Village life film rolls back the years

THIRTY years after it received its public premiere, the new restored print of landmark Suffolk film Akenfield yesterday treated a packed cinema to an amazing journey through time.

By Andrew Clarke

THIRTY years after it received its public premiere, the new restored print of landmark Suffolk film Akenfield yesterday treated a packed cinema to an amazing journey through time.

The years rolled away – thanks to the marvellous ability of film to open a window onto the past – and we found ourselves not only back in 1974 but back in the early years of the 1900s.

The restored print of the film, about a fictional Suffolk village, was greeted with rapturous applause when it was screened to two sell-out audiences at the Ipswich Film Theatre.

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It was shot on location in a number of Suffolk villages around Charsfield, Burgh and Hoo during the spring and summer of 1974.

The film was adapted by author Ronald Blythe from his own best-selling novel and tells the story of three generations of the Rous family on the day that old Tom Rous is buried in the village churchyard.

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It is a story of the age-old conflict of youngsters wanting to get away while their roots pull them back towards home.

Director Sir Peter Hall wanted to capture the autobiographical atmosphere of the book and so insisted that non-actors should be cast.

At yesterday's screening, Mr Blythe described the casting of the two leads – Garrow Shand, who played Tom, and Peggy Cole, who played his mother Dulcie.

"We looked for a long time for someone to play these two important roles. We saw a lot of sons of local farmers but they weren't sufficiently mysterious. We wanted someone enigmatic. So we put an ad in the East Anglian and Garrow, who was the local contract ploughman, turned up and he was perfect.

"I knew Peggy because she was a leading member of Charsfield Church where I was churchwarden. Peter Hall couldn't find the right person for Tom's mother and so I took him down to our local flower show where Peggy was running a stall and introduced her to Peter.

"She was perfect for the role –although she did turn up for the first day's shoot thinking she was going to make the tea or something."

Introducing the film, producer Rex Pyke, thanked everyone for their ongoing faith in the film. "I told the cast in 1974 that we couldn't have made the film without them and looking back now, it is clear that if you weren't the people you are then we couldn't have made the same film. This is a film by Suffolk people about Suffolk people," he said.

The dialogue for the film was improvised by the actors on set after Peter Hall, working from Mr Blythe's 20-page script, told them what he was looking for in the scene.

After the screening Mrs Cole, an EADT columnist, said she was delighted that the film had been saved for future generations.

"The new print looks marvellous and you can hear what everyone is saying. The colour is back to normal and it looks like it did the first time I saw it," she added.

Dave Gregory, films officer at the Ipswich Film Theatre and a champion of the movie, said that the last print of the film had degraded so badly that it could no longer be shown.

"There were so many scratches and missing frames, the black layer of the colour had gone, so everything looked rosy, even the mud and it jumped and crackled so much that it was virtually unwatchable," he said.

"So it's great that we now have a new print and it's going to be preserved at the East Anglian Film Archive."

The film was saved from the ravages of time thanks to intervention by the East Anglian Daily Times and Suffolk County Council, which paid for a new print to be struck from the original camera negative.

The film's leading man Garrow Shand said that it was quite a shock to see himself up on the screen 30 years later.

"It's a bit of an eye-opener seeing yourself up there on screen looking quite so young. Inside yourself you don't feel any different, then when you see the film you are reminded that maybe you don't look as young as you feel."

He said that he, Peggy and Ronald Blythe had enjoyed a night in London on Saturday when the film was screened at the National Film Theatre as part of the National Film and Television Festival.

Guests at the Ipswich screening, Paul Heiney and Libby Purvis, said that they were thrilled to have seen this view into Suffolk's past. Mr Heiney, who has made several series for Anglia Television on traditional farming, said that it presented an accurate picture of the way that farming was changing in the early 1970s.

A limited edition DVD has been produced to mark the restoration of Akenfield. It is available from the Ipswich Film Theatre, King Street, Ipswich, priced £15. It is not available in the shops.

The film is also being screened on BBC4 at 9pm on Thursday.

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