Suffolk onscreen: Tales of courage on the Front Line
- Credit: Archant
Grounding historical events in personal stories makes them more relatable. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to film-maker Tim Curtis about his latest film which tells the story of two local men and their experiences during The Great War
After 100 years you would think that all the stories and memories of those who fought or experienced the horrors of the First World War would, by now, be well known. But, as Suffolk film-maker Tim Curtis has discovered there are still stories to be told.
The man behind the atmospheric film Life on the Deben has just finished shooting Stanley’s War, a major drama-documentary film based on true stories of Suffolk’s First World War. It tells the story of Suffolk men, from different backgrounds, who found themselves in action on the fields of France and were ultimately invalided out of the army.
The film recounts the true life-changing experiences at the Western Front of Stanley Banyard, a farm hand from Ramsholt and how he saved the lives of his comrades, lost in no-man’s land, using skills learnt as a boy from a Suffolk gamekeeper.
The film also portrays the The Great War experiences of the Pretty family, factory owners from Ipswich, including the forbidden romance between Major Frank Pretty, 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment and Edith Dempster (later Edith Pretty of Sutton Hoo fame). The film also depicts the tragic story of Lieut. Donald Pretty, 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment who was killed in action.
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The screenplay was written by Jonathan Ruffle, creator of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Tommies’. Most of the ‘rural’ drama scenes were shot on the Wilford Peninsula with the battlefield scenes shot at ‘Trench Farm’ near Ipswich where productions such as Journey’s End and Downton Abbey have also filmed First World War scenes.
Author and broadcaster, John McCarthy, provides the narrative for the documentary parts of the film and the film follows his emotional visit to the battlefields and cemeteries of Northern France.
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Director Tim Curtis was commissioned by Peninsula2018.org to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and to raise money for the Suffolk Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal and the Suffolk Punch Trust.
Tim said that he was pleased to be able to shoot much of the film on the Wilford Peninsula using a mainly Suffolk cast and film crew. The film was funded by donations from local residents, Suffolk County Council and the Scarfe Trust
I understand that the film had a very short pre-production period. Was it really a race against time to get it finished?
TC: “The film came about when Fanny and Patrick Jacob asked me to come up with an idea for a film to show as part of peninsula2018.org a series of community-wide events to commemorate Armistice 2018 on Wilford Peninsula.
“We spent weeks researching and looking for Suffolk soldiers memoirs and letters to base the film on. We visited records offices and museums and the Suffolk Regiment Museum in Bury St Edmunds, all to no avail. We met with Taff Gillingham, a well-known military historian specialising in Suffolk’s First World War history. He couldn’t help either. He explained to us that ‘The trouble with The Suffolk’s is that they didn’t write much down’
“We then did have a stroke of luck when two Suffolk ladies, Jo Smellie and Judy Foulger doing their own research into World War One, came up with the memoirs of Stanley Banyard, a farmhand from Ramsholt who, in 1914, walked the seven miles to Woodbridge and signed up for the War.
“The memoirs were just what we were looking for – quite detailed with events and places and experiences of Stanley Banyard’s war, from start to finish.”
Were you able to get a clear image from his writing about what his war was like and what kind of man he was?
“He talks about the mud, the lice, the Germans and the terror but the account that really stuck out for us was when his commanding officer gets Stanley and his fellow soldiers lost in no-man’s land just as their explosives they have set are about to go off at a German tunnel.
“As a young boy Stanley had been taught by the local Gamekeeper, Arthur Hunt (buried in Ramsholt Church graveyard) how to navigate from the stars. It took Stanley a bit to convince his commanding officer, but Stanley finally led them all back to the British trenches and relative safety navigating from the stars. Stanley is adamant in his memoirs that Arthur Hunt saved all their lives that night.”
So with Stanley’s writing, did you feel you had the basis for a complete film?
“Once we had found Stanley Banyard’s story we decided it would be good to have a contrast to portray a quite wealthy Suffolk family, The Pretty’s from Ipswich, factory owners with two sons, Frank and Donald who went to war with the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. We also look at the forbidden love story between Frank Pretty and Edith Dempster that spans the war period and well beyond. Edith Dempster finally married Frank and became the famous Mrs Pretty of Sutton Hoo fame.”
The film looks amazing. I’m assuming that you didn’t have as much money as the on-screen images suggest. How difficult is it making a period film with a Hollywood studio’s backing?
“Making a World War One documentary film with period drama scenes on a low budget and a very tight schedule was a huge challenge. All the locations, costumes and props had to be sourced and chosen with that period in mind.
“We had to customise the Sorrel Horse pub in Shottisham inside and out, luckily with the great support of publican Gary Miller. We removed anything that stuck out as modern. We had electricians disconnecting lights, builders taking away signs and painters tidying up the parts of the pub we had disturbed. And then after filming we had to put it all back as it was. Not to mention all the heavy garden furniture that had to be shifted.”
How difficult was it getting the military and battle scenes correct?
“In the drama scenes, Stanley’s War mainly features the 4th and 7th Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment and we filmed the battle scenes at Trench Farm just outside of Ipswich. This is an incredible network of British and German World War One trenches built by Taff Gillingham and his team.”
The on-screen look very impressive. So just how big was this small budget movie?
“At its peak Stanley’s War had a cast and crew of over 30 people plus two Suffolk Punch horses from the Suffolk Punch Trust, two Hunter horses with fantastic handlers, Jo and Abi and a donkey called Lucy – and we can’t forget Boris, the sausage dog lent to us by Fanny (Jacob) for the village scene.
“The old adage of ‘don’t work with children or animals’ did come to mind on a couple of occasions. Although I have to say the young cast were incredible delivering their lines on cue and not being too bothered with all of the inevitable waiting around for us to set up a shot.”
It was fitting that a film about Suffolk people was shot using local talent.
“While we had to bring a couple of people in from Norfolk and London, most of the cast and crew were from Suffolk. For such an ambitious project everything went pretty smoothly. The only setbacks I can recall are when on a really windy day at Ramsholt, the Suffolk Punches seemed a little bit spooked by the high winds and it took us a while to get them ploughing. Luckily Tracey and her team from the Suffolk Punch Trust managed to get them calmed down and moving in the right direction. And we lost some time over at the trenches when our cherry picker with all our night time lighting decided to seize up and we lost some filming time.
“All in all though a pretty successful shoot. I am now very pleased that we have produced an outstanding film that commemorates Suffolk’s World War One contribution.”
Stanley’s War is being screened at The Riverside Cinema, Woodbridge, on Sunday December 16th at 4.30pm and DVDs will be available from www.stanleyswar.co.uk