New film explores Suffolk’s secret battlefield movie location

Troops looking out over No-Man's Land filmed at the Suffolk trench system for Stanley's War. The story of the location is...

Troops looking out over No-Man's Land filmed at the Suffolk trench system for Stanley's War. The story of the location is explored byTim Curtis in his film The War Just Outside Ipswich Photo; Tim Curtis - Credit: Archant

Film-maker Tim Curtis has produced a new documentary telling the story of one of Suffolk’s leading film locations. The film is raising money to help cash-starved local independent cinemas. He reveals how a small corner of East Anglia has become the frontline in Flanders for many high profile film and TV series in the last 20 years.

Producer Neil McGlone and director Tim Curtis who have made a film The War Just Outside Ipswich telling the story of the...

Producer Neil McGlone and director Tim Curtis who have made a film The War Just Outside Ipswich telling the story of the First World War trench system which has become one of the leading film locations Photo; Tim Curtis - Credit: Archant

War is hell – but it’s also a vital part of world history. If we don’t talk about it, engage with our past, then we are doomed to repeat it – a theme which is discussed in a new documentary The War Just Outside Ipswich which has just been completed by Suffolk film-maker Tim Curtis with producer Neil McGlone.

The film, scripted by Suffolk writer Jonathan Ruffle, takes a revealing look behind the scenes at a series of authentic World War One trenches that have been sunk into a field, alongside an atmospheric early 20th century stable yard. This has proved to be an ideal location for a number of influential films such as Journey’s End and Private Peaceful and big budget TV series including Downton Abbey.

The site is managed by historians Taff Gillingham and Kevin Smith, of Khaki Devil, who act as historical advisors on film and theatre projects, as well as supplying trained extras, costumes and props.

The idea for the film came from director Tim Curtis as he languished at home during lockdown. He was going through material sitting on his computer hard drive when he came across an extensive interview with Taff, shot last year for an unrealised behind-the-scenes package for Tim’s film Stanley’s War. As he watched the raw footage, he realised that Taff’s knowledge of the trench system and his engaging enthusiasm for history, in particular making the First World War come alive, would be the ideal basis for a wonderful documentary about the trenches themselves.

Historians Taff Gillingham and Kevin Smith founders of Khaki Devil and custodians of the First World War trench system...

Historians Taff Gillingham and Kevin Smith founders of Khaki Devil and custodians of the First World War trench system which has become of Suffolk's busiest film locations Photo; Tim Curtis - Credit: Archant

“They are a wonderful resource for film-makers,” said Tim, “With Taff and Khaki Devil, it’s a one-stop shop and can save film-makers a lot of money and consequently it’s also great for the Suffolk economy because the cast and crew are being put up in local hotels, eating in local restaurants, local suppliers are being engaged to service the film shoot, so everyone wins.”

He said that Taff supervised the building of the trench system on farmland outside Akenham, near Ipswich, 20 years ago when he persuaded the BBC, who were shooting dramatic reconstructions of World War One trench warfare, not to fly to Poland but to come to Ipswich instead.

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“It saved them so much money and offered a variety of set-ups because it had the stable yard alongside.”

Tim knows first-hand how flexible and adaptable the location is. “I discovered the trenches at Akenham when I was shooting Stanley’s War in early 2018. Taff explained that the trenches are generic so they can be adapted and dressed for the needs of the film-maker. There are sections which are typically British, other sections have a more German construction but all of it can be adapted for whatever you need.

Director Tim Curtis, centre, on set shooting the trench warfare sequences. Stanley's War is a new movie telling the...

Director Tim Curtis, centre, on set shooting the trench warfare sequences. Stanley's War is a new movie telling the experiences of Suffolk soldiers during the First Worlf War Photo: Stanley’s War Motion East ©2018 - Credit: Archant

“Over the years the trench system has been extended to suit the needs of various directors and once the film-makers leave the new additions are kept and maintained meaning the location becomes more useful. It means that more can be shot here, making it more cost-effective for film crews to come to Suffolk.”

In the film, the story of the trenches is related by Taff Gillingham and is illustrated by clips from the wide variety of productions that have been shot on the Suffolk location.

Gaining access to the film clips was crucial if Tim was going to illustrate Taff’s eloquent stories and show the trench system in action and to show it in a multitude of different lights. To track down the clips and negotiate a way through the complex copyright issues was the job of producer Neil McGlone, who also works as events manager for the Riverside cinema in Woodbridge.

“Thanks to my work as a researcher for film-maker Mark Cousins, which involved securing clips, and my work for film festivals around the world, I have got quite a good contacts book which allowed me to track down the rights owners fairly quickly.

Stanley's War shot at Akenham telling the experiences of Suffolk soldiers during the First World War Photo: Stanleys War...

Stanley's War shot at Akenham telling the experiences of Suffolk soldiers during the First World War Photo: Stanleys War Motion East ©2018 - Credit: Archant

“We had a piece of good fortune in that the rights for both Private Peaceful and Journey’s End were owned by the same company and they were happy for us to use extensive clips showing the Akenham trench system.

“Another important clip was the extended Sainsbury’s Christmas Truce advert from 2014 raising funds for the Royal British Legion – that proved very easy to gain permission to use. I sent an email to Sainsbury’s head office and got a reply the same afternoon.”

He said that the most difficult negotiations revolved around the permissions to use clips from Downton Abbey because the copyright is owned by US television giant NBC and before long lawyers were involved drafting complex legal contracts.

Tim said that in the end the situation was easily resolved when they explained that the film was to be used as a fundraising campaign for local independent cinemas. “They let us all the clips we wanted and even gave us access to their own behind the scenes footage which gave us even more shots of the trench system in action and how it can look completely different depending on how it is dressed.”

Tom Hendry as Stanley in the Tim Curtis film Stanley's War which was filmed in the Akenham trench system and clips...

Tom Hendry as Stanley in the Tim Curtis film Stanley's War which was filmed in the Akenham trench system and clips featured in The War Just Outside Ipswich Photo; Tim Curtis - Credit: Archant

Tim said the film also shows how Taff can supply accurate uniforms and weaponry particular to individual phases of the First World War and can save film-makers from making simple mistakes or perpetuating mistaken cliches.

“For example Taff explained to me when making Stanley’s War that the First World War wasn’t fought in a mud bath. Those famous photos which we all know were taken at specific locations at a particular time,” explained Tim.

“That was something we wanted to explain in the film because that was something we didn’t know. Apparently there are letters and diaries from soldiers saying that when they went ‘over the top’ and charged into battle they were taken aback at how green the countryside was because they had spent weeks staring at dirt walls, chalk banks and corrugated iron, so suddenly to be running across clear countryside was a surprise and made quite an impression.”

Neil said that The War Just Outside Ipswich will be receiving its premiere at The Riverside on Thursday December 4 but as this screening sold out as soon as it was announced, another screening date has been set for Thursday January 14.

The trenches outside Ipswich readied for action Photo; Tim Curtis

The trenches outside Ipswich readied for action Photo; Tim Curtis - Credit: Archant

“We are extremely grateful that Tim has chosen to make this film to benefit local independent cinemas which have been facing an uphill struggle because of the pandemic. Many cinemas have been closed for most of the year, so anything to try and help provide some sort of income is to be welcomed and to have something new to screen is a bonus – and for it to have such strong local interest is the icing on the cake.”

Neil said that they would be approaching other local independent Suffolk cinemas to see if they would be interested in screening the film once lockdown was over.

Tickets for the screening at the Woodbridge Riverside on January 14, 2021 can be booked on the Riverside website.

Taff Gillingham in 2005 during filming near Ipswich for a BBC television programme Somme Photo: Simon Parker

Taff Gillingham in 2005 during filming near Ipswich for a BBC television programme Somme Photo: Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

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