Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Shropshire on the screen

BBC Radio Leicester has moved to new studios in the city - a huge improvement on the two floors of a run-down office block that they used to occupy.

One of the facilities at the new building, besides a cafe and free internet access, is a shop selling BBC archive recordings. I went there on Saturday and bought a DVD of the 1985 dramatisation of Tom Sharpe's novel Blott on the Landscape.

It was filmed in Ludlow, partly around the, er, striking Victorian Market Hall (which was demolished shortly afterwards with the general approval of the people of the town) and at nearby Stanage Hall.

The original novel was also set around Ludlow. The landscape Sharpe had in mind was the Downton Gorge, which would make Downton Castle the model for the book's Handyman Hall.

Sharpe discovered the area when his school, Lancing College, was evacuated to Downton Castle during the Second World War. Among his fellow pupils were the actor George Baker and Robin Saville, the son of the children's writer Malcolm Saville, who told me how Sharpe came across the area.

Incidentally, Malcolm Saville also used Downton Castle as the setting for one of his books. In his case it was The Secret of the Gorge from 1958, where the Castle appeared as Bringewood Manor.

The two outstanding performances in Blott on the Landscape are by David Suchet and Geraldine James, but two other cast members will attract the interest of the Shropshire-loving film buff.

For George Cole and Esmond Knight both also appeared in the Powell and Pressburger film Gone to Earth, which was made in 1950. This was based on the novel by the Shropshire novelist Mary Webb, who enjoyed a huge vogue shortly after her death in the 1930s but reads like the ripest melodrama today. She is best remembered as one of the writers whom Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm.

The film is equally melodramatic, but it still looks ravishing: it is hard to imagine anything more beautiful than the Shropshire hills shot in Technicolor. There is a wonderful collection of stills and photographs connected with the film here.

Gone to Earth was George Cole's first adult role, just as Blott on the Landscape was one of Esmond Knight's last appearances. There is a site dedicated to Esmond Knight's remarkable career here, but I can't find a George Cole site.

Still, with a good search engine the world wide web is your lobster.

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