Had British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth followed up his passing fancy Brownsea Island may well have been included in the pantheon of great British film studios alongside Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and Ealing. Hepworth, who is credited with inventing the panning shot while filming the funeral of Queen Victoria in February 1901, was a keen sailor and after mooring his yacht off Brownsea later that year considered building film studios there. ‘A glorious idea,’ he notes in his 1951 autobiography Came the Dawn, but makes no further mention of it.
However, Hepworth was to leave a far more lasting mark on the development of British film in general and Dorset in particular. His 1905 short film, Rescued By Rover, was the most successful British film to that point and firmly established his reputation. By 1910 he was successful enough to have assembled a repertory of actors and technicians which decamped to Lulworth every summer from his studio at Walton-on-Thames.
Lured by the quality of the light and frequent good weather, he aimed to make as many short films as possible over the summer. Although purpose-built cinemas were becoming more established, until the 1920s film makers still relied heavily on selling prints of their work to agents who would rent them to travelling fairground shows and music halls.
‘Those early films would have been screened wherever people could show them. In Wimborne, for instance, before the Tivoli was built in 1936 films would be shown in the bar at the Kings Head,’ says Dorset-based film writer Anwar Brett, whose book Dorset In Film: A Cinematic Journey Through the County (Halsgrove) delves into the history of feature films made in the county.
The early story of cinema is one of invention mothered by necessity. There were few rules to be followed and, therefore, few to break. Hepworth’s 1911 film Grace Darling required the heroic lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who saved thirteen men from a foundering ship, to step out of her cottage and onto a beach. As there were no cottages on the beach at Lulworth – and the cost of building one was prohibitive – Hepworth simply moved the beach to the cottage. He shifted sand and stones from the beach to the sloping front garden of a cottage in the village.
‘When we hauled up a boat on top of it, ready for Grace to push off into the putative sea, you would never have supposed there was anything artificial about it,’ he writes.
Notwithstanding his bizarre gardening efforts, Hepworth’s most telling contribution to Lulworth was his 1913 production of Hamlet directed by Hay Plumb. With a budget of £10,000, it was the most expensive film produced in Britain and, determined to show the audience where the money was, Hepworth instructed a replica of the original Elsinore to be built on the cliff top at Dungy Head above Lulworth Cove.
The hour-long film was a landmark production in more ways than one.
‘Up until this point the film business had been viewed as a grubby new media, but the industry was growing exponentially and, with Hamlet, Hepworth was among the first to mount prestige productions based on great literary works using well-known actors of the day,” says Simon Brown, a Hepworth scholar and principal lecturer in film studies at Kingston University.
‘It was an attempt to woo the middle classes into cinemas which were being smartened up to include covered seats, refreshments and ushers. It’s the same as we see today with films like The King’s Speech, a high quality cast with heritage subject matter, and it was very successful. Hepworth was highly regarded in the film industry for making very English films – like a cross between David Puttnam and Julian Fellowes if you like, although Hepworth never wrote anything for the screen.’
The eminent stage actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson played Hamlet, with his American wife, Gertrude Elliott as Ophelia. They stayed at the Castle Inn, eliciting much excitement among locals. The newly knighted Sir Johnston made his name playing second leads to Britain’s first actor-knight, Sir Henry Irving, before being hailed as the finest Hamlet of the 19th century by George Bernard Shaw. Hepworth’s film, some of which can be seen on YouTube, captures the then 60-year-old thespian giving the role his all as well as demonstrating Hepworth’s ingenuity in utilising double exposure techniques to create the illusion of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Amusingly, Hepworth reports actor Percy Rhodes, who played the ghost, complained bitterly that the rocks on the beach hurt his feet!
Around the same time Hepworth formed a friendship with American filmmaker Larry Trimble who, in 1915, was commissioned by the Turner Film Company to adapt Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd with the author’s blessing and in its Wessex setting. Hardy produced the notes for a souvenir programme a copy of which, complete with his handwritten annotations, is kept at Dorset County Museum.
The film, starring Florence Turner as Bathsheba and Henry Edwards as Gabriel, was not received well by critics and is more notable for the author’s involvement.
‘It’s fascinating to consider that Thomas Hardy lived long enough to see his work made into films, whereas Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde didn’t,’ says Anwar Brett, ‘and from his letters he clearly entered into lengthy discussions with his publisher Macmillan over the sale of the film rights to his books.’
In 1921 Hardy visited the set of director Sidney Morgan’s production of The Mayor of Casterbridge at Maiden Castle and recorded his thoughts in a letter: ‘This morning we have had an odd experience. The film-makers are here doing scenes for “The Mayor of C” and they asked us to come and see the process. The result is that I have been talking to the Mayor, Mrs Henchard, Eliz. Jane, & the rest, in the flesh … It is a strange business to be engaged in.’
The author worked closely with British producer Frank Spring and oversaw several significant changes to his story, such as making the second Elizabeth-Jane the real daughter of Henchard.
‘My mother Kathy Spring acted professionally as Mavis Clair and played Elizabeth in my grandfather’s film of The Mayor of Casterbridge,’ says Gillian Gregg. ‘She never told me a great deal about her films, but when they’d finished filming Hardy was reported to have said about her: ‘She is my Elizabeth.’ I think that’s a lovely thing to say and I found it quite emotional when I saw her in a 12-minute segment which is all that survives from the film.
‘She left behind some wonderful memorabilia including an autograph book in which Hardy had signed to her and a photograph he had presented to my grandfather and inscribed on the back.’
But although he took an active role in promoting his novels to film makers, Hardy was not always happy with the results, dismissing a 1913 adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles as ‘too Americanised’. He was also disappointed with Metro-Goldwyn’s 1924 version – for which the studio paid $50,000 to option – even though it was filmed locally and, with Blanche Sweet in the title role, was a box office hit in
‘When Louis B Mayer and Sam Goldwyn made Tess they had two endings filmed – one happy, one sad. Hardy voiced his indignation, but there was not much he could do,’ says Anwar Brett. ‘That said, Hardy was certainly astute enough to have already thoroughly researched copyright law when the time came to renegotiate his contract.’
By the 1920s the film business as we know it today was taking shape. A star system was firmly established and the great innovators of film’s early years were being overtaken by commerce. In an effort to find a new market for his films, in the autumn of 1921 Cecil Hepworth travelled to America and was a guest of Charlie Chaplin in Beverly Hills. Around the same time Mary Pickford, Chaplin’s partner in United Artists, visited Worbarrow Bay.
‘There’s absolutely no reason to assume that telling stories was the primary function for which film was invented, it just happened that way,’ says Simon Brown. ‘Hepworth was a storyteller, his father had been a magic lanternist, so he understood that. But the industry was changing and he went bust in 1924.’
By which time the Dorset gentry was playing a part in establishing a link between cinema and the bright young things of the aristocracy. In 1922, the Hon Lois Sturt, youngest daughter of Humphrey Sturt, the second Baron Alington of Crichel, appeared in The Glorious Adventure. She played Nell Gwynne to William Luff’s King Charles II in United Artists’ historical drama, a silent picture filmed in colour, much to the delight of Picture Show magazine which advertised a ‘Screen Stars from Society’ pictorial article on the front page of its 29 April 1922 issue.
‘The Hon Lois Sturt, who played the part of Nell Gwynne in The Glorious Adventure, is the sister of Lord Alington, and a very pretty girl,’ gushed the report. ‘Miss Sturt has already achieved considerable success as an artist and miniature painter, but her talent for film work is undoubted. A very hard worker, she is bound to succeed after so good a beginning.’
Sentiment that finds a modern parallel in some of the less critical responses to actress Gemma Arterton’s turn in Tamara Drewe, Stephen Frears’ Dorset-set adaptation of the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip, itself a make over of Far from the Madding Crowd. Having previously played the title role in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she went on to appear in The Boat That Rocked, partially filmed off the coast at Weymouth, and has been filming Dorset screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine
• Anwar Brett passed away on 24 November 2013 and is much missed by all who had the pleasure to know him.