The Isle of Purbeck On Screen
The ruined castle of Corfe, in the gap below Nine Barrow Down, with Poole Harbour in the distance.
variety of landscape within
a small area has made it a
popular district with England’s
film directors since the days
of silent films, whenever
the Home Counties around London
do not offer the requisite
variety of country locations.
Historical, contemporary and
futuristic dramas have all
been filmed here, with the
district doubling for story
locales from the tropics to
the Baltic. (Purbeck on occasion
also appears as itself, most
recently in an episode of
historian Rodney Legg in his
Exploring The Heartland Of
Purbeck (1986) calls it “Television’s
the 1970s … its versatile
landscape became fashionable
with television drama producers
as the perfect all- round
location closest to London.
This led to a complaint in
the Radio Times that whenever
a script required a short
Scottish film sequence this
would be shot on the hills
Ken Russell, when he filmed
his tribute to Ralph Vaughan
Williams, wanted to represent
the kind of classic English
countryside his symphonies
evoked. “The Fifth
Symphony reflects the mystical
side of the British and is
in the nature of a musical
pilgrimage through the world
of John Bunyan [Pilgrim’s
Progress] to the Delectable
Mountains. We couldn’t
afford to journey to that
particular location so made
do with the hills around Lulworth
Cove, which are nearly as
For here you will find a range of locations suited to a film-TV “backlot” – a ruined castle, a steam railway, a ruined village, a busy holiday resort town, a ridge of chalk downs, unspoilt villages, stately homes, a deserted heathland, a military tank range, a heritage coast of high cliffs, a wide sandy beach backed by grassy dunes, and even quarries containing giant caves - all within a few miles of each other, just a short ride across the chain ferry from the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation.
Below you will find an orientation tour, a list of ten film-TV productions of interest, and links to further pages.
|The western limit of Purbeck: the view from Flowers Barrow hillfort atop the Purbeck Hills ridgeway stretching west towards Lulworth Cove, village, castle and tank range. Lulworth Castle is not really visible in this shot (see photo page bottom), but you can make out the Army Range from the tracks the tanks have churned up, exposing the underlying chalk.|
Below are ten film and TV dramas that made significant use of a Purbeck setting.
The Black Rider (1954 dir Wolf Rilla, Balblair Productions/ Butchers Film Service)
This children’s adventure B-movie by respected writer-director Wolf Rilla is set entirely in Purbeck. Place names however are fictionalized (Brockham Castle, Brockham Manor, Swanhaven) and location work is limited to 2nd unit shots of Swanage and a Purbeck cove, with Corfe Castle ruins portrayed by a Nettlefold Studios set. Nevertheless, the story fits in a way that suggests the scriptwriter, producer A.R. Rawlinson, was familiar with the area.
There’s the smuggling connection (big in local history) meeting up the world of the postwar dirt-track motorcycle clubs which flourished after WW2 when young men got experience of motorbikes from acting as army Despatch Riders (locally the Poole Pirates motorbike team was formed in 1948). Here, a young reporter (ex juvenile lead Jimmy Hanley) and his girl and their pals in the local cross-country motorcycle youth club help foil the usual gang of crooks. The plot is placed firmly in the context of the local setting – local Army tank range, ruined castle, nearby seaside resort, remote coves. (The opening smugglers-cove location with its wartime pillbox and barbed wire could have been one of several Purbeck coves.) A map shot puts the castle north of Worth Matravers. As usual, the crooks/smugglers are cultivating a local ghost-legend to scare away nosey parkers. The fictionalizing of the setting may be due to the fact the script has the gang led by the local gent (Lionel Jeffries), a traitor trying to smuggle an atomic device into the country to plant under the local ‘haunted’ castle next to the experimental tank depot, to sabotage Britain's tank-testing programme.
The Black Tower (Anglia TV 1985, dir Ronald Wilson)
This six-hour ‘Commander Adam Dalgliesh’ mystery, from P.D. James’s 1975 novel, is slow-moving and stagey, but is of local interest here for its Purbeck setting. Again, the setting seems to have inspired the story – author P.D. James discovered the original of her Black Tower, Clavel Tower at Kimmeridge, while staying with relatives. Amidst the character-subplot soundstage interiors are scenes shot on location at the Encombe estate, in Wareham, and a (black-painted) Clavel Tower, all shot on video in summer. The plot has poetry-writing Scotland Yard Commander Dalgliesh shot while leading a house raid [!] and recuperating at "Toynton Grange" retreat. There, mysterious events prove to be related to the local clifftop tower, ending with Dalgleish in a life-or-death struggle hanging from the clifftop. (Clavel Tower has since been relocated 100m inland to save it from cliff erosion.)
Comrades: A Lanternist's Account Of The Tolpuddle Martyrs And What Became Of Them (1986 scr/dir Bill Douglas, BFI/Skreba )
This is a realistic 3-hour re-enactment of the 1830s Tolpuddle Martyrs episode that became the foundation of the British trade union movement. This was one of the most authentic British historical dramas ever made, with no concessions to popular taste, and is hard to find, being out of print on video. (The script has been published.) It was made as a labour of love by the late Bill Douglas, the Scots film-maker whose work is now the basis of The Bill Douglas Centre at the U. of Exeter. The first two hours are set in Dorset and filmed largely at Tyneham village [pictured], its ruined buildings dressed with fibreglass facades over scaffolding to hide anachronistic features.
Doombeach (1989 dir Colin Finbow CFU/C4)
This surprisingly dark Children’s Film Unit production has been described as a juvenile “Edge Of Darkness.” Here, the death of a friend from suspected radiation poisoning from local seawater draws the hero into the state-backed nuclear underworld. The young hero, encouraged by a sympathetic teacher (Glenda Jackson as “Miss”) decides to investigate the local power station. The story may have been inspired by the fact there was a nuclear plant at Winfrith Newburgh (1967-90), with radioactive outflow running into Purbeck’s Arish Mell cove (where TE Lawrence had once swum). While it is a convention in children’s films that a plucky lad can always stop a criminal, here the boy pays the ultimate price when he trespasses on the adult world of the conspiracy thriller.
The drama was entirely shot in Purbeck (and Poole Hospital). Locations include Swanage Beach, Seacombe footpath, the Purbeck Hills, St Aldhelm’s Head Coastguard station and lighthouse. The end credits list Swanage Country First School and Hospital, Broadwalk Café, Swanage, Lulworth Ranges, Worbarrow, Worth Matravers, and Durlston Country Park.
Far From The Madding Crowd (1967 dir John Schlesinger MGM)
This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s first major “Wessex” novel uses over 20 regional locations, including several in Purbeck. Bathsheba's sheep pasture scenes were shot on the Encombe estate.
[For a full writeup on its own web-page, see earlier coverage here ]
The Insatiable Mrs Kirsch (Die Unersättliche Mrs. Kirsch)
(dir/ co-scr Ken Russell 1992 Regina Ziegler Filmproducktion / Westdentscher Rundfunk; Channel 4, 1996)
This half-hour comedy was made by Ken Russell in 1992 for a late-night TV “Erotic Tales” series but not shown on C-4 for four years. (Evidently the German backers didn’t think much of the shaggy-dog-story scenario created by Russell and his then new wife, local actress Hetty Baines.) Set and filmed entirely in Purbeck, the plot involves a novelist staying in a seafront ‘grand hotel’ who becomes fascinated by a young blonde female guest, and starts spying on her. Locations include one of Purbeck's seashore-quarries, one or two of Studland's grand resort hotels, Wareham’s tearooms and Rex Cinema, Corfe Castle, and a replica of the Cerne Giant carved into the hillside near Worth Matravers.
Die Liebe ihres Lebens (‘The love of her life’)
(2006 dir Michael Steinke, FP New Media Gmbh/ ZDF)
This is one of a long series of telefeatures adapted for German state TV ZDF from the romance novels and stories of Rosamunde Pilcher OBE (in this case from her story “The Happy Feeling”). As always, it concerns a young woman who arrives on the southwest coast on some family or personal business, and finds romance. Here, she arrives for a weekend with her fiancé at “Rose Cottage”, played by Studland Manor, but meets a local businessman. During her romantic strolls about the countryside we also see Old Harry peninsula, Clavel Tower and the Purbeck Coast Path as well as Studland Church and village. The Dorset seen here is the England of romantic fiction - clean and neat and pretty, and in the full bloom of high summer. This production seems to have been made back-to-back with Und Plotzlich War Es Liebe ("and suddenly there was love"), using some of the same locations.
The Mayor Of Casterbridge
(1978 dir David Giles scr Dennis Potter BBC, 7 x 50 min)
Thomas Hardy’s tragedy of a man who becomes successful only to have his life unravel when a shameful act returns to haunt him. (The “selling” of a wife was an old country practice before divorce laws were amended in Hardy’s own era.) Produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hardy's death, this Dennis Potter adaptation was the BBC's first all-location drama serial. They abandoned their old stagey practise of shooting "classic serials" in an overlit studio, and then cutting in rather grainy 16mm film sequences shot, unlit, on location when it was necessary to show characters travelling. Instead they tried out the method of shooting the entire production with portable video cameras developed for the then-new system being tested in 1978 known as ENG (Electronic News Gathering). Hardy's "Casterbridge" i.e. Dorchester is portrayed by Corfe Castle village (Hardy's "Corvesgate"), plus buildings (including the Scott Arms) at Kingston, Studland and Wareham. The Dorset Shire County Guide 1985 notes re one short scene where Alan Bates walks through a house, "In fact he entered through the door of the Bankes Arms in Corfe but, from the inside, came into a house in Wareham, walked around a room in the Purbeck village of Kingston, and left through the back door of a Studland farmhouse!" The production’s prop tombstone for the fallen ex-mayor, Michael Henchard (Alan Bates), was left behind as a memento at the Scott Arms in Kingston by the crew who stayed there (it's still there, outside the back entrance).
Nuts In May (1976 dir Mike Leigh, BBC-TV)
Purbeck is famous as a camping-holiday area as well as for its stone quarries. Both these aspects are seen in this l976 BBC-TV's comedy telefeature by Mike Leigh, a deadpan satire about a naff do-gooding couple, the Pratts, on a camping weekend. It was described in 1990 by BBC’s Listener magazine as “Leigh’s legendary testament to the unbearable gormlessness of alfresco holidaymaking”. Leigh himself says it is about "a self-righteous vegetarian couple on an unsuccessful camping holiday in Dorset."
Though officially a drama in the BBC’s famous Play For Today series, this was shot entirely on film on location in Purbeck, with many local features discussed as the Pratts hike around, or drive around in their little grey-green Morris Minor coupe convertible. The opening shots show the Sandbanks Ferry; the Pratts explore Corfe Castle; we also see a "Jurassic Coast"quarry (complete with dinosaur footprint) and coast path near both Old Harry Rocks and St Aldhelm's Head; the tank depot at East Lulworth as the Pratts drive down to Stair Hole, Lulworth Cove. The campsite is Woodland Camping Park just outside Corfe, and the local pub seen is the Greyhound Inn at Corfe. The 2nd half of the film focusses mainly on friction with campsite neighbours. (Carry On Camping it's not.)
This black comedy was semi-improvised by Mike Leigh and his principal actors, Roger Sloman (as bossyboots social worker Keith) and Leigh's wife Alison Steadman (as the childlike, folksinging, peace-button-wearing Candace). The inspiration was producer David Rose's own youthful memories of camping holidays in the area. This 82-minute film, just issued on DVD as part of the BBC's 2009 Mike Leigh 6-DVD boxset, still has a cult following. (Rumour has it there is a 40-minutes-longer "uncut" version known as The Plastic Tadpole.) Nuts In May premiered at the National Film Theatre in 1993, where by popular request a showing became an almost annual event.
(US title: Shoot First) (1952 dir Robert Parrish scr Eric Ambler, UA)
Though its principals were A-list movie makers, this is still a Cold-War B thriller, perhaps made like other such postwar films using American stars, to unfreeze US currency assets then held in England by Treasury rules. An American officer (Joel McCrae) who has rented some local "shooting" land fires to scare off a "poacher", and when he finds the man shot dead, feels he must cover up the matter. (Changing the novel's hero from a British officer to an US one for the film makes the story unrealistic as US Forces personnel in fact enjoyed immunity from British law.) The dead man turns out to be a war criminal who is also in a Polish vigilante group's sights, and McCrae then discovers a deserted airstrip nearby being used clandestinely.
Dorset had been utilised in Ww2 to drop agents into Occupied France. Geoffrey Household had set the finale of his classic political thriller Rogue Male in Dorset, suggesting he knew the area personally. The finale shifts the setting to London, but its interest lies in the use of the Dorset heathland as a thriller setting, the film being shot on location here, offering a look at the quiet backroads as they were in 1951-2. The film generated local press interest in 1995 as to its actual locations, which seem to be around East Lulworth, with the Weld estate's wall and east gate posing as the entrance to the County mental hospital.
Voice In The Wilderness
(1954-7 dir Royal Gornold, pr Lady Madeline Lees)
This is probably the most ambitious amateur production made in the area, though its circulation appears limited to church groups since its 1957 TV showing. This ambitious attempt to use local heathland and quarry areas to portray the Holy Land was produced at the instigation of Lady Madeline Lees of South Lytchett Manor, whose announced purpose was "World Peace Through Religious Drama." Having turned the Manor into a Christian commune, she was able to draw on its members for actors, and Lytchett Minster parishioners as extras. She used costumes brought back from the Orient by her late companion, the explorer and mystic Sir Francis Younghusband (buried at Lytchett Minster as he died while at the Manor).
Patrick French's 1994 biography Younghusband notes:
adds, "The films are
remarkably well made considering
the circumstances of their
creation, with crowd scenes
of up to three or four hundred
people. Yet they both bear
an unforeseen but undeniable
resemblance to Monty Python's
Life Of Brian, as men with
funny beards and tea-towels
charge about the Dorset
countryside on Chipperfield
circus camels, singing 'Silent
Night' and pretending they
are in the Holy land.’
It was shown on ITV on completion,
and French's 1994 comments
indicate the film survived.
There was even a sequel,
Northwest Purbeck from Flowers Barrow hill-fort on the coast downs, overlooking Lulworth Castle estate.
|There is also an illustrated web page on Corfe, Swanage and the steam railway line connnecting them on our sister site which covers local heritage, here, and another on Lulworth here. For a map of Purbeck, click here.|
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