Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Steve Crook
A Canterbury Tale or two
By: Steve Crook
Well as the others have said - it was a GREAT day.
It started for me at midday on Monday. I drove down in the middle of a terrible storm. The rain was so heavy that nobody was going above 50 mph. Usually it's only sheer weight of traffic that keeps motorists down to that sort of speed here but this time it was because of the VERY poor visibility.
But I got there safe & sound, checked in to The Cathedral Gate Hotel (just above the famous tea rooms) and went for a brief wander round the area.
John & his wife Barbara had only flown in at 6:30 that morning and we were due to meet for the first book signing at 3:30 pm in the Tourist Information Centre. I was a little concerned that they might be jet lagged. But no, they turned up with Sheila bright eyed & bushy tailed, ready to have a good time. I had a word with Barbara later saying that I'd been a bit concerned, but she said they'd both been looking forward to the trip and were determined to make the most of it. I felt her stop before she said "even if it kills us" - because of course we definitely don't want that to happen. John, Barbara, Sheila and Paul
I'd met Sheila (Lady Attenborough) at the Powell Building dedication last year & had phoned her a few times about this week (Oh, we get so blasé about meeting famous people don't we <G>) so just had a "Hello, lovely to see you again, how are you?" type greeting.
Then I turned to John (who I'd also phoned while we were planning this) and those oh so kindly eyes & that smile lit his face. I told him how much we'd all been looking forward to his visit, how even those who couldn't get there wanted to know more about him and that it was a delight to meet him at last.
We then got everybody settled & a kind lady brought us all a cup of tea while they got organised.
The Tourist Information office is off the main high street (in St Margaret's Street) but quite a few people turned up. A lot had already bought the book elsewhere and brought their copies to be signed but they still sold about 20-30 new ones.
During the lulls they signed a few for "stock" and we just all chatted away about various things getting to know each other.
Of course the main topics were really the film itself & what John had been doing since he & Sheila last met.
He really is a lovely man. He is continually fascinated, not surprised exactly but very pleased about the interest in him and of course in the film.
We left the Tourist Office & went back to the County Hotel where they were staying. It turns out that (despite what Powell wrote about everyone staying in Fordwich) they all stayed there when they made the film as well. Sheila couldn't remember which room she had stayed in but asked at the desk if their records went back to 1943 :)
Sadly they didn't.
A convivial glass or two was shared (bought by Sheila) while we waited for the next event.
Ian Christie & a sound recordist from BBC Radio 3 had been touring the area all day, meeting various people involved in the film. They were due to meet us at the hotel at 5:30 for Ian to interview Sheila & John.
All of this is going to be put together as a part of a Chaucer evening Radio 3 are going to broadcast on October 21st (Trafalgar Day).
A segment (30 - 45 mins) will be all about the film & will include all the interviews that Ian did.
But where was Ian? 5:45 and no sign of him.
I told them that vast experience told me that he'd be late ... but would be there. In fact he'd phoned the hotel to say he'd be late but they didn't know where we all were so hadn't told us !!
They turned up at about 6 and we went up to do the interview. I sat quietly in the background listening (& recording it on my dictaphone).
They talked about various things, their memories of specific events (such as Sheila falling on her bum & then knocking over the gatepost on the first day) which are mentioned in the book. They talked about what it was like working for such a driven man as Micky Powell. John said that he'd been fluffing his lines causing a few retakes (which Powell never liked) when they came to the scene on the cart about the letters being lost in the post. John got the whole scene perfect first time. Micky asked hat had made the difference, why had he got that one so right? John said it was because he hadn't had any letters from home himself for a long time :)
They chatted away (led by Ian's questions) for almost an hour so there should be some good material for the BBC. I'll play the dictaphone tape when I get a minute & see what else was mentioned.
Don't forget - October 21st, BBC Radio 3.
In the evening Sheila took John & his family out to dinner so I managed to get an early night & catch up with a bit of sleep.
Tuesday Morning, 7:30.
Up with the lark (well, the lark that doesn't get up too early) and a nice breakfast overlooking the Buttermarket area in front of the Cathedral Gate. (Where the band paraded towards the end of the film)
Checked out of the hotel & got myself organised (slightly) then off to the County Hotel by 9:30 to pick up Sheila, John & Barbara to take them up to the cinema.
I said it had been raining heavily as I drove down to Canterbury, it had been raining heavily all of the day & most of the night as well. (Hence the tree on the line that stopped Nicky's train)
I'd said to Barbara "The thing about English weather is that if you don't like it just wait a while & there'll be a different lot along shortly". Mind you, by the end of the afternoon we were all expecting to see a load of animals walking two by two.
But on Tuesday morning the sun shone and all was well. So we took a slow saunter up the High Street towards the cinema.
Sheila was chatting to Barbara & I was chatting to John, everyone was so engrossed I even forgot to point out sights along the way such as the turning into Rose Lane & the clock on the old St Georges Church that you see in the film while Alison is going to see her caravan.
Across the main ring-road around Canterbury (or rather under it through the pedestrian underpass - an idea that fascinated John who said that he'd never seen one in the States) and into the cinema.
Quite a crowd there already, two camera crews (one from Meridian TV & one from the college) and various other radio & newspaper reporters hoping to grab a quick word.
Paul had set up his stall with the help of a friend from the Albion bookshop (in Mercery Lane) and they had a stack of the ACT books as well as a few videos & other P&P books (Blimp, LaDoaS, Arrows of Desire etc).
Sheila & John had to go back outside so that they could be filmed walking in down the red carpet that had been laid. Red Carpet Treatment
(Shame about the bright light outside)
Then they let the masses in
- and what masses of masses there were too :)
Loads and loads of people, including Nicky Smith, Neal Lofthouse, Lou Volpe, Mark Fuller from Bristol who I'd met at previous P&P events, some of "the boys" and the crew from the film and loads and loads of others.
When I called Paul last night he said that the cinema said that it was about 300 people who'd attended !! Not at all bad for a 57 year old film that didn't make a very big hit when it was first released.
Sheila & John were chatting away to people, signing everything in sight & posing for photographs as everyone milled around the foyer. Gradually everyone drifted into the auditorium where, as Neal related, there were a few words from the Cinema manager, Nick Burton & Paul and then we settled back to watch the film. Mingling and greeting in the cinema
It's the first time I've seen ACT on a "full size" (non-multiplex) screen and yes it was a sheer delight, especially as we were sitting just behind Sheila & John & I could hear them reminisce & snigger occasionally.
I must say though, that whereas the famous shot of the Cathedral Aisle from the steps where Peter goes up to the organ (the steps are in the real Cathedral but the organ isn't there) was marvellous, some of the other shots "inside the Cathedral" had backgrounds that looked rather flat, especially on a full sized screen. But that's being very fussy. Overall, despite the crackles on the soundtrack, it was a wonderful experience.
As the others have said, Sheila was presented with a bouquet of flowers and John was given something that looked bottle shaped but was concealed in a plastic carrier bag (how elegant) - I must ask him what it was. They stood up & took their bows & everyone made their way out.
I waited for them & therefore heard a few of the people who came up to them while they were still in their seats. One lady had been a Land Army Girl so she & Sheila talked about that for a while.
Then it was off to Canterbury Christ Church University College, to the Powell Building (where else?) for a buffet lunch. There were a few more words from Nick Burton and everyone seemed to have a great old time. This wasn't the full 300 that had been at the cinema by the way, just us VIP's (which of course included all the PnP group) :)
Lots of old friends, lots of new friends - aren't P&P people lovely :)
I chatted to the cinema manager & reminded him that a lot of P&P films were just as popular (if not more so) so it might be worth him having a P&P season of some sort. After the turn out we had he said he'll give it some serious thought.
As Nicky said we'd got chatting to Lady Freyberg about the "official" blue plaque for Emeric. She's one of those English ladies who enjoys a good campaign so will be a great asset.
People gradually left the college and wandered down towards to Marlowe Theatre for the last big engagements of the day, the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the fact that ACT had it's "World Premiere" there in 1944.
I thought I had time to go & feed the meter for my car in the car park but luckily Nicky pulled me back on course & we just made it to the Marlowe in time. After the excitement of all the other events the plaque unveiling was a bit of a disappointment. They just had it on a board in the foyer and Sheila & John pulled the string to reveal it - maybe I was getting a little tired by now? :)
[If I was feeling tired, how did John and Sheila survive?]
A plaque in the theatre
(They had just bent down to receive their flowers)
John & Sheila unveil the plaque in the Marlowe Theatre
Photos © Paul Tritton
Sheila & John headed off to the Mayors Parlour but Nicky & I took Lady F. to tea at the tea rooms by the the Cathedral Gate & I perked up again. She had a fund of stories and will definitely be a very useful ally.
We must find out what the procedure is to get the English Heritage blue plaque put up. I mentioned it to Sheila as well and she'll lend her support & enrol Lord Dickie as well.
After tea & scones and lots of lovely chat I gave Lady F. a lift back to the station (Canterbury West) and then, tired but happy, I drove Nicky back to London.
A few other things I've just remembered as I've been scribbling these notes ...
Sheila mentioned that various people had asked if she was related to Alastair Sim (she isn't) she said she wishes she had been because he was a lovely man. We chatted about what we all liked best about him & I told her about the biography written by his widow, Naomi (Dance and Skylark). I mentioned that they'd worked together once which led onto Sheila & Lord Dickie working together in The Guinea Pig (1948) - but not as husband & wife.
BTW I've just checked the IMDb & it says Sheila was "nursemaid" in The Magic Box (1951), Richard was in that as well. Odd that neither of us remembered.
At the end of the Radio 3 interview the BBC man had asked if there was anything they wanted to add that Ian hadn't asked & John said he wanted to disabuse anyone of the idea that film work was at all glamorous. He said it's 95% boredom while you wait for everything to get ready & then 5% of frantic activity where you think you're never going to get it right & you're afraid you'll let everyone else down.
Sheila then came back with a story about how when Dickie had been making Shadowlands (1993) she'd often seen Tony Hopkins come out all ready for a really emotional piece but then something technical would be wrong & he'd have to wait for an hour or two.
Afterwards I mentioned to Sheila how it had taken me nearly a year to pluck up the courage to see that film - I was afraid it might disappoint me as I'd been a Lewis fan all my life (brought up in Narnia) and had seen the Nigel Hawthorne / Jane Lapotaire version on stage. Any film would be hard to live up to that. I finally did see the film. It wasn't as moving as the stage version but it was very good.
John is a real sweetheart, a fascinating man with an interest in just about everything. And the few subjects that he doesn't already know something about he's more than willing to learn.
Right, I must go home now & get some kip.
Tomorrow, John Clark (the boy on the bricks at the woodyard) will pick up John & Barbara from their hotel & Paul & I will meet him in Fordwich at 11 am.
See report of how we took John back around the locations.
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