Most of our towns have a Mayor and Council, although they may not have the powers they once had. We all like to see them in their robes on civic occasions, even if it is the local carnival! We may see the Mayor and Deputy, Town Crier, Mace Bearers, etc. In Bridport the Borough Arms were granted in 1623 and the first mace was made in 1676, the second in 1693 and both bear the initials of the Bailiffs of the time and are carried from time to time.
In the 1960s we were living in Devizes, Wiltshire, an even older Borough than Bridport. I was invited to be one of the Mayor’s two High Constables, for an honorary year of office. At first I almost declined, as I was not sure that I wished to parade in ’top hat’ and tailcoat, carrying a silver topped staff, riding in an open topped carriage in the carnival procession, etc. Then I realised that the opportunity would not arise again and agreed. It was a very rewarding year, we visited the local hospitals on Christmas Day and sat on the Bench at Quarter Sessions, always ’protecting’ the Mayor. Another job was to pour and serve sherry at mayoral events.
During the year a film company came to Devizes, from Dorset, to film a few scenes of Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy. They took over the Market Place, centred around the Market Cross, making it look almost like a Wild West scene, with covered wagons, etc. The Market House, (‘The Shambles’), was converted into the infirmary of the ‘Workhouse’, where Fanny Robin was to give birth and die. The Mayor suggested that we invite the cast to a reception at the Town Hall and we waited for half an hour, until a messenger came to say that filming was running late and could we come to see some ‘shooting’ and then they would entertain the Mayor and party in the Bear Hotel. We proceeded to the Corn Exchange, which surprisingly was being used as just that, for the film. We saw the actress, Julie Christie, playing the part of ‘Bathsheba Everdene‘, examine a handful of corn and toss it to the ground, repeated for several takes. We then retired to the Bear Hotel, where an under Producer entertained us and introduced us to Peter Finch, playing ‘Farmer Boldwood‘, but he was not interested in talking to a small town mayor. We had more response from Prunella Ransome, playing ’Fanny Robin’, an up and coming starlet, whose career was sadly cut short. The other actors, Terence Stamp (‘Sergeant Troy’) and Alan Bates (’Gabriel Oak’), were not present. We knew several local people who had ’bit parts’, one a local farmer was reputed to have had his creaking barn door recorded as the sound of the coffin lid being removed. Before turning Devizes into ’Casterbridge’ they had filmed in Dorset and said they were pleased to be away from mud, as it had been a wet season in farmyards and on cliffs, etc!
Some years later when we moved to Dorset I became acquainted with the late Leonard Studley at West Dorset Family History meetings, always smartly dressed, wearing a bow tie. Leonard, a farmer from Hursey, Broadwindsor, wrote a book “My Story”, which includes his becoming a part time actor, playing a Vicar in the same film of “Far from the Madding Crowd”, but actually in Hardy’s Dorset, before they ventured into Wiltshire. He met John Schlesinger, the Director, who asked him to play a drunken old vicar. His first scene was at Sydling-St-Nicholas Church, where he was to await the wagon bearing the body of Fanny Robin, but Hardy had written of fog and the sun broke through, day after day. In the end they failed to film the episode and it was just suggested. Leonard was befriended by the actor Julian Somers, who played ‘Jan Coggan’, the master-shearer and they often drove together to the site. Leonard officiated at Harvest Thanksgiving at the beautiful old parish church at Puddletown, reading the harvest collect and leading the prayers and hymn, ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. The Harvest Supper and Dance was in the old Abbey Barn at Abbotsbury, with food, drink, fiddlers and an ancient accordion. The first day they drank real Dorset farmhouse cider, but it proved too strong for the real actors! Even ‘the Vicar’ had to snore into a microphone and later stagger unsteadily from the barn. Later the venue was Spire Hill House, Stalbridge, for Farmer Boldwood’s Christmas Party. Leonard stood in front of a mock log fire, raising a glass to Boldwood and Bathsheba, saying ‘A very fine wine’, (actually Ribena and water). In the film Boldwood’s front door was filmed at Friar Waddon, before he entered Spire Hill. In the same way I am sure the entrance to St John’s Church in Devizes was spliced in somewhere! Leonard went to the “Premier” in London, in the presence of Princess Margaret and met all the actors and Schlesinger again, but he found his part in the Church had been cut so that all he said was ‘Let us pray’. If you want to know about the sheep over the cliff and how the blood gushed from the chest of Troy when shot by Boldwood, I must ask you to read Leonard’s delightful book. The film was certainly a grand tour of Hardy’s Wessex!
On Tuesday 13th October Bridport History Society will hold it’s A.G.M. followed by “Just how Hardy are you?” from James Graseby, Curator of the Wessex Region National Trust, about Thomas Hardy and the Wessex landscape at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport. Visitors welcome, £2. Details from 01308 488034 or 456876.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.