theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Fascinating memories from retired British actress-turned television director and producer June Wyndham Davis.
When I achieved my goal of directing a number of well-received television productions, I began to realise that to become a producer was the next step.
A producer is responsible for finding new and interesting material and then acquiring the rights to have the work turned into a screenplay suitable for the great viewing public.
I wanted to bring Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton to the viewing public. Wharton, an American writer never seen on the British screen until I acquired three of her ghost stories, The Lady’s Maids Bell, which was her first, and then Afterward and Bewitched. All three were subtly terrifying! She had apparently not read a ghost story until she was 29 years old, she was much too frightened! Those three stories were part of an anthology of ghost stories I produced called Shades of Darkness.
Following the success of Shades, Peter Eckersley at Granada TV gave me free rein and I acquired the rights in two of Bowen’s novels Death of The Heart and The Heat of the Day. The first to go into production was Death of the Heart. Thankfully it was a huge success so we launched into the second Heat of the Day.
We assembled a splendid cast which included Patricia Hodge, Michael York, Michael Gambon, Peggy Ashcroft and Ann Todd (Seventh Veil and Sound Barrier).
Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and the director was Christopher Morahan. At that time, before going in front of the cameras, we were afforded the luxury of rehearsal time. All seemed to be going well when one morning Ann Todd came to me in tears saying that she had become ‘the whipping boy’ of the director Christopher Morahan, he was well known to do this but little did I think he would choose Ann…She said ‘I love the part and I know I can do a good job but he is terrifying me, I can just about put up with it in rehearsal but not when I’m on the floor in front of the camera’. I reluctantly had to let her go and Heather Chasen took over the role of Michael York’s mother.
Months later I did a three-hour car journey with Peggy Ashcroft, en route to the Aldeburgh festival, who told me she knew it was going on but was too frightened to intervene. Amazing what one man can do to two remarkable high calibre household names. Obviously, I never used him again. Interesting that he only did this with women!
Sitting in my office doing pre-production work on ‘Heat of the Day’ when my production unit manager, the wonderfully efficient Don Bell, rings me to say they are short of a really important location. We were due to start filming the following week so I told him to book me into the hotel, I’m on my way. I grabbed my office toothbrush and the well-thumbed edition of the book and headed for the station. The train was literally pulling out and I fell into my seat. I was alone in the carriage but for a good looking woman, well dressed in her mid-fifties, sitting in the opposite end seat. I opened the book and began to search for any clue that could help me find the setting we needed. Bowen says only that it is near East Grinstead.
I am turning the pages, making notes, going back and fro when the woman begins to laugh, as I look up from the book she says, “Forgive me but you are reading that book in the same way my brother does, are you looking for something?” Realising how odd it must have looked I said, “Yes, I’m trying to find a location that we need to film in next week.”
“Gracious,” she said. “Give it to me, perhaps I can help.” She took the book. “Oh, Elizabeth Bowen, one of my brothers favourite authors.” She read the passage and said, “I know where this is, we live only a village away’.” She then wrote all the information in the endpapers of the book. Also, the name of the Vicar ‘because he will be very helpful, he married off our two daughters and we see him often’.
She went on to say ‘also the pub you need is just opposite the church’. I felt elated and we chatted away as she told me her husband was a member of the School of Heraldry and they’d had a big lunch that day to which she had been invited. I said how grateful I was and took her name and address and said I would telephone and invite her and her husband to have lunch with the film unit when everything was fixed. She was delighted and the train was now pulling into the station, her stop, and she said, “Our stop is next – don’t miss it by falling asleep like my brother often does.” We laughed and I said, “By the way, you never told me your brother’s name.” She was halfway through the door when she said, “Oh he’s a writer, Grahame Greene.” She was gone.
Did I have a tale to tell when Don settled me in at Gravetye Manor, and we found the village early the next morning.
With thanks to June Wyndham Davies for allowing me to post her memories on this blog.
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