Tarka the Otter: the film & the opera
(A Tor Films Production for the Rank Organisation)
In 1971 David Cobham, a film director of considerable repute, was making The Vanishing Hedgerows, a film about the then current drastic farming methods featuring HW and his Norfolk Farm, for BBC television (first screened in August 1972). During the course of this filming, the two men discussed the idea of making a film of Tarka the Otter, to be made by the famous Rank Film Corporation under David’s own directorship.
HW had always resisted such a film, even (especially) a most lucrative approach from Walt Disney. He had been approached before by film companies – on 4 November 1947, for example, he and Ann Thomas had travelled to London where he met with a film producer from Random Films to discuss a proposed film; and later that same month, on 24 November, HW was again in London to see a representative from World Wide Pictures (this company was established in 1942; its origins were in the British Documentary Movement founded by John Grierson in the 1930s, producing propaganda and information films for the Government during the Second World War). It may be that Random Films was a subsidiary company. In any event HW was very involved on work for that project over a considerable period of time, even to the extent of investigating a composer for the music, for on 13 March 1948 HW wrote to the composer Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh about the proposed Tarka film, sending a copy of the book. There are no other details available, unfortunately – but presumably the suggestion would have been that Britten should write the score. Richard Williamson remembers that HW had attended a concert by Britten and Peter Pears at Bury St Edmunds while living at Botesdale (the same night that young Richard had listened to a broadcast of James Elroy Flecker's Hassan on the radio – music also by Benjamin Britten). There is a 1947 letter from Britten in the archive (now at Exeter University) which I had previously thought referred to The Phasian Bird, but which obviously is actually to do with this Tarka proposal. In the end it all came to naught.
Now, however, more than twenty years later, HW found David Cobham most sympathetic to his ideals and agreed to a film, as long as it faithfully followed the book itself; he was only prepared to allow such a film to be made under those conditions.
When filming The Vanishing Hedgerows was completed (at the end of June 1971) Cobham asked HW to prepare a ‘treatment’ (a working synopsis, preparatory to filming) for the proposed Tarka film. HW wrote to say he would like a break and would begin this in the autumn; but of course he did start working on it straight away.
A treatment script for a film actually needs to be terse and taut: with headings giving the barest information of plot, location, and dialogue. Perhaps he did not know what was expected, but in any case it was not a style that HW was used to!
From the very start HW’s own idea for the film was far wider than the actual book itself. He envisaged it as the story of the life of Phillip Maddison (the main character of the whole of his Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novel sequence) from post-WWI, starting in Folkestone 1919 (where HW himself had been stationed immediately after the end of the war), and including Phillip’s marriage to Barley; an otter cub found while on their honeymoon in France; the birth of their son and Barley’s death; Phillip’s remarriage to Lucy, and writing his otter book, which is awarded the Grasmere Prize for Literature (as the Hawthornden is called in the Chronicle). HW was in fact re-writing – and expanding – a novel incorporating several of his previous books.
But it is interestingly significant, I feel, that he set the opening of this film in what was still virtually a war scene – Folkestone in early 1919: thus reinforcing the connection of Tarka with the First World War.
Although very busy with various other writing projects (including The Scandaroon, his last book published by Macdonald in 1972) and beginning to feel very tired (he was approaching eighty), HW worked quite frantically on various versions of this script. By 1973 his treatment was about 180,000 words in length and incorporated more and more material that had nothing to do with Tarka itself. Eventually David Cobham had to tell him that it was no good for the purpose of the film and that he had decided to do the work himself, with the help of Gerald Durrell, himself a well-known writer and famous as a pioneer of a wild-life zoo.
These examples of the title-page and a page near the end of his treatment show just how complicated it had all become for HW:
HW was very downhearted. He further learnt that one of the ‘angels’ (the term used for people who put up money for film-making) was John Coast, who had been briefly and very unsuccessfully employed on the Norfolk Farm, but was by then a successful entrepreneur. This added to his despondency.
This was the beginning of the end for HW. His power began to weaken, he became forgetful and extremely querulous and agitated: classic symptoms (although we did not realise this) of approaching senility. Soon after his eightieth birthday in December 1975 he was unable to look after himself, and by the time filming began he was in a home in the care of monks and was unaware of this momentous event.
Making such a film with all the main characters being animals was a very complex business. It is to the great credit to David Cobham that it was achieved. Otters from Philip Wayre’s Otter Trust in Norfolk were trained with great patience. Tame owls were also used. The Kendal Otter Hunt were brought down from the Lake District – although in the film the Hunt Master had to be played by an actor and the real Hunt Master was a mere whipper-in. Boatman, the dog chosen to be the fierce hound Deadlock, was the most placid and sloppiest dog ever, and had to be quite vigorously encouraged to make him act viciously! He was known as ‘Deadloss’ by everyone!
Cobham filmed with extraordinary care: much of the action was filmed in Norfolk; a special pond was built for the underwater scenes; the snow scenes in Scotland (though snow was scarce that year and so a great worry!) – but all the main actual hunting scenes were authentically filmed in their actual location in north Devon in the summer of 1977. An artificial ‘holt’ (the name for an otter’s resting place in the river-bank) was made for ease of filming.
These examples of the last two pages of the shooting script show just how far HW had strayed from what Cobham had required:
HW’s son Richard and myself, together with our two children, were invited to spend our summer holidays watching the filming and advising on points of Hunt etiquette if necessary; indeed we became ‘extras’ and so were fully involved. HW’s first wife, Loetitia (Gipsy), who herself had been involved in the original Cheriton Hunt, also came down to stay nearby and watched the filming most days – again giving advice on points of Hunt etiquette. Filming went on all day and every day. Hounds and otters never met on set (that would have been asking too much of their good behaviour!) – but you would never realise that from the film.
Shooting the final scene near Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Torrington, North Devon. David
Cobham is left centre, with arms on hips. 'Deadlock' is being held out of shot behind the artificial holt (as
he has just supposedly been drowned). The Master of the Hunt is peering into the water to try to see what
is happening to Deadlock and Tarka; and he then drags out the dead hound.
Each evening the ‘rushes’ of the day’s work were shown on a screen in the cinema at Torrington, HQ for the film crew: the work was coming together.
The scenes for the ‘Last hunt’ and the final scene of Tarka’s death were very carefully set up. Filming the scene took all day, but finally David called a ‘wrap’ – that is, filming over for the day. A message awaited us as we returned to our tent: HW was fading. By morning we heard he had died. And later in the day this was being announced on the BBC news, with a tribute.
So HW died, by one of those strange occurrences, on the very day, 13 August 1977, that the crew filmed the death of Tarka. Henry and Tarka went out together on the ebb tide of the ‘sea-going waters of life’ (the last line of Tarka).
It was an extremely moving occasion.
The finished film was first screened in 1979, narrated by Peter Ustinov. It does indeed follow the book quite faithfully: all the scenes and characters accord to HW’s vision. The film has been shown repeatedly on television, was made into a video and is currently available on DVD.
With music by Stephen McNeff, libretto by Richard Williams, the opera was commissioned by John and Penny Adie of The Two Moors Festival. This magnificent interpretation was premiered at Rosemoor RHS Garden (Torrington, Devon) in October 2006. The premier was attended by members of the Williamson family and about forty members of the Henry Williamson Society.
The simple stage was an undulating board walk, along and around which all the action took place.
Thomas Guthrie sang/acted the part of HW as a traumatised First World War soldier then writing this great book: Kathryn Harris was an amazing Old Nog the Heron, with a headdress of frightening rapacity and an adopted ‘heron’ stalking walk. The Huntmaster and the Owl doubled as two very inept poachers (who added a touch of humour). Tarka was a silent creature of sinuous dance movement constantly twisting over and under the board walk stage. Local schoolchildren were given workshops over a long period of time and took the major parts of Halcyon the Kingfisher, Deadlock the Hound, Swallows arriving in Spring, and many other set pieces.
Stephen McNeff’s score with some complicated tympani and rippling harp fully explored the idea of water in all its facets, and the libretto faithfully followed the book, but bringing to the fore its hidden symbolism of war.
Some of the costume and set sketches: