The Vanishing Hedgerows

 

 

THE VANISHING HEDGEROWS 
 

with Henry Williamson

 

 

hedge video    

Videocassette cover

HWS, 1997

 

The background

 

The film

 

The music

 

Press notices

 

Appendix: archive material concerning the film

 

 

Written and narrated by Henry Williamson

Produced by David Cobham

Shown on Sunday, 20 August 1972

Length: 50 minutes

 

VHS videocassette. HWS, 1997, under licence from the BBC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The background:

 

In May 1969 HW received following letter:

 

 

hedge cobham690512

 

 

('The Green Desert' had been published during the month before this letter was written, in the Daily Telegraph Magazine for 18 April 1969; it was reprinted in HWS Journal No. 10, October 1984. The saga of the film treatment that Cobham remembered being mentioned in The Story of a Norfolk Farm is comprehensively detailed in the web page 'Immortal Corn'.)

 

A further letter arrived at the beginning of December: the project now has a title, 'THE VANISHING HEDGEROWS', and David Cobham reports that the BBC are enthusiastic and have authorised him to offer HW a Treatment fee of 250 guineas and suggesting they meet to discuss this further.

 

On 12 January 1970 HW noted in his diary that he has been contacted by the film producer David Cobham to write a treatment for film The Vanishing Hedgerows for 250 guineas commissioned by the BBC. David Cobham (1930–2018) was a UK film producer and director, mainly of programmes involving animals for children. He is best known perhaps for his film about Donald Campbell's land speed record attempt at Utah in 1960, and for the full-length Rank film of Tarka the Otter, 1979.

 

At this point in his personal life HW is in emotional turmoil over Anna Cash, as this friendship has now come to an end.

 

23 January 1970 (in London): Met film producer David Cobham . . . accepted £250 for treatment for The Vanishing Hedgerows, plus expenses to write it in London at the Nat. Lib. Club [National Liberal Club].

 

16 February (in London): Called at David Cobham's Studio in Oxford Street & took away large foolscap envelope with heavy data re Pollution, Conservation, etc, for the film treatment of “The Vanished Hedges”.

I was appalled; Haig and Hedgerow – frantic, fearful, morbid.

I simply can't work for such Officialese Data / Govt. Department Prose.

Start my 'Treatment' today.

Expenses to be paid by BBC: Bed & Breakfast £2/5/-

Lunch & dinner £2/-/-

 

(The reference to 'Haig' is to an 'Introduction' he had been asked to write for a commemorative volume on Field Marshal Haig: for which again he had been given masses of 'official' information: see 'Reflections on the Death of a Field Marshal'.)

 

HW ensconced himself at his club and got on with the work.

 

20 February: A letter from DC's secretary states that a cheque for £125 sent – the remainder to be paid when the BBC have accepted the Treatment.

 

25 February: Took Film Treatment (Pollution, Spraying etc) to David Cobham . . . Wrong, most of it. It is intended to cover Britain ONLY: & not the world. I said I'd recast it to his requirement if he sent old script to Devon.

 

27 February: Working on the 'Treatment' for The Vanishing Hedgerows. I find it difficult. I am Henry Williamson and used to writing in response to what H.W. sees / feels / knows. . . . Yet I promised to do it. I like David Cobham (who is 1st Class) so I'll do my best. [Notes that if he fails he won't accept any payment.]

 

On his return to Devon he found a letter from David Cobham enclosing his original typescript of 'Hedges' with comments.

 

6 March: Tried to do new version of Hedges. Felt awful. This isn't my style of writing. Hatched out something. David Cobham's letter most kind & constructive.

 

7 March: Wrote desperately, a revised Treatment.

 

11 March: Continuing revised expanded Hedgerows.

 

The following day he notes that he'll soon be finished and will then be free to begin the work on the Haig 'Introduction' (he used the word 'portrait'). However he received a letter from Dawyck Haig (son of the Field Marshal) to say they had now arranged for someone else to do the Introduction. HW then finished the work on the 'Hedgerows' treatment and took it down to Liz Cummings in Cornwall to be typed.

 

A whole year then passes before the next mention of the proposed film in his diary; but see the Appendix which gives further details about all the preparatory work on the film.

 

2 March 1971 (HW in London and dealing with his last book, The Scandaroon, and seeing his Agent): 4 pm called at Falconberg House, in a sort of slum by Charing X Road & saw David Cobham. He gave me a shooting script of the Vanishing Hedgerows and a cheque for £75. I am to film end of March at Old Hall. Told me the farmer was now a Mr. Pearson – son of that old crook (now dead) . . .

 

The following day his Agents (A. M. Heath) explained his fee for Vanishing Hedgerows: HW had had £250 and expenses for the script and further smaller sums for revision work (hence the £75 above), and would receive £800 for filming and a further sum for his '4th Revision'. On 20 March he travelled on to his son Robert's in Essex, who drove him up to Walsingham in Norfolk, where the camera crew had their base at the Black Lion hotel. HW was not looking forward to the filming – nor to returning to the Norfolk Farm.

 

22 March: The Vanishing Hedgerows started being filmed this morning. I don't appear until tomorrow. Very cold wind. Immense steel bulldozer pushing over 50 years of thorns and one large holly. This tree’s fall was tragic – leaves glistening, the sap going up, the tree straight and optimistic: & the steel mouth pushing it over, while it moved upright, again and again, the wounds on its trunk – big scrapings of bark – continued. It was sad to see it, while cameras focus'd, & the bulldozer tried again & again to rip up all roots - & then it was on its side, and a startled rabbit looking up from the clot of roots. . . . tomorrow we go to Old Hall Farm Stiffkey – much against my feelings.

 

23 March: We left . . . for Stiffkey. The road I made to the Corn Barn [in late 1930s] was still there, tho' covered with mud . . . I met my old 'cowman' youth of 15 or so, of 1945–6 – Douglas Jordan, now a mature man & such a good one. He 'made my day'.

 

But HW was cold and weary: '& couldn't repeat my lines while being filmed.'

 

The next day he was driven to Norwich and then train back to Colchester, and later continued his way home via London to Devon. David Cobham wrote on 5 April:

 

I have seen the rushes, some are very good, particularly the scene with Douglas [Jordan], others could be improved and I have an idea how we can do this.

 

He asks if HW could return to Norfolk for 12/13 June for further filming, and that he would like to film at Ox's Cross for one day on 19 June. He also wanted to know what car HW had had when he first went to farm – to see if he could find a similar one to use as a 'flashback'. HW has written alongside this:

 

Silver Eagle ALVIS DR 6084: appeared in mint condition Sheffield in a Motorsport article 4-5 years ago.

 

So on 11 June he repeated the journey via Robert in Essex, arriving at Walsingham for 'dinner with David Cobham & his myrmidons' [i.e. the camera crew].

 

12 June: To Old Hall Farm. Shot scene at river bridge, & the ruinous Sluice Gate I put in, new, with concrete etc in 1945. Swallows. Dull day. Much waiting to photograph an unseen (by me) partridge sitting tight on nearly-hatched eggs in a thistle clump (3 ft high) on Spong Common. I couldn't see it. I saw the cock bird on Spong Breck, watching . . . [In describing this for the film HW said 'nettles' instead of 'thistles' more than once, to his chagrin, but DC said it could be sorted later.]

 

Before this they were at the bridge, below Camping Hill, photographing swallows. . . . In 1946 I put in a new 'hatch' to lead in water from river to the grupps between meadows – dykes – & it is now smashed. Never used! Robert W. spoke some words as he peered by the hatch: & I approached on the river bank. It took 2–3 hours. David most patient: I cold & exhausted.

 

HW returned to London on 14 June, dealing with the current emotional complication, and then continuing on to Devon on 19 June where on arrival at the Field at lunch-time he found David Cobham and the film crew already there.

 

Filming was easy, tho' prolonged. Ended 5 pm & said goodbye to the 4 cars. Rather sad.

 

The next day he noted he was tired: 'My age has caught up on me.'

 

 

hedge 2 HW DC filming Hut

HW and David Cobham in the Writing Hut

(cameraman in the background)

 

 

DC wrote again 19 October with notes for further filming:

 

 

hedge cobham711019

 

 

So on 3 November HW went by train up to Norwich. Richard and I and our two young children were spending the school autumn half-term visiting the two grannies, who both lived in nearby Bungay. Richard was already in North Norfolk visiting a friend. It had been arranged therefore that I would meet HW, and so (with considerable trepidation!) in our 1948 vintage TA14 Alvis Coupe I collected him and drove him up to North Norfolk to rendezvous first with Richard and then on to meet David Cobham for dinner at Walsingham. We then returned to Bungay.

 

The next day HW filmed at Old Hall Farm:

 

. . . horses, the granary 'home' of 1937 winter, & also on the Hall Hills, then at edge Spong Breck which looked beautiful with autumn foliage afar & the faint beyond sea. I was distressed by fear of forgetting my lines. Many 'takes' were made.

 

'Lump' Jordan was his good self. Also I saw his poor uncle [Norman Jordan], my man 1937–45, who is ill. He was much affected, I held his hand, felt love for him.

 

That night HW and DC discussed the proposed Tarka film. Filming continued the next morning:

 

6 November: hedges being bulldozed up, using corners of the big 'shovel' or propelled 'scoop' – like one half of a razor shell – some 10 miles from Norwich. I was driven there in the car loaded with equipment, & round and about narrow lanes – to my dread, going far too fast.

 

(I am glad to note that there are no adverse comments about my own driving two days previously!)

 

Filming over, again with difficulties over HW remembering his lines, HW was taken to Norwich railway station to catch the London train. There is of course no hint of any of these problems in the finished film. As always, HW comes over as a highly sympathetic, powerful, and charismatic figure.

 

Stopping off at Robert's, he started to worry about the commitment of the proposed Tarka film. Indeed this did in due course become a big problem. HW's script for it became a hugely unwieldy affair, bringing in everything he had ever written. It could not be filmed and had to be abandoned. David Cobham wanted a straightforward film of the book.

 

In the new year there was further work on the film for the 'voice-over’. HW again travelled to London, in low spirits over problems with yet another young lady.

 

26 January 1972: Met DC at 12.30 with my revised Voice Over script which ends Hedgerows BBC TV film.

 

At lunch (very expensive but poor according to HW's diary: he had a virtually uneatable halibut steak, mostly bone and little fish, for which they 'had the nerve to price this rubbish at £1.25'), he 'declaimed the treatment' of the otter film – the opening scene was already well beyond the actual story of Tarka. He noticed Cobham seemed a little taken aback.

 

The next morning he took the Hedgerows script to Cobham's Studio in Falconberg Mews and proceeded to the Blind Talking Library to record the essay he had written for the Duke of Edinburgh's 70th Birthday (see the entry for The Twelfth Man): 'It took about 20 minutes, & was a success, I was told.'

 

On 9 March HW left home at '6.58 am' (HW always gives these very precise times) to catch a train from Taunton for London where he was to be at Cobham's Studio at 3 p.m. for recording for Hedgerows. Lunching at his Club he then fell asleep and was awakened at 5 p.m. with a telephone message:

 

the studio had waited since 3 pm for me. I hurried thither, made my apologies,& recorded the few words.

 

(It was actually more than 'a few words': the voice-over script is twelve pages long.)

 

On 13 June HW again went to London to meet Cobham for a showing of The Vanishing Hedgerows.

 

It was in colour and magnificent. I gave it full marks; despite HW on film – slowed-down voice, and white unruly hair – I didn't like to see these marks of Old Age . . .

 

I congratulated D.C. on a first class performance.

 

HW then went on to the offices of Macdonald, where he was shown a jacket for The Scandaroon: 'I liked it, & was very pleased.'

 

He returned to Devon on 16 June – giving a talk at the 'Lobster Pot' in Instow that evening! He noted:

 

I must return to London on Monday 19 June . . . to go to Norwich for the night with Robert Lacey who is to write 1000 words on H.W. for Radio Times, plus colour photographs . . . The Old Hall Farm at Stiffkey is up for sale.

 

And so three days later, on Monday, 19 June, HW travelled back up to London, again from Taunton railway station, and was met at the National Liberal club by a Radio Times photographer, who drove him on to Norwich. The next day they went on to Stiffkey, calling on 'Holly and Mossy' (the Hollingsworths, friends of HW from his Norfolk Farm days), then on to Old Hall Farm 'and many photographs'. He saw both 'Lump' Jordan and Pearson. Then at 4 p.m. on to Wells and Fakenham and the train back to London; and the next day back to Devon.

 

On 10 August, driven by Robert who had been staying at HW's Field doing some work there, it was back to London again to attend a 'Preview' showing of the film.

 

3 pm at DC's Falconberg Court Studio . . . to see Margie and Ben, & bearded Rikky with Anne & 'Brent' and his little sister. Also D. Cobham & Gipsy – and there we all were!

 

They liked Hedgerows: I'd seen it all before.

 

Afterwards we all went back to his daughter Margaret's house in Barnes for tea and the men went off to a pub for a drink. The family then dispersed and HW returned to Devon the following day.

 

The Vanishing Hedgerows was broadcast on BBC 2 the evening of 20 August 1972. HW invited a small group of friends to his Ilfracombe house (having previously bought a colour television for the occasion) – ten guests altogether:

 

The party was a success. They liked the film. I didn't like myself – too much white hair & moustache; weak voice – uncertain delivery. The scenes I liked best were natural history shots of partridges, herons, otters, finches, etc.

 

The film was something of a landmark, being an early pioneer in promoting nature conservation, and the issues it raised are still relevant today: so that one feels, 'When will they ever learn?' (As indeed one also does with the issues that HW raises regarding war.) Coupled with his work with the World Wildlife Fund, especially his three-part article series 'Save the Innocents', printed in the Daily Express to coincide with the 1970 World Wildlife Fund Congress, attended by many of the crowned heads of Europe, it gave HW a considerable name within the nature conservation movement.

 

(‘Save the Innocents’ is reprinted in Days of Wonder, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1987; e-book 2013.)

 

 

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The film:

 

The Vanishing Hedgerows was listed in the Radio Times dated 17 August 1972, both in its programme schedule for Sunday, 20 August, and as a feature on pages 8 and 9:

 

 

hedgerows radio times4

 

 

hedgerows radio times5

 

 

hedgerows radio times1a photo Gordon Moore

 

 

(The page-length photograph is by Gordon Moore.) The complete article, enlarged for legibility, is below:

 

 

hedgerows radio times2

 

hedgerows radio times3

 

 

Rather than attempt a synopsis of the film, which is at once elegiac and a passionate plea for change in current farming practices – chiefly the ripping out of hedgerows to create larger fields, spraying with toxic chemicals and the burning of stubble (not effectively banned until 1993) – all of which were detrimental to wildlife, the nature of its content can be gleaned from a reading of the documents given in the Appendix, which include extracts from the various draft film treatments written by HW.

 

 

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The music:

 

No credit is given in the Radio Times to the composer of the music, which played an important role in the film. It was composed especially for The Vanishing Hedgerows by the young British composer Paul Lewis. Then aged 29, Lewis had been composing for television since he was 20; he has also written music for films and pieces for concert performance. When the HWS was preparing to issue its videocassette recording of The Vanishing Hedgerows, Lewis wrote in a letter dated 14 February 1997:

 

I am delighted that you are releasing the programme on video. . . . The film haunts me to this day, both for its visual images & for the opinions of HW with which I found myself in total sympathy. I decided to compose the music in a wistful English pastoral vein with the express purpose of evoking in the viewer a nostalgia for a vanishing rural scene, in order to underline the message of the commentary.

 

I know full well that the film is . . . still well remembered. A few years ago I composed my "Norfolk Concerto" for flute, harp & strings. . . . The first movement of the concerto – "Rhapsody" – is entirely based on the "Vanishing Hedgerows" score; the other movements contain music with Norfolk connections. At the 2 performances I have conducted myself, I have spoken to the audience of the film & of the way I used the music in it, and I have had members of the audience come up to me afterwards & say that they remember it well, & in one case the music also as soon as it began. Not bad after 20 years!

 

Paul Lewis subsequently contributed an article on the writing of the music to the HWS Journal: 'The Vanishing Hedgerows: Reflections on a Musical Theme' (HWSJ 33, September 1997).

 

 

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Press notices:

 

 

Curiously, perhaps, there are very few press notices for the film in the Literary Archive. These are given below:

 

Warrington Guardian (reviewer unknown), 25 August 1972:

 

hedge review1

 

 

Source unknown:

 

hedge review2

 

 

Western Mail (Gwyn Thomas), date unknown:

 

hedge review4

 

 

Eastern Daily Press (reviewer unknown), 21 August 1972:

 

Norfolk farming days of old

 

For ten years, Henry Williamson, whose most famous book is "Tarka the Otter", farmed in Norfolk. Last night, on BBC-2, in "The Vanishing Hedgerows", he looked back on that time, with a writer's and a countryman's eye.

 

It was a delightful programme, written and spoken by Henry Williamson himself. A mixture of reminiscence about the run-down farm at Stiffkey – which he bought for £8 an acre and worked into good shape – lovely pictures of farming activity with horse and plough, and marvellous glimpses of Norfolk wildlife.

 

Sometimes Henry Williamson related an incident of 25 years ago, or read a passage from one of his books – and there was a film shot that illustrated it perfectly. It was beautifully done, and the credits showed that the work of a number of Norfolk wildlife photographers had helped to give the programme its many moments of charm and pleasure.

 

A real love of the countryside and intense feeling for it still was revealed in almost everything Mr. Williamson showed and talked about. Particularly was he concerned  about the way that modern methods can put wild-life at risk. Only for rabbits and pigeons was he unable to find a kind word, and as an ex-farmer he could not tolerate their depradations.

 

A most enjoyable programme.

 

 

The Listener (John Carey), 31 August 1972:

 

hedge review5

 

 

 

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Go to the Appendix

 

 

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Back to 'A Life's Work'

 

 

 

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