By Craig Leask
Great Britain, generally known for gloomy black and white mysteries (think Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper), flowery Jane Austin period pieces, films involving large medieval fortresses, Royal dramas, and – let’s face it – anything to do with Harry Potter. This article looks at films that show off the beauty and brilliance of England, Scotland and Ireland. Not necessarily films that are the most brilliant or are multiple award winners, but those that represent and have been filmed in one of the three countries.
The Quiet Man – Ireland (1952)
In 1933, Director John Ford came across the Saturday Evening Post short story “The Quiet Man” written by Maurice Walsh, which he immediately purchased the rights to for $10. Through discussions with Republic Pictures, after man years Ford had an agreement to proceed with filming based on the condition that Ford direct the film and Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne sign on as leads.
The story follows the arrival of American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) who is returning to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland with plans to settle in and live. Planning on easing into a simple life in the relatively quiet village, Thornton inadvertently gets involved with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), a beautiful but fiery local redhead and her obstinate brother Squire ‘Red’ Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). With plans to follow Ireland’s old-fashioned rules of courtship in pursuing Mary Kate, Sean and Will Danaher end up in an out and out brawl, much to the delight of the betting townsfolk.
The beautifully quaint Irish countryside becomes the backdrop for the long-anticipated battle between the two men, evolving from Danaher’s farm through to the village streets of Innesfree. The entire battle being followed closely by village residents and farmhands, the Reverend and visiting Bishop, train engineers and passengers and the all too accommodating purveyor of Pat Cohan’s Bar. For the film, outdoor scenes were all shot on location in Ireland in County Mayo and County Galway which stood in for the fictitious Innesfree. The set for Pat Cohan’s Bar, which had been constructed within an existing shop on Main Street in the village of Cong, County Mayo, became a real pub in 2008 in which The Quiet Man is shown daily. The fame surrounding the film has made the area into a mecca for fans of the film, including “The Quiet Man Fan Club” which holds its annual general meeting at nearby Ashford Castle.
The Quiet Man was the only film the Republic Pictures studio, which specialized in low budget B-movies, to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The film did however win Oscars for Best Director (Ford) and Best Cinematography (Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout).
Genevieve – England (1953)
What better way to show off a country than in a movie about a cross country vintage car race? Genevieve is that film. A 1953 British comedy produced and directed by Henry Cornelius staring John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan driving Genevieve, a 1904 Darracq , and Kenneth More and Kay Kendall driving a 1905 Spyker, racing from London to Brighton to win wager of £100. The fun begins when the friendly competition gets personal and more serious, leading to a “win at all costs” approach to the race. This naturally involves the exchange of angry words and accusations and a “gloves-off” approach to various forms of cheating, sabotage and police involvement.
In one of those serendipitous moments, the script for Genevieve had originally specified for the two leads to be driving British cars, Alan McKim (Gregson) a Wolseley or Humber, and Ambrose Claverhouse (More) a Lanchester. When the owners of the few qualifying cars were unwilling to rent their automobiles for filming, the French produced Darracq and a Dutch made Spyker were secured. The Darracq (Geneveive) was originally named Annie but was permanently renamed after the film’s success and still participates in the annual London-Brighton Run. When not in the annual rally, both cars remain on display at the Louwman Museum in The Hague.
Although shot entirely in England, for practicality purposes most of the actual race was filmed on roads around England’s Pinewood Studios, rather than on the road to the seaside resort of Brighton as indicated on the screen. The film sets off in London on The Strand in front of the Gothic styled Royal Courts of Justice, which is where Genevieve is first seen, setting up the location, the time period and the impending annual London to Brighton antique car rally. Alan and Wendy McKim (Gregson and Dinah Sheridan) reside at 17 Rutland Mews South, Knightsbridge, a respectable residential conversion of a stable/ coach house. The production company (The Rank Organisation) selected this and many of the other locations to reflect both Alan McKim’s financial position and his passion for his car, Genevieve.
The charm of Genevieve is found in the heartening scenes of the English countryside, the purity of its characters and its scenes which demonstrate British comedy at its finest. Think a drunken Rosalind (Kay Kendall) attempting to play the trumpet in a band, or the brilliant interaction between the McKims and the proprietor (Joyce Grenfell) of a rather dingy (and unidentified) hotel, during which the peculiar rules regarding the availability of hot water are negotiated. Scenes only the British could properly execute. As is typical of life in Britain, many local activities happen in or around a pub. Genevieve takes full advantage of this social activity, providing the films pivotal scenes at many actual establishments. The team takes advantage of stops at the One Pin Pub (established in 1839) on Parish Lane in Hedgerley, Buckinghamshire (demolished in 2010), The Jolly Woodman on Littleworth Road in Burnham where the landlord misdirects one of the drivers, and consume ice cream at The De Burgh Arms on High Street in Yiewsley. The film ends beautifully with a shot of Genevieve in an evening fog as her brakes fail and, under her own power, magically rolls the final few meters onto the Westminster Bridge, winning the £100 bet. So, so British.
Genevieve was nominated by the Academy for Best Original Screenplay (William Rose) and Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Larry Adlers harmonic, uplifting score and won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and National Board of Review award for Top Foreign Film.
Local Hero – Scotland (1983)
Local Hero is about a young and aggressive Houston oil company representative “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) and a quirky Scot, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) who are sent to the fictional Scottish village of Ferness. Collectively, they are tasked with purchasing the Scottish waterfront town from the locals to establish a North Sea oil-refining complex. Whereas many of the locals are eager to accept the company’s generous multi-million-dollar offer, providing them with a chance to escape their hard and physically demanding lives in the remote village, Ben Knox, (Fulton Mackay) becomes the holdout. Ben, a local hermit and beach scavenger, has no need for the money, feeling his simple life brings provides all the happiness he needs. Much to the chagrin of Mac and Danny, they quickly learn that Ben owns the beach he lives on through a grant given to his ancestors, the beach location which is crucial to the redevelopment plans.
The beauty of the film is in witnessing Mac’s evolution from a materialistic Texan yuppie into a man who slowly embraces the simpler things of life, all set to a soundtrack of lazy acoustic guitars and breath-taking Scottish Highlands scenery.
Local Hero was filmed on location throughout Scotland. The fictional Village of Ferness was comprised of several locations: the Village of Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast, and for the beach scenes the villages of Morar and Arisaig on the west coast.
Several hotels were included in the shoot: For the Macaskill Arms hotel, a private home in Pennan was used and for the hotel pub, The Ship Inn in the Village of Banff; Ferness Hotel interiors were filmed in the 1870 Lochailort Inn (in Lochailort). Other locations throughout Scotland’s Highlands include the village shop (The Pole of Itlaw), the village hall in Hilton, the local church exteriors were a small cottage dressed up for the shoot and interiors shot at Our Lady of the Braes Roman Catholic Church in Polnish a few kilometers west of Lochailort. Most importantly, the iconic red phone box used to communicate with head office is located at the beach in Camusdarrach. The popularity of the film led to the phone box’s recent protection under an order by the local preservation authority.
The final images of the helicopter leaving Ferness, ushering Mac back to Houston was filmed above Loch Eilt, passing over the Highlands of Scotland between Lochailort and Glenfinnan beautifully capture the enigmatic and unique scenery of the area.
Scottish director Bill Forsyth won the 1984 BAFTA Award for Best Direction for Local Hero, particularly for his ability to portray the local environment not as something to possess but as a privilege granted to all.
Calendar Girls – England (2003)
Calendar Girls is based on a true story of a group of 11 middle-aged Yorkshire women who, in April 1999, created a home-based naked calendar as a fund raiser for the local Women’s Institute’s support of Leukemia Research. The project, which involves the women of the village posing nude, was conceived following the cancer death of one of their member’s husbands. The attractiveness of Calendar Girls is due predominantly to the stellar ensemble cast, led by Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Julie Walters, but the film’s charm is found in its filming locations throughout the small towns of the English countryside.
The calendar the women propose follows the unimpressive sales of The Women’s Institute’s previous calendars which had featured local bridges and local churches, raising an unimpressive £75.60. Their plan proposes a tasteful “girlie” type calendar, one in which each woman would pose naked with their “naughty bits” concealed behind props. The props would all be indicative of subjects taught by the Women’s Institute (baking, knitting, gardening, music, etc.). Unexpectedly, the calendar became a huge success in England with sales surpassing the million-pound mark, making it the most successful fund-raising campaign the local hospital had ever had. Their success let to worldwide attention, eventually being invited to American to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Los Angeles.
For the film, the actresses were required to be photographed in the buff by professional stills photographer Jaap Buitendijk. Following the filming of the photography scenes, which took a week to complete, a team specializing in digital re-mastering spent an additional four weeks in post-production eradicating all the private bits which were still visible through the strategically placed props in the photos. It was revealed following the shoot that the actors were so supportive of each other, that they ensured bottles of chilled champagne awaited each actress following the completion of their individual nude scenes.
Where the original Calendar Girls resided in the real village of Rylstone, for the film, the girls instead lived in the fictional village of Knapely. The town scenes were filmed in the village of Kettlewell, in North Yorkshire, with filming completed in various charming and atmospheric villages spread throughout the district (Buckden, Burnsall, Conistone, Ilkley, Settle, Linton, Malham, and Skipton).
Calendar Girls, often been compared to British films The Full Monty (1997) and Waking Ned Devine (1998) for their similar situations, typically British wry humor and their simple everyman approach to life’s problems.
The film won the British Comedy Award for Best Comedy Film and received Golden Globe Award nominations for Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Julie Walters.
Shetland – Shetland Islands, Scotland (2013 – )
Based on the novels by award winning and bestselling British author Ann Cleeves (“Red Bones”, “Raven Black”, “Dead Water” and “Blue Lightning”), Shetland follows Detective Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall ) and his team at the Lerwick Police Station as they investigate various murder mysteries within the tightly knit Shetland Island community. The BBC One production, at the time of writing, has its sixth and seventh seasons in production, all filmed on the group of islands (16 inhabited), located 170 kms (110 miles) north of the Scottish mainland.
Aside from the intrigue laden plots, the attractiveness of the series to me is the rugged, inhospitable environment, and the hauntingly beautiful, windswept settings. The Shetland landscape is dramatic, peaceful, isolated and laden with history. The multiple writers and directors have ensured the islands are as important to the story as any of the people.
While each of the stories take place in Shetland where location filming takes place, the balance filming actually occurs on the Scottish mainland, in remote areas which terrain and buildings closely resemble those of the islands, which include: Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, Barrhead, Ayr and Irvine, North Ayrshire.
Shetland filming locations include the island’s main port town of Lerwick, the village of Wester Quarff, Fair Isle and the Hillswick wildlife sanctuary.
Shetland won the 2016 BAFTA Scotland award for Best TV Drama.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) – Directed by Kevin Reynolds. A dramatic take on the classic and well-known tale. Filmed in and around Wardour Castle in Wiltshire and Hulne Priory in Northumberland, Buckinghamshire, Aysgarth Falls in Yorkshire, and Hardraw Force in North Yorkshire.
The Remains of the Day (1993) – Directed by James Ivory. Many years before Downton Abbey (2010), James Ivory created this delightful tale about the evolution of a country house throughout the many changes in history as witnessed by the household staff. Filmed at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, Powderham Castle, Kenton and Corsham Court, Wiltshire.
Waking Ned Devine (1998) – Directed by Kirk Jones. A charming film about what happens to the people in a small town when a local man wins the National Lottery and immediately dies of shock. With the prize winner dead, the entire town bands together to keep the news from lottery officials. Filmed on and around the Isle of Man.
Agnes Brown (1999) – Directed by Anjelica Huston. A film which follows the struggles of a mother of seven upon the death of her husband during the financial crisis in 1967 Dublin. Filmed throughout Dublin and Bray County Wicklow, Ireland.
Notting Hill (1999) – Directed by Roger Michell. A love story between a simple bookstore owner and a famous and beautiful actress. The premise is as unlikely as is the chemistry between the two leads (Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts), but the setting in Notting Hill and other areas in London more than make up for it.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.