The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Spellbound In Darkness

The Purbeck Film Festival’s twelfth season opens this month. Tony Burton-Page tells the story of a remarkable enterprise.

Purbeck Film Festival-The Rex Cinema in Wareham
The Rex Cinema in Wareham is the focus of the festival. Built in 1889 as the Oddfellows Hall, it became a cinema in 1920.

The Purbeck Film Festival proudly boasts that it is the largest and longest-running rural film festival in the UK. The boast is justifiable. From small beginnings in 1996, when a mere three films were shown, the festival has grown to the impressive proportions of last year, when 77 films were on offer. In those early days, there were only two cinemas used; last year, there were 28 different venues in such a wide variety of places that the ‘Purbeck’ of the festival’s name was merely nominal.
The concept of the festival is one of the best ideas ever to have come out of a council chamber. Some dozen years ago, Purbeck DC decided that they needed to extend the tourist season’s ‘shoulder months’ – a surprisingly evocative phrase from the tourist industry referring to that awkward time of potential downturn after the late summer bank holiday and the start of the school term but before the Hallowe’en half-term break. One can imagine the response to the proposal of a film festival as a solution: a startled silence broken only by the sound of jaws dropping onto the table. But it should not really have come as a surprise, as Purbeck’s connections with film go back a long way. The distinctive silhouette of Corfe Castle has appeared in films dating back to at least 1933, and since then Far From the Madding Crowd and Comrades have emerged from Purbeck – not to mention the persistent rumour that second-unit shots for Humphrey Bogart’s The African Queen were filmed among the reeds in the River Frome near Wareham, a delicious idea which, alas, is still awaiting confirmation after more than half a century of uncertainty.

Purbeck Film Festival, Norden park-and-ride
Last year the Norden park-and-ride became a drive-in cinema for an out-of-festival event over the August Bank Holiday weekend

1996 was a good year to start a film festival, as Britain was in the thick of celebrating a hundred years of cinema in this country. It was the right climate in which to apply for a grant, and givers of grants always seem to prefer to subsidise totally new projects rather than recently-established ones – a back-to-front approach, perhaps, but one which turned out well for the Purbeck Film Festival, as it was awarded a large National Lottery Grant. And as is the way with grants, the money had to be spent by a certain time – in this case, three years. In those first three years, there were massive mailings, glamorous brochures and books of film notes.
The first festival certainly looked impressive and wide-ranging. Not only were there films at Purbeck’s two venerable cinemas, Wareham’s Rex and Swanage’s Mowlem, but also live theatre, archive film shows, an exhibition and a celebratory evening at the Purbeck House Hotel including the showing of two John Betjeman made-for-TV films and a sale of Victorian bric-à-brac. Despite this, and despite the highly Dorset-oriented flavour of the three films on offer (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Comrades and Far From the Madding Crowd), the audiences for that first season were tiny, with sometimes only a dozen people turning up for a screening at the Rex. In mitigation, it has to be said that back in 1996 film-going was not as popular a form of entertainment as it has once again become. With a video player, people could watch high-quality images on a decent-sized television screen with excellent sound in the comfort of their own living rooms: why should they pay good money to go to an old cinema with uncomfortable seats, poor sound, unreliable projection equipment and, all too often, noisy neighbours?
The second and third festivals addressed the problem by expanding the range of films on offer – 22 in 1997, 38 in 1998 – and increasing the non-film events: illustrated talks, folk musicals, one-man shows, a flamenco spectacular and a performance by the Yetties. The Dorset flavour was maintained with screenings of Lawrence of Arabia and Wilde (parts of which were filmed in Purbeck).

Purbeck Film Festival,Tony Viney with Sir Bill Cotton
Tony Viney, Chairman of the Purbeck Film Festival, with Sir Bill Cotton, its President, who died in August this year

An important strand in the early festivals was the contribution by Trilith, the Dorset-based film archive charity. They took their ‘Purbeck on Film’ presentation, made up of footage of the local area from home movies by amateurs and professionals, to village halls all over Purbeck and, later, beyond. Although Trilith is no longer a part of the festival, the idea of taking films to isolated communities was always one of the purposes of the Purbeck Film Festival. But in those early days, there were huge logistical problems, not the least of which was the noise of the film projector, which sounded like a machine-gun in the small space of the average village hall. The advent of the DVD has changed all that: a 4½-inch disc is rather more portable than several huge reels of film, and the projectors too are far more compact. So the festival’s list of venues nowadays goes as far north as Bourton and as far west as Chideock; last season the festival went to 24 locations other than the main ones, which are now the cinemas at Lighthouse and Bournemouth University – and, of course, the Rex at Wareham.
The Rex has been a focus of the festival since its inception. It is one of the few independent cinemas in Dorset, and for the last 21 years it has been run by a group of local volunteers. It first showed films in 1920 and until a recent refurbishment it was the last gas-lit cinema in the country. It maintains its old-fashioned charm – the ‘lovers’ seats’ in the back row (designed for two people) were not replaced – but there have been many improvements over the years. The curtains no longer have to be opened by hand, and the Kalee 18 projectors, which were already twenty years old when they were installed in 1965, made way in 2002 for more modern projectors using xenon lamps instead of the temperamental old-style carbon arcs. The Rex is up for sale as we go to press, but a restrictive covenant means that any buyer will have to keep it going as a cinema – excellent news for the festival, which last year showed 31 of its 77 films there.
This year’s festival is not showing quite so many films. This is partly a result of the financial crunch which is affecting most of the developed world and, in particular, those who rely on grants; but it is also a reflection on how difficult it is to organise a film festival.
‘It takes a huge amount of time to deal with some of the less established film distributors,’ says Tony Viney, the present chairman. ‘Often they don’t know what films they’ve got, or they tell you they’ve got it when in fact they haven’t, or they tell you just before you’re about to show it that you can’t show it because they’ve only got the American rights, not the European rights. You can spend months sending emails and getting no replies – or misleading replies, which is worse! So this year we’re only picking films from the lists of established distributors.’
The very fact that this is a rural film festival brings problems of its own. At Stoborough Village Hall, the film stopped dead in its tracks after running exactly an hour for two years in succession. Even more strangely, each time the film concerned starred Scarlett Johansson. On the first occasion, Julie Sharman, festival administrator and heavily pregnant, raced around Purbeck in search of a copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring which would supply the conclusion. The stress almost induced an early birth, but when she arrived at Stoborough with the new copy the audience gave her a rapturous welcome, having been given free drinks to keep them happy during the wait.
A rather more unlikely venue is the Square and Compass, the pub in Worth Matravers which has been run by the Newman family for more than a hundred years. The first time a film was shown there, so many people arrived to see it that one filmgoer sat on the projectionist’s lap – whereupon he decided to sit outside with a pint of cider. The actor Leslie Banks was a friend of the Newmans and his frequent visits to their pub are commemorated by screenings of his films there. Other remarkable venues have included the Bovington Tank Museum for a showing of Saving Private Ryan and the Swanage Sailing Club for Deep Water, the documentary about disturbed yachtsman Donald Crowhurst; and last year the Norden park-and-ride became the venue for the festival’s first-ever drive-in movie, Grease.
This year’s festival includes another showing of Comrades, Bill Douglas’s epic version of the Tolpuddle Martyrs story, half of which was filmed in Dorset, as well as several films starring Greta Garbo, this year’s ‘festival icon’, and a tribute to Sir Bill Cotton, President of the festival since 2004, who died earlier this year. He had always been one of the festival’s staunchest supporters and would have been the first to say ‘The show must go on!’ And it will.

Purbeck Film Festival-Greta Garbo is this year's festival icon
Greta Garbo is this year’s festival icon. The advertising slogan for Ninotchka was ‘Garbo Laughs!’

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