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The Titfield Thunderbolt is an Ealing comedy classic. Filmed locally,it was the big event of the summer of `52.
Sheena Broadhead has written the following for the Bath Chronicle
As corrected by Chris Blezzard (March 2007)
LOCAL people of a certain age may well have fond memories of the classic Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The film was shot on location in several villages around Bath, including Freshford, Limpley Stoke, Midford and Monkton Combe, in the summer of 1952.
It tells the story of how a group of villagers fight to retain and operate their local railway line when it is threatened with closure. Local bus company Pearce and Crump, competes with the railway using a Bedford coach hired from a Winsley garage.
After much speculation about the 'strange goings-on' in Limpley Stoke in the summer of 1952, a Bath Herald front page headline of June 14th announced that picturesque Monkton Combe was now 'Titfield' for film project. The Great Western Railway's Camerton to Limpley Stoke branch line, which had closed two years earlier, was chosen as a suitable location for the home of the Thunderbolt.
Many local people, from schoolboys to professional railway staff, took part during the eight weeks of filming in June and July that year; whilst some of the film's stars, Stanley Holloway, John Gregson and Sid James, who had moved into nearby hotels and guest houses for the duration, could often be seen chatting to locals.
Most of the 'Titfield' village scenes were shot in Freshford and 50 years on, many of the locations can still be recognised today including Mary Stanhope's house.
Mary explained: "I inherited some photographs taken during filming from a Mrs Lane, who lived in the house when we bought it in 1974. She felt it was very important that these unique photos and letters from Ealing Studios remained with whomever owned the house as part of its history
"It's a fascinating record of a film made in the village, that was very important to the whole community. These pictures show many of the people who lived in Freshford at the time and are a part of the cultural heritage of the village. "The house was used for storing equipment and also for filming a shot of Mr Valentine, played by Stanley Holloway, coming out of the front door as he leaves to catch the train. He can be seen picking a rose from a bush that we had in the front garden for many years. He then walks up the front steps before turning to look at his wife, played by Mrs Morris, who calls out to him from an upstairs window"
Gordon Dando, owner of
Dando Antiques in Bath for many years, can still vividly recall his involvement
in the film. Back in 1952, he was a member of Bath Young Conservatives drama
Local drama groups had been approached by the film company, which were looking for people to take part in crowd scenes. 'My friend Gerald Deacon and I worked together in my father's shop and we both volunteered, along with a number of people from the drama group. I particularly relished the idea of taking part because of my interest in railways', Gordon recalled. 'We were invited to go along on this particular day for a scene which was to be filmed on The Hill in Freshford. Gerald and I both appeared as touring cyclists visiting the station to see the villagers taking over the railway. Our job was to stand on the hill and wait for our orders to move down. Stanley Holloway was standing near to us and I chatted to him. He was a jolly fellow who liked telling stories'.
Thunderbolt, directed by British cinema veteran Charles Crichton, was the first of the Ealing comedies to be filmed in Technicolor and colour film required near-perfect weather conditions in those days. Ideally, it should have been bright and sunny but, being a typical English summer's day; the sun kept disappearing behind clouds.
"We'd ride down the hill," Gordon continued, " the director would shout 'Cut !' and we'd have to wait for the sun to come out and then go back and do it all over again.
This bit of film took the best part of an hour-and-a half. When we eventually got to the bottom of the hill, we all moved on to the station. We were only in that one scene, for which we were paid a very small amount, but of course we took an interest in the rest of the film because we knew so many people who were in it, as a lot of the roles were played by extras."
June Massey from Hinton
Charterhouse, remembers her family's involvement in the film. Her father, Philip,
who died several years ago, was a teacher at Bath College at the time and a
successful local artist. June said: "We lived in Limpley Stoke and I can
remember the family walking along the railway line to Monkton Combe to watch
the filming taking place. My father was offered a role as an extra and was even
invited to Ealing Studios in London to help with the film's finishing touches."
Such was Mr Massey's talent as an artist that he was asked to do some painting
by the film company, with one of his illustrations being used in the film. June
continued: "My sister and I were also in the film. We were shown in a horse
and cart travelling down Brassknocker Hill, as well as running through Freshford
with lots of other children. "My father was very involved and got to know
all the stars. I had all their autographs and can even remember playing with
Stanley Holloway's son. When we weren't taking part ourselves, we would go along
to watch every day, for the whole summer. I think the film did a lot of good
for the village because everyone got to know each other. My parents had five
children at the time and my father promised us a holiday with the money he'd
earnt as an extra"
Following his successful, appearance in Thunderbolt, June's father was offered a role in another British cinema classic, 'The Cruel Sea' which he declined due to family commitments.
Keith Johnson, proprietor of The Lodge Hotel at Bathford, had just been demobbed from the Army in 1952, following National Service. "I read about the film in the local paper and went along to Midford, just to watch and maybe take part in the crowd scenes. Then a woman from the film company came up to me and asked if I was one of the extras, so I said I was. l was paid £1. 10 shillings (£1.50) a day - which was the equivalent of a weekly wage in those days - for three or four days' filming. We had great fun and it was interesting to be involved, because we didn't have a television then and there wasn't much else going on".
Limpley Stoke Mill, now
home to a computer software company has an unusual connection with the film.
Temporarily converted into the 'theatre' to enable technicians to view the 'rushes'
from the previous day's filming, the former woollen mill was an ideal location,
containing, as it did, three turbines and a generator connected to a water wheel
in the River Avon below. The mill was vacant at the time so a tenancy agreement
was drawn up and a screen and projector, which was imported from Ealing studios
was set up in the 'machine loft'. A projectionist brought in from the studios
then had the difficult task of operating the private theatre on water power
alone. Film producer Simon Relph is the grandson of one of Thunderbolt's stars,
George Relph, who played train driver 'The Rev Weech'.
Simon, who lives at Westwood, near Bradford on Avon, said: " I've seen the film a great many times. It was recently screened to a packed house at the Bradford on Avon Film Society and is often shown on television. I was quite young when it was filmed but I can remember my grandfather taking part. And now that I live in the area myself, I recognise all the places where he stayed, " I have no other connection with the area but I'm pleased to find myself living in the same valley where The Titfield Thunderbolt was made. It brings back lovely memories of my grandfather. He was really a stage actor associated with Laurence Olivier and the Old Vic Company and didn't make many films. But he had a good time making this one and I can remember him being thrilled to get the part"
Simon, whose recent productions include 'The Land Girls', a story about the Women's Land Army during the Second World War, and 'Hideous Kinky ' starring Kate Winslet, added "My father, Michael, was also working as a producer at Ealing Studios at the time Thunderbolt was made, so I am the third generation of my family to be involved in film making"
Enthusiast Don Kennedy,
who lives near Ealing Studios in London, recently organised two tours of the
film`s locations onboard a 1947 Bedford coach, similar to that used the film
to celebrate the 5Oth anniversary. The tours proved so popular with railway
enthusiasts and film buffs, that tickets sold out well advance.
Mr Kennedy would be interested to hear from anyone who may have taken part as an extra in 'The TitfieldThunderbolt' half a century ago. Contact him on 020 8567 4397 or 020 7467 2216.
TITFIELD TIMELINE by Simon
In 1952 Queen Elizabeth accession to the throne - but that was far from the end of the news.
The Comet aircraft had
made its first commercial flight to Johannesburg and back, a four day smog in
London claimed more than 4,000 lives and British Railways suffered a massive
rail crash at Harrow and Wealdstone. On a lighter note, it was a gloriously
hot summer, Agatha Christie's famous 'Mousetrap' play opened in London and a
feature film called 'TheTitfield 'Thunderbolt' was made in a river valley just
south of Bath. The first local mention of this was in the 'Chronicle' (then
'Herald') on Saturday June 14. Technicians were shown putting up a Titfield
station sign and it was reported that a newly repainted coach was standing in
the siding at Monkton Combe, awaiting a run down the branch line, in what would
be the first train on the line for two years. The paper went on to report that
Ealing Studios expected to complete the shooting of the The Lion scenes at Monkton
Combe station by Thursday June 26th.
Filming was then due to move to Beales Farm, just along the valley, to be followed by the village scenes using Freshford and finally being completed at Dunkerton colliery sidings below Carlingcott, where the duel between Sid James' traction engine and the train was to be filmed. After this, Lion was to be taken to Bristol, where the Mallingford arrival scenes were to be filmed in the fish dock of Bristol Temple Meads station.
After this, all that was left to do locally, were a few more scenes at Monkton Combe featuring the veteran actor Godfrey Tearle, who had arrived in Bath on July 20. Then the film company packed up their elaborate train set and went away, completing the film with the numerous studio shots over the following months.
The disused station at Monkton Combe went on to slumber for a further six years before demolition eventually took place during 1958. Local interest was tremendous. Hostelries did a roaring trade, the Hop Pole at Limpley Stoke and Hope and Anchor at Midford apparently being two particular favourites with the film makers.
Apart from the locomotives, the mechanical star of the film was Pearce and Crump's coach, a Bedford OB painted blue and cream and bearing a Wiltshire registration 338 GAM. This coach was owned by Mr A H Daniels of Winsley and his garage in the village was also the location for Pearce and Crump's headquarters in the film.
Ealing Studios hired the coach and two drivers for the duration, not only to appear in the film, but also to ferry the cast and crew around the area from location to their hotel and into Bath as required.
Numerous locals got in on the act, mainly by appearing in the film in crowd scenes, but also in more ingenious ways. John New's brother provided the rabbit and pheasant for Hugh Griffith's character, following a conversation in the Wheelwright's pub in Monkton Combe, the night before shooting, while a local farmer provided a pig called Winifred to appear at the beginning of the film.
One enterprising soul even managed to hire their car to Stanley Holloway for the duration of the filming.
Local amateur dramatics clubs came into their own, the Freshford Players being heavily involved and Combe Down Cricket Club provided players whose game is memorably interrupted by the train on its triumphed final run.
Finally, of course, Monkton Combe School provided numerous schoolboys who got everywhere. The film, which became a minor hit, premiered in London on March 5 1953, and amongst the guests were some familiar names, Michael Redgrave, Ava Gardner, Donald Sinden, Jack Hawkins, Herbert Lom and Laurence Olivier, the latter being a friend of George Relph and also closely associated with Ealing Studios at this period