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Words: John Bennett
Photography: WAG Screen
Featured in the November 2014 issue

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I can’t believe it is more than a year since I wrote an article about Tell Them of Us, the latest project from Lincolnshire Heritage filmmakers WAG Screen, commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War.

The story mainly follows the experiences of the Crowder family from the village of Thimbleby, near Horncastle. We draw on the family archive, plus research by villagers and ourselves, to tell a story of rural Lincolnshire during World War One. The world was on the cusp of great social change, and ordinary families touched by heroism, tragedy and joy.

The film is being produced to broadcast standards, so could eventually be shown on TV. But first it will run alongside an exhibition at The Collection in Lincoln later this year. There will be a major premiere event this month and possibly more than one to accommodate both cast and crew and the general public. After initial showings the film will do a tour of film festivals, and eventually be available free on the internet alongside our previous projects. 

Our first ‘battle’ was to find the funding to make the project a reality. This proved much tougher than we had anticipated and put the proposed start of filming back several months. We had hoped to start last summer, but the cameras actually only started rolling early this year and we have been playing catch-up ever since. But thanks to funding from the Armed Forces Community Covenant, the Evan Cornish Grassroots Fund and a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, we are now well on the way to completing the film on time, albeit it with a much smaller budget than we had originally planned for. The shortfall in funding has been met by incredible support from our small core of professionals and huge army of volunteers. Without a lot of people giving their time for free, or at best having their expenses covered, this wonderful project could not have gone ahead.

One of the features of every WAG Screen project is the attention to detail. ‘If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing well’ could be our motto, and everything comes down to those little details. The village of Thimbleby is a readymade film set of course, with those beautiful old mud and stud cottages. Judicious framing and editing easily covers up modern intrusions such as the phone box, signage and lines on the road.

The original Crowder family home still exists, but unfortunately it has long since been incorporated into the large family nursery and could not be used for filming. Luckily for us, nearby Baumber Park is owned by family members Michael and Clare Harrison, and is an almost perfect stand-in with so many wonderful period features and a magnificent garden. The expansive Lincolnshire countryside, with those big dramatic skies, is the perfect backdrop to the exterior scenes. Our long time collaborator Peter Halse generously offered his Lincoln home for interior filming, and that was the majority of our locations sorted out early on.

Getting the cast together proved more complicated than we had originally thought. There is no shortage of acting talent in Lincolnshire, but the Crowders were all redheads and we needed them to look like family and be of the correct relative ages, including as young children. We even resorted to a live interview on BBC Radio Lincolnshire, and eventually we got the cast together and what a wonderful group they are. The physical resemblance to the people they are playing is uncanny, spooky in a couple of cases! Two of our main actors are based in London these days, and we are very grateful to them for trekking up to Lincolnshire on a regular basis for filming. But it all adds to the logistics of getting everyone in the right place at the same time around day jobs.

The next aspect of the project might not have seemed it at first, but it turned out to be the most remarkable. Getting the costumes right is crucial to the look of any period film; several big productions have become laughing stocks because of their use of zips on medieval dresses. We did not intend on being caught out like that!

One of the features of clothing 100 years ago was the preponderance of woollen garments; not just simple jumpers, scarves and gloves, but complex jackets, dresses and ‘soldiers’ comforts’ that were sent to the troops at the Front. As well as the main characters, we also have to kit out the supporting cast in woollens, including villagers and schoolchildren for the big ensemble scenes. It was clearly a mammoth task. Our costumier Pauline Loven is an expert in her field, but by her own admission is “no great knitter”. Even if she was, how on earth could she knit the scores of garments needed? What happened next could never have been anticipated, and would not even have been possible five years ago.

Pauline put out a ‘tweet’ on Twitter, simply asking for volunteer knitters to help with the project. She thought that if she got half a dozen replies it would be a success – she got hundreds! Pauline’s original message was ‘retweeted’ numerous times and soon went around the world. Volunteer knitters were popping up all over the place, literally. ‘Orkney to Omaha’ soon became their tagline. At one point Twitter even closed her account because the original message had been repeated so many times, their automatic filters assumed it must be spam.

To prevent from being completely overwhelmed by the numbers, Pauline originally limited the knitters to 100, but that has since expanded to over 300. The logistics of organising this group are mind-boggling, but there were natural leaders amongst them who quickly sorted out their respective talents and formed a workable communications network.

Pauline approached major wool manufacturers around the world who quickly agreed to supply wool at reduced rates, even free of charge, in return for photographs of the finished products. The knitters supplemented Pauline’s own research by finding original patterns from the period, even creating practical knitting patterns from old photographs.

We have been able to reproduce several outfits for the main characters identical to ones they owned and wore 100 years ago, just from old family photos. But all this comes at a cost. Even with free or cheap wool, the postage costs to distribute the wool, and get the finished items back to Lincolnshire, are prohibitive. We eventually had to run a crowdfunding campaign just to fund the knitting project, but it grabbed the imagination of people around the world so much that we overshot our target by 150% with a week to spare.

The knitters are now a self-contained and well organised ‘army’ of their own, and their fantastic creations keep popping through Pauline’s letterbox on a regular basis. These will eventually form a valuable collection of period costumes for others to use in the future, and the Orkney to Omaha group are also working on a book of the patterns they have gathered together. As the stills photographer for Tell Them of Us it has been an eye-opener, as well as a great pleasure, shooting publicity shots of all the wonderful knitted creations and seeing the level of skill and creativity first-hand.

Another aspect of the project that has become part of WAG Screen folklore is the search for the family car. One small photo exists of a young Robert Crowder sat at the wheel of a car. All you can see is the windscreen, the top of the door and part of the seat. It could be any make of car we thought, but we had forgotten the power of the internet again.

One of our researchers, Patrick Kay based up in Edinburgh, put the photo out there and asked for advice. The consensus was that the car was an American Studebaker. But what was an American car doing in Horncastle in 1915? We didn’t believe it until Patrick tracked down the registration documents in the Lincolnshire Archives – it was indeed a Studebaker! Like a dog with a bone Patrick refused to stop there, and soon found three working Studebakers in Britain in 2014, including one owned by Gordon MacFarlane up near Leeds. Now Gordon is a real one-off, a true character and wonderful, generous human being. He was more than happy to bring his pride and joy, called Marj by the way, down to Lincolnshire for filming whenever we needed her.

No offence to our wonderful cast, but we all think that Marj is the star of the film. She is big, red and beautiful, and sounds great too. The first day we filmed the car in Thimbleby, a man came to his door to ask what was going on, and we explained about the film and the car. He laughed and told us that the car was the same age as his mother who was sitting inside the house at the time – 101 years young, both of them, you couldn’t make it up!

As well as Marj, we have also got a vintage Douglas motorbike and a genuine period pushbike in the film; those wonderful period details again, they make all the difference to the finished product.

Once the filming started, we realised what a wonderful cast we had put together. The script came to life immediately, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during some of the scenes, even though we knew what was coming. It seemed so long ago when we started out on this journey. Sitting around a conference table reading through the draft script, and removing the few modern expressions that had sneaked in. Then the panic when we realised that the film would be over ninety minutes long – and that was just reading the script with no time for establishing shots etc. Hard pruning has cut it down a bit, but not a lot.

Every time we remove a scene or condense two together we think of another idea that we just have to include. An example of that comes early in the film. One of the main characters is writing a letter home. He is in a stable yard. As a member of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry he worked with horses, but we had no plans to include any actual horses – never work with animals and children! Then we changed our minds, a horse would look great and add so much, so we went looking, and found a majestic one called Major. We could probably produce ninety minutes of film just starring Major, but there is a wider story to tell, so maybe not.

Although most of the action takes place in and around Thimbleby, and the focus is very much on the Home Front, we did want to show something of life for the troops in Northern France. Originally this was going to be just voiceovers while family members were reading letters from the Front.

We thought that reproducing trenches was beyond our limited budget, let alone any battle scenes. Then we made plans to shoot a short scene at a museum in the Midlands that had some trenches readymade for us. It eventually came to nothing, but we decided to create our own trench in a wood just outside Lincoln and see if it worked. The proof of the pudding will be in the final film, but we think it looks pretty realistic, and almost certainly more realistic than the manicured trenches that you find in museum exhibits. Hopefully the viewers will think that all our hard work digging was worth it.

The more limited the budget for a project like this the more you rely on reciprocal arrangements with other people and organisations, and these often turn out to be the most satisfying in so many ways. Everyone is working on goodwill and because they believe in the project, not just because they are getting paid, and you meet so many wonderful people this way.

A case in point is our work with the HILT Foundation. They are a local charity working with ex-servicemen and their families, supporting them through issues related to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We did some filming and photography for them to use in their campaigns, and they supplied us with their particular expertise to create some of the more spectacular footage in our film. I will say no more, you will just have to see the finished film to appreciate how much they helped us.
We have a teaser trailer on our website, and lots of photographs for you to check out and get a feel for what we’re doing.

Director Nick Loven is editing as we go and we have been very pleased by the scenes we have already shot. Some beautiful original music is also being composed for the film.

The world premiere of Tell Them of Us will be at The Venue, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln at 11am on Saturday 8th November.

For further information, including the teaser trailer visit www.wagscreen.co.uk

You can make a donation towards the production costs of the film at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1690634677/tell-them-of-us

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