A quilt, a cat, and a bluebird

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Norman Page as Tylette the Cat, December 1909

This postcard, from my early 20th century theatre collection, of is one of my absolute favourites. It shows the British stage and silent film actor Norman Page as Tylette the Cat in a production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1909. It also shows a rather splendid hexagon quilt, in what looks like a simple Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern. It thus rather neatly combines a number of my interests.

I’ve been intrigued by The Blue Bird since I was about eight years old when I first read Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 children’s novel about the theatre, Ballet Shoes. There are two chapters about a charity matinée of The Blue Bird, and, as a child, I was intrigued that there were extracts from Maeterlinck’s play script contained within the text, along with a lot of information about the plot. As a result, I feel I know the play really well even though I’ve never seen it. And a production featuring Norman Page would be my ideal production (outside the fictional world of Ballet Shoes).

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Norman Page (centre) as Ives in Stingaree, The Bushranger (1908) 

So who was Norman Page?  He was born in Nottingham in 1876, and educated at Trent College. After school, and an attempt to become an artist, he underwent theatrical training at the Theatre Royal in Margate, and his first performance on stage was in 1896 at the Opera House in Chatham. In 1904 he first appeared on the London stage as The Gardener’s Boy in Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville-Barker. He went on to work as both actor and producer, and had an interest in some of the new styles of acting and the experimental plays that were being staged in the early 1900s. In 1909 a season he produced at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre was considered by The Times to bring ‘that spirit of modernity … which consists in a sense of artistic unity, a repression of the “theatrical”, a reduction of the emotion displayed to the proportions of the occasion – in short, in naturalness’. (Glasgow Repertory Theatre, The Times, October 19 1909)

Page played Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird in a number of productions – it seems to have been a Christmas favourite in the years before the First World War. On December 27 1911, The Times considered that a ‘chief joy in the acting is still the sinister Cat of Mr Norman Page.’ In 1912 he travelled to Australia to produce the play there. And on 9 January 1928, he reprised the role for a radio production, broadcast on the 2LO London and 5XX Daventry stations. Cats seemed to have been something of a speciality for Page. As well as Tylette, he played the title role in Puss in Boots at the Apollo Theatre in 1926, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre in 1932, when he was ‘the best of many good performing animals’. (The Times, December 22 1932)

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Page also had a long association with the Academy of Dramatic Art (which later became RADA) where he was an instructor for 23 years. After his death in 1935, Kenneth Barnes, the then director of RADA, wrote that:

‘He had a great sense of the dignity of the profession of the theatre, and his talents, as producer-actor, scenic designer, and teacher, it can ill afford to lose. I know this because Norman Page was the hardest worked member of my staff … How we wish he were still with us.’

Like a lot of stage actors of the 1910s and 1920s, Page also acted for the films – and that’s where I first came across him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screen presence has had a huge impact on me.  Nearly a decade ago, I had an idea for a research project about the early work of British film director Maurice Elvey, but back then I’d only seen one or two of his films. So when I heard about a screening of his film of Bleak House in Nottingham, I got on a train so I could find out more. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by that film’s exquisite portrayal of Dickens’ lovelorn clerk Mr Guppy – played by Norman Page. That screening – particularly  Norman Page’s performance – was the deciding factor in confirming my Elvey research project.

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Norman Page (right) as Mr Guppy with Teddy Arundell as George in Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film Bleak House

And when I saw Elvey’s Life Story of David Lloyd George (made in 1918 but not released at the time) with Norman Page in the title role, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film – and a world away from Mr Guppy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy writing up my Elvey research at the moment, so I am writing about Norman Page a lot – The Life Story of David Lloyd George plays a major role in my thesis. That leaves very little time for sewing. But a couple of weeks ago, I was clearing out some fabric and I came across a hexagon quilt I started some years ago. It’s just the sort of undemanding project I need at the moment and it fits in with my research nicely. It reminds me of the quilt on stage in The Blue Bird so I think it’s fitting that while I’m sewing it, I remember the role of Norman Page in starting off my research about Maurice Elvey.

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Hexagons for Mr Norman Page

Quilting the Thames Part Five: Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach

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Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach: “O greatest sailor”

I have now reached Greenwich on my trip down the river for my Thames Quilt. For this panel, I am rekindling my interest in Lord Nelson, who has inspired a number of my past projects, including the Nelson Quilt.

I became fascinated by Nelson when researching a silent film biography made in 1918 by British director Maurice Elvey. One of many people involved in this film was Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, an expert on Nelson, who advised on the scenario. After many months of shooting and editing, Kerr was happy that Elvey’s film was right and, on January 30 1919, the cinema trade magazine The Bioscope reported that Kerr had said that as “a devoted student of Nelsonalia …. he was especially happy to be able to say that he could find absolutely nothing to criticise in the film.”

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In 1932, Admiral Kerr published a book – The Sailor’s Nelson – which includes a long poem about the death of Nelson. This is a short extract:

The Embodiment of Duty and Britain’s Naval Strength, / The Victor of a hundred fights, his hour had come at length. / And fitly ‘mid victorious cheers and sounds of ebbing strife / He placed the Crown Immortal on his glorious suffering life. / O greatest sailor since the sea was named, / O truest patriot that the land has known. / Beyond all other Sea Kings loved and famed, / Rising alike to Fortune’s smile and frown. / Where lay thy power? What thy mystic charm?

I quilted a phrase from this poem – O greatest sailor – on the Greenwich Reach panel, not because I particularly like the poem (in fact it isn’t really to my taste being highly patriotic and heroic in tone) but because I wanted to mark Admiral Kerr’s contribution to Elvey’s Nelson film.

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The Symmetry of Greenwich

Greenwich has played a significant role in building the myth of Nelson. It was to Greenwich, on December 23 1805, that Nelson’s body was brought after his death almost three months earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s death was followed by an outpouring of public grief, culminating in an extensive funeral. On January 4 1806, dignitaries viewed Nelson’s body lying in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. On January 5, 6 and 7 thousands of members of the public visited the Painted Hall to pay their respects. And on January 8 and 9 Nelson was taken on his last journey from Greenwich to his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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The Painted Hall at Greenwich

On January 8, Nelson’s body was taken by river up the Thames from Greenwich to Whitehall in a two-mile long, carefully planned River Procession. The formal order was published in The Times that day as follows:

  1. Capt Ludlam, Harbour Master
  2. Capt Wood, Harbour Master
  3. Water Bailiff
  4. Rulers of the Company of Watermen &c
  5. Chaplain and Staff of River Fencibles
  6. Boat with drums muffled
  7. Officer commanding gun-boats (10 gun boats in all)
  8. Row boat with Officer
  9. Row boat with Officer

PROCESSION OF STATE BARGES

  1. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  2. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  3. Barge with the Body
  4. Barge with the Chief Mourner
  5. His Majesty’s Barges
  6. Barge with the Lords Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral
  7. The Right Hon the Lord Mayor’s Barge
  8. Barge with the Committee specially appointed by the Corporation of London on the occasion of Lord Nelson’s Funeral
  9. Barge with the Committee of the Corporation for improving the Navigation of the River Thames
  10. Barge of the Drapers’ Company
  11. Barge of the Fishmongers’ Company
  12. Barge of the Goldsmith’s Company
  13. Barge of the Skinners’ Company
  14. Barge of the Merchant Taylors’ Company
  15. Barge of the Ironmongers’ Company
  16. Barge of the Stationers’ Company
  17. Barge of the Apothecaries’ Company

According to the Bury and Norwich Post (January 15 1806)  the Barge with the Body was covered with black velvet, and surmounted with black feathers. In the centre was a Viscount’s coronet, and three bannerolls were affixed to the outside of the barge. In the steerage were six trumpets and six Lieutenants of the Royal Navy. The other barges were rowed by picked men from the Greenwich Pensioners. They had all their flags hoisted half staff high. As the Procession moved from Greenwich, minute guns were fired. Not a vessel was suffered to disturb the Procession. The decks, yards, and rigging of the numerous ships on the river were all crowded with spectators; the number of ladies was immense.

Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to see the Procession. Such was the commercial value of good viewing places that The Times carried numerous advertisements such as these from January 6: A good view of the Grand Procession of Lord Nelson, at the Sign of the Turk’s Head, Union Stairs, Wapping or Those ladies and gentlemen who are desirous of seeing to advantage the grand and solemn procession by water of the late lord Nelson, may be accommodated with seats in a spacious loft, fitted up for the occasion. For particulars enquire at the Angel, Upper-ground-street, Surrey-side of Blackfriars Bridge, where tickets may be had at 5s each.

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Nelson’s coat at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich – one of the Nelson relics

When the procession arrived at Whitehall Steps at 3.00pm, Handel’s Dead March (from Saul) was played, and Nelson’s body was taken on to land. At this moment the sunshine disappeared – Dark and heavy clouds came on, and instantly succeeded a tempestuous hail storm, which fell until the Body was landed, when the hemisphere again was clear. (Bury and Norwich Post, January 15 1806)

Nelson’s body lay at the Admiralty until the following day. Then, on January 9 1806, a solemn procession led by the Duke of York and closed by a party of sailors bearing the three flags of HMS Victory went from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral where Nelson was buried with great ceremony.

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My Nelson Quilt, July 2015

Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames* must have been one of the largest events ever to take place on the River, and I wanted to include it in my Thames Quilt. Nelson has been such an inspiration to my quilting work over the last two years and I am pleased I have been able to commemorate him once again in stitch.

* Many items relating to Nelson’s funeral can be found in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Funeral directors, A France and Son provided the state coffin, and their office at 45 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1, still features a window display dedicated to Nelson’s funeral (and my thanks to Ken the Old Map Man, of  London Trails, for bringing this to my attention).

Quilting the Thames

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High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

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The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

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Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

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Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

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Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

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Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

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I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

A Year of Sewing Nelson

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year's work

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year’s work

I have just looked at the calendar and realised that I started the Nelson Quilt a year ago today. The project still isn’t finished but, in terms of piecing the squares, there isn’t that much more to do now. Soon I’ll have to face the challenge of working out how to quilt him!

The last year with this project has been so exciting. From an idle question (“I wonder what Nelson would look like as a quilt?”) to speaking at the NoRMMA Network‘s Performing Stardom Symposium about Nelson’s place in World War One film propaganda and the link between research and creativity, I have never felt so energised by a sewing project.

Explaining the Nelson Quilt Project at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photo courtesy of Dr Catherine O'Rawe

Showing the Nelson Quilt at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photograph courtesy of Dr Catherine O’Rawe

It feels strange to say that a quilt project can enhance film research but I have definitely found this to be true. Had I not started the quilt, I would not have become so interested in seeking out Nelsonia, visiting Nelson-related locations and finding out about the long legacy of sewn Nelson commemorations. All this additional research has definitely enhanced my understanding of the 1918 silent film about Nelson, directed by Maurice Elvey, and why it was such a significant piece of film propaganda at the time.

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015

This quilt started out as an experiment – and proof of this remains in some of the fabric squares. Anyone who looks closely will see that the weave on some dark brown fabric is looser and the squares therefore slightly thicker than the rest of the quilt. Why? Well, when starting out, I wasn’t sure if the project would work or whether it would be something I would try for a couple of weeks and then abandon. When I found I hadn’t bought the right shade of dark brown for the quilt, I used whatever was to hand – in this case a different weave of fabric – because at that stage it didn’t really matter. By the time the project had grown to a reasonable size I thought about replacing those squares but didn’t get round to it. And now I like the evidence of the uncertainty and ambivalence of the early stages of the project. It reminds me that sewing can take one in unanticipated directions and can lead to so much more than one ever expected.

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year on.

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year on.

A Silent Film for the Trafalgar Sail Project

Given the inspiration that Nelson has lent to my quilting projects over the last year, I was very excited to read about a community project organised by the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the launch of HMS Victory. The Trafalgar Sail Project calls for contributions of small textile pieces measuring 6″ x 6″ or 6″ x 4″, which are to be joined together to form a Community Trafalgar Sail art installation in the summer of 2015.

I watched, via Twitter, contributions featuring flags, signals, hearts of oak, and Nelson himself being submitted (search for #250trafalgarsail if you would like to see them). I knew I wanted to take part but I couldn’t think of a design.

The 1 June deadline for submissions was drawing ever closer and I was floundering. But, while preparing a presentation about Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film for a forthcoming conference, inspiration struck. There, in my research notes, was one of my favourite film advertisements:

Maurice Elvey's 1918 Nelson Film

The advertisement shows a romantic couple, Donald Calthrop as Nelson and Ivy Close as Lady Nelson (not, as one might expect, Lady Hamilton, who was played by Malvina Longfellow). HMS Victory can just be seen, set against a First World War battleship – echoing one of the central motifs of the film: the development of the Royal Navy. The advert refers to “Britain’s greatest film production” about “Britain’s greatest Naval hero” – claims that are overblown in terms of the film itself, but that clearly indicate the ambition behind it. I made my first attempt at printing on to fabric – and I was off!

Printing the Nelson advert on to fabric

Printing the Nelson advert on to fabric

I don’t usually make small pieces so working on a postcard-sized quilt was quite strange but very enjoyable. I’ll be posting my contribution off to the National Museum of the Royal Navy later this week and I hope they like it. I hope also that people who see the Trafalgar Sail when it is displayed might see this tiny little piece, wonder about this film poster and think about how a silent film about Nelson, with scenes taken on HMS Victory, was made during the First World War.

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The Nelson Quilt at Portsmouth

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

Over the last few weeks, I have been having a slightly frustrating time as a result of working on the Nelson Quilt. All the stitching over papers using the English Paper Piecing technique has strained my arm and I have developed tennis elbow. So no progress is being made on the Nelson Quilt at present, but that does not mean that the associated research project has ceased.

On Friday 1 May I took the Nelson Quilt to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I wanted to visit HMS Victory as part of the preparation for a paper I am giving at a conference later this month about how research into Maurice Elvey’s Nelson film led to my making the Nelson Quilt.

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory

Visiting HMS Victory is fascinating. Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar represents an important piece of Naval history and there are many well-informed guides on board who are keen to share their knowledge of and enthusiasm about the ship, Nelson and Trafalgar. On this visit I learned about the latest theories about the damage to Nelson’s eye (damaged not lost and he did not wear an eye patch); his migraines; and his role in promoting his own image as hero. I found out about cooking on board and the type of food available to the crew; how the crew stashed their possessions during the chaos of battle; and the heirarchy of dress in the Royal Navy in the 1800s. I also learned details of Nelson’s fatal wounding at the Battle of Trafalgar and how, his face covered to try to hide the news of his injury spreading amongst the crew, he was carried down the steep steps from the quarter deck where he fell to the orlop deck where he died.

I also had some time to reflect on some more recent events on the ship. In 1918, Maurice Elvey was given special permission by the Admiralty to film scenes on board HMS Victory for his Nelson biopic. In Elvey’s own words, “the Admiralty let me work on the Victory, actually in the cockpit. The most moving thing I’ve ever done was to reproduce the death of Nelson. This was something that frightened me – I’d never do such a thing again.”  I can’t help thinking of Elvey, his camera operator, Mr Frenguelli, and the rest of the film crew struggling up and down the steep steps on board with very heavy camera equipment. And in 1918 the ship was not in dry dock but on the water, so the movement under foot must have added to the challenge.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is well worth a visit. Not only is HMS Victory there, but it is also the home of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (which has an excellent gallery of Nelsonalia); the Sixteenth Century flagship, the Mary Rose (an astonishing feat of maritime archaeology and preservation); and a whole range of other fascinating things to see and do.

Visitors can also see Nelson depicted as a ship’s figurehead. Originally from HMS Trafalgar, a ship launched in 1841, this towering bust shows Nelson in full dress uniform – and is now a fitting way of greeting those who visit HMS Victory today.

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Reflecting on The Reluctant Widow

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

 PictureShow, 13 May 1950

A few months ago, I blogged about some fabric depicting Regency Costumes that I had found at Quilters Trading Post which made me think of Georgette Heyer’s heroines. The fabric brought to mind a film adaptation of Heyer’s Reluctant Widow and, when the British Film Institute showed this film on 17 March, I was invited to introduce the screening. I did some further research into the film for the introduction, and here it is:

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

On August 6 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that “at last British Studios have seen something that has been staring them in the face for years – it is the amount of good screen material to be found in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.”

Between 1921 and 1974, Heyer wrote over 50 novels, most set in the Regency period. She remains incredibly popular today with a dedicated fan base. But unlike many bestselling authors, very little of her work has been adapted for the screen. A rare example is The Reluctant Widow which was published in 1946 and released as a feature film in 1950 as the last of the period dramas made by Two Cities Films during the late 1940s. So why is so little Heyer seen on screen?

The answer might lie with Heyer herself. Her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer) was of the view that “Georgette Heyer’s books with their brilliant plotting and distinctive style and language should be naturals for film and television, but not, perhaps, with their strong-minded author at the director’s elbow.”

Reluctant Widow Editions

In principle, Heyer was open to having her novels adapted, as this could have increased her earning power. Despite earning significant income from her writing, she always felt short of cash and worried excessively about her tax bill. In 1939, there were discussions with Alexander Korda about filming her novel about Charles II, Royal Escape, but these came to nothing, as did proposed films of False Colours to star Anna Neagle (a Heyer fan) and to be directed by Herbert Wilcox, and a mooted production of An Infamous Army.

When The Reluctant Widow came to be filmed, Heyer found that she was not in control of her story – and she didn’t like it.

Screenwriters Gordon Wellesley and Basil Boothroyd made alterations to supporting characters Becky and Nicky (who, as written, are great examples of Heyer’s shrewd old governesses and hilarious younger brothers); added a mysterious smuggler; and, most significantly, created a new character – Madame de Chevreaux played by Kathleen Byron – who does not appear in the novel at all. A very exciting duel scene, made much of in advance publicity, is not in the book; and London scenes featuring Guy Rolfe are inventions of the film makers. There is also a very strange second marriage, which makes no narrative sense. And Heyer was powerless.

Jane Aiken Hodge quotes her as saying “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham (Studios) … I feel as though a slug had crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” She cannot have felt reassured by a review in the Daily Express that described Jean Kent having “a whale of a time. She has a part … that is a cross between the Wicked Lady, Forever Amber, and the barmaid at the local.” (April 28 1950)

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller) reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because, “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting.”

Heyer ultimately refused to see the film, so she didn’t get to see what the director, Bernard Knowles, had made of her work – and her refusal meant that she missed seeing some of the very interesting aspects of the film.

To start with, she was wrong about Jean Kent, who played the role of Elinor much as written for much of the film. Guy Rolfe, who played Lord Carlyon, is now mainly remembered for playing English villains, but in The Reluctant Widow he had a rare opportunity to play the romantic lead and did so with conviction.

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Heyer also missed out on an early screen appearance of Julian Dallas as Francis Cheviot. Advance publicity from Two Cities tells us that the Rank Organisation saw Dallas as “the new James Mason” and said that “if his acting and personality come over on the screen successfully he may be offered a long term contract.” Dallas was, indeed offered a long term contract, but not by Rank. Under his real name, Scott Forbes, he went to Hollywood under contact to Warner Brothers in 1950. After appearing in a number of films, he starred in the popular television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, from 1956-1958. According to Forbes’ 1997 obituary in The Independent, It was a well-kept secret … that Jim Bowie, with his deep Southern drawl and astonishing good looks, was played by an Englishman educated at Repton and Balliol College, Oxford. The promoters of the series, feeling that the US public would not accept a frontiersman played by an Englishman, launched him with a fabricated biography, claiming that he had been born in South Africa and grown up in eastern Pennsylvania.” (29 April 1997)

Heyer’s world was created on screen by Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios. Dillon was the first woman to win an Academy Award for set decoration, for Hamlet in 1948 – having overcome opposition to her work in the 1930s when she overheard someone saying, “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job.”

Dillon caught the mock-gothic settings of The Reluctant Widow with her usual excellence. In the novel, Elinor jokes about the character of Highnoons, the house she inherits, saying:

“The house is clearly haunted. I have not the least doubt that that is why only two sinister retainers can be brought to remain in it. I dare say I shall be found, after a night spent within these walls, a witless wreck whom you will be obliged to convey to Bedlam without more ado.”

With props to add to the sense of chaos of a neglected, crumbling mansion, notably in the decadent master bedroom, Dillon’s work resulted in a convincing Highnoons.

For the London scenes – also created at Denham – Dillon depicted architecture in the style of William Kent, who designed Horse Guards Parade, and she created views – seen through windows – of St James’ Park and the Treasury Building as in 1815. Props included a campaign sheet of the Peninsular War printed in 1815; a copy of The Morning Post borrowed from the British Museum, and some bombards, small shells used in the Battle of Copenhagen. Research was undertaken into the regiments stationed at Horse Guards in 1815 to ensure that the costumes were correct.

Overall, the film is an interesting addition to the history of British costume drama. It is particularly notable given its status as a very rare feature filmed based on a novel by Georgette Heyer – and, perhaps, answers the question “Why are books of this very popular author so rarely filmed?”

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950