Gone to Earth
Last month I found myself back in my hometown of Much Wenlock, onstage at the Priory Hall at least three decades after my last appearance there in a teenage amateur drama production - but thankfully this time without the dodgy French accent.
I was introducing the 1950 film Gone to Earth, adapted from the work of local author Mary Webb by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and featuring Wenlock and many other Shropshire locations in glorious Technicolor.
Our special guests that night were Val Roberts and Maureen Norrey, both of whom had taken part in the film as girls. Val helped us to spot her fleeting appearance as a maypole dancer, while Maureen remembered eating an unhealthy amount of plums in her role as a background extra in the market scene. Along with Jim Moore, who I knew as our school caretaker back in the 1980s, they are the stars of a new film we’ve been working on with Brian Harley, recording memories of a time almost 75 years ago when two worlds collided.
Attached to his Worcestershire roots, this was a place that Michael Powell knew well and he was determined to do it justice. Many of the locations they used were the actual places Webb had described, and a love for the local landscape shines through in Ivor Beddoes’ initial production sketches. The film was the first in a new trans-Atlantic collaboration between producers Alexander Korda and David O Selznick, the latter famous for Gone With the Wind - and within the industry, for his Benzedrine-fuelled memos and control freakery. The star of Gone to Earth would be Selznick’s protegé and wife Jennifer Jones, the Tulsa native attempting the daunting task of a Shropshire accent in the lead role of headstrong gypsy girl Hazel Woodus.
When the circus arrived in Wenlock in late July 1949, the impact was seismic. As well as appearing in the opening scenes, the town would also be basecamp for the film shoot with busloads of locals being shipped off to other locations across the county. At the time the population was pretty much what it is now, just shy of 2000 people, and whether old or young the majority of them were involved in Gone to Earth one way or another. As the Birmingham Gazette described it, “the town itself co-stars, with every citizen a feature player. Its two main streets are littered with film equipment, and nearly one-twentieth of its population are earning 30 shillings a day as film extras.”
Maureen, Val and Jim all had different perspectives on this experience, but the thread running through their stories was a sense of wonder and excitement. They were kids at the time, and in the case of Jim and Maureen they had been evacuated at a young age from Liverpool and London. In a country still under rationing and traumatised by war, this sudden incursion from the world of the movies felt like a miracle.
The way Powell describes it in his memoirs, Jennifer Jones’ time in Shropshire was also something of a holiday from the reality of being married to David O Selznick. The producer was away in Europe for a good deal of the shoot – much to the filmmakers’ relief – and Jones made the most of her time exploring the hills and enjoying local hostelries like the George and Dragon and the Talbot (both still going strong today). The posed press picture below shows Jim and his friend Eddie Brown in their ‘urchin’ costumes, waiting at the door of the Talbot for an autograph from Jones. As Jim tells it, he did a decent business selling on these signatures to other locals at sixpence a time.
When the film finally emerged the following year there was more excitement, but also a hint of disappointment. It had a mixed reception after the success of The Red Shoes, and in the US Selznick released a rehashed version with additional footage, adamant that the story wasn’t clear enough and that there weren’t enough close-ups of Jones. The film would spend many years in obscurity until in the 1980s it was reappraised, after a restored print of the original cut allowed audiences to see it as Powell and Pressburger had intended it.
In Much Wenlock the film has been woven into local folklore ever since, and our full house at Priory Hall included many people with stories of parents and grandparents who had a brief taste of stardom. Often when we put on such events they leave no more than a few memories behind, so it’s a joy to see this whole journey captured on film with such love and care.
Echoes of the Soil: The Unsung Stars of Gone to Earth will screen at Midlands Arts Centre before a beautiful new 4K restoration of I Know Where I'm Going! Book tickets here.