Strength of the Hills

Source: George Ewart Evans, Strength of the Hills: An Autobiography (London: Faber, 1983), pp. 162-164

Text: During this year I met a remarkable woman, Mary Field, who was head of a film company producing children’s films. In the constant search to increase my earnings I had submitted to her the synopsis of a children’s story that I judged had visual possibilities. During my wanderings with the two girls I had come across an old mound in Tunstall Forest. It was obviously a burial mound, probably of the Sutton Hoo period. It was quite near Blaxhall Heath, not far from Snape, and completely surrounded by trees. Mary Field liked the idea of the film that was about three or four children who foiled a gang who planned to dig into the mound and rob the grave. She commissioned me to write the treatment for the film. The film was called The Ship in the Forest and was made in the area where the story was set. It had its first showing in the Aldeburgh cinema and we managed to get all the children in Blaxhall school, along with the Tunstall children, over to see it. I very much enjoyed working with Mary Field who was a master of her craft of film-making. In an hour or so’s conversation with her, I learned more about films than I could have learned in a lifetime of film watching and reading about them. She had thought deeply about films, and her Carnegie Report on children’s films illustrates the thoroughness of her methods.

This report revolutionized the making of children’s films. It arose out of her observation that it was possible to gauge a group of children’s reactions to a film simply by watching their physical responses. Restlessness and constant shifting of their position on the seats were obvious signs that their interest was not fully engaged, while a marked increase in the number of children leaving to go to the lavatory was a devastating criticism of the film itself. The technique she used in compiling her Carnegie Report was merely an extension of her commonsense observations. She did her studies in Saturday morning matinées, filming the children’s full physical reactions while the film was being shown. She used infra-red film that made filming possible in the dark. She was therefore able to study a film she had made, scientifically matching the children’s facial expressions and movements with the relevant passages in the film.

She had also made a study of various dramatists to improve her approach to film-making, and she recognized that her main problem was identical with that of the early dramatists, who had a milling crowd before or around the action on the stage, as much bent on having a holiday as on seeing a play. The playwright had to capture the composite audience of the pit right at the beginning with an arresting first scene, as Shakespeare did in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and some of the historical plays. He knew that he had to win over the groundlings or else the players would have difficulties. We had a perfect example of this in the London première of our Suffolk film. It was held in the King’s Road, Chelsea, in a huge cinema at a Saturday morning matinée. I took Florence and our four children to see it. We were given seats in the upstairs circle, and below us was a real ‘pit’ audience of turbulent young Cockneys. They were supposed to be watching the climax of an American film that was supporting the Mary Field film, but most of them were doing everything bu watching the film; they were writhing about, and from above it looked like a free-for-all encounter rather than an audience. The film’s action had been designed as an exciting climax: the rescue of the heroine, an attractive, barely clad young girl who had been tied by the villains to a post in a rapidly burning building. Most of the children, however, were unconcerned and the noise was uproarious. We wondered how they would ever be able to show the Suffolk film in this bear garden. Yet as soon as the first shots were shown on the screen the children were captured. It was a pure triumph by a master of children’s film-making. The opening shots were a couple of children – a boy and a girl – and an old man, as far as I remember, an old fisherman. Immediately the audience identified with the children, and strangely enough, with the old man: the film had their full interest instantly and retained it to the end. It was one of Mary Field’s discoveries that young children are not interested in middle-aged adults but are naturally interested in children of their own age on whom they can easily project their own feelings; also in people old enough to be their grandparents.

Comments: George Ewart Evans (1909-1988) was a British folklorist and oral historian. At the time recalled here, he was a schoolteacher in Suffolk. Mary Field (1896-1968) was an educationalist, historian and filmmaker who became head of the Rank Organisation’s Children’s Entertainment Division in 1944. In 1951 she became executive officer of the Children’s Film Foundation, a pan-industry body which produced films for children. Her experiments with infra-red still photography of children in cinemas began in 1948 and took place in particular 1951-52. The photographs are reproduced in her book Children and films: A study of boys and girls in the cinema (Dunfermline Fife Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1954). The Ship in the Forest was released as the 60-minute CFF film The Secret of the Forest (UK 1956).

Links: The Secret of the Forest (from the East Anglian Film Archive)

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