Wednesday 29 January 2020

Newell returns to wartime memories

'Four Weddings and a Funeral' director Mike Newell's post-war boyhood helped inspire his vision for his latest movie

Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Julia Molony

For Mike Newell, the feted British film director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Into the West and Donnie Brasco, his latest film was something of a return to his roots.

It was shot in Devon, where Newell spent holidays as a child. It deals with a post-war period the director, now 76, remembers from his own boyhood and it's eccentric title, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, offers a clue that this is a film which presents a nostalgic, comforting presentation of Britishness - a sort of Britishness of the imagination which encompasses dreaming spires and bonkers local characters, Jane Austen and London buses and Blitz spirit.

No matter that the world of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was dreamed up by an American - it's based on the novel of the same name by the American writers Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Or that it deals with the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, which is not even part of the UK. No matter that it was produced by Studio Canal, a French company. The heart of this film is British to the core.

It's a world into which Newell fits quite well himself, with his softly plummy vowels. He grew up in St Albans, which he once described as a "Jane Austen-y sort of town."

His early love of storytelling was instilled by his parents, who were dotty about amateur dramatics. They lived and breathed it, thus providing their son with "a huge bit of education" along the way. "All the books in the house were plays. And I got to be able to read dialogue easily and without thinking of it from childhood onwards, which is something a lot of people find difficulty with. They don't read dialogue easily and I always did."

This world, populated by passionate amateurs determined to fill their lives with culture, is not a million miles from that represented in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which follows the adventures of a group of Guernsey islanders, bonded by a love of books, who form a literary society as a diversion from the hardships of life under the Nazis - although the bulk of the narrative takes place in the years after the war, as the central characters struggle to come to terms with the fall-out of the conflict years.

"The amateur dramatics society that my parents were in was quite large," Newell explains. "There were probably 30 or 40 group members, but there was a kind of inner sanctum. And you knew the actors who you liked watching. It was very much like a society... these guys went right the way through the war. Some of them were in Burma, some of them were in Italy, but nevertheless, the thing kept chugging along."

And Newell's early life has inevitably shaped the choices he's been drawn to as a director.

"I would always be interested in character," he says. "Because that's one of the things I sort of took on with my mother's milk, when they were doing all of their amateur dramatics stuff. And my parents had a very fine appreciation of what made a good and entertaining play. Sometimes it was comedy and sometimes it was Hedda Gabler - an enormous range of stuff. At that age, when I didn't know enough to analyse what I was seeing, what I did was to follow the characters. And so if my father was doing a production of Juno and the Paycock, what I wanted to see was Uncle Alan play Captain Boyle, because he was very very very funny."

As a small boy, Newell was fascinated by history. "I lived in an old town. You turn a brick over in a town like that and you've gone back... so historical subjects became pretty interesting to me," he says.

He was attracted to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because of the way it presents part of the World War II narrative, about life in the British Isles under occupation, that is little told.

"It wasn't just the island... It's one little corner of Britain that was under occupation, but it's also the domestic story. It's what would have happened to your mother," he says.

Newell remembers the post-war years well. "I was born during the war," he says. "And I particularly remember that immediate post-war period when things were so depressed and so shabby and run down. You were cold all the time. There was a particular kind of coal that you could buy, it wasn't really coal at all, it was called nutty slack. It was the rock in which the coal had been, with little bits of coal attached. It would spit these red-hot little chunks of stone. Our front room had little chips and burn marks in the curtains where the nutty slack had exploded.

"Life was full of that kind of annoying, depressing hardship. Everything felt cold all the time. There was lots of stuff that was rationed. You never got anything new. I remember being sent to children's parties by my mother in darned trousers, which creased me with embarrassment, and she'd say, 'pull your jacket down!'

"It was genuinely hard times. And so this (film) was a way of remembering that and showing that sort of story to people who have never thought about that."

Perhaps this spirit of making do explains why, despite having helmed some of the most expensive projects in film history, Newell seems most comfortable working on small projects whose budget constraints, such as on this film, inspire ingenuity and lateral thinking. A case in point was the decision he made not to "shoot a frame of it in Guernsey".

"We made the film for somewhere between $10m and $11m, which isn't very much given you are doing a large cast and period. And when you go to Guernsey what you are immediately aware of is that it is an extremely prosperous place. It's where very rich people keep their money and are able to keep quiet about their money, so the island as a whole and the properties on the island have become beautifully kept, buffed up and repaired. And in order to get the right down-at-heel look, which is the way the whole of this country looked at the end of the war, you would have had to spend enormous amounts of money."

So Newell moved filming to Devon instead. "I knew this coastline from childhood holidays," he says of his own journey into nostalgia during filming. "And I knew there was a great big epic look to the landscape which would not be a bad thing to set a very tight domestic story against. It was an interesting collision to do those things. So we fetched up on a bit of the west of England that I'd known since I was a kid."

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is currently in cinemas

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