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A brief history of Cornwall on the big and small screen

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View of St Ives harbour

Even if you are not a regular viewer, it is unlikely to have escaped your attention that Britain is currently in the grip of Poldark fever.

The third series of the hugely popular BBC One drama is once again captivating millions of viewers on Sunday evenings with its exciting blend of peril, romance, history and, of course, the beautiful Cornish landscape.

Therefore, we thought it would be interesting to take a step back in time and look at some of the greatest films and television programmes – set or filmed in the county – to have graced the big and small screen over the years. Each one has had a role to play in introducing more people to what is surely the UK’s most evocative holiday destination, long before Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson captured the nation’s hearts.

Love Story

Stewart Granger

With films and TV shows now being released at a rate of knots, it can be all too easy for classic features to be overlooked among the tidal wave of new Netflix dramas. However, it is important for us to remember the debt that all the most popular latest releases have to pay to the trailblazing productions of the early and mid-20th Century.

One such film was the 1944 classic Love Story, which – despite a plot which is now considered by many critics to be perhaps too melodramatic – actually played an important role in boosting the morale of the audiences of the day. We spoke to Richard Williams, the creator and owner of the Silver Sirens website which celebrates the ‘golden age’ of British cinema, about why Love Story is still held in high regard by fans of classic movies:

What makes Love Story special?

“Set and filmed during World War II, this sentimental and charming British romance from the Gainsborough Studios was lapped up by 1940s cinema audiences seeking escape from their war-torn daily lives. The film starred three of the most popular British stars of the time: Margaret Lockwood, Stewart Granger and Patricia Roc. Love Story was directed by Leslie Arliss, who also directed other Gainsborough classics such as The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945).”

Why was Cornwall an interesting setting and filming location?

“Cornwall and its rich heritage and scenery is pivotal to the plot and features prominently in the beautifully photographed film. Lockwood first meets Granger on the Cornish cliffs, with the elements blowing a gale, herring gulls crying and waves crashing onto the rugged shore below.

“There are spectacular scenes recorded at the famous Minack Theatre in Porthcurno (on the South West Coast Path from Porthgwarra) as Patricia Roc’s character tries to stage an open-air performance of the Tempest – with actual Cornish locals and soldiers on leave as extras in the audience.

The Minack Theatre, Porthcurno

“Tribute is also paid to the local fishing and mining industries, with action set at the bottom of a mine shaft and scenes of mackerel fishing out at sea. There’s even a donkey cart, ancient henges and the Cornish Floral Dance!”

Any other interesting facts?

“Hubert Bath, the British film composer, scored for Love Story the highly popular ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ piano composition, which features as a motif throughout the film. Performed by Margaret Lockwood’s character on screen, the piece was actually played by the British pianist, Harriet Cohen.”

Rebecca

Still of opening credits for Rebecca

Many visitors to Cornwall are understandably keen to see ‘Du Maurier country’, the area surrounding the beautiful fishing town of Fowey which the hugely popular author Daphne Du Maurier called home for decades.

Arguably Du Maurier’s most enduring creation is Rebecca, a gothic thriller novel released in 1938. The evocative Manderley, the former home of the deceased title character, is based on Menabilly, a historic country estate which the author discovered in a dilapidated state in 1943 and slowly restored to its former glory.

Rebecca’s popularity was famously capitalised upon by the legendary Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock, who successfully adapted the novel for the big screen just two years after its publication. We were delighted to speak with the team behind Hitchcock’s official website, who explained why the 1940 production remains such an important work:

“Rebecca holds two very distinct and special places in Hitchcock's pantheon. This picture was both the first he made in the United States and the only one he directed to win the Oscar for Picture of the Year. Manderley, a centuries' old sprawling estate, provides the perfect backdrop for an eerie tale of a horrendous marriage following a brief courtship of just two weeks. The foreboding setting foreshadows the troubles that Rebecca is about to endure.”

Although no filming was actually carried out in Cornwall (as is alluded to above, this was done almost entirely in an American studio, with the external scenes all being shot in California), the film can still be credited with further increasing knowledge of and interest in the county throughout the world.

Several other adaptations of Rebecca have been made over the years for radio, television and theatre, and five years ago it was reported that a brand new film version is being considered, although little has been heard of that project since – watch this space!

Jamaica Inn

Exterior of Jamaica Inn today

Staying with Du Maurier, perhaps her second-most recognisable work is Jamaica Inn, a similarly chilling tale published in 1936.

Alfred Hitchcock also directed a film adaptation of this work, which was released in 1939. Although not regarded as one of the director’s best features – neither Du Maurier nor even Hitchcock himself were pleased with the finished product – it was actually filmed in various spots around Cornwall, including at the real pub which inspired the novel and which still welcomes visitors today.

The reasoning behind Hitchcock’s decision to keep the filming location in the movie’s setting is explained by the team at alfredhitchock.com:

“Jamaica Inn, set on the Cornish coast of the 19th century, combines England’s connection with the sea and its association (at least in the United States) with foul weather. Cornwall furnishes a menacing setting for a sinister story. Hitchcock exploited du Maurier's home district to enhance his portrayal of murder and greed. He leaves the action in both these films in Cornwall because he could find no better location in which to build his drama.”

Like Rebecca, Jamaica Inn has enjoyed a substantial afterlife thanks to several later adaptations, the most recent being a BBC miniseries broadcast in 2014 – although it would be no exaggeration to say that this production is better remembered less for the brilliant plot that inspired it than for its poor sound quality!

Poldark

Cornish tin mine featured in Poldark

Of course, we could not write this article without discussing the sensation that is Poldark in a little more detail. Based on the series of novels by Winston Graham (a resident of Cornwall for decades), Poldark actually first hit our screens in 1975, starring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza, and was filmed almost entirely in the county.

The current adaptation has achieved even greater popularity, however, and has inspired many people to book stays at luxury Cornish holiday cottages and explore for themselves the stunning landscapes shown in the programme.

Poldark has a famously passionate fan-base, and we were lucky enough to speak to Jennifer Johnson, the owner and operator of poldarkonline.com, about why she thinks the show is so well loved and the special role that Cornwall has to play in boosting its popularity:

“I think Poldark is a beautiful, adventurous, romantic and timeless story of strong characters who are written so well you feel that you know them personally and are involved in their trials along with them. The main characters are not only endearing but, by being flawed as well, even people today can relate to them and identify with them even though the story is set during the early 1780s.

“Cornwall in the same way has a rugged and strong landscape that not only exudes beauty but bids one's imagination to soar. Its breath-taking cliffs and stormy seas, along with its beautiful beaches, are an excellent backdrop for all of the drama and action that takes place in the story of Poldark. One almost feels as if Cornwall itself is a character in the story because its locale is so intrinsic to Poldark.”

The Cornish coast at Land’s End

What is particularly rewarding about TV programmes and films today is that modern technology means there are now so many different ways to experience the settings and filming locations which are so intrinsic to their appeal.

One such option in Cornwall is to explore the county on foot, which can be done with help from the expert iWalk Cornwall app. This great project offers enthusiastic ramblers guides for 220 walks throughout the Duchy, along with extensive photos and useful information for each route, including length, steepness of grade and even directions to the nearest pub!

iWalk Cornwall offers a wide range of self-guided walks which will take you through all of Poldark’s Cornwall-based filming locations, and we were happy to speak to the app’s founder, John Alden, about why the routes offer a fascinating option for a day out on your stay in the county:

"Whilst Poldark’s main characters are fictional, Winston Graham lived in Cornwall and wove huge amounts of historical research into his storyline. You can therefore see the things that inspired his stories with your own eyes by walking in the locations that are used for filming.

“Some of the real-life events that took place here are even more incredible than fiction, such as a tale of a boy thrown to safety by his father as he fell to his death in the Levant mine disaster, told by a descendant of the boy. A walk from Cape Cornwall to Levant passes the engine houses filmed in Poldark including those just above the sea where 50 miles of tunnels extend beneath the ocean, and miners in the upper levels could hear pebbles being rolled along the seabed.

Holywell Bay

"Holywell Bay features heavily in the BBC’s filming of Nampara Cove and is described by “young Master Geoffrey” as “the best beach in Cornwall". A circular walk from here to Crantock includes the two small coves inaccessible to film crews which Winston Graham described as his real inspiration for Nampara Cove. In a cave on Holywell Bay the real Holy Well can also be reached at the lowest point of the tide which is far more impressive than the one shown on TV but was too difficult a location to film.

“A circular walk from Porthcurno to Gwennap Head includes much of the cliff scenery featured in the most recent series of Poldark and passes Porthgwarra where Aidan Turner famously swam nude in the first series of Poldark. The walk passes the Minack Theatre built by a very determined woman who dragged sand and timbers washed ashore on Porthcurno beach up the cliff to build it from. Two huge conical markers (carefully avoided by the cameramen) were built in Victorian times to warn navigators of the Runnelstone reef where so many ships are wrecked that divers are unable to work out which remains belong to which vessel.

“More than 200 circular routes spanning the whole of Cornwall, including 19 covering the Poldark filming locations, are available via the iWalk Cornwall app - search the App Store or Google Play.

If, however, you would prefer to be assisted by a professional guide and see many different filming locations and sites of interest all in one day, the fascinating Poldark tour available from Brit Movie Tours will allow you to do this in style. Lasting nine hours and featuring stop-offs at places like the Minack, several ancient tin mines, and Botallack Manor, this is the perfect option if you want to dedicate a whole day towards discovering as many locations as possible with the help of a dedicated local expert.

And more!

View of Eden Project biomes

There are so many fantastic locations throughout Cornwall that it will come as no surprise that it has been the setting for countless other productions over the years. Brit Movie Tours reminded us of a couple of such films which you may have forgotten featured the county prominently:

“TV and film production has been popular in Cornwall for many years due to the wide variety of landscapes and architecture that remains both traditional and enduring for visitors. Of course, Poldark is the most popular show that is set and filmed in Cornwall but many other productions have also used the county, including Die another Day (2002) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).”

Another Du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, has also been given the Hollywood treatment recently and was released to very positive reviews earlier in 2017. Starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin, the film’s beautiful exterior shots were actually filmed largely in South Devon, but the Cornish influence is beautifully emphasised throughout. Interestingly, the novel was said to have been inspired by a portrait of the aristocratic Rachel Carew, which hangs in Antony House, South East Cornwall (also one of the filming locations used for Alice in Wonderland).

Antony House exterior

As you can see, there are almost limitless options for you to explore Cornwall’s film and television heritage on your next trip here, so why wait any longer? Make your plans to explore this beautiful corner of the UK soon, and find out for yourself how the county looks even more stunning in real life!

Image Credits: Karen Roe, Kate Gabrielle, Susan Lenox, Robert Linsdell, John McKindland, Fimb, Giuseppe Milo